Before we jump into what Jesus said, let’s take a look at the example of His behavior. He exemplified servanthood. His entire life was an example of perfect humility, compassion, and selflessness.
He willingly took on the role of a servant, putting the needs of others before His own and demonstrating love through His actions. This is what He considered leadership.
Jesus lived on the bottom rung of the ladder
Probably the most striking example of His leadership was His washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). Washing people’s feet was a task typically assigned to a household servant. By doing this, He was communicating His status among the group.
Although he was King, He was their servant. He was a Servant King.
He lived on the “bottom rung of the ladder,” so to speak. When someone behaves as if they are on the bottom rung of the ladder, they prioritize the needs and well-being of others above their own. They exhibit a selfless attitude, considering the interests and concerns of others as more important than their own personal gain or status.
This behavior involves actively seeking opportunities to assist and support others, being empathetic, and showing humility in interactions and relationships.
This posture and attitude was shown to everyone by Jesus, culminating in the ultimate act of servanthood by choosing to die for the world.
With this general understanding, let’s take a look at what He said to better understand His thoughts on church leadership…
First, He said that humans shouldn’t exercise authority over one another. He said to His disciples in Luke 22:24-27…
And there was also rivalry among them concerning which of them should be looked upon as the greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.
Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.“
Here Jesus uses age to communicate His point. The youngest have zero status, and those with zero status are the greatest in His Kingdom.
When humans exercise authority over others as if they have greater status than them, it creates all sorts of unhealthiness. Even if power isn’t abused, it stifles creativity, hinders diversity, stirs up resentment, and encourages competitiveness.
The bottom is the top
In Christ’s Kingdom, the bottom is the top. There’s a theme woven throughout the entire biblical story. It’s a pattern of God regularly choosing to elevate those considered least important. In the BibleProject video called “The Last Will Be First,” it says this…
From the beginning, God regularly selects the younger sibling, the latecomer, and gives them the birthright. For example, in the story of the first two brothers, God elevates the second-born, Abel, over Cain, his firstborn brother.
And later, God says that the blessing and the inheritance will go to Isaac, Abraham’s second born, instead of Ishmael, his first. And then when Isaac has two sons, God promises that the younger one, Jacob, will have authority over his older brother, Esau, and inherit God’s blessing.
Later, when Israel wants a king of their own, they choose this tall, powerful ruler named Saul, who then has a firstborn son named Jonathan. But God chooses the next king from a low-status family, a boy named David who is the youngest among eight brothers.
God consistently challenges human-made systems of power and value that tend towards abuse. And he turns them upside-down.
Jesus picked up on the pattern when He said that if you want to be first, you need to become last. (Mark 9:33-27) Then He lived it out perfectly.
When it came to leadership, Jesus also addressed the practice of giving honorific titles to people in Matthew 23:8-12…
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers/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 Leaders, for you have one Leader, 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.
The Lord of course knew how damaging this practice was to relationships among His people. Calling people by honorific titles (pastor, leader, reverend, etc.) breeds hierarchy, inequality, elitism, idolatry, celebritism and divisions.
When humans are revered or placed on pedestals, it’s good for no one. It can lead to an unhealthy dependence on human leaders and a neglect of personal responsibility and relationship with God. It can hinder the development of a personal and direct connection with God, as some may believe that spiritual guidance or access to God’s blessings is primarily mediated through these titled individuals. And it can make it all but impossible to be in mutual service of one another.
The way of suffering
In Mark 10:35-40, James and John approach Jesus, expressing their desire to be seated at His right and left hand in His kingdom. Their request reveals their ambition and longing for positions of power and honor.
However, Jesus responds with a question that confronts their limited understanding: “Are you ready for a deep cup of affliction and a baptism of anguish?” Jesus understands that their aspirations for glory are not aligned with the reality of His kingdom.
These powerful metaphors signify the challenges and trials one must face to truly follow Christ. Jesus is not discouraging the disciples, but rather preparing them for the realities they will encounter on their journey.
Suffering is a signpost of the act of leading in the Kingdom. This road comes with a heavy cost. The cost is losing all ambition to “be somebody.”
Given what Jesus said to his disciples, we can see how misguided we are when we place worldly leadership structures at the center of how we do life in a church.
In His Kingdom, humans were never meant to be elevated over other humans by taking the responsibility for making key decisions, setting the vision, and guiding the actions of others. They were never meant to be the primary direction, inspiration, and influence. Jesus Christ through His Body is.