Jesus gave an explicit explanation to the Twelve of the difference between authority and leadership on at least two occasions and the Scripture records them six times.1 While it took a while for the apostles to get it, and we can even laugh at their slowness, they at least did finally get it and then lived it out whereas we think we’ve understood but we usually haven’t. Instead of stopping to sort it all out, we instead ignore the indisputable but extremely inconvenient truth that Jesus gave only two righteous models for spiritual leadership – a child and a servant – and neither uses authority. 

Sadly, most of us respond: “Nice metaphor, Lord! You cleverly reveal our heart motives, but You don’t actually mean a leadership structure can work like that, do You. I mean, we’ve studied all the management and leadership books and they all show the need for authority in leaders. It’s unanimous!” At least, we used to say this until Jim Collins published Good to Great, his research showing that the most productive and creative form of leadership is actually what he defined as servant-leadership but called Level Five because the concept sounded impossible. 

In Luke 9:46-48 the apostles had been arguing and debating over which of them had the most authority, literally “which of them might be the greatest”.2 For some of us this phrase may remind us of Mohammed Ali’s proud boast when he was the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, “I am the greatest!” Of course, part of this was his psychological battle to unsettle his opponents and only part was self- “Greatest” in the Scriptures means the one with the highest rank or most authority,3 in Matthew 20:25 and Mark 10:42 “great men” are “rulers”, and it is this understanding Jesus confronts:

But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking [lit. reasoning] in their heart, took a little child and stood him by His side, and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great.”4

Why were they thinking or reasoning about authority? Because they had just returned from an astounding mission where they had been given ‘power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases’ (Luke 9:1). With them each having such wonderful power and authority, how were they to relate to each other? Who had authority over whom? In their Jewish culture, the eldest son was always “first”. Remember Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright as first-born (Gen 25:25 & 31)? Remember too Joseph and Jacob’s dispute over Manasseh as the first-born:

But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know; he also will become a people and he also will be great. However, his younger brother shall be greater than he… ” 5

God knows how we reason in our hearts and therefore, our problem. We think we already know enough when in fact, we have often not begun to grasp just how radical is Jesus’ teaching.

What authority does a little child have? None at all – a child couldn’t even lift a sword, let alone enforce obedience with it. In their families, a little child was always expected to be obedient6 never to command, and on the receiving end of the rod; in the natural realm, therefore, they understood that a child had no authority of any kind.

How then were the Twelve to relate to “this little child” – by making him or her their new leader? Were they now to accept all children as over them in God? In Biblical thinking, to “receive” anyone is to explicitly acknowledge he or she has been sent to us.7 When Jesus had earlier ‘sent them out’,8 He told the Twelve to leave “those who do not receive you.”9 Accordingly, they understood that if ever a little child came to them “in My name”, i.e. as having been sent by Jesus, they were to listen carefully.

How were they to know when this was truly happening? Sometimes through miraculous attestation10 but most often by recognising either the anointing of the Spirit on the messenger11 or the simple truth of what was being said. This is beautifully illustrated by Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which all the adults are afraid to face or speak the truth until a little boy with no fear of consequences breaks the deadlock.

The ministry of Twelve having begun with this revelation, we could think they understood and lived accordingly. Astonishingly, some three years later at the Last Supper, they were still arguing about who amongst them had the greatest authority.13 Watch as Jesus tries again to explain this concept of authority being unnecessary for leadership:

The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors’. But not so with you, but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is the greatest, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”14

N.B. Jesus is here commanding them to renounce their culture’s valuing of the oldest over “the youngest”. He then challenges them to think about servants. The servant does not have the authority in a household; the master has it. And “the leader is to become as the servant” i.e. the apostles are to renounce any use of authority in their spiritual leadership.

For us to understand the ways of the spiritual realm, we too need to see our problem: the reasonings in our hearts are based on the natural realm, the world around us in which we have all grown up. To get our attention, Jesus uses a radical paradox, “the least is the greatest”, to reveal that leaders in His kingdom do not need authority to function.

This really should not be surprising since the key to all grace is humility. We will always need to be humble to accept the lead offered by “the least” if God is using them; we will always need humility to be leaders since we can only receive direction from God when we humble ourselves:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble15

This means that any spiritual structure set up on the basis of authority will never work properly in the kingdom of God. The best that can be hoped for is that at times that structure and the will of God might coincide i.e. as in our “lost troop” illustration, when the ‘lieutenant’ we appoint may know the ‘terrain’ because he’s already been a ‘scout’. The weakness in this analogy, of course, is that the terrain of the Kingdom differs in each area of gifting, such as prophecy, teaching, counselling, casting out of demons, shepherding, and healing, and we tend to want our ‘lieutenant’ to know them all.

Notice, we are talking here of spiritual structures – soon we will consider natural structures legitimately used by Christians (see Task Authority below).

