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The Good and Honorable Pharisees


If Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson had been New Testament scholars instead of country music singers, they probably would have used a different word than “cowboys” in their Grammy Award winning duet of an Ed and Patsy Bruce ballad.

“Mamas,” they might have crooned for a 1st century version, “don’t let your babies grow up to be church leaders

They ain’t easy to love and harder to hold…
Them that don’t know ‘em won't like them
and them that do, sometimes won't know how to take ‘em.”

Only rarely do church leaders get good reviews in the teachings of Jesus. Like the cowboys in the song, it would probably be better for our children to choose other occupations, like “doctors and lawyers and such.”

If we look carefully into the multitudes that listened to Jesus near the shore of Galilee, or at the temple in Jerusalem, or along the roads that connected the north and the south, we see primarily two groups of individuals. 

Most of us would have belonged with the eager and curious who came to hear this riveting new preacher of righteousness. “The crowd,” Matthew called them, was often “filled with awe” and was led to praise God for what Jesus did and what He said (Matthew 9:8). “The people came from everywhere,” Mark said (Mark 1:45), and they “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (1:22). Luke referred to them as “Jesus’ followers” (Luke 22:49). And John talks about how so many of them became “believers” (John 4:41). 

The other group in the throng is not mentioned with high regard. The “chief priests,” the “teachers of the law,” and the “elders” are usually grouped together in the Gospels, and, thrown in with the “leaders of the people” (Luke 19:47), are routinely referred to as “indignant” (Matthew 21:15), “mocking” (27:41), “scheming” (Mark 14:1), “self-interested” (15:10), “fearful of the people” (Luke 20:19), “accusing” (23:10), revengeful (John 18, 19), and willing to kill anyone who stood in the way of accomplishing their purposes (12:10).

Add the Pharisees to this collection, and the denunciations become even more reproachful. Jesus calls these church officials “a brood of vipers,” Matthew reports (3:7), as well as “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” and “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (chapter 23). Mark tells us that the Pharisees tried to cause trouble by accusing Jesus of doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath (Mark 2:24). Luke adds that they were suspicious (Luke 7), pretentious (11), arrogant (18:11), and self-righteous (18:9). John joins the chorus and repeats the stories of the woman “caught in adultery” whom the Pharisees demanded be stoned (John 8), of their harsh interrogation of the blind man whom Jesus had healed (chapter 9), of their jealousy after the triumphal entry (12), and of their fatal alignment with Judas (18).

All this reproof was supremely warranted, in spite of the fact that these leaders openly cared about proper observance of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:2), about fasting and prayer (5:33), about not carelessly blundering into what they considered “blasphemy” (5:21), and about other perceived lapses in righteousness (Luke 18:9). The Pharisees were quick to accuse Jesus of getting His power from “the prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34). They were troubled that Jesus’ disciples were not adhering to what they knew as “the traditions of the elders” (Mark 7). They were disgusted that Jesus welcomed the ostracized tax collectors and other sinners (Luke 15:2).

Exceptions to the Censure

There are only two named exceptions to these discrediting pronouncements.

One was the open-minded Nicodemus (John 3). A Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus had become convinced, early in Christ’s ministry that God was working through Him. But Nicodemus also was aware of what he didn’t know. And instead of bluffing his way through, he admitted his ignorance and went directly to Jesus for understanding. Once his questions were resolved, Nicodemus became an ardent believer and an avid supporter of the Way. He championed the Jewish legal principle of not condemning someone without first hearing from that person (7:50, 51) and ultimately joined Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial (19:38, 39). Nicodemus’ character shines brightly from the shadows surrounding early New Testament church leadership.

The other stellar exception to the well-deserved censure of the Pharisees was the persuasive Gamaliel (Acts 5:33-39). In an episode in which “furious” church leaders, angry over the apostles’ preaching about Jesus had jailed Peter and others, Gamaliel reasoned with the Sanhedrin, appealing for careful consideration of their course of action. Reminding the leaders of recent historical events, Gamaliel advised them to leave the apostles alone. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” Gamaliel argued. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Two people in leadership roles: the flexible, receptive Nicodemus, willing to be open to new ideas; and the rational, coherent Gamaliel with his compelling logic. These are the two lone examples we have in the New Testament of upright, wise, and honorable Pharisees.

The Staggering Responsibilities of Church Leadership

If I had the daunting responsibilities of church leadership (instead of simply being one of the eager followers of Jesus), I hope I would learn from these two exceptional models. It is eminently fair for any of us to affirm biblical criterion and expect the leaders we place in office to embrace these high standards. In the case of the Nicodemus/Gamaliel guidelines, we have three obvious church leadership characteristics.

First of all, in scope and consequence, our leaders must advocate and advance the theological insight of knowing “the truth as it is in Jesus,” to use Ellen White’s lovely phrase (as in Manuscript 44, 1894 [Evangelism, 142], to which is added the counsel “There must be no combative or controversial spirit in the advocacy of truth.”).

For example: a Sabbath emphasis is crucial to Seventh-day Adventists as long as the doctrine uplifts Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath and assists us in building and celebrating an undying, seven-days-a-week relationship with Him. The Second Coming doctrine is only rightly understood and appreciated to the extent that a gracious Jesus is the motivating center of the teaching. The Godhead; the gift of creation; the Great Controversy; the community of believers; the doctrine of the church – “every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary,” (Gospel Workers, 315).

