Who Is the Greatest?

Booker T. Washington was a shining example of integrity and humility throughout his career as an educator and his presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Shortly after his taking up the presidency, he was walking in an exclusive section of town, and was asked to chop some wood at one of the houses. After he had finished, the lady of the house recognized him and apologized profusely. His reply was, “It’s all right, Madam. Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.”

The wealthy woman was deeply impressed with his humble and gracious attitude, and she was instrumental in persuading some other wealthy acquaintances to provide the Institute with some sizable contributions. So, the path of gracious humility by a leader who could have asserted his identity and his rights led to the enrichment of the institution which he served and to the elevation of other who had been born into slavery and who had recently been freed.

There is often a tension in many modern churches between who are the leaders and who are the followers, and how the leaders should lead and how the followers should follow. Jesus addressed this directly in his own teaching, and his words formed the basis of New Testament teaching on leadership as a whole. He directed the desire for leadership away from the pursuit of personal and social ambition and control, and established the model of servanthood leadership after his own example. Even more, though, he set the model for sound respect for the scriptural guidance of the leader as the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

These two aspects of the New Testament teaching on leadership, based in the words of Jesus Christ himself, are in an incident found in the gospel of Mark. This incident shows the two different sides of leading and following in the body of Christ, in accord with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. In this incident, Jesus rebuked the way that the twelve disciples tried to sound out the pecking order among themselves. At this time he gave them clear directions on the style of leadership that made their entire approach to and understanding of leadership mistaken and wrong. And this is often, as it turns out, to be a key factor in the blessing and growth of a church or its stagnation and decline.

“And they came to Capernaum. And when they had entered the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ And they were silent, because they had been arguing among themselves on the way about who was the greater. And he said down and said to the twelve, ‘If any one of you wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.’ And he took aside a child and had him stand in the middle of them, and as he took him in his arms he told them, ‘Whoever receives one of such children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not just receive me but the One who sent me’” (Mark 9:33-37).

Jesus Christ calls the leaders of his church to be servants. That is the expression of leadership: servanthood. It is not to be for their own advantage, but for the building up of others. This is to be their attitude toward their positions of leadership: they are not there to be somebody, to be a big shot, but to serve others out of love for Jesus Christ and after the example of Jesus Christ.

The disciples’ argument about who was greater among them was the cause of this. Jesus asked them that question, “What were you arguing about on the way?” He knew the answer, but he wanted to get them to own up to it. But they remained silent, as so many are when Jesus asks us these kinds of questions, though he knows the answer and we know the answer. “And they were silent, because they had been arguing among themselves on the way about who was the greater.” This may have been a jockeying for position and prestige by the three – Peter, James and John – who had witnessed the transfiguration over those who had not been there. It may have been that the experience had started to build up some pride in their hearts, that they had had that special experience, and that made them special, over the other disciples, who had not had that same special experience. This kind of discussion was also like the discussions that rabbis often had among themselves, as to who would get the greater positions of rank and privilege in the synagogues. So it was normal to have this kind of jockeying for position, since they had seen it among the religious leaders in their own experience.

Jesus may not be walking physically with us now, but we cannot live as if he were not aware of our hidden desires, drives and agendas. We cannot expect that we can have ulterior motives and be pursuing personal aggrandizement in some way and not find him putting the question to us about it. Even more, we cannot expect that if we have come to saving faith in Christ and have been born again of his Spirit, that we not find his Spirit convicting us if we try to use a position of leadership as a place to stand in superiority to other believers. It should be one of the most terrifying prospects to a leader in the church of Jesus Christ to harden his or her heart against the strivings of the Spirit of God if he is convicting any one of us of abusing our position to make ourselves appear and feel superior to any other believer in Christ. But even more, it should be a real deterrent to us to realize that at the very least, we will face his questions about the conducts of our leadership face to face, and every excuse that we give ourselves for our motives and our behavior will melt away into silence.

