In the gospels there are quite a few 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. 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.
“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 this is exactly what Jesus did when he began his earthly ministry, both metaphorically and physically. Jesus became incarnate as a helpless baby and he lived as a human child with little prestige or power. When Jesus returns to earth it will be in spectacular fashion – on the clouds and with thousands of angels in procession. Jesus could have come in this manner the first time, but instead he chose to identify with us and come in a humble manner. He came into this earth in the same way that 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) and even took on the “form of a slave (doulos)” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus did not just teach about humility and service, he profoundly and radically demonstrated it. 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).
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles ‘lord it over’ (katakurieúō) them, and their high officials ‘exercise authority over’ (katexousiázō) 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 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.” (NIV)
Jesus rarely referred to himself with lofty titles. As he does here, he usually called himself “the Son of Man”, a title which highlights his humanity. Moreover, Jesus clearly presents himself as an example to follow; an 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 to serve 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 job, a level of status and professionalism, and a level of control and clout, rather than serving and working alongside other community members in the church.
Paul was very 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” (kurieúō) the Christians in Corinth, rather they wanted to work together with them in a partnership.
In the 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. But then again, every member of a church community has a responsibility concerning the well-being and spiritual nurture of the other church 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. [This section has been adapted from a previous article entitled Authority in the Church here.]
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers [and sisters]. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (NIV)
Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:8-12 were said in the context of, and in response to, the honour and adulation that the Pharisees were receiving, and their use of authority. Jesus’ teaching is a warning against giving our own leaders too much authority and power. And, 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. 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)
[Side issue: Do these verses hint at the Trinity? Is our Teacher the Holy Spirit? (Luke 12:12; John 14:26; cf 1 John 2:27.)]
Rather than giving literal instructions about what we should or shouldn’t call our leaders, Jesus was giving us a principle to follow. For further on in Matthew chapter 23 Jesus says that he will send ministers who he calls prophets, sages, and teachers (grammateis) (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.
Like Jesus, Paul also taught against elevating and adulating individuals within the body of Christ. He taught that all of us have different functions in the body, but we should have equal concern and equal regard for one another ( 1 Cor. 12:24-25).
Jesus’ teaching on leadership and community is very different to those who hold to patriarchal views on leadership and community. Jesus did not elevate the social standing of one group (e.g. men), while holding down another group (e.g. 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 embodies the social values of the New Creation that Jesus embodied.
 Jesus’ saying, “The first will be last, and the last will be first”, which he repeated on several occasions, should put an end to the specious doctrine of “the created order”. More on this here and here.
 Katakurieúō is a composite word: kata=down + kurieúō=act as lord/master.
Etymology: Lordship is directed in a downward direction. (Kata is probably 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/power, etc.
Etymology: Authority/power is directed in a downward direction. (Kata is probably 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.
 “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.
 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.
Authority in the Church
Unity and Equality in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 12
“Go and Work in my Vineyard”: Matthew 20:1-16
7 Lessons in Ministry from the Ministry of Stephanas
7 Things you may not know about the King James Bible