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Last Revised 8/2014

Matthew 23: A Comparison of Religious Leaders

Matthew 23 is a critical chapter in the Gospel as it is devoted to Jesus warning and rebuking the Jewish religious leaders hypocrisy and exploitation of their followers.  Jesus turns upside down the traditions of the religious leaders and details how they are not bringing them and their people to God, but separating them further from God.  He publicly denounces them for their outward veneer of righteousness and abuse of spiritual authority to build the trust of the people they then use to exploit and control. 

As a Mormon, I was ripe for the picking based on my lack of basic biblical knowledge and church-taught submission to authority.  I was taught all the works, morality and righteousness I accomplished plus Jesus’ work was what justified me before God.  I had been taught to not trust the Bible, which clearly reveals the righteousness of God, instead placing my trust in a prophet who does not allow me to question the method of securing the righteousness of God dictated by the LDS church.

I did not understand the dire warning that Jesus makes in this chapter and how much it speaks to the Mormon leadership I esteemed and revered until I was on the outside looking in.  My mind would have never allowed me to think that this chapter could possibly be a warning to my LDS faith, only to all the other supposed Christian faiths that did not have the fullness of the Gospel. 

Now as I study this chapter, it sends shock-waves through me revealing how religiously zealous I was for God, yet blind to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:2-3).  As a former Mormon, this chapter makes me lament for all those currently in Mormonism whom are striving to become worthy and earn their justification before God, thereby rejecting the free gift of righteousness to all who place their trust in Christ alone.

The warning of Matthew 23 is surely not for Mormonism alone, but also for many other faiths that claim Christianity and have a different method of justification before God.  Since I come from a Mormon background, it seems as if the cross-hairs of Jesus' words are directly on the LDS church leadership.

I will walk through this chapter and compare the actions and hearts of the religious leaders Jesus warns to the LDS leadership.  A current Mormon is likely not going to agree with some points of my comparison and I understand that based on what was constantly drilled in my head by Mormon leadership.  Things such as “God would never let the Prophet lead the people astray;” “This is the only true church on the face of the earth;” “Everything negative regarding our church is just anti-Mormon lies,” and so on.  Before you assume that is true, please test what is presented.  If the church really is true, then it should not be harmed by investigation because all you should find is truth.  I will freely admit that while the bulk of what I present is indisputable fact, some may be more or less frequent ward-to-ward or stake-to-stake.  I am positive there are many great bishops, stake presidents, etc. that you have had in the past, so please do not assume I am painting all Mormon leadership with this broad stroke. 

The comparison drawn from my summary of Matthew 23 between the Jewish religious leaders to Mormon leadership is denoted in red font.

Bind Heavy Burdens

Matthew 23:1-3  Jesus’ rebuke of and warning to the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23 was about control.  Jesus begins by telling the religious leaders they sit in Moses’ seat, meaning they were expositors and interpreters of the law.  The people were taught they must respect the leaders’ office of authority and do as they are told.  However, they would abuse the office of authority they were given in lording it over the people.  Many of these religious leaders thought they were right with God just because they had the law even though they were not necessarily doers of the law.

The pyramid style leadership structure employed by the church promotes the same elitism and submission to authority that persisted in 1st Century Judaism that Jesus was rebuking.  Absolute obedience to authority without questioning in the LDS church is seen as a form of righteousness.  If you are told to do something by your church leaders, you do it without question no matter whether it is right or wrong.  Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks stated in a PBS interview “It is wrong to criticize the leaders of the church even if the criticism is true.” 

The church leaders not only sit in Moses’ seat, they effectively sit in the judgment seat.  For example, if you admit to specific sins to your bishop or stake president, you risk excommunication, which bars you from celestial heaven, so they have the authority to displace Jesus and impact your eternal destination.  Authority and power in the LDS church is lorded over the members in a manner to induce fear, shame and guilt to gain control over every aspect of your life in the church.  Much of the elite leadership in the church are guaranteed entrance into the highest level of heaven as they have received the second anointing.

Matthew 23:4-5  These religious leaders would “bind heavy burdens,” laying them on other men’s shoulders without themselves sharing the burden.  Jesus points this out because he said his yoke is easy and burden is light (Matthew 11:30).  Jesus was a burden-bearer, whereas these religious leaders were burden bringers.  Jesus’ principle indictment was the heavy demands of obedience to rules and regulations in order to be worthy of meriting God’s favor.  The works the religious leaders would do was more for the adoration and honor of men than God.  This created an elitism mentality among the religious leaders.