The tendency in this vain quest of leadership sought from pride, rivalry and ambition is toward leadership by intimidation, deceit and exploitation. And the consequences in the church becomes dissension, departures and personality cults. This is what happens when a person such as Diotrephes (III John 9), who  “. . . loves to be first . . .” comes into leadership. And then we see this in our churches with the personal shipwreck of leaders who began to think that their office and attainments meant a special exemption for them from following the clear directions of scripture. I have known some people who in fact idolized such leaders, and their faith was led near to, and in some cases, into actual shipwreck. But sometimes the consequences are less spectacular – there is just simply a steady decline, since the leader who starts to live with the idea that he or she is greater than anyone else is going directly contrary to the will of the Lord of the church. Indeed, he or she is walking directly in a path where he or she can expect to find God directly in opposition to their goals, plans and undertakings, since “ . . . God resists the proud . . .” (Proverbs 3:34, I Peter 5:5).

Somehow it needs to be seared into the hearts of leaders in the church, if our churches are truly to prosper spiritually, that every step I may take toward self aggrandizement or with the underlying motive or agenda that I am special, that I deserve special privileges or that I am greater in myself or because of anything that I have done than the least of all saints in the church, that I am taking a step away from God and starting down a path away from his will, his fellowship and his blessing. And there needs to be this continued realization also within our churches that when we attempt to emphasize or glorify the position, office, virtues or talents of anyone, that we are in fact introducing an enticing but slowly acting toxin into our community that may end up in the shipwreck of the faith of many and the demise of previously living and growing churches.

There’s a story about two elderly sisters who were having an argument. It amounted to them saying back and forth to each other, “I’m closer to the Lord than you are.” Their brother finally stopped it by saying, “Ain’t neither of you pushing him any.” In our hearts, therefore, let there be this realization that when when we take that attitude of sibling rivalry within our churches, that we are in fact demonstrating how far from the Lord we really are and how much closer to him we really need to become. We need continually to be reminded that in the body of Jesus Christ the pursuit of leadership out of personal and social ambition is a vain quest. Rather, leadership in the Kingdom of God does not make anyone any greater than he or she was before. Anyone who has already entered the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ being born again of his Spirit has already finally and once and for all received the greatest gift and highest status possible, that of having received salvation from sin and acceptance with God for all eternity through Jesus Christ, of “ . . . every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ . . .”  (Ephesians 1:3). And much more could be said on that, but let us continue on in this same passage.

The opposite picture of leadership, that of being a servant, is the command of Jesus Christ. His own example entirely backs up that command; it was one that he fulfilled far beyond what any one of us could hope to approach. In this picture, he gives us the pattern of genuine leadership which he has truly called, commissioned and empowered to be the leaders of his church.

In verse 35 Jesus called together the twelve and delivers what seems to have been the first of his calls to them. He would have to repeat it again, in the gospel of Mark, in 10:35-44: “Whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the 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.” And in the Upper Room, on the night of his betrayal, he acted it out before them, in a kind of spiritual performance art, when he took the place of the lowliest slave and washed the feet of each one of them (John 13:1-20). But before the meal was even over, the old argument about who was greatest burst out again, and Jesus had to bring back the same lesson to them again (Luke 22:24-30). So it looks like Jesus had to bring this lesson before the disciples at least four times. He was going against the way of the pride of human nature and of the way that they had seen leadership modeled during their lifetimes – and, perhaps, the way that some people have, of not letting go of an argument until they think that they have won and gotten their way, which may well have been characteristic of several of the disciples.

Note that Jesus didn’t give the leader of his church a set of instructions nor a curriculum for leadership as much as he gave them a totally unexpected image: that of the servant. It is as if he took a piece of paper, drew a sketch, and said, “This is the kind of person you are to be.” So many times when people in our world and in the church come into positions of leadership, the pattern of leadership they follow is that which they have already seen, and the image that they follow is the one that they have seen.  And they, like the disciples, may be extremely stubborn and reluctant to let go of that path of pursuing leadership. And doubtless that is the reason that may people seek positions of leadership in the world and in the church is because they have seen others exploit their offices for personal satisfaction, power, recognition and affluence, and they want some of that for themselves.  But Jesus didn’t give anyone as the picture of his leader the image of a lord in his castle, nor a CEO in his office, nor someone who had all the answers and was always telling others what to do nor someone who was living on the perks and privileges of his or her office. He gave them the picture of a servant – someone who had no expectation of receiving any gain from passing on a message for his master nor of receiving anything more from his master than his food, clothing and shelter, and someone who could expect hard work and hardship throughout his or her life of service. His direction was to aim at servanthood and humility, and not at the other trappings that people may see associated with leadership and position in our world.

