A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
(Luke 22:24-30 ESV)
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him… Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
(1 Samuel 8:4-5 ESV)
In the iconic 1954 movie White Christmas, two entertainers meet up with the general who had led their unit ten years before during World War II. After seeing him, now a Vermont innkeeper about to lose everything because of balmy weather in December, Bob Wallace comments to his friend Phil Davis, “we ate and then he ate. We slept and then he slept.” And Phil reminds Bob, “Then he woke up, and nobody slept for the next forty-eight hours.”
What an idyllic view of military command – of army life in general – to portray a general as the chief servant in the outfit. A comment once made by General George S. Patton gives a more realistic assessment: “I don’t want them to love me. I want them to fight for me.”
The real problem isn’t the title of “king.” The real problem is lordship. Patton wasn’t a king. But he was in a position of lordship over those who worked for him. And he learned well how to exercise lordship over his troops.
Churches have “lords” too. You know… the person whose birthday you’d better not forget to mention from the pulpit? The lords of churches often don’t have any formal position or title. But they have managed, over time, to accumulate a great deal of power.
In Luke 22, Jesus tells us the marks of someone who is “greatest” in the kingdom. First of all, he does not dispute that there is a kingdom here. In fact, he puts it right out there: The father assigned a kingdom to Jesus, and now he is assigning one to the Apostles.
He also wants to make sure they understand there won’t be a king in the next age. Read 1 Samuel 8 to get a fuller understanding of how Israel ended up with a king. Samuel was the last in the line of the Judges (Othniel, Ehud, Shagmar, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Yair, Jeptha, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson, Eli, and Samuel is the complete list, btw). God warned the people what would happen if they appointed a king. They would not listen. And the whole sad history of the Kings of Israel is the result. Jesus makes it clear that, in the kingdom of God, the way of the Judges will return. Government will be by people who listen carefully to what God say, and then act by bringing what God commands before the people for their good.
When the people of Israel rejected the warning God laid before them through Samuel and demanded a king, God sort of sighed and said, “Okay… give them what they asked for.” Even God, who has limitless power and authority, doesn’t “lord it over” his people.
So the first mark of kingdom leadership is: no king. The second mark is shared leadership and wise judgment. No one of the Apostles was going to sit on the throne, and they were not going to “rotate” leaders. Rather, they were going to exercise consular leadership. That is, they would be acting as agents of a king, as the judges of Israel had. But the only king would be God himself.
A consulate has no policy-making authority. It functions to carry out the orders it has been given. Period. The Kingdom of God isn’t even an ambassadorship. It is led by a counsel that exercises consular authority on behalf of the King. That is very limited government, indeed, and the Apostles need to understand that.
Way too much preaching goes wrong because the preacher is trying to get his agenda through. At best, it looks like an agenda for the people’s growth in Christ, a seemingly good goal. But a pastor who has decided what is best for the people, even based on biblical principles, has usurped authority that is not his. His mission is to judge – to offer wise counsel – and to bring what God says to the people (preach the Word of God).
Notice that Jesus makes serving a condition of leading. The third mark of biblical leadership is, if you’re going to take a place at the table, take note that your master and Lord came among you as one who serves, and do the same.
At the Last Supper Jesus underscored this by getting up from table and putting on a simple slave’s loincloth and washing the disciples’ feet. This would have been done routinely by a servant in one of the better houses of the day, but for the lord of the house, the host of the party to so humiliate himself? Unheard of. He really did mean that the disciples were to be like General Waverly from White Christmas, carrying buckets of ash, and not like General Patton, commanding battalion commanders, pearl-handled revolvers gleaming at his side, medals on his chest, a glint of aristocracy in his eye.
One last thing about biblical leadership: It has nothing whatever to do with a system of church government. What Jesus is directing his disciples to do works whether you’re a Presbyterian, and Episcopalian, a Congregationalist, or a Baptist. But it works only if you remember that there is no king but God, that leadership is by counsel and not unilateral, and the greatest leader is the one who serves the most.