One of the most persistent and pernicious problems to disrupt the brotherhood of Christ almost from day one, has been what best can be described as men who are place seekers, that is, men who seek pre-eminence through positions of power and authority. These men are described by J.B. Phillips in his translation of 1 Pet. 5:3, as "little tin gods." To those who are "counted to be pillars" or "of repute," this term may be offensive or inflammatory. Peter, however, did not create this term in a vacuum, but after overcoming ignorance, pride, and ambition learned, as all of us must, the clear and perceptive differences which distinguishes the Reign of Heaven from the structured religions of man.
There has been circulating for many years the ignorant postulation in a land of dictionaries that these men who occupy positions of authority in the church, may at times become abusive. Abuse is not the problem, never has been. If a person is installed into a position of authority, it is axiomatic that he has the right to exercise his authority, and he who exercise authority is called a "lord." Now, on the other hand, if he is a servant and he attempts to "lord it over" a fellow-servant, he is not an abuser, but a usurper. A lord may become a tyrant and hold his position in unrighteousness, but a lord he is, and as abusive and scurrilous as he may become, he is not a usurper.
Multitude are the number of people who have sought the high places of distinction and honor which puts them above their peers, not through any intrinsic worth of their own, but entirely upon the ground of the position which they occupy. They are filled with the same arrogance and pride which was once exhibited by Mama Zebedee and her two sons, James and John; an arrogance and presumption conceived in Ignorance and nurtured by Ambition. Jesus said that they know not what they ask, nor was it His to give. There is only one Lord, and He is my Saviour, and if any man claims authority over my life I must insist he show me his hands and side. First the Cross, then the Throne, and so it was for the apostles: "the cup that I drink, ye shall drink also,"(1) no thrones, crowns or kingdoms for them in this life, but as Paul says, "...in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness..."(2)It is incredulous to me, much less to take men seriously, whenever you hear them speak of one becoming an "elder with divine authority" through the appointment of men. What Christ was unable to do, their vain imaginations can.
One source of the problem has been a misconception of the kingdom of God. Misconceptions lead invariably to wrong conclusions, and thus this friction persists among the disciples today as it did then. Jesus declared before Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight;"(3) fight not only as Peter did in the garden, but fight and struggle for positions of power and authority. Jesus dealt with this reoccurring problem among His apostles on several occasions, and the instruction which He gave them I have entitled kingdom principles to assist us towards a clearer understanding of this question of positions of authority.
Over 100 years ago, J. W. McGarvey wrote a book called "The Eldership," in which, by the author's own admission, his theme is based upon an assumption which he then sets out in his book to prove, but in his attempt to do so, never once did he take into consideration the words of Christ that I plan to discuss here. I firmly believe that a proper understanding of these concepts will lead to complete comprehension of the entire subject. If not, then what are we to believe? Does Jesus teach one thing and Paul another? Does Jesus hold bread in one hand, and a stone in the other? Does He give Peter a shepherd's staff, but to the eldership the Scepter of Authority? There is no dissimulation in revelation, but only in our perception and practice of it. It is hoped that a study of these concepts will help us understand why things are the way they are, and why they cannot be otherwise.
It is affirmed here that there are distinctions of greatness among the saints of God, but none exists due to positions of authority. This is the point as well as the distinction which must be made throughout this conceptual study. There are four kingdom principles presented to us in the Gospels, and they are what I now wish to lay before you in chronological order for your consideration. The first to consider is found in Matthew 18:1-ff; Mk. 9;33-ff, and it is:
"...except ye turn, and become as little children."
From Cesarea Philippi to the Mount of Transfiguration, through Galilee to their return to Capernaum, there was only one thing on His mind: His coming death; uppermost on their minds were dreams of crowns. Though most of them were poor fishermen, and all were uneducated and untrained,(4) they no doubt anticipated that along with the coming of the kingdom, here was their one chance to become somebody of rank and position. Men of the world see greatness because they equate it with success. In order to be successful you must have a high opinion of your own self-worth, that is, your ambition to become great (successful) is only surpassed by the vain estimation which you have of yourself. Human dignity is not the issue here, but self-esteem, self importance, and selfishness are. A self-depreciating attitude will spell failure in the business world, but the Corporate world and its methods are not the standard which the sons of the Kingdom are to emulate. Jesus recognized in them an ambitious attitude for success, place and position. In order for a grown man to become (to turn, to be converted) as a child, he must strip himself mentally, of everything which he thinks contributes to his self-worth; lay it aside as a garment, and be clothed with humility and unpretentiousness as a child.