Even more, we must consider the picture Jesus drew of the type of leader that he called for like the rendering of a police sketch artist. It is as if he drew the picture, presented it to his church and said, “This is the kind of person that you are to be looking for.” And this is the kind of people that we are to be looking for for leaders – not those who boast about being leaders, nor those who try to act out their own sense of personal greatness, but those who seek and live out servanthood after the example of Jesus Christ himself.  Those who start on the path of leadership with a lot of boasts about what they can do and accomplish should be viewed with suspicion of their motives at the very outset – but too often they are simply plugged into whatever offices are available. This striving for leadership for reasons other than Christlike servanthood definitely lies at the root of much of what may be termed inter-church and intra-church politics – but these really come down to euphemisms for bad behavior such as exploitation and abuse of position, corruption of office, nepotism and cronyism. What does a striving for my glory and the trappings of my office, an attitude of ‘Rules are for others’ and using a position to pass on favors to my family and friends and to punish the people I don’t like – what does that have to do with being a servant after the example of Jesus Christ?

Even more, this attitude of servanthood must more generally be recognized as a mark of a secure and humble walk with Jesus and the mark of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. This Christlike humility is, then, the foundation of an example that will back up preaching and teaching with moral consistency with what has been preached and taught. Even more, it provides and example that others can follow without fear, because it is the example of the Master who sacrificed his all for his followers. Seen in the light of the example of Jesus, servanthood leadership turns out to be simply a different way of following the will of God, and of loving God and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. And therefore it to be received as a responsibility and pursued out of the conviction of God’s will with all the love and humility of Christ.

So then, the entrance into leadership in the body of Christ comes through serving God, and the church should look for those who are servants for leaders. They will be found not boasting of their qualifications but serving their brothers and sisters in Christ with pure motives and pure intentions through the path of humility in the Holy Spirit. They will be seen through a willingness to do small things and unnoticed things conscientiously out of faithfulness and out of love for God. This path then leads easily to the development of scriptural qualifications for eldership (I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7-9), and to the scriptural place of leadership, to equip the body of Christ for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16).

There’s a story of a young ensign in the United States Coast Guard who was giving a 4th grade class the tour of his station. One of his friends slapped him on the back and said, “I see they finally gave you your own command.” But that’s the way that leadership in the body of Christ starts – with taking on the lesser tasks that may not bring much recognition with humility, enthusiasm and care to follow Christ.

The attitude of servanthood after the example of Jesus Christ, though, is not optional for believers in general. It is commanded especially for the leaders, but there is no place where other believers who are not leaders can live in their pride and ambition as well, and pretend to be doing well spiritually.  Rather, this is what scripture commands generally: “If there any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if there is any compassion and mercy, then fulfill my joy that you think on the same thing, as you have the same kind of love and share one soul, that you think on nothing from selfish ambition and conceit, but in humility you consider each other more than yourselves, as you look not to you own concerns but also to those of others. Think on the same think which is in Christ Jesus, who, though the was in the form of God, did not consider being equal to God as something to use for his own advantage, but who emptied himself as he took the form of a slave, having taken the form of mankind; and having been found in the form of a man he humbled himself as he became obedient to death, even the death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1-11).

More and more I’m hearing about what I can only call a rising tide of spiritual tyranny in our churches and among believers in Christ, and servanthood leadership and serving each other after the example of Jesus Christ is part of what is necessary to combat this ugly poison. This may in fact clinically be called and have its roots in either narcissism or  codependency but I think that there are many times that the roots come from what people in our churches see and hear from some leaders in our churches. Sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, though, becomes sibling tyranny where any of us thinks that we have the right and responsibility to try to rule and control any other believer in the body of Christ. It is the way of the ostensibly Christian control freak, and this behavior in fact poisons and defiles the loving fellowship of the church of Jesus Christ. It happens when we stand by while extraordinarily selfish, deceitful and ruthless behavior aimed to get another believer to knuckle under to the selfish and conceited demands of someone else and impose their personal preferences upon others takes place. This is the exact opposite of scriptural servanthood.

