Leadership in the New Testament: Some introductory thoughts

Leadership in the New Testament: Some introductory thoughts

Glynn Cardy

Sun 13 Aug

‘Metiria Turei isn’t Jesus’ wrote a NZHerald columnist this week.  Actually none of our political leaders bear any resemblance to Jesus, and in most regards I’m not sure they should. 

One of the gifts modern New Testament scholarship has given us is the ability to try to differentiate what parts of the texts might reveal the authentic voiceprint of Jesus and what parts might reveal the legitimate needs of the emerging church.  For though Jesus might not have been interested in leadership, the movement that would become the Church badly needed leadership – and there were competing ideas about what such leadership should look like.

What we know of the historical Jesus is that he was an itinerant Galilean teacher [rabbi], who taught and lived an inclusive, healing, lovingkindness.  He taught largely in parables, provocatively subverting political and religious assumptions.  He was subversive of the political domination system, the religious purity system, and the patriarchal family system.  He ‘ate with sinners’.  He portrayed by words and action a big vision called ‘God’s empire’ – totally different from the normative empire they lived in.  He wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in Wellington.

I find J.K. Baxter’s portrayal of him in ‘the Maori Jesus’ a lot closer than the ‘inspirational-empowering-friendly-leader’ image that seems prevalent in many churches.

In some of Jesus’ authentic parables – like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son – there are maybe glimpses of what an ideal disciple might be like.  In the Good Samaritan the ideal might be the one who stops and helps someone beaten up, and who isn’t worried about how others perceive this – although the point of this parable is challenging racial/religious prejudice.  Similarly the father figure in the Prodigal Son personifies the importance of restoring relationships in the human family rather than the beliefs that uphold the patriarchal system [honour, conformity, and penalties]. 

Although we can extrapolate these lessons into characteristics or priorities we would like to see in our NZ political leaders today, to be fair to the parables’ contexts they weren’t trying to address our issues.

Although some found Jesus very compelling, Jesus himself didn’t seem interested in being what most would call a leader, or creating a leadership or any type of hierarchical structure, or a succession plan.  He was not an organiser or manager.  He was a radical, nonviolent egalitarian who was attracted to those on the margins.  

Jesus’ death devastated his followers.  They were defeated, dispersed, and despairing of the future.  Slowly, bit by bit they came to experience Jesus’ spirit living on in their midst.  Bit by bit they realized they needed leaders if their movement was to continue. 

John Dominic Crossan in his seminal book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography explains the post-Easter appearances of Jesus in terms of authenticating the group who emerged by the late first century as the churches’ leaders.  You will notice the attention given to Peter; whereas the actual leader of the Jerusalem Jesus movement was Jesus’ brother, James. 

In the canonical gospels there is the insertion of ‘the twelve apostles’ as an all-male leadership group.  This is contrary to Paul’s writings which include many apostles, men and women.  Similarly there is the insertion in the canonical gospels of the “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church[i].  This saying is not from Jesus but from the leadership struggles that ensued in the nascent Christian communities in the first and early second centuries.  Similarly the calling of the fisher men reflects the theology of the post-Easter movement; as does the sending out of the 70.

The gospel reading today about James and John wanting to sit on Jesus’ right hand and left hand in glory is also a creation of the post-Easter movement.  The part of the text though that is close to Jesus’ voiceprint are verses 42-45: “whoever wants to be ‘number one’ must be everybody’s slave.”[ii]  Or as Robert Funk succinctly puts it: ‘number one is slave.’

This is anarchy language – no structures, no hierarchies, no classes, no leaders, no betters…  It is not trying to say that we all, including leaders, should be slaves.  It is saying there should be no class of slaves, of unprivileged or privileged.  This text is not even encouraging a flat organisation structure – it is encouraging no structure at all!  ‘The first shall be last, and the last first’[iii] and ‘pulling the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly’[iv] are not about putting a slave on Caesar’s throne, or making a servant a High Priest.  They are certainly not about Jesus being a Caesar or a High Priest.  It is about the redundancy of Caesars and High Priests, of any privileged position of power!  [No wonder he was crucified!].

Anarchy though is totally impractical.  We need some structure to live.  Jobs need to be done, and one of those jobs is leadership.  The post-Easter movement quickly realized that.  Paul realized that.  So structures needed to be designed and tested, and leaders needed to be called and tested, and then refreshed.  And the competing ideas about this can be found in the New Testament.

What I’m suggesting is that if we wish to look at the New Testament to judge our leaders, including our political leaders, then let’s begin by acknowledging that the gospel stories about leadership are attempts by the movement, after Jesus’ death, to try to translate his words into their need for practical guidance.