The way of justification in the Mormon church is centered on obedience to laws and ordinances, morality, and good works to merit eternal life.  Only after all you can do can avail the grace of Christ.  Contrary to Christianity, which is centered on trusting and resting in Christ’s finished work, Mormon leadership constantly stresses doing to its membership.  

The leadership not only enforces many of the Old Testament laws, they add more laws to it, binding heavy burdens for the members to shoulder.  Mormon leadership (mainly GA's and above) are burden bringers, not burden-bearers.  The list of laws and ordinances one must follow is too long to list, but on top of all that you must hold and magnify callings in the church, some of which can require the equivalent of a full-time job.  The more obedient you are, the better the callings you receive.  It can vary ward-to-ward and stake- to-stake, but getting the best callings can be quite competitive, which builds pride and self-righteousness and leads people to talking behind each other’s backs.

The elite levels of church leadership do not lift a finger compared to what is required of the common member.  They travel around to give an occasional talk, which usually include informing members they are not doing enough or tithing enough.  They have ghost writers author books in their name.  They are too busy to lift a finger as they are doing the Lord’s work in building up the kingdom of God using the billions of annual tithing income to invest in malls, land, Hawaiian theme parks, investments, high-rise condominiums, and many other corporations.  This is why the top leadership in the church is mostly former successful businessmen.  

The General Authorities are paid handsomely by the church, live luxurious lifestyles, are adored and almost worshiped by members, and get all the perks of any A-list star.  Many have multiple homes in prestigious communities even though some have been employed by the church virtually their entire lives in what should be relatively low paying teaching roles.

A Heart that Covets

Matthew 23:6-10  These religious leaders demanded and coveted the best seats at banquets and in church.  They controlled the money from tithes.  They coveted the honor of the titles of authority such as “Rabbi” and “Father.”  Their egos and pride were fed as their followers admired them, elevating them as if they were more spiritual and better reflections of what God’s people looked like. 

Jesus rebukes them for their abuse of these authoritative titles of “Rabbi” and “Father.”  This was not a rebuke against titles, but a rebuke against coveting and cherishing the titles, wielding them in an abusive and excessive manner over the people.  Jesus tells them to not even use titles as there is only one Master (Christ) and one Father (Heavenly Father).

When the elite levels of the LDS church enter the room, members must rise as a sign of not only respect and adoration, but submission.  They always have the best seats in church, church functions or any other Mormon event.  The titles given in the church (e.g. Prophet, Apostle, General Authority, Mission President, Stake President, Bishop, Counselor, Elder, Teacher and Deacon) have an authoritative rank in the church.  Not only do many cherish and covet the titles they carry, many lord them over others getting an ego boost from the power they possess. 

Competitive attributes are natural and when laced with a system of having to earn what you get and a hierarchical power structure, they slowly build a Pharisaical heart misaligned with Jesus’ teaching (e.g. the greatest is the least, servitude, self-denial, etc.).  When you have to “do” to earn (titles, eternal life, etc.), human hearts will become prideful and judgmental.

Many members are in awe of the General Authorities and claim to feel the spirit so strongly when in their presence.  They are adored almost to a point of worship.  By human nature this builds pride, self-righteousness, and can cause you to look down on others.  In order to earn the higher titles in the church, you have to faithfully demonstrate you are willing to put the church first at all cost. This is why the First Presidency have all signed Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA’s) and sworn oaths in the temple to protect the church at any cost.  I don’t recall any of this as criteria for Jesus’ Apostles.

From a young age Mormons are brought up in this elitist type of system and culture.  For example, the wife of LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson, Wendy Nelson, co-authored a book called The Not Even Once Club, which was published in 2013 by the Deseret Book Company.  This book is about a young boy who is excited to meet new friends in his primary class.  The book description states “The Not Even Once Club is an adorable and appealing way to engage children in a story that will help them choose for themselves to keep the commandments and to never break them.   Not even once.  Children will meet Tyler, an energetic boy who is excited to make new friends in his Primary class.  They have invited Tyler to join their special club, but first he has to pass the test and keep the club promise.” 

