It Shall Not Be So Among You

It Shall Not Be So Among You

What if top-down domination of others is the wrong idea?

It Shall Not Be So Among You

Maybe it was on a hot, dusty afternoon. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with one objective on his mind: lay down his life as a ransom for many. He explains this to his twelve disciples:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” –Matthew 20:18-19 (ESV)

Apparently, the only part that the disciples heard was “we are going to Jerusalem” and this evidently got them thinking about the awesome Kingdom with no Romans and Jesus as King. This then, logically, got them to thinking about which of them would be sitting where in the divine throne room.

The mother of James and John decided to show some initiative and specifically asked Jesus that her two sons be the ones to sit at his right and left side in the kingdom. When the other ten disciples heard about it, they were (understandably) indignant. Presumably, they had been doing their own thinking about the hierarchy in heaven and were pretty sure James and John would not be that high up the organizational chart.

Jesus, knowing that his disciples’ assumptions about leadership and structure in His Kingdom are way off, calls them all over to him. He then proceeds to graciously overturn everything they think they know about power, leadership, and the coming Kingdom. This is what he says:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It shall not be so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you 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.” –Matthew 20:25-28 (HCSB, ESV)

Many translations say that the rulers (ἄρχοντες) of the Gentiles “lord it over them.” The social implication of this phrase is that the problem is their nasty attitude about being the boss and that if they were not being jerks about it, all would be well. This is not what Jesus is saying.

The word used here for “lord it over” (κατακυριεύουσιν, combining the concepts of over and lord) can also be translated “dominate” (HCSB) and “exercise dominion” (KJV). It refers to being in a position of power over others in such a way that you can control them and force them to do what you want. The point is that the organizational structures of the world put some people in positions of exercising power over their subordinates. Jesus is describing a top-down structure of power and control, and he is not in favor of it.

This is supported by the next phrase: “and their great ones (μεγάλοι) exercise authority over them” (ESV, also ASV, KJV). There is no wiggle room here, it is simply talking about having power over someone. The word used here (κατεξουσιάζουσιν, from over and power) can also be translated “exercise power” (HCSB), “exercise authority” (WEB), and “use their authority” (NET).

Whom would Jesus’ disciples have thought of when he mentioned “the rulers of the Gentiles”? It is likely they would have immediately thought of the ever-present, hated rulers around them: the Romans, and particularly, the Roman military.

The Roman system of governance was a near-perfect hierarchy. Their military might was due in large part to their highly efficient, top-down organizational structure where power was exerted by the great ones (those on top) over the ones under them. Their structure looked like this:

  • Caesar (the first and greatest of their “great ones”), under him were:
    • legions (legionnaires), under them were:
      • cohorts (480 soldiers), under them were:
        • centuriae (6x, 80 soldiers, “centurion”), organized into:
          • contubernia (10x, 8 soldiers)

Compliance with orders was mandatory. The Roman centurion tells Jesus that he is “a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:9). Control in this quintessentially top-down structure was absolute, because it carried with it the full weight of the authority all the way up the chain to the top.

Some trace the roots of modern organizational structures (particularly the branching, top-down organizational chart) to the Roman military. It is understandable, because this kind of structure is extremely efficient. When subordinates are unable (or unwilling, given the consequences) to resist an order—regardless of how wrong that order might be—it is very easy to control them and accomplish the will of the ruler.

It shall not be so among you.

Jesus upends this model perfectly. He literally turns it upside down, destroying the structure that enables rulers to control subordinates.

“But whoever would be great (μέγας) among you must be your servant (διάκονος), and whoever would be first (πρῶτος) among you must be your slave (δοῦλος), even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” –Matthew 20:26-28

Servants do not rule over others. Slaves do not expect others to comply with their orders. They exist for the well-being of the ones they serve. Jesus did not come to subjugate people under him and control them, but to sacrificially serve them at the cost of his own life.

It should be so among us.

Two things

Observing that this is what Jesus said could be misunderstood as advocating anarchy or suggesting that starting a Peasant’s War is a good idea. This would be to misunderstand the point, which can be described in two parts:

  1. Servants, obey your masters — This is not a call to revolution, but to submission to the authorities over us with the full confidence that God—whose purposes never fail (Isaiah 46:9-11) and who is the one who turns the heart of the king whichever way He wills (Proverbs 21:1)—is sovereign in all things.

    “Servants, be subject to your masters (δεσπόταις, from which we get the word despot) with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” —1 Peter 2:18

  2. Leaders, think outside the box — If it is true, as some have suggested that we are transitioning between major eras in human history (Pink, 2006), and if it is also true that the new generations work in ways that are arguably far more biblical than political (Hamel, 2009), now may be the time for organizational leadership to rethink management structures in ways that align better with the teaching of the greatest Leader ever.


References

  1. Hamel, G. (2009, March). The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/management/2009/03/24/the-facebook-generation-vs-the-fortune-500/
  2. Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Rep Upd edition). Riverhead Books.