Many teachers have experienced it - a mother who is convinced her children possess above average intellect with extraordinary gifts and talents. And every teacher should recognize her children's abilities as well. Apparently, the mothers of the first century were no different.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:20-28
The parallel account in Mark 10:35-45 does not mention the mother of James and John, so while she may have started the conversation, it is safe to assume James and John are equally confident in their ability to rule over others. In their naive response to Jesus' question, they even express confidence that they are able to withstand whatever hardships Jesus himself will face. The other disciples clearly understand what James and John are thinking - they are better and more capable than the rest - and become angry and annoyed because of their haughty attitude. But rather than simply rebuke these two disciples for their arrogant ambition, Jesus draws all the disciples into a lesson on leadership that stands in stark contrast to what they might learn elsewhere.
The disciples were familiar with the "Gentile rulers" Jesus mentions. As a people under Roman rule, the disciples would have been familiar with the type of leadership that says, "I'm bigger than you. I'm stronger than you. Therefore, I always get my way." From within Matthew's gospel, consider what we read about Herod's mass murder of Jewish children (Mt. 2:16) and general Roman conceptions of authority (Mt. 8:9). Herod also beheaded John the Baptist because his position afforded him the power to do so (Mt. 14:10-11). Under this model, leaders make decisions and give orders; followers obey without grumbling or questioning. The focus is on "exercising authority" and the one who possesses it will ultimately get his way. It's the type of leadership that takes what it can because it can as long as there is no one strong enough to stop it.
Jesus describes how this leadership works using two terms: "lord over" and "exercise authority". The first, "lord over," is a translation of the Greek word κατακυριεύω (katakyrieuō), which we find four times in the New Testament. Two of those occurrences appear in this story - one in Matthew's account, the other in Mark's account. Peter uses it once when he mentions the "domineering" (ESV) type of leadership elders in the church must avoid (1 Pet. 5:3, see below). And, finally, Luke uses the term in the book of Acts regarding a demon-possessed man:
And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. Acts 19:16
In this verse κατακυριεύω (katakyrieuō) is translated "mastered." Its use here is helpful because of the picture it provides as to what "lording over" looks like. The term describes someone who overpowers those who are weaker, leaving them helpless and wounded. "Lording over" is a perverse, even demonic, form of leadership.
When Peter addresses elders in the church, he puts "lording over" in contrast to leading by example: "not domineering (κατακυριεύοντες) over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3). Rather than standing over the flock, leaders are to come alongside them as fellow believers. We can find a description of this kind of leadership in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians.
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-9
What might seem like an authoritarian statement ("Now we command you") is softened as we learn that Paul is asking the Thessalonians to do nothing more than follow the example he set when he was living among them. Though he could have been domineering and exercised his "rights" as an apostle, he led by example, living as he expected others to live. So if leaders want others to serve, they should serve first. If they want others to work diligently, they should work diligently first. If they want others to sacrifice, they should sacrifice first. This is exactly what Jesus was teaching his disciples when he said, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave" (Mt. 20:26-27). The leader does not wait to be served, but first serves others.
We can also see that Paul passes on this same teaching to other leaders in the church. He writes to Timothy,
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 1 Timothy 4:11-12
While Timothy was to "command and teach," he was to do so in the context of setting an example. One important aspect of setting an example is not only being conscious of one's conduct, but being in proximity to those who will be watching. An elder cannot set an example merely through preaching and mingling for a few hours on Sunday mornings. He sets an example by investing in people's lives and putting his everyday life on display. He makes himself accountable to the people he serves. As Paul said to the Thessalonians,
For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. 1 Thessalonians 2:5-12
Paul speaks with great confidence regarding the Thessalonians' familiarity with the example he set before them. He had built close, personal relationships filled with gentleness and affection. The way Paul conducted himself was not at all how Herod and other Roman authorities would have acted among the people. However, it is how every Christian leader in our own day should endeavor to live.
Paul also expressed his concern not to rely on any type of apostolic authority when interacting with the Corinthians:
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. 2 Corinthians 1:24
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5
Paul's goal is cooperation with other believers who stand firm in their faith. His desire is not to be their lord, but their servant.
|The Milgram Experiment
Stanley Milgram (1963)
|"Stark authority was pitted against the subjects'
strongest moral imperatives against hurting others,
and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams
of the victims, authority won more often than not."
Unfortunately, if we're not careful, we can allow "Gentile rule" to masquerade in the church under the guise of "strong leadership." A "visionary" leader can presume he has discerned the will of God for the church and implement his "vision" by "exercising authority" rather than pursuing cooperation. Instead of leading, he begins lording. He wants to become great, but not by becoming a servant. He wants to be first, but not by becoming a slave. He begins to emphasize his authority over the church rather than his accountability to the church. Even as he professes devotion to Jesus and a passion for the church, he begins to lead in a way that is contrary to Jesus' own example.
According to Jesus, great leaders are not marked by their ambition or their striving after great things. They are not primarily known by their ability to organize the church or implement strategic plans for the future. Leaders are not necessarily skilled managers or corporate visionaries. They do not attempt to rule by power and might. Rather, they are servants who give their lives away, "even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."