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Lording it Over—It shall not be so among you
Lording it Over—It shall not be so among you
Stanley E. Patterson, PhD

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This reflection on Christian leadership behavior will launch from a statement by Jesus recorded in Matthew 20:25-28 that references the contrastive difference between secular and Christian leadership behavior. The specific behavior addressed relates to the determination of social order prompted by dominance-oriented ambition. Jesus’ counsel in this text is quite direct in its contrast of Christian and Gentile social behavior while the majority of biblical literature relating to leadership behavior requires interpretive work to determine the implications for Christian leaders.

Christian teachings did not emerge in a vacuum but in a rich and varied historical context. History prior to the rebellion of Lucifer (Is 14:12-15; Rev 12:7-9) is sketchy but enough exists to provide critical background to Jesus’ teaching related to leading and leadership behavior. The creation story grants us a glimpse that reveals nothing that would indicate the presence of dominance-oriented behavior or the aspirations of ambition that would spawn it. “In the beginning God created…” (Gen 1:1) gives no hint of the distinct positions or roles held the members of the Godhead—no ranking or hierarchy that would betray a prior process of establishing dominance or role. There was a consistent sense of oneness wherein no one member of the Trinity was elevated or abased relative to another. The expression “Let us make man in our image…” (Gen 1:26) reveals the planning aspect of creation as a conversation rather than a command. This is a discussion between equals where a suggestion regarding the nature and/or appearance of man as being somehow similar to or like God is adopted and carried out by the collective Godhead without addressing the issue of dominant voice or position.

Though the New Testament attributes creation responsibility to Jesus (Jn 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2, 10), the creation account mentions the activity of God in a plural sense. The plural nature of the Godhead is revealed in the creation narrative in that the Spirit is mentioned specifically as an active agent in the creation process (Gen 1:2). Jesus described the nature of the relationship of the Trinity (Jn 14) to his disciples as a radical oneness (Jn 14:7-18) to the degree that it allowed him (Jesus) to use the first person singular pronoun “I” when clearly referencing the presence and activity of the Spirit (Jn 14:18). We are included in this radical oneness that defies physical reality—“I am in the Father, you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 14:20).

This oneness leaves no room for competitive behavior. Dominance and the dance to attain prominence over others is simply not an issue that is revealed as being present prior to Lucifer’s rebellion. The poetry of Isaiah 14:13-14 reveals the origins of the ascendant-dominant element in leading people. Hierarchies of power emerged as the structures that formalized Lucifer’s self-ascendant move toward dominance and control.

The Hebrew nation alone functioned without a centralized human ruler up until the final years of Samuel’s role as judge and prophet. The demise of the theocracy was initiated by a request of the elders of Israel for a king “like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:20). God’s act of allowing a king for Israel to replace himself as their direct report leader was accompanied by a warning from God through Samuel that predicted that the king would “lord it over” (κατακυριεύω) his subjects who would eventually bemoan their request for a king (1 Sam 8:11-18). The ubiquitous nature of dominance as the primary underlying leadership behavior of the fallen human race has its origins in the rebellion of Lucifer and has been present to a greater or lesser degree in all leader-follower relations since.

The social dynamics at play in the Matthew 20:20-28 narrative reveals a predictable response to the interjection of a process of positional dominance into a relational context. The disciples related as peers while Jesus served as the central alpha figure in whom they had freely acknowledged authority. The mother of James and John interjected the possibility of a new social order among the disciples based upon rank as would be dictated by Jesus. Her request that her sons occupy the preeminent positions to the right and left of him (vss. 20-21) made three assumptions: 1) that Jesus possessed the authority to speak (είπέ) and it would happen; 2) that the organizational structure of the community that was built around Jesus would be ordered according to the familiar hierarchical structures that marked the world around her; and 3) that the relational structures that held the community together and by which it functioned were inadequate without hierarchy. Jesus challenged the first assumption in his response by claiming that granting positional rank to the disciples was not his to give (vs. 23) but the Father reserved the right to determine the role of each. Though he did not defend the relational nature of his community, he gave no hint that it needed the imposition of hierarchical power structures. The third assumption is undone during the remainder of Jesus’ earthly ministry by the clear absence of positional ranking among the disciples.