So therefore there needs to be a real caution and firm refusal to take or to cooperate with any leader or fellow believer who takes the attitude of spiritual tyranny toward anyone else in the body of Christ, and refuse to take it up ourselves. We must refuse to take up the attitude toward any other believer in Christ which amounts to “I am your Lord and Master” or “I own you” and “You report to me, you are responsible to me, and you serve me.” Rather, we could expect that Jesus Christ will say back about that person, “I am the Lord and Master of that person – not you. I own him or her – not you. And that person reports to me, is responsible to me, and serves me – not you.” And we could expect that Jesus will assert back to the person that attempts to take that attitude, “I am to be YOUR Lord and Master, I own you, and you are to follow me. You are to report to me, you are responsible to me, and you  are to serve me.”

So then, Jesus set forth the example of servanthood leadership as his direction as to how leadership is to conduct itself in his church. And our churches are to follow the direction of the Lord Jesus if they are to be his church. The direction of the church is not necessarily to follow the will of the leader nor of the congregation but the Lord Jesus himself. And he himself, as he draws the picture of servant leadership, provides as well the security for his leaders to live and act as servant leaders.

Jesus Christ stands by his leaders as his representatives. The security for leaders to be servant leaders is that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Defender. And this forms the basis for how the church is to treat the leaders that he has called, sent and equipped. The church of Jesus Christ is to accept and follow his servant leaders as his representatives. They are his most visible spokesmen and messengers, and they deliver God’s Word and watch that God’s will is performed in his church.

When Jesus took the child and put him in their midst, and embraced the child, that was what we could call an enacted parable, a kind of performance art by the Son of God. He was playing on a double meaning, where servant and child are the same word, which would have been evident in the original Aramaic of the original conversation, and which carries through as well in the original Greek in which the gospel of Mark was written. And just as the disciples more than once had that discussion about who was the greatest, Jesus more than once made that assertion that he stands by his leaders as his representatives (Luke 10:16, John 13:20). This would mean his call for his church to receive his leaders as his messengers, and this would  mean following the words of the Lord with love and respect for the message and the messenger, because the servant leader is, like Jesus showed them bringing in the child before them and putting his arms around him, bringing in the servant leader and covering him with his authority, power, love and care.

This, then, is the security for a leader to be a servant: the realization that as he is  brought in by Jesus in the place of humility, as a child and as a servant, and placed in the midst of the disciples of Jesus, that he is surrounded by the loving arms of Jesus. This is what should deter anyone ever in our churches from ever seeing or treating a leader in the place of servanthood and humility as a target for unending exploitation. Rather, the arms of Jesus around his servant leaders means that they need to see his leaders as being under the call, leading and protection of the Lord Jesus himself, and that they are to follow that leader respectfully. And this will then furnish the security for servant leaders to stick their necks out and pour themselves out for those whom they are responsible to lead by the Word of God. And this also contradicts a common platitude that a test of our servanthood leadership comes when others begin to treat us as their servants; it’s nowhere justified in the Word of God for anyone in the body of Christ to treat a leader in the path of servanthood with disdain, contempt or exploitation. Rather, the call of the Word of God is for respect and submission as far as they are leading according to the plain guidance of the Word of God.

But Jesus, when he gave this wonderful picture with his arms around the child, showing his guidance, leading, protection, love and care for his servant leaders, also concluded with a solemn declaration. The acceptance or rejection of a leader called, sent and protected by Jesus Christ amounts to the acceptance or rejection of the authority of Jesus Christ, and of God the Father himself. In other words, he takes personally how his servants are treated: “Whoever receives one of such children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not just receive me but the One who sent me.”

It should be unquestioned that the place of the blessing of the believer and of the church of a whole is with the acceptance of the authority of Jesus Christ and the following of his will. This statement of Jesus, then, about his taking personally how his leaders are treated, is a way to understand the way to personal blessing , through treating his leaders with proper respect as submission as messengers of God. Certainly this assumes that the leader is acting in submission to Christ and living out his leadership as a servant with the humility of a young child. But this means a right attitude of respect toward leaders, toward following leaders out of love to God and showing a proper attitude of respect to the Lord whose messenger he is. This means that the respect carries through to the leader who is acting as a servant under the leadership of Jesus with the humility of a young child.

It’s been noted that disrespect for the servant leader, and sabotage and resistance of his guidance for the church, is a strong factor in church decline and stagnation. It’s noteworthy how many times a church without a pastor will pray fervently for a pastor, but then treat the pastor that then comes with complaints, dissension, disdain and disrespect. Did they think that God had not answered their prayer in sending them a pastor? Did they think that they knew better than God what kind of pastor they needed? This is one strong factor in church blessing or decline, as David Mains, pastor of the radio show Chapel of the Air once noted: “My observance of thriving congregations is that a common factor in congregations where the Spirit is alive is the willingness of the people to follow godly leaders. Conversely, one key factor in withering local bodies, far more often than not, is the refusal of the people to be truly supportive of godly leaders.”

