On Becoming Great

by Paul Adams | March 13, 2014

Recently I was talking with a dear friend and brother in Christ when the topic of church leadership was mentioned. In our discussion I recalled this passage from Mark 10:35-45, which reads:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 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.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.

Before commenting on Mark 10, I want to say that this post does not specifically target gender issues per se, but instead offers higher-level principles around which and from which one might begin thinking about leadership and hierarchy. Frankly, gender is secondary to the first principles I wish to point out here. Indeed churches may well be functioning in a full-blown biblical egalitarian manner, but that does not exclude them enforcing unnecessary hierarchy nor from considering my proposals. If I’m right about the this text and its possible implications, then a significant structural adjustment may be warranted for any philosophy of ministry that views a multi-tiered hierarchy in leadership as biblically viable.

My observations include:

  1. At the outset the requestors were barking up the wrong tree. Even as the Messianic King, the Man Jesus cannot grant these positions to people who want them (v 40).
  2. The positions are prepared for the person, not the other way around (v 40). No amount of mentoring, education, experience, and skill will serve to prepare a person for ministry if God has not called them to serve.
  3. This request seems to ignore what Jesus already said about greatness (cf. Mk 9:35), which illustrates the dullness of the disciples and even portrays them in an embarrassing light.
  4. The disciples’ request to hold high positions is wrong because they fail to grasp Jesus’ passion and the means whereby greatness (his and theirs) is achieved. Note that Jesus already told them three times he was to be put to death (cf., 8:31; 9:31-32; 10:33-34).
  5. Although no reason is given, the indignation of the ten (v 41) may have been prompted by a similar desire to have a shot at the ”best seats in the house”; it’s just that James and John beat them to the punch. It is often the case that we feel a sense of resentment toward those who overtly act on what we have wrongly desired in our hearts.

Now for the radical and more pointed response of Jesus (10:42-44), which reads:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

  1. He offers a negative example to highlight what not to do if one wishes to be great in God’s kingdom; to wit: Lord it over others. The “Gentiles” (likely a reference to Rome) took great pride in wielding authority over their subjects ensuring there was no question who was on top and in charge.
  2. Jesus insists “Not so with you.” This is a searing antithesis to James’ and John’s pretension and to the disciples’ indignation toward them for asking. Greatness, says Jesus, is not achieved by mastering over but serving under the subjects of God’s kingdom. There will be no power plays in God’s economy, since only One is on top and in charge.
  3. Moreover, this “Not so with you” is hardly a mere disapproval of only oppressive leadership who lord it over others. That much most would appreciate and this would not be saying anything new. Instead, it’s possibly a flattening of all human hierarchy and social systems in order to show the common character of service to one another which should depict every disciple, epitomized by Jesus’ summary statement in 10:45 (or, given the textual difficulties around this verse and its originality, that of Mark’s summary statement,).
  4. Jesus says in effect, “Public honor, positions of recognition, and places of authority a disciple does not make.” Instead, true discipleship involves service from under rather than over others.

If this model of greatness is adopted, implications could be staggering for a traditional, organizational, hierarchical church structure. Rather than a multi-tiered, top-down model of leadership (typically starting with a senior pastor and/or an executive pastor, associate pastors reporting up, elders, deacons, youth/student pastors, ministry leaders, etc.), the structure is drastically collapsed horizontally into only two tiers. In fact, I might argue that the only unique aspect that distinguishes one from another on the bottom tier is Christ’s giftedness and calling (see Eph. 4:11-12). Leadership is not about being over, but about working along side to encourage and equip one another for works of service in the church, the home, and the world. The structure would look similar to this:

Seems to me that whatever is true for all disciples is necessarily true for all church leaders, since all church leaders are disciples of Christ. Put differently, church leaders are not exempt from those qualities that Jesus calls everyone to. A key element of discipleship is to serve one another and, quite frankly, it’s hard to serve others when you’re looking down from a position of authority. Discard a chain of command within and amongst the subjects of God’s kingdom and let Jesus rule and reign over all as Head (Eph 4:15-16). No more “senior pastors” or pyramid-like, vertical structures; only a flat model where everyone equally reports to one Head, King Jesus! Greatness, in kingdom terms, does not and never has proceeded from appointments or positions. It begins (and ends) with servanthood.

For more detail around pastoral responsibilities, see my “Best Practices for Church Leadership”.