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What did Jesus say about positions of authority under his own authority?

Posted by on Aug 30, 2011 in discipleship, elders, office, scripture | 20 comments

What did Jesus say about positions of authority under his own authority?

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

  1. Authority among the church? Starting a new series.
  2. What did Jesus say about positions of authority under his own authority?
  3. In the church, how does someone lead without exercising authority?
  4. Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?
  5. Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?

Addendum: The most pervasive argument against positional authority among the church


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-30-2011

    great question.
    The authority that Paul had was from example “follow my life and teachings” 1 Cor 11:1
    from his gifting, if we discern that God is speaking through someone we accept their authority over us
    and from relationship – Paul has fathered (built) these churches (1 Cor 4:15)
    to exercise authority over those who have not submitted to authority is abuse, to reject or despise the authority that God has placed over you is rebellion.

  2. 8-30-2011

    Most people assume that the way the world wields authority for leadership is the best method. One way or another, they seek to use the same methods and justify their use as the only effective way to get things done. If that is correct, then with our Lord’s denial of the use of this kind of authority for leadership in the church, is Jesus “tying one hand behind our back” to minimize the effectiveness of the church?

    In leadership research, this type of authority is called “legitimate” power and “positional” power–the position itself grants legitimate authority/power over others. The leader doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their power–they can be an awful person, which is why you hear the phrase, “respect the office (or uniform) if not the person.”

    Leadership research also recognizes another form of power, called “personal” power (and the one who “leads” solely by personal power is said to be a “lateral leader,” being alongside rather than over others). This power is granted voluntarily by those who allow themselves to be influenced solely based on their friend’s character and expertise observed over time through many circumstances.

    Positional power usually results in compliance (willingness to do as told but apathetic about the request/requirement), sprinkled with some commitment and some resistance, and this compliance can be harshly enforced if desired. It is “reliable.” But positional power is very corrupting to those who exercise it. These leaders devalue their followers, are comfortable manipulating them, attribute any results to themselves, distance themselves from their followers, and tend to use rewards to reinforce those who comply.

    Personal power usually results in commitment (high agreement and makes great effort to carry things out), sprinkled with some compliance and some resistance. This commitment cannot be enforced and the power cannot be misused (or it ceases to exist). Personal power does not corrupt the user, being self-correcting (easily lost) when abused.

    The world will settle for compliance and corrupted leaders using a rewards based reinforcement and an escalating range of enforcement measures against those who do not comply. They have chosen their tool well, and it “works.” If your goal is reliable compliance.

    Our Lord is seeking committed disciples who set an example for others to follow, who will teach the same to others, on and on.

  3. 8-30-2011

    I like the way Paul describes his “leadership” as love:

    “But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us.” I Thess. 2:7,8

    I’m guessing experiencing that love was very different from what we experience from the positional leaders in the church today.

  4. 8-30-2011


    While I agree with some of what you said here, my series will not come to the same conclusions that you’ve expressed. I hope you’ll continue reading and point out where we disagree later.


    Another great comment. In a later post in this series, I’m going to post a link to a dissertation that explains “authority” in similar terms to what you’ve used.


  5. 8-30-2011

    “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.”

    That is an awesome point

  6. 8-30-2011


    Why do people assume that, when given authority to do something (gifting for a task),they automatically think they have authority OVER others?

    God has given every believer authority to make disciples and teach others what He taught as the incarnate Christ. He has given some persons authority “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”.

    Neither of these fit the worldly understanding of authority as power or right to teach, give orders or make decisions which others are expected to accede to without question.

    I think James 3:5 describes what has happened in the church over many centuries as worldly principles of authority and leadership have ruled our thinking.

  7. 8-30-2011

    Another way to see this is the notion of a foundation and what is built upon it. Christ, the head and full authority over His church, is the cornerstone. The cornerstone is “beneath” all else in the building. The foundations are established by the cornerstone. The building is straight and plumb based on the cornerstone. But, it remains below the other building elements. In our Western culture, we put those in authority at the top (look at or org. charts). The org. chart of the invisible church is inverted. Our leader is one who holds up all the rest. An effective spiritual leader in the church is one who holds up other believers (yes, it’s a servant position, but vital). Effective spiritual leaders by their service keep our church straight and plumb and on solid footing. If not, the whole building crumbles. The “mantle” of leadership is less like a garment and more like a yoke.

