Pharisees, Scribes, and Modern Disciples

In TYD’s post below, “A Prophet is Only a Prophet When…,” one of the commenters, identified as Jeremiah Rush, left the following thoughts:

If the Jesus as described in the new testament existed today, he would assert the mormons (and most of christianity) are like unto the ‘pharisees, scribes, and hypocrits.’ Monson as a “prophet?” A penthouse on temple square, wool suits (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), driving around in limos, having his picture in millions of people’s homes, etc–certainly not like Jesus. It all reminds me of this: ‘Those who love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues (or chapel, or conference center)’ and further, ‘ they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ The mormon leadership are a bunch of geriatric, brainwashed and brainwashing men. If he is a prophet, then I’m a f@#$%*&% saint 😉 But of course you will now say, ‘he is fallen, and hath a devil.’

This interests me because it has some elements of what is an enduring appraisal of Christian leadership: that the leaders in whatever is the current age do not conduct themselves as did Jesus or the original disciples. And in fact, many books and articles have been written exploring precisely this point, and suggesting precisely what Mr. Rush suggests: Christ would disown or be disowned by Christianity.

What I wonder is this: Under what circumstances is this a legitimate evaluation?

At least once each year I teach a section on the history of Christianity. I always open the class by reading in some detail from the NT, including the Sermon on the Mount. Among other things, this allows my students, most of whom have no clue what it means to be a Christian, to develop a sense for what serious Christians think a Christian leader ought to be like. Then, throughout the rest of the course, they are prepared to identify with reformers who seem to be in a continuous battle with a pervasive sense of entitlement and the ensuing corruption. One of my favorite critiques, just because it is so pungent, comes from Pope Innocent III. Himself no choirboy, he still felt free to refer to the Archbishop of Narbonne in these words:

…He knows no other god but money and has a purse where his heart should be. His monks and canons take mistresses and live by usury… Throughout the region the prelates are the laughing stock of the laity.

Notice what Innocent finds reprehensible: In the decision between God and Mammon, the archbishop has made the wrong choice, which is a personal failing. But there is also a failure of leadership, precisely because the religious orders are likewise and unsurprisingly living a life of debauchery. And the upshot of it all is that orthodox Christianity is no longer seen as a serious response to God – to the folks in southern France the heretical Cathars looked more Christ-like than the clergy! This is no laughing matter: To make a complicated story short, Innocent III authorized the Albigensian Crusade to deal with the larger situation and extreme and bloody ugliness was order of the day for quite some time, to a large extent because of the corruption of the Christian leadership.

So the conduct of church leaders is no small matter. But acceptable conduct is also rooted in specific historical and cultural contexts. For example, celibacy has never been a uniform requirement for Christian clergy, although it has been high profile issue in western elements since at least the Cluniac reformers. And usury was a hot item in the Middle Ages, but it generally no longer has a similar stigma, and in any case most clergy no longer control enough wealth to engage in money-lending activities. Likewise, simony, which was a major aspect of the archbishop’s fiscal outreach program, is not much of an issue. Folks who acted like the archbishop and his archdiocesan followers would not be tolerated very long anymore. My point is this: what is expected of Christian leaders is based on many more factors than simply readings of the NT. The NT is, and has been, a starting point for such reflections.

So now in opening this up for discussion I want to move beyond the specific people and practices listed in Mr. Rush’s comment to consider the matter from a wider and less polemical point of view. In what ways should modern disciples model themselves after the ideals of the NT? And I think we might also want to stipulate that we are guided by Paul’s idea about the Body of Christ, specifically that the church becomes the Body of Christ in order to make the Risen Lord present on the earth until he returns. How then, do we make Christ present to our own society in a meaningful way, so that we are clearly emulating the first disciples and yet responsive to our own situation?

31 Replies to “Pharisees, Scribes, and Modern Disciples”

  1. For one, church leaders and the church itself ought to stop tying itself and themselves to political matters, ideologies, movements, and so on. It should act here in America the way it acts around the world: quietly and consistently teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ without interfering in local politics.

    Aside from that, there’s not much that I have a problem with with regard to how today’s prophets act. I bet it’s not easy leading such an organization.

  2. How then, do we make Christ present to our own society in a meaningful way, so that we are clearly emulating the first disciples and yet responsive to our own situation?

    We might start in both cases by distinguishing between accidental, outward cultural details and deliberate, Christ-mandated behaviors and attitudes. That is, it isn’t necessary to wear long hair and beards or robes and sandals, or walk everywhere you go (unless you’re riding a donkey or camel), or speak Aramaic, or limit yourself to foods that were available in 1st century Palestine — absent a specific teaching regarding a specific teaching, anyway. Modern disciples, absent a specific teaching, shouldn’t be condemned for dress and grooming in line with modern cultural standards, or for speaking English or any other modern language, or for using modern transportation, or eating a modern diet, or in other ways partaking of the accidental, outward cultural details of the times in which we live.

  3. I wonder if we should be putting ourselves in such a vaunted position as to assume that we know what Christ would do with individuals if he were here?

  4. Dan- reliable as always 😉

    I’ve never seen this criticism made in a substantial way.

