What does the Bible teach about superiors and subordinates within the church?
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
This is how Jesus responded to his disciples when they became indignant at his response to a mother who wanted her two sons to sit at his right and left side in his kingdom.
His reference to Gentile rulers is about the Roman army and the system of regional government which occupied Israel at the time and had an elaborate command structure with multiple levels of authority. He wanted to discourage his followers from developing authority structures, where one believer would be subordinate to another.
A few chapters later, he spoke to his disciples again about the same subject, encouraging them not to follow the example of the Pharisees who were always jostling each other for position.
But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12)
He even went so far as to say that man's approval was a snare and a trap:
Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26).
In the light of all this, what sort of qualities should we expect from leaders in the church, and should we have leaders at all?
Moses the Humble Servant
In Old Testament times, there was a clear concept of spiritual leadership, through priests and prophets, because the Holy Spirit was only given to those who God had called for specific purposes. For an example of leadership qualities, we can look at Moses. He was the greatest and most spectacular leader Israel had ever known, but he was also very humble.
And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses showed in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12).
Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3) This verse appears in the context of the story about Aaron and Miriam challenging his authority because of his Cushite wife. Moses never attempted to defend himself. He didn't need to because God intervened by striking Miriam with leprosy. They asked for forgiveness, and Moses brought reconciliation by praying for Miriam to be healed.
Shortly before this (Numbers 11:16-30) there is the story of the seventy elders who stood around the Tent of Meeting and prophesied, plus two more elders who prophesied while remaining within the camp. Someone complained to Moses about it, as if they were undermining Moses' authority, but Moses replied "Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!"
His words were prophetic, in accordance with a number of other prophecies on the same theme:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29. See also Acts 2:17-18)
... I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah ... I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord... (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. (John 16:13)
Humble Servants in the Church
What does all this tell us about leadership within the church? Obviously it is wrong to put somebody on a platform and make out that they are more spiritual than the others, but it is also wrong to have no leadership at all. Some appointments have to be made for administrative purposes, for example Acts 6:1-6 tells us about the appointment of seven men to look after the distribution to widows. There are also pastoral appointments.
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30). Clearly there are leaders who have been appointed by the Holy Spirit, but their function is pastoral, watching over the flock, making sure they are following Jesus. The leaders are not supposed to obtain a following for themselves, and there is a warning about other leaders who would draw away disciples after them.
Hebrews 13:17 appears to speak more directly in support of submission, but even then the argument is flawed.
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
This verse contains two Greek words that have been translated as "obey" and "submit". The first word, peitho, means to be persuaded and hence to obey. The second word, hupotasso, means to submit. Since it is already qualified by the requirement to be persuaded before you submit, this verse cannot be used to advocate the kind of slavish obedience that is required by leaders of the Shepherding Movement. We are required to submit to things that we agree with, for example if the leaders organise an evangelistic campaign, and we agree with it, we should get involved and not just walk off and do something else. If we don't agree with it we should tell them, so they don't waste their time.
If we are into shepherding or submitted body ministry, we have a real problem if the leaders go astray. If we are going to have a spiritual police, who is going to police the police? The answer is in 1 John 2:26-27, which tells us that we are given the Holy Spirit so that we don't need any police.
These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.
The Apostle's words were prophetic. Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire and subverted for its own use. Then there was the Vatican and the Dark Ages. Let us not go on that road again!
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