TO BE SERVED OR TO SERVE?

AUTHORITY IN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP

Mark 10:42-45

A Sermon preached at UNIVERSITY CHURCH, Athens, Ga., 5/29/16.

To hear the sermon as recorded live, click here:

Mark 10:42   And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.   43   But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,   44   and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all.  45   For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Preaching5

INTRODUCTION:   Now I have would like to speak to you this morning on the topic of “The Place of Authority in Christian Leadership.”  And so I begin by asking the question, “What gives me the authority to speak on the topic of authority?”  I could answer this question in many ways, and there might be some truth in all of them.  I could say that I am the Reverend Doctor Professor Donald Williams, a minister of the Gospel and a professor of theology and literature in an American university.  This might impress you.  But if we believe the passage we have read from Scripture this morning, we would have to conclude that it would not have impressed Jesus.  I hope that in my studies I have learned some things that will enable me to speak authoritatively.  And that is necessary.  But it is not sufficient.  It is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for authority in Christian leadership.

I could say that I have the authority to speak to you on authority because the University Church board of Elders kindly invited me to do so.  And they have the authority to extend such an invitation because of their position in the church.  So I have the authority to speak because I am a man under authority, and so I accepted the task that they assigned to me.  This is all true and it is right and proper, and it explains why I am standing here and you are sitting there.  But this also is a necessary but not sufficient condition of true authority.  Will it cause my words to have real authority?  Will it cause them to knock insistently at the door of your mind and heart and demand admittance?  Will it cause them to come to you as the very message of God to your soul so that you bow your knee before Him in obedience?  Of itself, it will not.  Something more is required.  Something more is required if I am to have real authority as a leader of God’s people.  Something more is required if you are to have that kind of authority.  What is that something more?   Our Lord speaks of it profoundly in the passage that is before us today:

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” 

There are three aspects of the Christian doctrine of authority that I would like to share with you from this passage this morning:  The Source of authority, the Sign of Authority, and Submission to Authority.

Preach the Gospel--but first live it.

THE SOURCE OF AUTHORITY:  The sole source of all authority in the world as biblically understood is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ himself.  “All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth,” He told His disciples in the preface to the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18).  The Kerygma, the summary of the Gospel preached by the apostles, was the proclamation that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” for “God has made Him to be both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).  What then is the promise of God for salvation?  “If we confess with our mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead, we shall be saved” (Rom. 10:9-10).  Because of Jesus’ own obedience to the Father, “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

All authority is given to Jesus, in heaven and on earth; all.  Therefore, there is no other source of authority or legitimacy than Christ.  Every legitimate authority that we encounter—the authority of the state over its citizens, of parents over their children, of the teacher over the student, of the elder over the church—is legitimate, if it is legitimate, because it comes from Christ.  We accept these authorities because specific passages of Scripture—for example, Romans 13 for the state, the Ten Commandments for parents—delegate God’s authority, which is Christ’s, to them.

Why did God the Father give all authority in heaven and earth to Jesus?  First because of who He is: the only begotten Son who came forth from the Father into the world.  But Scripture emphasizes another aspect of who He is: not only His position but perhaps even more His character.  Christ was given all authority by the Father because He learned obedience through suffering.  As Paul puts it in Philippians, it was specifically because Christ “did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped” but rather “emptied Himself” and “took on the form of a servant”; it was because “He humbled Himself  by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”; it was because of this, says the Apostle, that “Therefore God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:6-9).  Do you see?  This is Paul’s way of saying exactly the same thing that Jesus himself said in our passage from Mark:

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” 

What does this tell us?  For one thing, it tells us how to recognize true authority.  And that leads me to my second point.  First, the Source of Authority is Jesus Christ.  And second, in Him we also see the Sign of Authority: a servant spirit.

JesusFootwashing2

THE SIGN OF AUTHORITY:  How do you recognize true authority in men?  How do you recognize the one whose words you should pay heed to above all?  How do you recognize the one you should follow?  The biblical answer is not at all the answer that is given by men.  Men look for someone who is big and powerful.  Men look for someone who is beautiful and impressive.  Men look for someone who is popular and successful.  Men look for someone who is rich in the things of this world.  Men look for someone who can dominate others and lead his followers to victory.  But this is not the biblical way.  We are instead to follow the One who was despised and rejected of men.  He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.  If we follow the One who is the truest authority of all, He will lead us to a cross.