    It’s usually based on shallow knowledge and assumptions. For example, it’s often asserted that because the early Apostles were simple fisherman (for the most part), Jesus would disapprove of today’s MBAs or JDs.

    And yet, one as prominent as Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has flatly said that the first apostles were “no-nonsense, relatively prosperous businessmen very much in control of their live.” See old summary post of his article.

  5. I wonder if we should be putting ourselves in such a vaunted position as to assume that we know what Christ would do with individuals if he were here?

    I have some sympathy with this outlook, but also some reservations. Considering “what to do with individuals” is a very serious issue indeed, and best left to those with the appropriate responsibility. I had far less significant activities in mind!

    That said, we probably do need to make some decisions about right character and right behaviors. Here, however, I agree that a certain sense of modesty is called for. This might include a sense of the limitations of the NT as well as those endemic to the human condition. And I suppose that conversation, contemplation, and councils are among the ways we mitigate the risks entailed.

  6. She lives! Oh, how I’ve missed those chaste Mogget kisses…

    My first thought was already well articulated by Ardis. Too many people focus on superficial matters of culture, like modern leaders wearing a business suit instead of a cloak. To me it’s more important for one to lead and teach with the same sense of empathy Jesus reflected, even if you’re doing it in clothing and using diction appropriate to our modern time and place.

  7. Sorry, Dan–that link is barely enough to give you an idea, but I find Berry’s arguments that churches ought to be MORE, rather than less, involved in the dirty business of politics & economies pretty persuasive.

  8. Even as marble is being hung on the City Creek temple of spending about half of rural Africa is without clean water for drinking and irrigation about two thirds lacks sanitation a situation that is unique in the world today how can this juxtapose be justified in God’s sight?

  9. Mog: Indeed! Since most of us are not privileged to be present at the councils in which these leaders preside, we must be judicious with our criticism of decisions. Full disclosure of all details behind motivations are never revealed, whether it be the LDS stance on immigration, marriage or excommunication. It is easy to act as arm-chair prophets and exclaim “I wouldn’t do things this way, and neither would Christ!” Yet, we don’t know how our opinions and approaches would change in the presence of additional data.

    Howard: This also applies to comparisons of temple building and charity. Temples are no small matter, doctrinally or culturally speaking, and many Latter-Day Saints (myself included) feel that they are every bit as important a charitable effort as providing food and water to the hungry and thirsty. Who are we to point fingers and state that “a more worthy project is …?” Perhaps the efforts that LDS put in world wide (man hours developing and establishing various projects) is more valuable than the money spent on temples? Charity should not be restricted to the construct of money collected or spent. It is a much more complicated matter, and should be treated as such.

  10. Who are we to point fingers and state that “a more worthy project is …?”

    Well, you know, I think that were a decision to be made to build less ornate temples I could respond with a hardy “Amen.”

    But I don’t know that it is good for this thread to devolve into a debate about what the church leadership ought to do in a specific case. We might make more progress if we consider those virtues and activities that are within our own purview as disciples.

    Edit: make that a “hearty” Amen, I guess.

  11. Howard: I bet you have a cell-phone and internet connection, maybe even cable tv and a car. Probably gone out to eat recently. How do you live with yourself?

  12. Erm, mogget and I posted at the same time. Apologies for snarky-threadjack-perpetuating-snark.

  13. Ben S fascinating reaction to Africa’s needs! How charitable. Actually I live frugally donating much of my time and some of my money to those in need and sleep quite well as a result. Sorry no car or TV. How about you?

  14. You know, it interests me that this thread turned in the direction of a leadership critique so quickly. It is my impression that threads such as this almost always do so.


    Is it another aspect of that oh-so-human desire to avoid serious self-reflection in favor of appearing wise when opining about others?

    (Now I mean no personal criticism of those who have posted; indeed all thoughts are welcome and nice, chaste Mogget-kisses all around. [thanks for the reminder, Kevin, good to see you again, as well])

    But seriously… Let us consider the commandment to “do good” to others. Now the NT knows almost nothing about dysfunctional relationships and the like. But having just recently experienced a bit of a stalker, I do! And traditional forms of “doing good” are not what is wanted!

    Now that’s a trivial example but it does illustrate a bit about how our ideas about what constitutes Christ-like behavior are not simply a cut-and-paste from the Sermon on the Plain or whatever. Instead, we have to come to grips with the issues we face and with what it means to be a disciple in the 21st century.

  15. “We might make more progress if we consider those virtues and activities that are within our own purview as disciples.”

    My point exactly. I have heard temples criticized for everything from being too ordinary to being too ornate. But ultimately, they serve an important charitable purpose.

    Howard, rarely is anything as simple as it appears. Take your “just give them water” example. It seems simple to say, “let’s just give food and water to poor people in third world countries.” But wait- what food do we give them? The food we have in the USA that they are unfamiliar with? How do we transport it? How do we deal with the governments and their red tape? How do we pay to secure the food? What about water? Do we just truck it in? Or, do we dig wells? If we dig wells for people, who manages and secures them? Who will we pay to provide the man hours to keep these operations running? Do owe set up programs for them to become self sufficient? Who would run that program and how would it be funded? Your idea is not a simple equation of money = solution. It is much more complicated than that.

