Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 9, 2010

The New Testament on Authority (Part 1: Jesus)

If you’ve read the “About Vic” tab, you know my husband and I are involved in planting an organic church in our community.  Some of the things we’re passionate about are true every-member functioning, non-hierarchical leadership, and not allowing non-essential doctrinal matters to divide and distract us.  We gather in homes, share a complete communion meal, and our meeting is unstructured and interactive.  When I discuss organic church with my friends and family, I find that most of them smile and nod when I talk about recovering every-member functioning in the weekly gathering.  Some see the value of meeting in homes in order to be able to invest more money in things like helping the poor and propagating the gospel.  But they become very concerned when we get to the idea of a church that functions with no hierarchical chain of command.

The New Testament has much to say about authority.  In the next several installments, I’d like to share my conclusions after a comprehensive study of all the New Testament has to teach regarding authority.  I examined what Jesus Himself had to say on the subject of authority; the concept of “pastoral authority;” the thoughts of Peter, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews; as well as the functioning of “God’s household,” the first-century church (Eph 2:19, 1 Tim 3:15).  It is easy to read the New Testament and envision some sort of God-Clergy-Laity chain of command, and a corresponding God-Husband-Wife chain of command in the Christian home.  This type of hierarchical thinking does not, however, represent the Bible’s teaching on authority in its entirety.  And since God inspired the writers of Scripture to employ the language of family when describing the church, we’ll take a look at the implications for the egalitarian/patriarchy debate.  We’ll start with the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Jesus demonstrated His authority to forgive sins, cast out demons, cure sickness, and command the forces of nature.  The people who heard Him recognized that He was unique among His contemporaries, because “He taught with authority” (Matt 7:29).  He had the authority to lay down His life, and to take it up again (Jn 10:18).  It is important to note that the only authority Jesus delegated to his disciples was the authority to drive out demons and heal diseases (Luke 9:1), not the authority to command other persons.  His own teaching undermines the implementation of hierarchies.  Perhaps the most popular teaching on leadership today is Matt 20:25-28:

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. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—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.”

This passage is frequently cited to teach “servant leadership,” the “proper” exercise of authority in the church.  But is this really what Jesus was trying to teach here?  Look carefully at what Jesus said:  you must be a servant, a slave.  Slaves and servants do not “use their authority” to serve; they have no authority.  When the disciples were similarly jockeying for position in Mark 9:33 and Luke 9:46, Jesus held out a little child as an object lesson for them—yet another person with absolutely no authority.  Returning to the Matthew passage, notice also Jesus’ use of the conjunction “instead.”  Jesus was contrasting authority with servanthood, not explaining the “proper use of authority.”  Jesus had more to say about authority shortly afterward (Matt 23:8-12):

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.  But the greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

“Servant leadership” is a concept taken from the management literature of the 1970s and ’80s and represents the infiltration of the corporate/business model into the church, not the teaching of Scripture.

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