What did Jesus say about church leadership?
He told us that we have one teacher, Jesus himself, and we are all equals:
“you have one teacher and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8)
“…you have one teacher: the Christ” (Matthew 23:10)
Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves as to which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46; Luke 22:24) and Jesus kept telling them that the greatest among them would be the one who was a servant to others.
“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12)
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
Jesus also gave himself as the example of humble service that his disciples were to follow.
“whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45. See also Matthew 20:26-28 and Luke 22:24-27)
So, Jesus made it clear that his followers were to be humble servants of each other – just as he had taken on the role of a servant. Did Jesus ever suggest that some of his followers were to have authority over others? Some Christians have used Jesus’ words to Peter “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) to argue that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader over the other disciples and thus instituted a hierarchical structure for his church. However, his words do not indicate that Peter should be over others. The very metaphor of a rock upon which Christ will build his church indicates that Peter would be a foundation, supporting others, not an authority figure.
It is important to realize that, in commanding his followers to be humble servants of one another, Jesus was telling them to behave in a way that went completely against the culture of the day. In Eastern Mediterranean cultures in the 1st Century, the seeking of honor was extremely important for all people, particularly men. Religious leaders of the time loved honor, and Jesus saw this and criticized them for it:
“They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi’.” (Matthew 23:6-7)
Jesus told his followers that they were not even to address each other using titles that gave honor, such as “Rabbi”, “Father” or “Teacher” (Matthew 23:8-10).
And Jesus used a small child as an example of how his followers were to humble themselves. (A small child had no honor or status in that society.)
…the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4. See also Luke 9:46-48).
I’ve written another article that goes further into Jesus’ teachings on humility: “What did Jesus say about being humble?”
You may have noticed that many of Jesus’ teachings on this topic come from Matthew 23. At the start of this chapter (vs 1-12) Jesus contrasts the the way he expects his followers to behave with the behavior of the religious leaders of his time . He then launches into a brutal criticism of those religious leaders. For anyone who is interested in Christian leadership, whether you are in a formal role or not, it’s worth reading the whole chapter carefully and prayerfully.
God bless you.
Jesus is Lord.