  16. You know, I believe that one or two folks might have missed what I just said.

    Accidentally, I am sure.

    So let me say it again.

    Let’s leave off the debate over the merits of temples or water in Africa because it’s better addressed in an editorial to the Salt Lake Tribune or wherever.

    I just don’t think that the GA’s read FPR.

  17. Westerner it is very complicated for you isn’t it? Who implied money = solution? not me. Christian missionaries figured it out they drill wells and the locals figured it out they take care of the wells because need the water. So it comes down to buying some well drilling rigs mounted on trucks and some well casing and calling some missionaries to drill. Is that too complicated for the City Creek guys to pull off?

  18. Hi Howard!

    Give me a hand here. I believe that I just asked you to refrain from continuing the line you had taken in this conversation.

    And I believe that I asked you politely.

    Now help me understand why you believe that you can continue on without some basic consideration. You have presented yourself as a sensitive, caring person willing to give much for the well-being of those you have never met.

    Why are you unwilling to extend basic courtesies to me?


  19. “The mormon leadership are a bunch of geriatric, brainwashed and brainwashing men.”

    Anyone who really believes this ought to follow these “geriatrics” around for a week or two and see if they can keep up not only with the pace but also the selflessness.

  20. Anyone who really believes this ought to follow these “geriatrics” around for a week or two and see if they can keep up not only with the pace but also the selflessness.


    It is, I think, hard to make a good judgment about things you’ve never done and experiences you’ve never had. Modesty about one’s grasp of the Big Picture is still as relevant today as it was twenty-one centuries ago.

  21. Mog:
    I’m afraid it is much easier to criticize a leader than to be one. If, perhaps, we all tried a bit harder to live as Christ taught, we may see a little more good in the leaders who have chosen to serve in such public callings. If we made more of an effort to serve our communities, we would have less reason to opine about the failings of those who serve our communities. I, for one, could do much more, and will because I have been reminded by your post that there remains much to do. Thank you!

  22. Mogs if you are referring to 20 & 21 I didn’t see your 20 until I posted 21 or does your point go beyond that? If so I am happy to explain.

    Btw re-posting Jeremiah Rush’s comment was a pretty provocative beginning to the tame discussion you are now calling for.

  23. I guess I used to consider provocative thinking and conversation part of the path to wisdom. Nowadays, I think it’s pretty much an exercise in egotism.

    So yes, I deliberately shifted the register of the original quotation into a level where more folks might have some good, solid experience to advance our conversation.

    P.S. I should have said “thanks, Howard!”


  24. Kristine,

    How am I supposed to read that? The continuing page is “not part of this book preview!” The problem with churches entering into the political sphere is that a religion takes an absolute position (word of God). What if someone argues against the church’s position? Is he an apostate?

  25. I would expect modern disciples to forward the topics of faith, repentance, baptism, and the Christ-like virtues. I would expect to see teaching the commandments. When I consider conference addresses and Ensign articles I generally see this approach. Usually with a humble tone.

    So good to hear from the great Mogget again. Hope all is well.

  26. I have a friend who was an aide to a very important Democratic State Senator in California. He said he had to constatntly have the Senator do things “average people” do. Drive his own car. Pump gas. Shop in a grocery store. He argued that the Senator was in a bubble: other legislators, lobbyists and people who wanted things and would play to his ego. If the Senator didn’t do ordinary things and talk to regular people, he would have lost touch with them and their world.

    The aide suffered a personal tragedy and left the Senators staff. It was not long before he lost that touch. The district he reprented was fairly well split Democrat and Republican. One town, Vallejo, was heavily Democrtic. It was also a Navy town with a large naval base plus tons of retirees from the armed services. Who did the Senator invite to a funraiser? Jane Fonda. This was only a few years after her “Hanoi Jane” exploits lauding the North Vietnamese and having a picture of her manning a Communist anti-aircraft cannon plastered over every paper in the U.S. End of political career.

    What does this have to do with General Authorities? One would think they could lose touch with the common man in a cocoon of other wealthy Mormons in the Church Office Building, but I think this is notthe case for a number of reasons:
    1. Many come from humble beginnings. Our emphasis on geneology, family and journals does not let them bury or forget their roots.
    2. They travel and see things that will not allow them to avoid empathy and care.
    3. The Gospel. All brothers and sisters are part of it. It does not matter what your race is, what your social or economic status is or where you live.
    4. The Holy Ghost and Prophecy. What stronger things can one think of to keep one close to Christ,s teachings.

    That does not apply to all Mormons. I fear that there is a Gospel of Greed growing amongst us with a high priestess of Ayn Rand and her ilk follwing in her wake. I think it is those individuals that Christ would have problems with today.

  27. Stan your aid friend is right today they are senior celebrities living a high standard of living in Utah. Yes they travel the world but also as celebrities and from what I’ve read are generally met and cocooned by security when they arrive. I was so pleased to see President Beck taking questions and hugging a line of members in Idaho why don’t we see this from the others?

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