Is Your Church Led By Pharisees Or Followers Of Jesus?

by Frank Powell

“Everything rises and falls on leadership.” One of the best leaders in the world, John Maxwell, said this recently at a conference I attended. When he said it, I knew he was right. The best teams. The best schools. The thriving churches. They all have one thing in common: great leaders.

People need direction. They crave it. And here’s the kicker. It doesn’t matter whether the leadership is good or bad. We all know bad leaders who built large followings. Why? People need direction.

If everything rises and falls on leadership, it’s important to examine leadership in the church. What type of people lead your church? What kind of leader are you? How would you know?

Glad you asked.

The gospel writers present two opposing leadership philosophies. On one end of the spectrum is Jesus. On the other end? The Pharisees. The direction of your church depends on which type of leader makes the decisions. And, please don’t miss this. If Pharisees lead your church (or if you lead like a Pharisee), your church is navigating dangerous waters. No group received more scathing remarks from Jesus. The Pharisees are responsible for the death of the son of God. This is serious stuff.

Here are 8 differences between Pharisaical leaders and Jesus leaders.

1.) Pharisaical leaders REACT to conflict. Jesus leaders RESPOND to conflict. 

If Pharisees lead your church, you will notice an unhealthy level of what I call “little man syndrome.” If you’re vertically challenged (especially if you’re a dude) you know exactly what I mean. People with “little man syndrome” feel the need to prove themselves. They pick fights. They attack every opponent. They allow emotions to fuel their attacks. And they are always, always, always defensive.

Jesus leaders, on the other hand, don’t allow the actions of others to influence their attitude or behavior. They are Spirit-led. They allow logic to control them, not emotions. Jesus leaders deal with much less regret than Pharisaical leaders because their responses are thoughtful and prompted by God.

2.) Pharisaical leaders observe the LETTER of the law. Jesus leaders observe the SPIRIT of the law.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this many times. In Matthew 23, for example, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

Talk about a kick in the pants.

Pharisaical leaders observe Scripture legalistically. They equate righteousness with observing commands. In a church where Pharisees lead, you witness more legalism than compassion. A greater emphasis is placed on what you do or don’t do (smoke, drink, have sex outside of marriage) than who you love or don’t love.

Jesus leaders, however, look beyond external appearances. They focus on the oppressed and marginalized. They challenge people to love their neighbor. They look beyond words on a page and emphasize the weightier matters.

3.) Pharisaical leaders exercise power over people. Jesus leaders use power to empower others.

If you ask most Pharisaical leaders, they will tell you no one tells them what to do. But that’s not true. Pharisaical leaders are owned by those they lead. This is the paradox of power. If you worship it, you don’t really have it. Why? When power is your heart’s primary desire, you must leverage someone to acquire it. Who do Pharisaical leaders leverage? The people they “lead.”

If people are responsible for you acquiring power, they are also responsible for you keeping it. So, Pharisaical leaders control and manipulate those they lead out of fear. Sadly, this creates a culture where no one is authentic and hard questions are seen as disrespectful.

[tweet_box design=”default”]Followers of Jesus use power to serve more people.[/tweet_box]

Jesus leaders, however, understand real power isn’t given, stolen, or bought. It’s earned. Jesus leaders acquire power the same way the son of God acquired it. They serve. Jesus leaders never ask someone they lead to do something they won’t do. And as they acquire more power, they use it to empower more people.

Jesus leaders aren’t held captive by the paradox of power because they are open-handed with the power and authority given to them. Titles aren’t a means to an end. They are a means to serve others.

4.) Pharisaical leaders gather people in “holy huddles.” Jesus leaders send devoted followers. 

Pharisaical leaders value comfort, convenience, and safety. “Everybody huddle up. The world is evil. Jimmy! Stop talking to that alcoholic. Jill! Get away from that prostitute.”

These leaders have no external focus. Every decision benefits the “called out.” Resources feed the “holy huddle.” People aren’t taught to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. They aren’t even encouraged to talk about the gospel. That would make others uncomfortable. And remember, that comfort thing is pretty important.

Jesus leaders equip people to go into the world. They don’t see large gatherings as a win. They see people placing their trust in Jesus as a win. So, these leaders mentor, disciple, and teach those they lead to go into the world.

Are you, as a leader, equipping those you lead to go into the world? Are leaders at your church doing this?

5.) Pharisaical leaders look to accuse people. Jesus leaders look to affirm people.