What am I telling you?  Am I telling you to follow the weak, the incompetent, the loser?  No.  I am telling you to follow Jesus—and to follow those who are like Him.  I am telling you that the first qualification for Christian leadership is Christ-like character.  We are to follow those who are themselves following Jesus—on the road to the cross. The first qualification for Christian leadership is Christ-like character. If we are to lead Christ’s people in Christ’s way, we must ourselves be men and women who have walked with Christ—on the Calvary road.   And if they are to follow us, they must see us doing it.  Christians are supposed to be being transformed into the image of Christ in every way.  But if you aspire to leadership, you should strive especially to be like Him in the one way that He makes especially relevant to leadership.  Do not be one who comes to be served, but to serve.  Ask the Lord to humble you and give you a servant spirit.  For that is the sign of authority.

Do you have any idea how badly this truth is neglected and ignored in the world today?  Do you have any idea how badly this truth is neglected and ignored in Christ’s church today?  The world is running over with books and seminars on leadership, many of them specifically on Christian leadership. Most of these books deal with the techniques of leadership: do this, say that, follow this program, they tell us, and you will be an effective leader. Some of this advice is good, and I am not here to disparage it. But we have all noticed that the most serious problems in the church do not come from people using poor techniques of leadership but from the wrong people, or the wrong kind of people, being in positions of leadership, or from people being in leadership for the wrong reasons.  In short, they want to be served, and not to serve!

This is true in both Africa and in America, but in Africa the phenomenon takes some interesting forms. My friend Pastor Martin Sebbugo of Kalasa, Uganda, sent me an e-mail which was insightful, for what he says has been echoed by many other African leaders. He said a person in Uganda can get saved, and then two weeks later he declares himself a pastor and starts preaching and gathering believers into a church. There are plenty of people naïve enough to follow him because of his charismatic personality and the false air of confidence and authority he projects; there are plenty of people ignorant enough to have no idea how badly they are being deceived by his so-called teaching. Apparently, noble Bereans, who are committed to searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things be so, are in short supply.  In America it probably takes longer than two weeks, but we see the same kind thing in ways relevant to our own culture: people presuming to teach and lead the church on the basis of a charismatic personality and a catchy presentation rather than real learning and a proven walk with the Lord.

Why does this happen? For many people—not just the pastor—the church is the small, middling pond in which they think they can be the big fish. That happens all over the world. But when literacy rates are not high and Bibles not readily available, then people are particularly vulnerable to these charlatans. Many are so impressed by the aura of authority projected by these charismatic “prophets” that they are intimidated. They sense something is wrong, but they do not have a clear biblical basis for challenging such a person or disabusing his followers. Yet such a basis exists, and it is clear and plain. Leadership in Christ’s church is not something a person can take upon himself (Heb. 5:4). You have to be called by God. But how do we know if we have been called? How do we know whether someone else who puts himself forward is called? This is the first thing we need to know in order to think about Christian leadership, and Jesus answers these questions in the passage that is before us. There we encounter the same principle that we see everywhere in the New Testament when Christian leadership is spoken of: The first qualification for Christian leadership is Christ-like character.  God calls those who are like Jesus.  God calls those who are willing to walk with Jesus on the Calvary Road.  Does a person want to be served rather than to serve?  Does he think the church is the place where he can be a Big Man?  Then he has no true authority because he has not been called.  It is really as simple as that.  The sign of authority in Christian leadership is a Christ-like servant spirit.

JesusFootwashing1

SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY:  If then the source of authority is Jesus Christ, because God has given Him all authority in Heaven and earth; if the sign of authority is a Christ-like servant spirit because God wants as leaders in His church those who are like Jesus and who walk with Him; what then is the practical application of these truths in our lives and in the life of the church?  If this is our understanding of authority, how are we to be in submission to it?  Let me suggest three areas of application:  to the church, to the individual in authority, and to the individual under authority.

