This is the second post in my series on “Authority among the church.” In the “Introduction” post, I simply laid out the series of questions and issues that I plan to cover in this series.
To begin with, when talking about authority, no Christians desire to usurp Jesus’ authority. From those who believe that there is no kind of authority among the church to those who believe that there is one person who wields authority over everyone in the church alive today, all believe that Jesus remains the head of his church.
Thus, the question is not: Is Jesus the head of the church and does he have authority over his church? Instead, the question is this: Does Jesus allow others to have positions of authority under his own authority?
In Scripture, there is an example of two people coming to Jesus and asking for positions of authority. Actually, in Matthew’s account, their mother asked Jesus on their behalf, but Mark makes it clear that the request belonged to James and John. The story is told in Matthew 20:20-21 and Mark 10:35-37.
James and John (through their mother) came to Jesus with this request: “When you come into your kingdom (glory), allow us to sit at your right hand and your left hand.” They were admitting that Jesus was the supreme authority of the kingdom. They were asking for positions of authority under Jesus’ own authority. (Luke cuts out the part about James and John, but tells us that the request was about having a high position within Jesus’ kingdom – i.e., who would be the greatest.)
This is how Jesus responded (with only slight variation in each account):
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Jesus tells them that leaders among the nations (“Gentiles”) “exercise lordship” and “exercise authority” over others. But, he also says that it should be different “among you,” that is, among his followers. (In Matthew’s and Mark’s version, Jesus adamantly states, “It shall not be so among you.” – Matthew 20:26 and Mark 10:43) Among the church, Jesus says, things are reversed. The leaders are now those who humble themselves as the youngest and those who serves others.
In order to drive his point home, Jesus tells a short parable. He asks them to consider a dinner party. Who is the greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves food? Obviously, from a natural and culture perspective, the one who sits at the table is greater than the one who serves the food.
But, Jesus remind them, he came as one who serves others. Thus, Jesus is using is own life of service to others as a lesson for them. If he – the Lord of the kingdom – is a servant, then obviously in his kingdom the one serving is greater than the one reclining at the table.
At the dinner part, the person sitting at the table is in a position of authority over the one serving the food. Yet, to Jesus, the one serving is the leader, and he pointed his following toward being like the one who served. Even though the world might think the one seated at the table was greater, the church should think otherwise.
So, what was Jesus’ answer to a request for positions of authority? In his kingdom, the leaders are not those who seek or who are in positions of authority. The leaders are those who serve others.
“Authority Among the Church” Series
- Authority among the church? Starting a new series.
- What did Jesus say about positions of authority under his own authority?
- In the church, how does someone lead without exercising authority?
- Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?
- Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?