So this book attempts to teach primary age children if you want join the exclusive club high in the tree house you must never sin – not even once.  It also conveys nonmembers are not welcome, secret code words are used for entrance and good conduct is rewarded with candy, and more.  There is no mention of Jesus, the Atonement, repentance, grace, love, humility, etc.  It is devoted to a legalistic salvation through conduct and laws, rather than biblical salvation – completely trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross.  Never mind the guilt, stress, shame, humiliation and psychological trauma that will follow in teaching children impossible standards to be perfect.  To be honest, this book is a perfect metaphor for life in Mormonism.

A Picture of Jesus

Matthew 23:11-12  Jesus says the greatest among them shall be the servant.  This is perfect picture of Jesus and his ministry.  Jesus did not come to be served, but rather to serve.  Jesus did not come to accrue power, but to give up power.  Jesus did not come to bind heavy burdens, but to take away all burdens. 

The Authoritarian structure of the LDS church combined with earning your way does not promote servitude from the First Presidency to the members, but rather from the members to the First Presidency.  The LDS church does not give up power, but accrues its power through its political weight in Washington and its vast wealth in investing members tithing money to acquire everything from multi-billion dollar shopping malls to tropical theme parks in Hawaii.  The leadership does not take away the members' burdens, but instead binds heavy burdens on members who are required to follow impossible standards and devote enormous amounts of time and money to the church.

The religious leaders were doing the opposite which did nothing but place them in a position between God and his people.  They had twisted the teachings of the Old Testament into a mangled knot of rules, regulations, traditions, rituals and titles using them as a barrier between the people and God. This led to the people elevating and exalting the leadership, and therefore, a worship of men and God.

The religious leaders’ control of their followers led to a belief that they could not have a relationship with God without going through the leaders.  They had inserted themselves between God and the people blocking the relationship that God desires.

The religious leaders wielded their power and not only exalted themselves, but coveted the adoration of the people whom had also exalted them to a higher spiritual status.  Jesus recognized this and spotlighted their perception of righteousness promising that whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 

The Prophet of the LDS church places himself in between God and the members requiring they go through him as a “personal relationship with Christ that is both improper and perilous” (Bruce McKonkie, BYU Devotional Speech, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” 1982). 

Mormonism twists and mixes Old Testament Laws with New Testament grace, which places a barrier between them and God.  Members must follow the Prophet and Apostles teachings regardless of the implications or how the teachings align with clear Biblical doctrine.  This leads to members elevating the already elite church leadership.  The highest leadership has already exalted themselves by receiving the Second Anointing, making their calling and election made sure (guarantees entrance to highest level of heaven). Members also exalt the leadership and sing songs of praise to former Prophets and study their published teaches instead of focusing on Christ alone.

The Authoritarian system in place demands absolute obedience to its direction and questioning, scrutiny or dissent is strictly prohibited.  The fear, shame and guilt of excommunication and losing your eternal family are tools the church has at its disposal to maintain control. The control leaders possess over members bleeds into every aspect of their lives, from what they are allowed to eat, drink, read, watch, how they dress, who they associate with, etc.

Woe to the Hypocrites

Matthew 23:13-15  Jesus refers to the religious leaders as “hypocrites” because he is exposing their corruption and control.  They had this outward image of righteousness, but their hearts were venal and nefarious.

The Mormon leadership possesses a veneer that is pristine, yet when the curtain is drawn, it is exposed as an authoritative, legalistic and controlling corporation masquerading as a “Christian” religion.  The elite leaders in the church are “hypocrites” saying the church does not have much in terms of business interests; that they have no professional paid clergy; that polygamy is not doctrinal; that salvation comes by grace alone, and so on.

The members are genuinely great people with morals and values second to none, but if this were even a fraction of what represented biblical salvation, they would be shoe-ins.  But having never experienced the unmerited and life transforming grace of Jesus Christ, being taught your morality and obedience to laws are required to earn your eternal life, they are trying to broad jump across an ocean.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no man will come to the Father but by him (John 14:6).

An example Jesus pointed out was the parable of the widow and two mites in Mark 12:38-44 regarding tithing.  The religious leaders taught no one was exempt from paying tithing, not even the destitute.  Jesus exposes them as “devouring widow’s houses,” as they abused their authority and exploited the poor.  Their deception and dishonest practices were magnified as they covered them up under the name of God.

The Mormon leadership is guilty of “devouring widow’s houses” in their demands for all (even the destitute) to pay tithing before even putting food on the table for their families.  I go into detail regarding the unbiblical nature of the LDS church mixing Old Testament law with New Testament grace in the section tab “Tithing”.