The injection of rank and position into the disciple community by this mother caused an immediate negative emotional reaction among the other disciples toward James and John (v. 24)—dominance through social competition for position. This incident illustrates the primary source of conflict in the church—perennial relational stress resulting from competition for positional honor and influence. This reality mirrors the initial cosmic rebellion and conflict between God and Lucifer memorialized in the words of Isaiah—“I will ascend” (Is 14:13).

It is in this context that Jesus contrasts the leadership behavior of the άρχοντες τῶν έθνῶν— (the individual components of hierarchy) the rulers of the people or nations. Again this language reinforces the ubiquitous nature of dominance behavior as a model of leadership. It is ironic that his followers who are receiving this counsel are embroiled in such behavior at the moment his words reference it. This ubiquity is not confined to the Gentiles only but is the modus operandi of Jewish leaders as well—both political and religious. Jesus expands his counsel to include the μεγάλοι, the great or important, who exercise κατεξουσιάζουσιν, authority that comes from the top down to subjects or authoritarian leadership.

The contrast comes forward implicitly in Jesus’ directive to his disciples that such behavior will not be demonstrated by those who follow him. This statement of the ideal confronts both the positional maneuvering of James, John and their mother, and the anger that welled up among the other 10 disciples in reaction to their bid for prominent position on either side of Jesus. What it does not do is describe the positive alternative. We have authoritarian leader behavior that Jesus identifies as universal among the people and which he condemns as unacceptable among his followers contrasted with what? If authoritarian leader behavior is universal then we must move to a different dimension to discover the model that contrasts with authoritarianism. The non-competitive, collaborative, interdependent leadership model that is captured and revealed in the context of creation and in Eden prior to the fall is the only viable alternative. This ideal was not yet a reality among the followers of Christ but was, by faith, within reach of this fledgling community.

Oneness with Christ now goes beyond the relationship dimension and embraces an identity and behavior consistent with that of the Trinity. Even as the greatness of Jesus Christ was experienced by means of emptying himself (κενόω, Phil 2:7) so that the believer who would become great is encouraged to find greatness as a servant (διάκονος) (vs. 26). Those who desire primacy (James and John) have the greater challenge of passage in that they must become δοῦλος, or slave to the other believers—a mighty challenge when contrasted with the mental models upon which their social understanding of position and leadership was based.

The narrative concludes with Jesus referencing himself as their example (cf. 1 Pet 5:3) in that he left his place in glory and descended to serve to the degree that his life would be forfeited in order to serve the transformational process of granting salvation and eternal life to those captured in the grip of sin and death. The contrasting model that faces off against the ascendant-dominant model of leadership may be found only in the descendant-service model demonstrated in the persons and relationships of the Godhead.

Our professional community—pastors and denominational leaders—should consider the collegial break that is imposed by what has grown to mark our organized church as a hierarchy of power. I write this as I sit in a meeting in the Inter-American Division where division, union, and conference leaders are discussing the implications of hierarchy and politics for the governance of the church. One of the questions under discussion is the issue of whether a conference leader should see it as regression if asked to leave the conference or union role and return to the church or district level as a pastor. Such an issue would not come to the floor for discussion if the relational context of ecclesial leadership as intended by Jesus was firmly in place.

We were intended to serve in a variety of roles and positions but the expectation of a relational context of spiritual leadership remained a constant. Jesus sealed that reality near the end of his earthly ministry by presenting himself to his disciples as “friend” (John 15:15) rather than “master.” Master assumes that his ministers were servants in relation to him. Friend allows for no such positional assumption. In this announcement Jesus effectively removed the positional dimension from the context of ministry. Political posturing, competitive behavior, and jockeying for dominance persist only in the context of the ascendant-dominant model of leadership. We must reject this self-ascendant model if we are to recapture the apolitical model of “friend” as the platform upon which we relate as professionals—regardless of whether our role is pastor or president. The expectation that we relate as friends rather than as subordinates/superiors is firmly secured in the relational model given to is in the word and example of the King of kings.

We are to represent the behaviors of those Jesus intended in “not so among you.” Worldly behavior allows for authoritarian conduct but for us—God’s called ones—it will be different. A relational model wherein we relate as peers regardless of position remains a standard expectation for all of God’s leaders.