First, the church has a responsibility under God to live in the light of Christ’s teaching on authority.  That means that in its teaching and preaching it must lift up the Lord Jesus Christ so that He may draw all men unto Himself.  And specifically in this area it must hold before the people, by precept and example, the vision of Jesus who, being in the form of God, did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.  It must hold before the people by precept and example the vision of Jesus who did not come to be served but to serve.  It must hold before them the vision of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  And it must teach them that it is because of His humble obedience to the Father that He was given by the Father the authority to command the wind and the waves, to send demons screaming into the abyss, to be the king of kings and lord of lords to men.  Then will the people understand Him when He says,

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Second, the church must earnestly and seriously seek out, discern, and recognize those in its membership who are gifted as preachers and teachers and who manifest this same servant spirit that is found in their Lord. It cannot be one or the other; it has to be both. The church has hopefully been trying to develop them all along by the preaching and teaching I referred to just now.  And now it seeks out those who are exemplary in this way, those who truly wish, like their dear Lord Jesus, not to be served but to serve.  These are the ones the church should identify, these are the ones it should call, these are the ones it should train, these are the ones it should appoint to office and ordain to the ministry and elevate to positions of leadership.  Authority works as it was designed to work when the church can honestly say to its people, “These are the ones we have officially and publicly recognized as Christ-like servant leaders.  Follow them as they follow Jesus.”  When that happens, the church and its leaders will have real effective authority under God.

And what of the individual who has thus been given a position of authority?  I am speaking to a privileged congregation today. I speak particularly to the young, by which I mean anyone younger than me. Many of you who have been given the privilege of studying at The University of Georgia and/or of sitting under the teaching and discipline of this church are going to be the leaders of the next generation.  You will not all have formal positions of leadership in church or society.  You will not all be deacons or pastors or elders; you will not all be government officials or bosses or managers.  Many of you will be.  But you will all be people in responsible positions, people with influence over someone—if only your children.  Will you be people who speak and act with real authority?  Yes, if you remember the Source of Authority, the Lord Jesus, and bow before Him as the supreme Lord of your life.  Yes, if you remember the Sign of Authority, a Christ-like servant spirit, and begin to cultivate it even today. Yes, if you being to practice proper submission to the authority that God has placed in your life.  Begin to wash the disciples’ feet today and continue to do so, so that you may lead them—that is, serve them—with authority tomorrow.

In the meantime, all of us are people who are under authority.  The people over you may not be perfect examples of the Christ-like servant leader that our Lord commands us to be.  None of them will be perfect examples.  I hope many of them will be good examples, and I trust that here they are.  When they are not perfect, this does not give us the right to rebel against them, but rather the responsibility to pray for them.  We must remember that if we are to qualify for positions of leadership ourselves, we must do so by being people who first submit to the authority of others, even when it is humbling to do so.  But in so far as you have the choice, seek out those men and women—professors, pastors, supervisors, mentors faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ—who have great expertise and ability but who also have a servant spirit.  Seek out those men and women who have great knowledge but who also have great humility and great love.  Seek out those men and women who do not desire to be served, but to serve.  Listen to them!  Follow them!  Strive to be like them.  For thus you will be following our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and thus you will become those men and women to whom He will also entrust His authority in the church and in the world.

JesusFootwashing3

CONCLUSION:  What gives me the authority to speak on the place of authority in Christian leadership?  I have a certain expertise in the exposition of the Scriptures and a certain amount of experience in the Lord’s work: a necessary but not a sufficient condition of authority.  I am myself a man under authority: necessary, but not sufficient.  The words that I have spoken to you today are true.  You can search the Scriptures yourself to see if it be so.  They have the authority of God Himself if they are faithful to His Word.  But I have full authority to speak them with credibility and conviction and power only to the extent that I myself have lived by them.  Have I?  Will you?  Let us hear them once again:

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

I fall far short of this standard.  But by God’s grace I am learning to follow in the footsteps of my Master.  May the Father grant us all to walk in that path that we may lead the church into a new era of service, for the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Here endeth the lesson.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers training local pastors in East Africa and India for Church Planting International.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006); Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (Chalice, 2007); The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008); Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  His latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis will be released by Square Halo Books in September, 2016, Material on literature, theology, the inklings, and apologetics can be found at his website, http://donaldtwilliams.com.  He blogs at www.lanternhollowpress.com and www.thefivepilgrims.com.

Book-CSLTheology-Cover