Now, what follows in the text, concerning the one who "shall receive one of such children in my name;" is generally understood, but the connection with what goes before is not; so I offer the following without further comment:
"It seems designed, however, to dispose of an objection which would naturally rise up in the minds of the disciples. 'We are willing,' they might well have said, 'to renounce all personal distinctions and pre-eminence; but what will then become of our official influence and representative authority as thy apostles? If each of us is trying to be last of all and servant of all, who will regard us or obey us as ambassadors for Christ?' To this our Lord replies in substance, that their authority and influence in that capacity depended not upon their personal pretentions or assumptions, but upon the power which commissioned them and which they represented, so that not only unpretending men, but an unpretending child, if duly accredited as his commissioner, must be received (in some sort) as himself, or if rejected by those to whom he came, must be rejected at their peril." (5)
The next kingdom principle is in Matt. 20:20-28. It involves the question of the:
"...not so shall it be among you."
These disciples were obviously under the impression that positions could be obtained in the same manner as it was done among worldly dominions. There were several available: inherit through attrition; conquer and subjugate; purchase with money; or be installed into an office in which authority is predicated. They petitioned for the last.
There are those today who are determined to give the people of God a structured form by means of appointing men to positions of rank and authority. What Jesus could not do, our brethren somehow have managed to accomplish. Jesus plainly states that this power structuring "shall not be so among you," meaning, apostles, and if not them how do we justify it among ourselves? I've heard the replies of Sophistry, and I've experienced the sharp tongue of Ridicule, but this writer is searching for a sage in Israel to explain the difference .... the silence is deafening.
This whole morass of power structuring the saints of God is the result of a spiritual dementia spawned centuries ago in the pools of Rome. In order to put this subject in its proper perspective let me illustrate the difference: Jesus promised, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,"(6) whereas Rome says, "where the Bishop is, there is the Church." In the former, our gathering together is the result of our fellowship with Christ, and when two or three do come together, HE IS THERE, and that is all that is needed to be an assembly IN HIS NAME. In the latter, they are not a "Church" without a priest, and there are brethren who say likewise that you cannot be "a church without being scripturally organized." Elevating men to positions of rank is the first step to making him a priest. It changes the nature of the assembly by giving it a structured form.
Jesus declares that in order to become great you must be a servant, something that is possible for all to do. Service, however, has become employment and by means of Bible schools, Seminaries, Ph.D's, D.D.'s, services are hired and paid for, and is just another part of this hierarchy of the elite. Jesus said "not so shall it be among you." If one seeks to be chief among the brethren then he must become a slave. Jesus is called the Chief Shepherd not because He attended a Jewish Seminary or an elders' workshop, nor was it by means of "meeting certain qualifications" and then being appointed by an organization, but He is Chief Shepherd because He gave His life for the Sheep.
The third principle is located in Matt. 23:1-12.
One Teacher · One Master · One Father
"and all ye are brethren."