Nicodemus was able to grasp this fundamental principle. It is only as “the truth as it is in Jesus” is thoroughly implemented in our theology and practice that our church rises to meet the exalted measure of being fully Christian and authentically Adventist.

The second New Testament church leadership touchstone is the vigorous difference between ruling and serving.

The Pharisees ruled. They were pretentious, judgmental, and “looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:0). “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,” Jesus stated. “But they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

We consider Nicodemus and Gamaliel to be great leaders because they are distinguished by their contrasting temperaments to the conventional Pharisees. “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (23:11, 12). At the last supper, Jesus reminded His disciples, “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves… I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:26, 27).

Effective church leadership is identified by service, not by authority.

And we are reminded of the third attribute by the life of Gamaliel. In times of stress and disagreement, compelling church leaders strive to reduce tension instead of callously provoking or intensifying friction.

Gamaliel rose to his feet in the “the full assembly of the elders of Israel” (Acts 5) and resolutely looked into the faces of the men he was about to contradict. Then this good man, “a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people,” authoritatively advised the Sanhedrin to step back from conflict. “Leave these men alone,” Gamaliel counseled, acknowledging the futility of fighting against God. People who move under the inspiration of God cannot be stifled, and Gamaliel knew it. (I cannot help but think of the ongoing disparagement carried on in critical conversations about The One Project! Imagine the temerity of a Seventh-day Adventist Christian complaining about the unashamed, fruitful preaching of Christ, and Christ alone. It is almost impossible to believe. “The important thing,” Paul insisted, “is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,” (Philippians 1:18.)

And the result of Gamaliel’s persuasive speech? The Bible tells us that the apostles left the Sanhedrin overjoyed (The Message). “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:42).

The Danger to the Church of Pharisaic Leadership

I began with an illustration from the world of country music. I’ll end with another musical illustration, this one from 18th century classical music.

By the end of 1772, Franz Joseph Haydn had for about a decade been in the employment of “the Magnificent” Nikolaus I, Prince of Esterhazy. The musical Prince also employed a small, all-male orchestra that followed him from palace to castle and performed the many compositions Haydn had written for him.

Nikolaus’ biographers recount how the Prince conducted his everyday life with the same administrative style he had adopted in his military career. Nikolaus was instructive and demanding, issuing detailed, printed documents that specified the exact duties of his subordinates, including the managing of routine chores, the regulation of social responsibilities, and even dictating moral decisions. In true Pharisaical leadership form, the Prince required exact adherence to all his policies.

While spending summers in his impressive palace in rural Hungary, the Prince insisted his musicians reside there in the country as well, and to obey this regulation, the men were forced to leave their wives and families at home. By the end of the summer, the men were exceedingly lonely.

Unexpectedly, in the fall of 1772, Nikolaus announced he was extending his stay in the country for another two months. The isolated members of the orchestra were devastated and appealed to their beloved Kapellmeister to intervene. Haydn responded, not with a direct confrontation with the Prince, but by writing a new piece of music, his “Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor,” which ended with a surprise that would send Nikolaus staggering.

Haydn himself tells us the story. He wrote the piece for two oboes and a bassoon, two horns, and strings. The composition utilizes each instrument fully; the distinctive sounds of the woodwinds, the singular clarity of the brass, the deep reverberations of the double basses, the rich resonance of the cellos, the harmonious airs of the violas, and the energetic lead of the violins. No two musicians or instruments were exactly alike, but each one blended superbly in one glorious, unified purpose.

The final movement of the symphony begins in a spirited tempo with each orchestra member enthusiastically joining in the vibrant arrangement. Then, just as the work seems to be coming to an end, Haydn introduces his surprise.

Another slow movement takes over. The first oboe and the second horn perform short solos, then both men rise, snuff out the candles that had been illuminating their music stands, and depart the stage, taking their instrument with them. This initial shocking withdrawal is followed by more exits; first the bassoon, then the second oboe and first horn, and suddenly the brass and woodwind sections are gone. The sound is noticeably thinner and less buoyant. The stage becomes darker as more candles are extinguished.

Finally the strings begin to leave, one or two at a time, first the basses and the cellos. The ensemble, by comparison with the earlier parts of the work, begins to sound precariously slender. Then the violas depart, along with several violins. The orchestra has by now lost most of its substance and its traction. In the end, only two violinists remain as the music comes to a fragile conclusion.

But the Prince gets the point. If a leader causes uncalled for distress and turmoil for the musicians, that leader’s actions place the entire orchestra at risk. Without an orchestra, you can stay in your palace as long as you want, but the accord is broken, the community is shattered, and the music is silenced.

The next morning a chastened Nikolaus sent word to Haydn to release the orchestra and send the men home to their families.

Some music chroniclers have worried that the story behind “Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor” (now generally referred to as “the Farewell Symphony”) has eclipsed the appeal of the composition itself, as if in knowing the motivation for the symphony, we might fail to appreciate the delightful and engaging music.

Wouldn’t it be tragic if in our day the lovely, inclusive story of Jesus working in and through the rich variety of the church community were overtaken and replaced by an unfortunate story of Pharisaical church leadership and policy?

Those of us in the crowd – in the orchestra – must keep emphasizing the good and honorable nature, mission, and music of the genuine, all-embracing story of Christ’s presence in our world.


Stuart Tyner is a recently retired pastor from the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Photo Credit: / dsidwell


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