(This entry is based on a chapel message delivered to students at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Croatia in the mid-1990’s. A few items have been edited or added. The reflections should have value for leaders anytime).
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20:20-28 ESV
I remember once, in the second year of my first pastorate, being verbally attacked by a member of my congregation. We were at a social gathering which was one of the regular practices of our fellowship. We were enjoying one another’s company, eating together and talking. Suddenly, this church-member turned to me and began berating me for the poor state of the music program in our church. The songs we sang were old, our musicians were bad, and these weaknesses ruined our church services. Besides that, the preaching wasn’t so great either. Actually, in some ways she was probably right. Our corporate worship left much to be desired, but the intense anger with which she spoke to me caught me off-guard, and I really felt as if someone had punched me.
This was the first time in my ministry I had been “blindsided,” but it was not to be the last. Over the years, every once in awhile, a church member or someone else has suddenly become furious about something which I had given little thought to, and which I had no idea was bothering them. Once, a family was angry with me for not vising them when the mother was sick. They had never told me anyone was sick. They said they didn’t have to, if I was a man of God, I would have known it without being told. These things happen quickly and without warning, and it leaves me feeling like I’ve been ambushed. Have you ever experienced that? If not, you’ve probably never been the leader of anything, at least not for very long.
I have come to the conclusion that every leader, and certainly every church leader must expect to be attacked by well meaning followers or co-workers from time to time. It comes with the turf. I remember a cartoon in Leadership Today. There is a picture of a shepherd in the midst of his flock. One of the sheep is on its hind legs, standing up and shaking his fist in the face of the shepherd. This really happens sometimes.
The kind of attack I’m talking about is sudden, without warning, and for some reason seems intensely personal — probably because it is. When you leave here, early in your ministry this will happen to you. It will be one of the hardest things for you to understand. You will ask, “Why didn’t they tell me about this at ETS?” Well, I’m telling you now. Later, you may understand such events — but you will never get used to them. But you may develop thick enough skin so that they will not cripple you.
Of course, many times we deserve to be criticized. No one is perfect — far from it. Constructive criticism is necessary and we should learn to welcome it, to seek advice from respected peers or fellow-workers. I’m not talking about the truth spoken in love, or frank discussions here, but something else — the truth (or falsehood) spoken with the intention of destroying or tearing down.
Now, we can all expect to be criticized or attacked by the unbelieving world, even persecuted or attacked with demonic fury from without the church. That is never pleasant, but it is understandable. Jesus said, “If they hate me they will hate you, also.” But such occurences are especially difficult when they come from within the family of faith. Nevertheless this does and will happen. As David wrote, “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it; nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me, then I could hide myself from him. But it is you, a man my equal, my companion and my familiar friend. We who had sweet fellowship together, walked in the house of God in the throng”(Ps. 55:12-14).
My theme is Drinking the Cup.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20:20-28 ESV
In this passage, Jesus’ is entering the final days of his earthly life and ministry. He is preparing to enter Jerusalem where he will die. He had prepared his disciples with a verbal warning. Did they get the message?
It is on the eve of the crucifixion that the mother of James and John approaches Jesus in search of a position of power. The episode teaches several things about the nature of power, spiritual authority, and leadership.
I. Leadership involves power struggle
Jesus is not struggling for power, but his disciples are. He is the rightful heir, he doesn’t need to struggle, he just needs to fulfill his calling as servant of God’s nation. But not understanding the nature of the kingdom, the disciples seek earthly authority. Two inappropriate routes to power are demonstrated here. Both display complete ignorance regarding the true nature of kingdom authority. First the mother of the sons of Zebedee wants power just as much as her sons, but she doesn’t have any way to get it — except by manipulating the decision maker, and the decision making process. As influential people, others will always try to influence how you make decisions. The temptation is to show partiality to the most persuasive but least sympathetic to the health of the whole, the self-interested voice. Jesus keeps in mind the mandate of the Father.
Second is title seeking. Titles are wonderful things. They help establish order, duty, and clear lines of responsibility. Titles (pastor, dean, professor, elder, general secretary) are tokens of authority. It’s one reason that people want them. We want authority, the power to make decisions, and by deduction the power to make others act according to our wishes. This is a corrupt aspect of worldly power, no matter how necessary authority structures may be. James and John are title-hungry. We want position. There is only one problem, they don’t understand that their position carries a heavy responsibility — faithfulness in the heat of trial. Can you drink of the cup? In scripture the cup often signifies one’s God-ordained destiny. God’s servant must faithfully accept God’s cup. In this case it is a cup of suffering — the cross.
Avoid those who seek titles for titles’ sake. They are not gifted or sufficiently compassionate to carry out the responsibilities of office. Notice the effect of the actions of self-serving power seekers on the apostolic community: “and having heard this the ten were indignant against the two brothers”(v.24) — rivalry, disputes, disharmony.
II. Leadership involves suffering
Jesus has challenged them by pointing to the cross. But they still don’t understand. Glibly they say, yes, we can drink the cup, without knowing what is in the cup. Jesus seems to be saying that proximity to himself in the coming age involves an experience similar to his passion. Authority is a function of obedience, and, yes, of suffering. Those who have tasted of Christ’s cross may be entrusted in some way with his sceptre. “He who overcomes shall sit with me in my throne, just as I sit down with my Father in his throne” (Rev 3:21).
Jesus suffered under the duly constituted authorities of his time – the chief priests, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman Governor. So did the disciples and the early church. Perhaps it is he who suffers under the unjust excercise of authority who understands the nature, and the awesome responsibility of exercising authority — who understands that to inflict suffering on another person made in the image of God is to become accountable before the fearsome, awesome, and Holy One. It seems that spiritual authority comes with a price tag. This may be offensive to you or appear to be super-spiritual, but I think it is entirely in line with scripture and the tradition of the church.
We suffer in various ways: for instance, the rejection of friends and other believers, or rejection by the world and its authorities, loss of material goods or opportunities; even loss of freedom or of life.
III. Leadership involves service
Jesus offers a contrast between worldly and kingdom authority. Lordship (katakurieuousin) vs. servanthood (diakanos). Who seeks to serve others, to consider others more important than himself, or to develop others’ gifts, will himself be blessed. It is the law of reciprocity. Don’t just talk about service, but perform. Christ himself is an example of this.
Do not seek titles, seek service which will fit you to fill a titled role in the proper season. Recognize that serving Christ involves sacrifice and risk and sometimes suffering. Serving others is the only legitimate use of authority in God’s kingdom. Only authority used with the best interest of others in mind is true.
I am sharing this with you not so that you will be sorrowful, but sober. Joy, not tears, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and mark of the Christian life. Joyful service and faithfulness in trial is the nature of our call.
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20:20-28 ESV