When James and John sought their positions of distinctions, Matthew states that the "ten...were moved with indignation" against them. The "ten" were not innocent of the same ambition, but when servants seek to become lords, relationships are inverted and strife and faction result. If the relationship between the Creator and the creature is inverted, you have idolatry (Rom. 1:25), and thus both God and man are robbed of the glory due each respectively. In 1 Cor. 11:3, Paul gives us the sequential order of relationships which cannot be inverted. Jesus was aware that His disciples might be easily impressed by the Pharisees with their empty and pretentious symbols of success and greatness, such as: the chief place at feasts; the chief seats in the synagogues; the salutations in the market-place, and to be called of men Rabbi. It is obvious from the list to see that they were place-seekers and covetous of titles, but would not lift a finger to ease the burden of the people. Historians tell us that it was not long after the close of the first century that:
"...the bishops considered themselves as invested with a rank and character similar to those of the high priest among the Jews, while the presbyters represented the priests, and the deacons the Levites...hence the rise of tithes, first-fruits, splendid garments, and many other circumstances of external grandeur, by which ecclesiastics were eminently distinguished... The notion, however, once entertained, produced its natural effects; and these effects were pernicious. The errors to which it gave rise were many; and we may justly consider, as one of its immediate consequences, the establishment of a greater difference between the Christian pastors and their flock, than the genius of the Gospel seems to admit"
The very term "brethren" confirms in the strongest manner the concept of equality; if one holds rank above another, equality is destroyed. This is what Jesus is warning against. There is cause for additional concern whenever we dare to consider the CALLED and SENT. Our seminaries are cranking out the young priests faster than the brethren can build the altars upon which to offer their oblational homilies. I can hear the cries now that I am advocating that the brethren should "muzzle the ox," or deny these priests their place at the altar of shewbread. There is only one Rabbi, and we are all brethren. If you are a "hired professional" a muzzle could be the best thing to happen to you. Space forbids further remarks except to say that we do entertain a clergy among us euphemistically called "our minister." I don't mean to sound harsh, brethren, but it is time to face up to the facts.
Finally, at the supper, the arguing began all over again. Unimpressed by the example of the child, and apparently unable to grasp His plain instructions, He decides to instruct them by a personal example (Jn. 13:3-20; Lk. 22:24-30).
The heading is similar to the previous one, but the principle is a shade different.
"...a servant is not greater than his lord, neither one that is sent greater than be that sent him."
This is the familiar scene where Jesus washes the disciples feet. Foot-washing is not the point of emphasis, although He chose one of the most humiliating duties to exemplify His teaching. They were all shocked by this, but it was a very vivid description of one of the "mysteries of the kingdom," which was that His disciples must stoop to greatness, but will not in this life ascend to rule. As I read John's account, I see the Shepherd ruling His flock in the truest sense of leading by example. This idea or concept has been ridiculed by the called and sent whose demented view of ruling rises no higher than "church budgets." Pride is always ascending, and when was the last time you witnessed Ambition seeking the end of the line? Love, on the other hand, is always to be found at the feet of the brethren, while Humility is close by holding the towel. He told Peter, "if I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me," but what I hear Him saying to me is this: if I don't rid myself of this ambition for pre-eminence, and "gird (myself) with humility, to serve one another," I am not His disciple and have "no part with Him." Jesus sat on no throne here, but entered into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father; first the cross, then the throne, and as long as we are in this present age there are no thrones, but only the celestial heights of a servant attending to the needs of his brethren.
By way of summary, the four kingdom principles are: a). the unpretentiousness of a child; b) as for "lording it over" and "exercising authority over" someone, not so shall it be among you; c) one Teacher, and all ye are brethren; d) a servant is not greater than His lord, nor an apostle greater than He that sent Him.
From this I conclude that among the saints of God there are no positions of pre-eminence, rank, power and authority, which gives to an individual dominion over another. Moreover, all scriptures which touch on the subject of functional positions or offices must be interpreted in the light of these principles. The word office (praxin) in the scriptures, as it regards the body of Christ, always connotes a function directed towards another member of the body, but never denotes a place or position of authority, nor is it ever simply titular or pretentious. If a person has a certain function to perform in the body he must do it himself-- not hire another to do it for him. There are no proxy jobs in the body; the foot cannot say to the eye, "walk for me awhile." Shepherds watch for souls, but watching for souls is not synonymous with a seat on the "Sanhedrin." "Lest we forget," caution warns, "an under-shepherd" is still only a sheep "among the flock." The Chief Shepherd Himself was a Lamb slain, and therefore, let each man that is among you "not think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but so as to think soberly"(8) Jesus died for His sheep, not some institutional sheep-pen. May God help us in our zealous ignorance. For while the sheep stand destitute of shepherds "after God's own heart, who will feed them with knowledge and understanding,''(9) we are to stand still as to who is the boss of a multi-million dollar sheep-pen.
1. Matt. 20:23
3. John 18:36
2. II Tim. 4:8
4. Acts 4:13
5. J.A. Alexander, Commentary on Mark, pp. 260, 261
6. Matt. 18:20
7. Mosheim, An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, pp. 60, 67
8. Rom. 12:3
9. Jer. 3:15