Authority and Equality

Is it possible to exercise authority in the church, while still maintaining equality, not even setting up a hierarchy of leadership? Listen to what Jesus says about the Pharisees and then about his disciples:

5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.

8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant.

12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:5-12 ESV

Jesus has very high expectations for his followers. Titles are out, unless you want to be called a servant. The Bible clearly gives out roles such as the five-fold ministry described in Ephesians 4 (Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, and Evangelists), but these are roles to be filled and acted out, not titles with an inherent position. Jesus very clearly wants to be uncontested in his role as the head of his church. The Pharisees seemed to love their status, position, and power. Their authority was rooted in their official office, not in their role as “servant teachers.”

I think of Paul when I read this passage (oh, Protestants do adore that fellah). On account of his work, he could have easily made churches give him handouts, but he never used his position as leverage to meet his physical needs. He received support from the willing and used his servanthood as the measure of his authority. If he planted the church and invested in their growth, then he felt obliged to correct them when they quarrelled or departed from the Gospel.


Coming out of seminary, I have felt that burden for a ministry position. Like Gandolf who wants the ring, but refuses to take it, I look at the possibility of a ministry position, desire to have it, and then back off. While I think that doing nothing but ministry 24-7 is a pretty sweet gig (you’re getting paid for the most significant work in the world), I also fear that the current authority structure of many churches and ministries could be a poison for me. The authority, respect, and position is more than I can bear, and I do believe many pastors and other leaders bear a heavy, heavy burden.

I cannot quite imagine what it would look like to lead like Jesus today. To exercise authority in a practical sense, but not get swept up in the heady euphoria of the position. To teach, encourage, and rebuke, while never exalting myself above the status of “servant.”

The truth is that we all want to be “someone”. We avoid jobs often because we don’t like the status associated with it. We want people to be impressed when we tell them what we do. After I explained my role as a volunteer coordinator at an Arts Center, one lady said, “Well I just don’t see why your position is necessary,” and then promptly turned to talk to someone else. My wounded, weak, and wound up ego fumed. How dare she? We have over 250 volunteers? I’m busy all of the time. Of course I’m necessary. What kind of dim-whitted, weak-minded imbecile am I dealing with here??? And so forth . . .

I wanted my position to mean something, to be significant, to garner respect, to have people say, “Wow, it must be tough keeping all 250 of those volunteers straight and scheduled and informed and trained and recruiting more, and wow, wow, wow, you’re just brilliant!!!” And I would shuffle my feet, glance at the ground, and say something like, “Yeah, it’s difficult sometimes, but my superior organizational skills make me equal to the task.” Fwup, fwup, fwup, my ego inflates. So it goes.

And then there’s Jesus again. He doesn’t want us to flaunt our authority and positions like the Pharisees, to hide behind titles, to demand respect from our adoring public. You are a servant.
Servants aren’t paid much, if anything. Servants do not wear the latest styles. Servants do not have loads of leisure time. Servants have to set their agendas behind that of their master. Servants do not speak as THE authority at conferences, or may not even attend them for that matter. Servants aren’t noticed.

Yes, servanthood is very unAmerican. Work hard, get a nice position, spend some $$$ on leisure, find time to chill, and then let it ride. That doesn’t sound very servant-like to me.

Perhaps our first step in the whole process of becoming servants is to deconstruct our present positions. Whatever title you take refuge in, however I think of myself as significant, anything at all that is not rooted in my identity in Christ must go. Our identity, position, and authority all flow from being connected to him. If we can shrink ourselves down to our proper size, then he can use us. If our egos inflate, we’ll just bounce around and make a mess of things, proving to be far too unweildly for God’s use. If we can look in the mirror and see a servant standing there, then we might be one step closer to what Jesus had in mind when he spoke to his disciples in Matthew 23.

One thought on “Authority and Equality

Comments are closed.