The religious leaders give long prayers for a pretense of spirituality.  Jesus passionately warns them that their zealous traditions, rules and regulations are not meriting God’s favor, but shutting the door to heaven for not only themselves, but their followers.  They are zealous in traveling to the ends of the earth to win people to their religion.  But as the apostle Paul taught in Romans 10:2-3, they had a zeal for God, but not born from gospel truth.  They were ignorant of the righteousness of God and went about establishing their own righteousness and masquerade it as it were from God.  The leaders are told they will receive greater damnation for their deception and control of their followers.

Just as Jesus warned these religious leaders, the LDS leadership needs to be warned that their zealous traditions and obedience to laws and ordinances in attempts to merit the favor of God are, in fact, shutting the door to heaven for themselves and their members.  

Similarly, the LDS church travels all over the world trying to proselytize, not evangelize, in order to win people to their brand of religion.

My heart laments for all in the LDS church knowing they are being lead down a path of deception that will only end in death.  They base their entire belief and faith on a feeling because that is what they are taught from birth.  All false religions want to base your faith on feelings and do not allow you to test your faith as the Bible implores (1 John 4:1).  I felt the spirit burn in my bosom confirming the LDS church was true, but once I peeked behind the curtain, my world came crashing down confirming the LDS church was not what it claimed.  I quickly realized why the church does not allow you to question or test the church and leadership.  I fell prey to Satan’s trap and let feelings drive my perception of truth instead of letting truth drive my feelings.

Binding Oaths

Matthew 23:16-22  Bewildered, Jesus tells these religious leaders they are hypocritical in being obedient to the law in not swearing by the holy name of God (Exodus 20:7), yet they have assembled an intricate system of oaths.  Some of these oaths they made were zero tolerance and some were effectively made with fingers crossed.  Jesus tells them the oaths they have made are binding and they will be held accountable for keeping all.

Similarly, Mormons will not swear the name of God, yet they have an intricate system of oaths they swear to inside the temples.

Misplaced Efforts

Matthew 23:23-24  Jesus hails the religious leaders as “blind” because they focus their efforts on meticulously keeping trivial laws such as tithing while at the same time neglecting the laws that are essential and central such as judgment, mercy and faith.  Jesus paints a picture for them with an example of someone so committed to their kosher diet that they will not eat a gnat because it has not been bled according to the letter of the law, but will swallow a camel.

Similarly, Mormons have a long list of laws they must be obedient to and devote much of their time and energy in keeping them.  By focusing on such trivial matters, Mormons neglect the new law instituted with the death of Christ - the law of faith.

From the Inside Out

Matthew 23:25-28  Jesus addresses them again as “hypocrites” because they clean the outside of the cup, yet the inside is filthy.  They maintain this outward veneer of righteousness, yet their hearts are full of corruption, excess, deception and sin.  Jesus informs them the inside must be clean before the outside can be clean.  Sin comes from the heart, so the inside of the person must first be transformed which will lead to a genuine outward righteousness.

Jesus then compares these religious leaders to a whitewashed sepulcher (tomb) – sparkling clean on the outside but dead on the inside.  Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and deception saying they have this outward veneer of righteousness, but are dead on the inside.  They may fool men with this outward veneer of righteousness, but God sees right through them and into their tainted hearts.

Please see my comments from verse 13-15.

Proclaim Dead Prophets, Murder Living Prophets

Matthew 23:29-36  The religious leaders proclaimed to esteem the prophets of old, saying they would never have been involved in their murders, yet Jesus boldly exclaims they are sons of these murderers and would do just as their fathers did in persecuting, rejecting and murdering living prophets that he sends.  This is why Jesus refers to them as vipers and serpents, revealing they are more like sons of the devil than of their ancestors and posses a question of how they will escape the damnation of hell. Jesus warns the religious leaders that the righteous blood of the martyred prophets of the Old Testament will be upon them.

Jesus Grieves for Jerusalem

Matthew 23:37-39  Jesus grieves for not only the people of Jerusalem, but the religious leaders as well.  Jesus knows the judgment is coming and his heart is broken for them because he knows they will reject and kill those he will send out.  Just as a hen protects her chicks, Jesus wants to protect his people.  Jesus has the desire to protect them if only they would appeal to his message, but the Jews reject the message he and his Apostles bring.

Jesus reveals that they will not see him again (referring to the Second Coming) until Israel says, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”  Jesus Christ will not return until the Gospel has been sent to all the Gentiles and when Israel finally welcomes Jesus Christ as their Messiah.