    In Him,

  8. 8-30-2011


    Thanks. I think it’s important to recognize that those who disagree with us are not trying to usurp Jesus’ authority.

    Aussie John,

    I had not thought about James 3:5 in this context, but it may have some bearing. Thanks.


    I might agree with you. It depends on what you mean by “an effective spiritual leader in the church is one who holds up other believers.” At times, all of us can be called upon to “hold up” other believers in one way or another. I’m satisfied with Jesus’ statement that the leaders are the ones who serve others the most.


  9. 8-31-2011

    Just a thought on this…Jesus seems to deflect questions of leadership and authority to slilent demonstration of inward devotion. In other words, Jesus explains that the best way to truly enthrone Him as Lord is to serve Him by serving others. Authority conjures up expressions of verbose grandiosity while truly it’s time to be silent and serve without fanfare. Am I way off on this? What does everyone think?

  10. 8-31-2011


    You said: “Jesus explains that the best way to truly enthrone Him as Lord is to serve Him by serving others.”

    That’s a great way to put it. Thanks!


  11. 8-31-2011


    Did you read The Eighth Habit by Steven Covey by any chance? Businesses may be moving into this realm faster than the Church.

  12. 8-31-2011


    No, haven’t read that, but I agree–in many cases, businesses are understanding and applying biblical principles and discovering they work, without ever realizing they are biblical principles. This is particularly true in the areas of organizational development and leadership, where secular research is miles ahead of the church in discovering truth by observing what works in the world (while the church, ironically, has these things spelled out in the scriptures, but ignored them in favor of following the world’s ways).

  13. 9-1-2011

    Rod and Art,

    Have you read Organic Community by Joseph R. Myers? They use organic relational concepts in their business.


  14. 9-1-2011

    Going to Amazon…looking for my CC…

  15. 11-3-2011

    Hey, Alan. Serving…a concept that I don’t want to admit is hard sometimes. I think it’s because my job is service-based and intermittenly I get that burn-out feel. It’s then I need to “recharge” in His presence and in His Word. God bless! Love your posts…love this series.

  16. 6-1-2012

    My advice to people who desired to be in leadership was always to check their mindsets as to what leadership truly is before they desire to attain that.

    The modern, institutional church structure has always modeled leadership as from the “top down” in a hierarchy sense & it was always taught that you were “raised up” into a position of leadership, where people were under you, etc… because one has authority doesn’t give them permission to rule/lord over others, it just gives them responsibility; if everyone recognizes that responsibility, then everyone works together to accomplish it.

    I’ve always given people the example of the table itself; Biblical leadership is not the tabletop, it’s the legs of the table. If one desires to be “raised up” into leadership, then they go underneath & serve, thus becoming the legs of the table, holding everything up. That’s what Biblical leadership truly is; in serving it: holds up, lifts up & supports. If everyone was on top, the table would collapse; if everyone was underneath, it never would…

    I’m very interested in the rest of his series –

  17. 6-1-2012


    Thanks. There are links to all of the posts in this series (plus an Addendum) at the bottom of this post.


  18. 7-6-2013

    I think positions of authority are positions of subservence to one another
    yours in Christ Richard

  19. 7-6-2013

    Who exactly was a “bishop” , “elder” etc in the church of the Apostles? were these “positions” thrust on them or they rather earned it? Upon what basis did they come to be called “apostles”, “elders”, “bishop” etc?. Perhaps if we got the answers to some of these questions it might inform how our approach to SERVING the body of Christ should be like.

  20. 7-7-2013


    I think I understand what you mean, but could you explain your statement a little further?


    As far as I know, Scripture does not answer those questions specifically. There have been several answers given through history, which have resulted in many different versions of “apostles,” “bishops/overseers,” “elders” etc. today.



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