In the Gospels, there are several passages where Jesus teaches against the worldly systems of authority, and where he proposes a social system that is quite the opposite to what we are accustomed to. Jesus especially warns against notions of power, prestige, and primacy among his own followers. In Jesus’ kingdom, the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, and the last are first.[1] This article looks at a few passages of Jesus’ teaching recorded in Matthew’s Gospel which show that Jesus promoted the social values of humility and equality.

Matthew 18:3-4

“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.” (NIV)

When I read these words in Matthew 18:3-4 recently, it struck me that becoming a child is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus became incarnate as a helpless baby and lived as a human child with little prestige or power.

When he returns to earth it will be in spectacular fashion: on the clouds and with thousands of angels in procession. Jesus could have come in a similar manner the first time, but he chose to identify with us and come in a humble manner. He even came into this earth in the same way we all have, through the body of a woman.

When he grew up and began his teaching and healing ministry, Jesus ministered as “one who serves” (Luke 22:26-28). He took on the “form of a slave (doulos)” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus did not just teach about humility and service, he demonstrated it from his birth to his death (Phil. 2:8). I truly think that most of the church, myself included, still has no real grasp of what it means to be great in God’s kingdom (Matt. 18:1-6).

Matthew 20:25-28

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over (katakurieúō) them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over (katexousiázō) them.[2] It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (CSB, italics and Greek words added)

Jesus rarely referred to himself with lofty titles. As he does here, he usually called himself “the Son of Man,” a title that highlights his humanity.[3] Moreover, he presents himself as an example to follow, the example of a servant.

Christian leadership and ministry is about being a servant, even a slave. That is, the calling and authorisation from God to function as a minister is the commission to serve God and his people as a slave would. Much has been said about “servant leadership,” yet too many Christian leaders still seem overly concerned with maintaining a position, a level of status and professionalism, a level of control and clout, rather than serving and working alongside other community members in the church.

Paul was sure of his calling to ministry and he wrote authoritative letters to churches, sometimes with strong instructions, yet he did not assume that he had authority over individuals. For example, in 2 Corinthians 1:24 we read that Paul and his colleagues did not want to “lord it over” (kurieuō) the Christians in Corinth, rather they wanted to work together with them in a partnership.

In New Testament passages that speak about church leadership, there is no Greek word that means “over.” A Christian minister does not have authority “over” those he or she cares for. A minister does, however, have a responsibility towards them. Then again, every member of a church community has a responsibility concerning the spiritual and material well-being of their fellow members (1 Cor. 12:24-25).

The church as a whole has been invested with authority and power by the Holy Spirit so that collectively we can act as agents of the Messiah and continue his work. This is a collective authority to speak and act; it is not an authority of one person over another fellow believer. [More in my article Authority in the Church here.]

Matthew 23:8-12

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ because you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven. You are not to be called instructors either, because you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (CSB)

Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:8-12 were said in response to the honour the Pharisees were receiving and the manner they were using their authority. Jesus’ teaching is a warning against giving our own leaders too much praise and power. While we should respect our leaders and teachers who are worthy, we need to be wary that this respect does not become adulation. Jesus reminds us that all of us, teachers and leaders included, are brothers and sisters (adelphoi). We are kin. We are equal.

Another interpretation of this verse is that we are all students.[4] Since we are all kin, or we are all students, there should be no place for hierarchies in the church (cf. Matt. 10:24-25a). The Message captures the sense of Matthew 23:8-10 well:

“Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people manoeuvre you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.” (MSG)[5]

Rather than being concerned with what terminology we should or shouldn’t use to call our leaders, Jesus was giving us a principle to follow. Further on in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus uses the words prophets, sages, and teachers/ scribes (grammateis) for certain ministers (Matt. 23:34). In Ephesians 4:11 Paul refers to ministry leaders as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Both Jesus and Paul used words that describe the ministry of the people functioning in their particular gifts, but they did not use these words as titles of honour, prestige, or power.

Equal Honour and Equal Concern

Like Jesus, Paul also cautioned against elevating and adulating certain individuals above others within the body of Christ. Paul taught that we should give honour to those who lack it; that way there is a levelling of honour in the church. He also taught that we should have equal concern and regard for one another (1 Cor. 12:24-25).

And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, which our respectable parts do not need. Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 1 Corinthians 12:23-26 CSB.

Conclusion

Jesus’ teaching on leadership and community is different from those who hold patriarchal views on leadership and community. Jesus did not elevate the social standing of one group (men) while holding down another group (women). Rather he tells all of us to aspire—just as he did—to the social standing of children (Matt. 18:4) and servants (Luke 22:26-27) and slaves. The church has a long way to go before it truly accepts and practises the social values of the New Creation that Jesus embodied.

Jesus on leadership and community, Matthew

Footnotes

[1] Jesus’ saying, “The first will be last, and the last will be first,” which is repeated on several occasions in the Gospels, should put an end to the specious doctrine that connects the created order with male authority. More on this here and here.

[2] Katakurieúō is a composite word: kata=down + kurieúō = act as lord/master.
Etymology: Rulership is directed in a downward direction. However, kata may simply be acting as an intensifier.
Meaning: exercise authority over, exercise lordship, overpower, etc.
This word is found in Matthew 20:25, Mark 10:42, Acts 19:16 and 1 Peter 5:3. It also occurs several times in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament.)
Katexousiázō is a composite word: kata=down + exousiázō = exercise authority.
Etymology: Authority is directed in a downward direction. However, kata may simply be acting as an intensifier.
Meaning: exert authority oppressively; dominate strongly.
The word is found in Matthew 20:25 and Mark 10:42. This word does not occur in the Septuagint and is rare in other Greek literature.

[3] “Son of Man” can also be translated as “Son of Humanity”. One English translation, the Common English Bible (CEB), translates the traditional “Son of Man” as “Human One”. More on the CEB’s choice of “Human One” here.

[4] Some English translations have chosen to translate adelphoi (usually translated as “brothers” or “brothers and sisters”) as “students” or “classmates” in keeping with the context of Matthew 23:8ff.

[5] Side issue: Does Matthew 23:8-12 hint at the Trinity? Is our Teacher the Holy Spirit? (Luke 12:12; John 14:26; cf. 1 John 2:27.)

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