Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of the Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

In this brief series on church authority, I began by pointing out two dangers that threaten the church: the danger of members rejecting the authority of officebearers, and the danger of officebearers abusing their authority over the members. In the last editorial, I made a beginning in laying out positively the basics regarding God’s instituting of authority in the church.

In this article I want to address the responsibility that God has given to officebearers in the church. Many pages could be written setting forth what the Word of God has to say about the calling of officebearers, so I will not attempt in this article to be comprehensive. Instead, I focus on one aspect of their authority: their calling to exercise authority as servants.

A significant word from Jesus to leaders in the church

I do so by examining what Jesus says in Matthew 20:25-28:

Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Jesus spoke these words toward the very end of His earthly ministry, as He was making His way to Jerusalem to be crucified. As He was doing so, He was approached by His close disciples, James and John, and their mother. According to most Bible scholars, their mother was Salome, the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary, which would mean that she was Jesus’ aunt and James and John were His cousins. Mother and sons ask that James and John would have the privilege of sitting at Jesus’ right hand and left hand in His kingdom (vv. 20-21). They wanted a place of preeminence and greatness.

This angered the other ten disciples when they found out (v. 24). They were upset because they were really no different and wanted the preeminence for themselves. This was a frequent topic of conversation among the disciples; they were constantly fighting about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom.

Jesus takes this opportunity once again to give instruction to the disciples about what constitutes true greatness in the kingdom: humble service to others. And He gives Himself as the model: He came to earth not to be ministered unto but to minister. This word of Jesus has special application for officebearers, since Jesus is addressing the disciples as leaders of the church.

The danger addressed by Jesus

Jesus is warning His disciples against a great danger that threatens life in the kingdom and church of God. That danger is adopting the world’s view of headship and authority. Jesus states the unbelieving world’s view of authority in verse 25: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.”

The world’s view of leadership and authority is one of pride. The passage speaks of wanting to be “great” and wanting to be “chief/first.” One in authority thinks that he is so much better and more important than others. He has an unholy ambition for honor and glory. He wants to stand in the spotlight and have all eyes on him. From that lofty perch he is above criticism.

The world’s view of leadership and authority is also one of domination. That is not so evident from our translation, but is the sense conveyed in the words “exercise dominion over” and “exercise authority upon.” The first word means to be the lord over another, to bring another under our power, to subdue, subjugate, control. Both words carry the idea of putting others under yourself. The words, therefore, are not expressing the legitimate exercise of authority, but convey crushing domination. The men of the world spend their energy to get to the top, and then once on top they make others feel the weight of their oppressive authority.

Closely related is the fact that the world’s view of leadership and authority is one of self-seeking. Rather than being a “minister” and “servant” to others, as Jesus says, they want to be waited on and served by their inferiors. They view others as their slaves. They insist upon gettingtheir way. They want their own needs met and their desires fulfilled. They use others as pawns to advance their own agenda and to build their own kingdom.

Jesus warns His disciples of adopting this mentality in verse 26: “But it shall not be so among you….”

This was a much-needed warning and rebuke for the disciples, as the context indicates that they were tempted to adopt this mentality as leaders in the spiritual kingdom of God. James and John sought for themselves the two highest positions in the kingdom, and the other ten disciples showed by their jealousy that they wanted the same thing for themselves. Jesus makes clear that this is not the way of life in the kingdom of heaven. Life in the kingdom of heaven is to be antithetically different from the way of life in the kingdom of men on earth.

This is a danger for officebearers in the church. One of the words used in verse 25 is also used in I Peter 5:3 which warns elders: “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” There is a danger that pastors or elders or deacons become proud, that they view themselves as being above criticism. There is a danger that they use their office to seek self and use people to serve their own agenda and glory. There is a danger that they use their office to dominate and oppress God’s people, so that their attitude is not only “me before you” but “me over you.”

Jesus’ word must be heard in all its forcefulness: It shall not be so among you!

The proper view of authority set forth by Jesus

While calling His disciples to put off proud self-seeking, Jesus also called them positively to put on humble service. He said in verses 26-27: “But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.”