On more than one occasion, the Pharisees looked for a way to accuse Jesus (Matt. 12:10; Mark 3:2; Luke 6:7; Luke 11:54; Luke 14:1; John 8:6). The Pharisees were enslaved to power, title, and authority. Jesus was a threat to all of these. Pharisaical leaders are shackled by their position. Any person, whether a pastor or new member, who challenges their authority is on the chopping block. They will take whatever steps necessary to remove “threats” from the picture. Destroy your integrity. Spread rumors. Manipulate others to conspire against you.

Pharisaical leaders are surrounded by yes men. Their church is full of puppets. And they hold all the strings. Run from churches where these leaders are present. You won’t change them. I’m telling you. You won’t. Leave.

Jesus leaders, however, aren’t threatened by gifted men and women. Have you ever noticed that great leaders acquire strong talent, regardless of where they are? It’s not because great leaders are lucky. It’s because they inspire and empower people to use their gifts.

Jesus leaders will gladly take a back seat because the church they lead isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus. If someone else can elevate the name of Christ, Jesus leaders will affirm their gifts, empower them to use those gifts, and praise God when he brings results.

6.) Pharisaical leaders believe the best has “come and gone.” Jesus leaders believe the best is “yet to come.”

The Pharisees were fixed on the past. The law. The temple. Not that either is bad. But when your fixation on past events prevents you from seeing the Savior standing in front of you, that’s really bad. You see, the Pharisees were waiting on a warrior-king who would restore the Israelites to prominence. And because Jesus didn’t fit their mold, they missed him.

Pharisaical leaders are cynical towards new ideas. They talk often about “the good ol’ days” when the church was thriving. You know, back in the 1960s and 70s. Who cares that racism plagued the American church in “the good ol’ days”?

Jesus leaders don’t have time to dwell on “the good ol’ days.” They’re too busy leading people towards the future. Jesus leaders are filled with hope. They believe the best is yet to come.

Jesus leaders dream big. They risk often. They cast vision with confidence. They embrace change. Like ants create colonies and bees create hives, human beings create futures. Jesus leaders understand this.

[tweet_box design=”default”]You will create a future. The question is what kind of future will you create?[/tweet_box]

Pharisaical leaders need to grasp this. Every leader will create a future for themselves and those they lead. The Pharisees created a future, even though they dwelled in the past. Their future included the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Their decisions in the present shaped the destiny of thousands.

As a leader, you can’t miss this. You WILL create a future for those you lead. The question is what kind of future will you create?

7.) Pharisaical leaders see the next generation as a threat to the church. Jesus leaders see the next generation as essential to the church.

Pharisaical leaders are cynical towards the next generation. These leaders expect the next generation to wait their turn. And they lead their churches this way. Instead of empowering those with no power, these leaders expect the next generation to sit and wait..just like they did.

There’s a word for this attitude. Entitlement. And few things suck joy and hope from your heart like entitlement.

Jesus leaders realize the only thing they are entitled to is death. Everything else is a gift from God. As Jesus leaders acquire more power, they wash more feet. They are forward-focused. They let go of personal preferences to equip the next generation to follow Jesus.

8.) Pharisaical leaders’ decision-making is controlled by their perspective. Jesus followers’ decision-making is compelled by the Spirit. 

Jesus said it this way, “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly” (John 7:24). Pharisaical leaders aren’t filled with the Spirit, so the only filters they have for making decisions are their perspective and wisdom. The problem? The wisdom of man is foolishness to God (1 Cor. 3:19). The Spirit leads people to make decisions that are crazy to the world. The Spirit leads people to step into the unknown and take enormous risks.

[tweet_box design=”default”]Where God leads you, he will provide for you.[/tweet_box]

Jesus leaders understand that where God leads his people he also provides for them. So, Jesus leaders walk into the unknown and challenge those they lead to do the same. Is the unknown scary? Yes. Are Jesus leaders fearful? Certainly. Everyone has fear. That’s not the question.

The question is who or what will you fear?

Jesus leaders know the only answer to that question. They must fear God. So, they step out of the boat and onto the water trusting God will drown their fear in his love.


If you’re not offending Pharisees and giving hope to the marginalized, you’re probably not leading like Jesus. That’s bold, but true. The church needs more leaders like Jesus. I want to challenge you to become a Jesus leader and follow Jesus leaders.

It’s your turn. What are some differences between Pharisaical leaders and Jesus leaders? Leave a comment below. 

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

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