When Jesus Challenges Hierarchy

When Jesus Challenges Hierarchy August 29, 2022

Bad news for every domineering church leader, every top-down-heavy leadership structure, every husband who demands that his wife submit and “know her place,” every Christ-follower who gives orders and forces obedience to those “under” them:

You have missed the mark on what Jesus had to say about leadership.

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In Matthew’s Gospel, we find a story of the mother of two of Christ’s disciples, who is seeking position and prestige for her boys:

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21 “What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 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.” (Mt 20.20-28)


The story is simple and poignant and easy to understand, if not so easy to live out.

It is natural to desire power and prestige. There’s something in our humanness that wants it, and has since Eden (Gen 3).

And of course it is natural for a mother to want what’s best for her kids. Surely every parent understands Mom’s moves in this story.

But Jesus uses the moment to redefine some things for us.

The other disciples are annoyed with the sons of Zebedee. The brothers are trying to elevate themselves, to climb the ladder, with Mom’s help.

This also means they are exalting themselves above the other disciples. The brothers are wanting a better spot, more authority, to be in a greater place than the others.

But Jesus will have none of it.

“That’s how the Gentiles do things,” (v.25) Jesus says – the term meaning the people outside the faith, the people of the world, those who did not know the LORD.

The rest of the world uses power and authority and leadership to “lord it” over others underneath them.

“Not so with you,” Jesus says (v.26).

It bears repeating:

Not so with you.

It couldn’t be clearer. We are not to do the same thing. Leadership roles in the Kingdom look very, very different.

To be clear, there are indeed leaders in the Kingdom (the New Testament shows teams of leaders, not solo leaders calling the shots), established by God, who we are to honour and follow (e.g. Ac 15; Rom 12.8; Eph 4.11-13; Heb 13.17, etc.) – it’s the only way things work. It would be complete chaos if everyone just did their own thing. We need some structure and guidance, all of us, and so leadership is one of the many gifts that God has given to His Church.

But leadership for the Christ-follower looks very, very different than the classic top-down style that has dominated the West for millennia.

The cultural view of leaders puts them higher than the rest.

The Kingdom view of leaders puts them lower than the rest.

Kingdom leaders are to be slaves and servants, Jesus says (v. 26-27) – not lords.

In so speaking, Jesus turns our whole cultural idea of hierarchy upside-down.

The world tells us to climb the ladder.

The Kingdom calls us to descend the ladder.

We choose last place, not first.

We take the worst seat, not the best.

We make ourselves less, not greater.

We serve others, not make them serve us.

We sacrifice for those we lead, not call them to sacrifice for our sake.

This applies to any seat of biblical leadership, whether it be church leaders, husbands, teachers, pastors, or any other place that a Christ-follower is taking the lead.

It is not a seat where we make demands, order people to know their place, force others to obedience, give lectures on “submission” to advance our agenda, or do what is best for ourselves.

Rather, the leadership seat is a place to lay down our desires for the sake of others, to work hard for them, to take the focus off of ourselves, and to consider those we lead more important than ourselves (Phil 2.3).

When someone leads in this self-sacrificing way, whether a pastor or a teacher or a husband or a boss, they are so easy to follow and submit to, in no small part because they are giving far more than they are getting in return.

There is a top-down hierarchy in the Kingdom, and it looks like this:

Jesus Christ is Lord.

Everyone else equally bows their knee to Him, and then uses the gifts God has given them to serve others.

And that is all.


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