What underlies this is true humility. Humility is the attitude of lowliness that arises when officebearers recognize two things: how great God is, and how insignificant and unworthy we are. When we know that, we will be humble before others. In humility we do not put ourselves before others or over them, but we put ourselves down and put others beside us, before us, and above us. Rather than seeking to be great, we know ourselves to be small; rather than seeking to be first, we know ourselves to be last.

True humility is expressed in a willingness to be a minister and servant/slave. This service means that officebearers know the needs of God’s people. We cannot serve others effectively if we do not know what their needs are. We might have good intentions of helping someone but, if we do not know their needs, then we run the risk of doing more hurt than help. This means that we need to know one another and learn what is going on in their lives. And as we learn the needs of others in the church, we are called to try and meet those needs to the best of our ability. Our concern is not about others serving us or about getting something in return, but our concern is about others.

Such service requires of officebearers a willingness to sacrifice. We do not serve others only when it is easy and when it does not require much of us. But we serve others especially when it hurts to do so. We must be ready to give up all for the sake of our fellow saints, even if that would include our fortunes and our lives. We must be ready to be inconvenienced, to be called away from doing what we want, to help others in their need. We must be ready to sacrifice our best time and energy. We must be ready to get down next to another person in the dirtiness and messiness of his/her life.

And we are ready to do that for the person who is unworthy and not so loveable. We are called to serve other sinners who might annoy us, get on our nerves, be different from us, hurt our feelings, take advantage of our help, and be ungrateful.

In addressing the disciples here as leaders in the church, Jesus was teaching officebearers about servant- leadership, using authority to bless and prosper others. This is a word that must be taken to heart by pastors, elders, and deacons in their God-given authority in the church. You and I are called not to self-seeking, oppressive rule but to humble service to God’s people.

Many other passages give similar instruction to officebearers. For instance, the inspired apostle says in his list of the essential, non-negotiable qualifications for elders that an elder may not be a “striker” or a “brawler” or “self-willed” or “soon angry,” but must be “patient/ gentle” (cf. I Tim. 3:3; Tit. 1:7). Regarding pastors, Paul says, “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men…patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves…” (II Tim. 2:24-25).

May God spare us from proud, selfish, domineering officebearers! And may He provide us with humble, selfless, servant-hearted men!

Some might claim that the idea of servant-leadership is deplorable weakness, but Jesus says that such service is true greatness in the kingdom. We are tempted to think like the world that greatness means trying to get on top and putting down those who are under us, using others for our own advantage and gain. But that is not the measure of greatness in the kingdom of Christ. In another seeming paradox of Christ’s kingdom, true greatness is found when we are not looking for it or even thinking about it but are instead thinking only of humble service to others.

The model provided by Jesus

Why is this greatness? Because it honors the One who is greatest in the kingdom. In this kingdom, the greatest is Jesus Christ. And the greatest came not to be ministered unto, but to minister to us.

Jesus’ instruction to the disciples is grounded in His own example, which is why verse 28 begins “even as.” The verse goes on to say that He “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” As our minister, Christ knows our specific needs, and He came into this world to meet those specific needs. He ministers to us and provides for our needs both in body and in soul.

The most powerful expression of His coming to serve is in His giving of Himself to the death of the cross. Verse 28 explains His ministering by adding, “to give his life a ransom for many.” True service to others is always shown in giving rather than taking. Christ served His people by giving up what is most precious, His own life for us.

It is important that we take note of the character of those whom He came to serve. He did not come to serve those who are lovable and deserving of His service. He came to serve those who are stubborn, rebellious, undeserving, unfaithful, selfish, proud, glory-thieving sinners. He came to serve such unlovable sinners like you and me.

There is an inseparable relation between Christ’s service and the service of officebearers. Christ’s service to us is the model we are to follow in serving others. As Christ humbled Himself, so must we. As Christ loved the unlovable, so must we. As Christ served the needs of others, so must we. As Christ gave Himself, so must we.

But not only is Christ’s service the model, it is also the motivation. Our motivation for doing so is in what Christ has done for us. How often we need reminding of Christ’s humble serving of us! And the more we meditate upon Christ’s service to us, the more zealous we are to imitate that in our service to others! Christ ministered to you; now go, and be a humble servant to others!