Looking again at Luke 22:

“The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors’. But not so with you…”16

There is also an unfortunate translation here. Our English phrase ‘lord it over them’ has the connotation of unnecessary domination, of putting on airs while toying with peoples’ lives. As the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary defines it:

to behave as if you are better than someone else and have the right to tell them what to do e.g She likes to lord it over the more junior staff in the office.17

As a result, many reading Luke 22:25, and the parallel passage in Matthew, could think that Jesus is dealing merely with the arrogance and abuse of power. While He does deal with that elsewhere,18 He is not in this instance since the Greek verb used, kurieuo, meaning ‘to be lord of, to exercise lordship over’, has no such connotation of arrogance or abuse. Instead, it is used to describe Jesus Himself (‘that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living’ – Rom 14:9) and no-one can accuse Jesus of putting on airs or of unnecessary domination.

The real issue then is revealed to be in how leaders lead, not their abuse of authority but in simply using authority. In the natural realm, leaders rightly ‘are lords to’ their people, they ‘exercise the power or right to enforce obedience’, and as Jesus points out, the people see the benefit of this and call them ‘benefactors’ – “Someone’s got to be in charge!” However, in the spiritual realm, the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us leaders are not ‘to be lords’ to their people, they are not ‘to exercise the right to enforce obedience’. Yet today, most of our church structures conform to the natural realm and not to the supernatural, the kingdom of God. We have already built in roles of authority whether it is pope, bishop, vicar, priest, or pastor. All of these defy Jesus’ plain teaching

There is an additional complication we must work through. As well as still recognising the legitimate use of authority in the natural structures of government, parenthood and employment, we need to see how at times these are intertwined with spiritual structures. In a war, every soldier needs to be directed ultimately, if not always accurately, by a single mind, that of the supreme commander, to achieve the victory. In the same way, within Christian organisations such as schools, hospitals, broadcasting facilities, there needs to be a leader with authority. Like-wise within temporary Christian organisations such as out-reach teams. These leaders can legitimately exercise authority to the point not of a sword or a rod but of asking people to leave the team or  organisation.

This kind of natural authority the late Tom Marshall referred to as ‘task authority’ and I have found the term very helpful, since it clearly sets the limits of the authority to a task. The Lord Jesus makes this distinction in the work of slaves19 in His parable of Matthew 24:45-51:

“Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time?”

Notice this slave’s authority is to complete a task – “to give (the household) their food at the proper time”. In God’s household, He has always given ‘some’ to ‘equip the saints for the work of service’.20 However, in this parable, Jesus warns them not to over-extend their authority from the task to the ‘fellow slaves’:

“But if that evil slave says in his heart ‘My master is not coming for a long time’, and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves….”

We see here the slave, in assuming the master’s role in his absence and taking up a rod to beat his companions, has become “evil”. The rod, being a means of enforcing obedience, in those days belonged to the master.21

Christians functioning in these natural structures or exercising task authority should still be “salt and light”, i.e. significantly different from the world’s leaders in how they do it. The wise are always humble and consultative,22 teachable,23 self-controlled,24 gracious, and respectful in speech to those under their authority25 and Christians in any position should exemplify these qualities.

Jesus, in using these two models for leadership, was very selective in what we are to learn from them. There are obviously some aspects of being a child or a slave that are expressly described by the Holy Spirit as disastrous in a leader and even as the judgment of God against their nation:

“I will make mere lads their princes and capricious children will rule over them… the youth will storm against the elder, and the inferior against the honourable.”26

The earthquakes… and cannot bear up…  under a slave when he becomes king.27

Jesus therefore was not advocating that His leaders have either the maturity level and inexperience of a child, or the repressed love of power of a slave. He used these role models only to demonstrate the lack of necessity for authority, as surprising analogies to correct our misconception. But we are not the first to misunderstand, nor were the first century disciples – it also was Israel’s major mistake about three thousand years ago, as we’ll consider next.

Leadership in the Kingdom – Pt 4 The Mistake of Ancient Israel
As already discussed in “Elders”, under the Old Covenant Israel had eight different leadership roles: the patriarch, the elder, the prophet, the priest, the Levite, the military leader, the judge and the king.
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  1. Matt 18:1-5, 20:20-28; Mark 9:33-37, 10:35-45; Luke 9:46-48, 22:24-26
  2. v. 46
  3. e.g. Heb 8:11
  4. Luke 9:47-48
  5. Gen 48:19
  6. Eph 6:1
  7. John 1:12
  8. Luke 9:2
  9. v. 5
  10. Mark 16:20
  11. John 1:31-34
  12. In His parables, Jesus uses the roles of ‘slaves’ and ‘servant’ interchangeably
  13. Luke 22:24
  14. Luke 22:25-26
  15. 1 Pet 5:5
  16. Luke 22:25-26
  17. [Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press 2006]
  18. e.g. Matt 23:1-39
  19. In His parables, Jesus uses the roles of ‘slaves’ and ‘servant’ interchangeably
  20. Eph 4:12
  21. Ex 21:20
  22. Prov 15:22
  23. Eccles 4:13
  24. Eccles 10:17
  25. Eph 6:9
  26. Isa 3:4-5
  27. Prov 30:21-22