So then, Jesus Christ stands behind his servant leaders. He calls them and gives them his Word and his power, and therefore the church needs to treat them with respect and love because of his close identification with the servant leader, and his appointment of them as his representatives and his spokesmen. Love and respect for his leaders on behalf of Christ means that the people of the church, the others in position of leadership, must renounce any attempts at subversion of his direction as backed up by the Word, and of any manipulation to try to fit him into your personal specifications, of trying to become an ‘amateur Providence’ in the life of a leader whom God has called. While there is nothing in what Jesus said to give the impression that the servant leader has any justification to act as if he had in himself any personal authority independent of God, to play God in the lives of others, there is also nothing in what Jesus said to give any justification to anyone else within the church to act as if he or she had any justification to try to play God in the life of the servant leader. Servant leaders themselves are not to be the targets for spiritual tyranny by anyone else either! Rather, realize that the servant leader has been called, prepared, and empowered by God, and if he humbly continues in the Word, continues under the protection and guidance of God as well. Realize that that is something that you have no justification before God or man to try to control or interfere with.

Even more, love and respect for the servant leader means listening to what they say as the message of God, as far as it is in accord with what the Bible says and as it is in accord with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Consider and follow it as far as it is in accord with the Bible, and follow his godly example as far as possible. And when a leader needs correction, let it be not be with anger, but with love, gentleness and respect, and let it be based on the Word of God. Moreover, pray for the leader, and give conscientious feedback as far as possible.

The Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, has given instructions in his Word for the style and expression of leadership in his church. He has also given instructions for the proper treatment of leaders in his church. The manner of leadership and the proper treatment of leaders are marks of the submission to Christ and the proper following of the Word of God in the fellowship of the church. This will not show itself in personal charisma, talents or gifts but rather in being like Christ.

The great need of the church today and in all ages is servant leaders who follow the servanthood example of the Lord Jesus. Pray for such leaders to be called and prepared, and for those who are in leadership responsibilities to take up their responsibilities as servant leaders. And pray for a resurgence of servanthood leadership in the body of Christ, by the call and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And if you are a leader, or you are seeking leadership out of a sense of God’s call, serve faithfully and conscientiously. Live the life of servanthood that God vindicates by giving a place of leadership, blessing and vindication while in leadership.

And if you have indulged in spiritual rivalry and tyranny, and have thus walked out of close fellowship with God, even, perhaps, while telling yourself all the time that you were following what you thought God wanted, walk away from that path with all your might. And take the way back to walking closely with Jesus out of these sins of rivalry and tyranny into humility and servanthood. Take the path back to closeness through confession to God and to man of the sins you have committed in your pride, arrogance and rivalry, and attempts to control, manipulate another person in tyranny and not in servanthood love after the example of Jesus Christ. Make that confession in private and in person if possible, or on the phone or in letter,with no excuses, no claims of having good intentions all the time you were attempting to dominate and tyrannize another person into your will – your hot pursuit of what was not the will of God in the life of another person. There is no quick and easy path back to close fellowship with Christ out of what may be years and, for some people, decades of spiritual rivalry and tyranny. Don’t expect instant and complete restoration of the relationships that have been abused and broken on that path but rather live out that attitude of repentance in humility of Christ, and let him provide the healing and reconciliation as you demonstrate deeds that demonstrate true repentance and truly trustworthy character.

For there to be servant leaders, then, the church must also recognize the call, guidance, protection and loving care of God behind his leaders. This calls for doing them no harm in the path of leadership, and even more giving them proper respect as the messengers of God called by God. Avoid the malicious gossip and unloving criticism and undue complaining when they don’t do what you think that they should have done or what you would have done in their situation; that’s wrong toward any brother or sister in Christ as well. But rather forgive, forbear, accept and love them anyway, and receive blessing from their strengths and the blessings they have received from God, and be as merciful toward their shortcomings as you would expect to receive as if you were in the same situation. And pay special attention to make sure that they receive proper financial support for themselves and their families, as servant leaders, since God honors those who follow his Word and who honor his messengers.

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