In these days of the E.S.A., not U.S.A., the discussion of power becomes a multi-level conversation. What is the E.S.A.? The alleged Empire of States of America. Empire is the trendy word when the concept of power is the topic of conversation. The idea that the U.S.A. is an empire is plain silly and it’s becoming more apparent how far from an empire the U.S.A. actually is in the world. You don’t like capitalism? America is an empire. You don’t like the military? America is an empire. A way to quickly cure all this empire talk is to let those who cavalierly throw the term around live in an actual empire as Jesus and the early church experienced.
Jesus did redefine greatness in his kingdom in contrast to greatness defined by the standards of the empire running the world at the time. Darrell Bock points out that greatness in Jesus’ kingdom is not defined by rank nor by use of power (as Bock discusses Luke 22:24-30; Matthew 20:24-28; and Mark 10:41-45 in Jesus and the Scriptures, 362-363). Superior rank (greatness) in the 1st century world was often linked to wealth. Wealth enabled one to become a “benefactor,” securing an enduring high rank in the society. Most know that the Pax Romana was enforced by Rome’s bloody sword, i.e., raw (violent) power. Jesus declared that those definitions were far from his vision of greatness. Greatness would issue from the youngest who were considered among the powerless in that culture. Greatness would issue from service to others, not raw power over others (i.e., the power of threat). “Not so among you [my disciples],” Jesus commanded.
This is huge discussion, but it shakes down in some circles that there is no power at all at work in the church. That is, there are none who are over others; there are no leaders. The thinking is that if a human is or plurality of humans are leading, then a serious violation of Jesus’ teaching about power is occurring. The only Head is Christ and we are all on a very level playing field. I addressed this a little in my post “Styrofoam Theology: Authority.”
Is there a place for greatness and/or leadership in the kingdom community? Many say, “Yes, of course.” But there are others who say, “No. Leadership is power over and Jesus did away with that.” Some think that any hierarchy in the church is a violation of Mark 10: 42-44. Remember “greatness” in the kingdom is not the same as fame proposed by the boxer Mohammed Ali who boasted “I am the greatest.” Greatness is the ability to influence others to a desired end. In the world, rank and power are used to get things done. In Jesus’ kingdom, servanthood and no use of coercive power are used. But the influence (leadership) is still a reality. Leadership does take place. Leaders are all over the New Testament and active in the church. Jesus does not eliminate leadership when he redefines greatness; he redefines the realities that make a-kingdom-of-God-leader. It is often overlooked by some that what prompts Jesus’ redefinition is James’ and John’s request for positions of leadership (thrones) in the kingdom. One thing Jesus did not say is “Thrones don’t exist in my kingdom.” The Twelve are promised thrones in the coming kingdom. But, I, I thought all were equal in the kingdom.
Let’s think empire leadership in the church. I have some friends in Ukraine who know Christian leaders who rule over others by the use of threat and fear. These leaders learned their leadership style while the church was under Communist rule (when Ukraine was part of the U.S.S.R.). When I was told about these so-called Christian leaders, I said, “It sounds like Stalinism.” I was told in so many words, “Well, duh.” My Ukrainian friends are trying to rescript Christian leadership in their churches with the Jesus definition of greatness.
I wonder if some in the comfortable democracy of the U.S.A., where all are supposedly equal, are redefining leadership by absorbing our culture’s distaste for authority? Christian leaders under Communism absorbed the ways of the prevailing dictatorial empire. Christian leaders in “everyone’s-the- same” U.S.A. are shaping a leaderless Christianity and thinking it’s “getting back to the New Testament”. It really is both silly and tragic.
Paul in listing gifts of the Spirit in Romans 12:8 mentions leadership*. The NIV reads, “…if it is leadership, let him govern diligently… .” Leaders are placed in authority by Paul, Timothy and Titus. In some simple church and organic church thinking, all are leaders. When this is said we can conclude, then, that none are leaders. This notion is totally foreign to the New Testament notwithstanding the alleged magic bullet of “the priesthood of all believers.”
Jesus turned the view of leadership upside-down, but he did not, thereby, eliminate leadership.
* I know that there are two definitions of proistemi according to James D. G. Dunn in his Word Biblical Commentary 38B Romans 9-16. One is “set over or at the head of,” “one who rules,” “leader” and the other is “be concerned about, care for, give aid.” Even if “care for” or “protector” is selected, the person so gifted/stationed is one “who by virtue of his or her wealth or social status within the local community (city) was able to act as champion of the rights of the little congregation or its socially vulnerable members” (Dunn, 731). The person has some influence over others on behalf of the vulnerable, i.e., a leader/benefactor within the social network.
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