Recently I was talking with a dear friend and brother in Christ when the topic of church leadership was mentioned. In our discussion I recalled this passage from Mark 10:35-45, which reads:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

 

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

 

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

 

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

 

“We can,” they answered.

 

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

 

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

First some observations:
  1. At the outset the requestors were barking up the wrong tree. Even as Messianic King, Jesus cannot grant these positions to people who want them (v 40). The positions are prepared for the person, not the other way around (v 40). No amount of mentoring, education, experience, and skill will serve to prepare a person for ministry if God has not called them to serve.
  2. This request seems to ignore what Jesus already said about greatness (cf. Mk 9:35), which illustrates the dullness of the disciples and even portrays them in an embarrassing light. I suspect their dullness is highlighted throughout Mark as a model of all those who struggle toward faith.
  3. The disciples’ request to hold high positions is wrong because they fail to grasp Jesus’s passion and the means whereby greatness (his and theirs) is achieved. Note that Jesus already told them twice that he was to be put to death (cf., 8:31; 9:31-32; and here again 10:33-34). The road to glory (Christ and ours) is paved with the stones of suffering.
  4. Although no reason is given, the indignation of the ten (v 41) may have been prompted by a similar desire to have a shot at the “best seats in the house”; it’s just that James and John beat them to the punch. We often feel a sense of resentment toward those who overtly act on what we have wrongly desired in our hearts.
Now for the radical response of Jesus (10:42-44):
  1. He offers a negative example to highlight what not to do if one wishes to be great in God’s kingdom. The “gentiles” (likely a reference to Rome) took great pride in wielding authority over their subjects ensuring there was no question who was on top and in charge.
  2. Jesus insists “Not so with you.”  This is a searing antithesis to the pretension of James and John as well as to the disciples’ indignation toward them for asking to be place in positions of honor. Greatness, says Jesus, is not achieved by mastering over but serving under the subjects of God’s kingdom. There will be no power plays in God’s economy, since only One is on top and in charge. 
  3. Moreover, this “Not so with you” is hardly just a mere disapproval of oppressive leadership who lord it over others. That much would be appreciated and this would not be saying anything more than what everyone under Rome’s harsh rule would desire. What makes this radical is that it is a flattening of all human hierarchy in order to emphasize the common character of service required of every disciple. Jesus is calling for a mutualist understanding of operating in his kingdom as his subjects where all interactions are shared equally and expected to be for the mutual benefit of everyone. This is epitomized by Jesus’s summary statement in 10:45 (or Mark’s given the textual difficulties with this verse and its originality). I recognize this passage is the apex and theological culmination of Mark’s Gospel account showing the redemptive purposes of God in providing the means for redemption through Christ’s death. But could it be a paradigm for what is to come (see especially Galatians 3:28)?
  4. Jesus says in effect, “Public honor, positions of recognition, and places of authority a disciple does not make.” Instead, true discipleship involves service from under or alongside rather than over others.

If this model of greatness is adopted, implications could be staggering for a traditional church structure. Rather than a multi-tier, top-down model of leadership (typically starting with a senior pastor and/or an executive pastor, associate pastors reporting up, elders, deacons, youth/student pastors, ministry leaders, etc. ), the structure is drastically collapsed horizontally into only two tiers. Perhaps the only unique aspect that distinguishes one from another on the bottom tier is God’s giftedness and calling. The structure would look similar to this:

Seems to me that whatever is true for all disciples is necessarily true for all church leaders, since all church leaders are disciples of Christ. Put differently, church leaders are not exempt from those qualities and activities to which Jesus calls everyone. A key element of discipleship is to serve one another and it is rather hard to serve others when you’re looking down from a supposed position of authority.

No chain of command within or among the subjects of God’s kingdom; only Jesus rules and reigns over all as Head (Eph 4:15-16). No more “senior pastors” or pyramid-like, vertical structures; only a flat model where everyone equally reports to one Head, King Jesus! Greatness, in kingdom terms, does not and never has proceeded from appointments or positions. It begins (and ends) with servanthood.

For more detail around pastoral responsibilities, see my “Best Practices for Church Leadership”.

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2 Comments

  1. I think your third point may go too far. To say that it possibly “flattens all human hierarchy” would seem to run counter to a passage like Hebrews 13:17 “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.”
    I think this shows a certain hierarchy which was and is healthy for the church. Abuses abound but I think there are good and healthy leaders in the church.
    You also state that “it’s hard to serve others when you’re looking down from a position of authority.” Your phrase “looking down” implies a certain attitude on the part of the leader which doesn’t necessarily need to exist. Jesus is a supreme example since he is clearly in authority over us but serves the church with utmost love and does not “look down” on us. He provides an example for all leaders of the church of how to lead and serve with love.
    I agree completely with your statement that “whatever is true for all disciples is necessarily true for all church leaders, since all church leaders are disciples of Christ.” Absolutely! But I don’t think this means that the church would be better served by removing all forms of hierarchy.
    You may perhaps cover this in the other article you mentioned. If so, I apologize for not having read that first before providing my comment here. At any rate this is my two cents for what it’s worth which is probably less than two cents. 🙂

  2. Thanks for your comments, Louis. As always I’m challenged and encouraged.

    Heb 13:17 did come up not a few times while drafting this post. I thought about addressing it but did not want the post to go on too long. At first glance, it may seem that there is hierarchy given the terms “leaders,” “submit,” “authority,” “obey,” “over.” These all fit nicely into a top-down model that we’re familiar with in the corporate world. Moreover, this ordered world is not unfamiliar to those of the 1st Century. In fact, it would be difficult to view this text any different since so many similar words that depict a structured, hierarchical society are used.

    The weight of Heb 13 as I understand it and the burden of the writer as I see it is not on social structure or a position that members in the Body may hold, but on the responsibility of each party mentioned. For example, a) leaders must faithfully guard the apostolic tradition and ensure the flock is safe from error, b) readers must guard against being swept away by “strange teachings” (cf. 13:7-9), and c) God’s gig, so to speak, is to hold leaders accountable to the faithful discharge of their duties. Of course, there’s the curious translation of the NIV 2011 “have confidence in” rather than “obey”, which is further removed from the semantic domain of hierarchy. In fact, I would venture to suggest that it’s not the “leaders” per se that one is to submit to, but the apostolic tradition under the care of the leaders that is the point.

    In addition, I’m puzzled by passages like Eph 5:21 “submitting one to another” or the foot washing of Jn 13 and how they comport with Heb 13:17.

    Agreed there are abuses of hierarchy and that it’s not required to “flatten” an organization as a sweeping response to that abuse. However, as I intimated, there is also no need to sustain hierarchy in order for the Body of Christ to function as it was intended. You’re right, however, there is no need to abolish a hierarchy for the right attitude to obtain in leadership.

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