To return to our gospel text about James and John, the first point that Mark [not Jesus] is making is that leadership should not be transferred executively from the top down.  Mark’s Jesus was not going to hand out the privileged jobs like an emperor or patriarch would.  Rather Mark is saying that leadership belongs to those who learn and follow the way of non-violent subversion, who are prepared not to dominate but serve and suffer at Jesus’ side.  Mark is critiquing leadership-as-domination.

Secondly Mark softens the likely authentic Jesus word ‘slave’ [doulos] to ‘servant’ [diakonos].  The Markan scholar Ched Myers[v] points out the inference of this word diakonos.  In Mark only women fulfil the vocation of diakonia.  The male disciples, on the other hand, are regularly criticised regarding their aspirations to leadership and power.[vi]  Mark’s text serves to legitimate women as leaders in the post-Easter movement.  In other words, Mark is taking the likely Jesus sentiments about subverting power in the empire home, and promoting – as a first step – women as leaders of the movement [or legitimizing the leadership of existing women leaders].

Diakonos turns up again in the much latter work, John’s gospel, in the episode of this Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  As David Galston points out there is nothing in this gospel that scholars consider the voiceprint of the historical Jesus.  But John is a very helpful book for understanding how an early 2nd century Jesus community interpreted the historical Jesus into its context.

With this fictitious washing-the-feet episode we may have an illustrative ‘sermon’ story on how to apply the ‘number one is slave’ teaching, i.e. radical egalitarianism. The author uses it as a critique of the social distance – for example between teacher and student, master and disciple, privileged and servant, men and women.  It’s similar to Paul’s Galatian’s statement about ‘all are one in Jesus’[vii].  The hierarchy of social class [and for Paul: gender and race] is broken down in the Jesus movement’s ethic.  This text from John’s Gospel was trying to imagine what that breaking down looked like in practice.

The term ‘servant leadership’ is something of a cliché in church circles.  Like any metaphor we need to be careful about its use.  On the positive side, following Myers, it is suggesting women may be the best leaders for the ongoing Jesus movement, or indeed not just women but any groupings/classes of people who have been excluded from positions of power and privilege through no fault of their own.  We might want to extrapolate that into the political sphere and ask where such representatives of such excluded groups are in political leadership.

Further, on the positive side, ‘servant leadership’ suggests that small acts of kindness – often not seen by the public at large – which are indicators of character, might be more or at least equally important as the ability to direct, articulate, and inspire.  Like the actions of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal’s father.

On the negative side of this ‘servant leadership’ metaphor we need to acknowledge that most servants historically did not wish to be servants.  Servants had little say over their lives, had little money, and were often victims of abuse.  Servanthood was not something to aspire to, and we need to be very careful how we use the term.  

Also on the negative side, we need to acknowledge that this is a metaphor suggesting a particular mind-set of a leader rather than literally expecting a leader to undertake the daily tasks of a first century servant or slave. 

Pope Francis, for example, exemplifies the critique of social class – which I think is at the heart of this metaphor [and at the heart of Baxter’s poem] – very well when he goes out of his way to touch and connect with people on the margins of society.  These actions by Francis, though very important, are by necessity symbolic.  He leads a large organisation.  The vast majority of his time is spent in prayer, reading, meeting with his close associates and managing the worldwide Catholic Church.  It’s not spent doing the Vatican laundry, or cleaning the bathrooms, or taking out the rubbish.  In other words he is being faithful to the leadership role asked of him [which is huge], while occasionally symbolically indicating the radical egalitarianism of Jesus [and how the early church chose to interpret that], and the egalitarianism that Francis personally believes in [while simultaneously living and working within a very hierarchical organisation!].

The insights of our first century Christian ancestors, reflected in the New Testament, suggest to us that we need to be wary of leaders who try to dominate.  We need to be wary of the dominance of any one class, race, or gender in the roles of leadership.  We need to remember that we are all called to a life of discipleship – whereas leadership roles are always temporary, provisional, and flawed.  We need to be careful not to avoid our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to initiate and lead in doing and being good for others, rather than just project that responsibility out upon those we elect [and then strongly criticize when something they do doesn’t meet our expectations].  And, we need to remember that at the end we all – even the mightiest – will return to the dust; and anything life-giving that endures is due to grace.

[i] Matthew 16:18

[ii] This is the Scholar’s Version translation – favoured by the Jesus’ Seminar scholars.

[iii] Matthew 20:16.

[iv] Luke 1:52.

[v] Ched Myers Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus

[vi] Mark 9:34; 10:35ff.

[vii] Galatians 3:28.