Jesus didn’t tell his followers how to organize themselves. He didn’t say anything about how they were to structure their communities. He focused on telling his followers how to behave towards each other. He focused, particularly, on telling his followers to love each other and to be humble servants of one another. So, what does this tell us about leadership in our churches? Let’s start by looking at what Jesus taught his disciples about leadership.
Despite Jesus regularly telling his disciples that he wanted them to be humble servants of one another, the disciples regularly discussed which of them was the greatest. (Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 23:11-12; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48; Luke 22:25-27). Jesus used a small child as an example of how his followers were to humble themselves. (A small child had no status at all in that society). Jesus kept telling his disciples that the greatest was 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. When James and John tried to get Jesus to promise them the two most important positions in his kingdom, Jesus pointed out the difference between the world’s forms of leadership and the behavior he expected from his followers.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but 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 20:17-28)
It is important to realize that Jesus was telling his followers 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”, and made it clear that they were all equals and he was to be their only teacher. (Matthew 23:8-10). In this passage, Jesus is addressing “the crowds and the disciples” and, for me, Jesus is drawing a line. It is a line with him on one side of it and everyone else on the other side. For me, Jesus is saying that all humans are equal and that he alone is the teacher. And he is not just the only teacher, he is the only authority. In Matthew, Jesus states that all authority has been given to him. (Matthew 28:18). In John, Jesus states that God has given him authority to judge and to give eternal life. (John 5:26-27; 17:2.)
If Jesus is to be our only teacher, then what are we to teach others? Jesus tells his followers to teach others to obey his commands (Matthew 28:20). Jesus was brutally critical of religious leaders who taught human teachings (Matthew 15:7-9).
Did Jesus ever suggest that some of his followers could or should assume authority over others? Some Christians find a suggestion that he did in his words to Peter “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). 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 solid foundation, supporting others, not an authority figure.
I think that, if we remember Jesus’ teaching that we are to regard him as our only teacher and that we are all equals under his authority, we won’t have many problems with church leadership.
Paul puts it very well: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church” (Ephesians 1:20-22)
Jesus is Lord.