Kevin Reilly – Gdansk, Poland
Since September 1st, I’ve been slowly journalling my way through Mark’s Gospel – it’s been a formative experience.
Jesus is sat teaching in Jerusalem’s Temple and in the main he’s confronting, negotiating and reshaping the minds of Israel’s spiritual rulers – the sadducees, scribes, pharisees and elders. And with the exception of one scribe who sincerely asks, Which commandment is the most important of all? (Mk 12:28), the posture of Israel’s elite is one of assumption and arrogance. Jesus warns the disciples and his listeners to watch out for these strutting peacocks: Beware of the scribes…
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mk 38-40)
Jesus’ summary assessment of Israel’s spiritual leaders, is damning:
- they like to walk around in long robes – they enjoy being seen for their position, and have become detached from ordinary folk and too elevated in their understanding of the role of the leader;
- they like greetings in the marketplaces – their appetite for public honour and recognition is insatiable;
- they have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts – their leadership style is one of privilege and entitlement; the first shall be first!
- they devour widows’ houses – the death of a widow from within the congregation is an opportunity to fund their self-serving ministry;
- and for a pretence make long prayers – their relationship with God is so hollowed-out that prayer meetings exist to showcase vocabulary and knowledge instead of being opportunities to meet joyfully with God in humility, interceding for the people they are called to serve.
With the exception of Nicodemus’s genuine search for truth (Jn 3) and the sincere scribe who was not far from the kingdom (Mk 12:28-34) – Jesus’ assessment of the attitudes and practices of leaders, charged with the pastoral care of God’s people, is frightening: They will receive the greater condemnation!
Here’s an unnerving thought: What would Jesus’ assessment be of our leadership in the church, today?
For Jesus, great leadership is epitomised in the ideas of servitude – whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (Mt 20:26). This idea of ownership is at the very heart of the gospel – Deity takes on flesh. A King picks up a foot-towel; and so to us a son is given.
Leadership begins at the bottom and stays at the bottom. To embrace a calling to lead among God’s people is to embrace a lifetime of servitude. Whoever would be first among you must be your slave…
As leaders in the church, we become slaves to others; and if you think that the slave image and language is a bit over-the-top in our modern world, please note that this is how Jesus understood himself…even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt 20:28). Our leadership is to mirror his and his leadership was very much embedded in ideas of belonging to others, and therefore of dying to self.
There is no place in Jesus’ mind for entitlement and privilege with regard to Christian leadership. Jesus doesn’t offer us a platform (to quote my friend, David King) he offers us a towel and a patch of dirt for our knees (Jn 13). This is literally how Jesus leads. To desire eldership and leadership is a noble thing for sure, but do understand that by choosing this life, you are choosing to come last, not first.
Jesus delights in promoting the ministries of others. Think about it: But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Eph 4:7); the gifts of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist and teaching Shepherd are given to others. The Messiah distributes his gifting and ministry in order that his Is 61 anointing might be fulfilled in the earth, for sure; but this principal of distribution is in itself an expression of Jesus’ inclination to empower and elevate others, as opposed to preserving his own reputation and power-base.
He who descended (Eph 4:10) – Jesus lives his entire earthly ministry as one who has descended, who goes down; he is the leader who kneels, serves and lays down his life as a ransom for others. And only then (once his leadership and calling is complete) does he ascend far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:10). Christian leaders do ascend…but not in this life. As it was with Jesus, so it must be with us: in this life we are called to descend, to serve, to kneel and ultimately to die to self.
What is my gift? What is my leadership style? An over pre-occupation with such questions needs to be balanced with what is clear to us with regard to leadership: that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to descend, to pick up a hand towel, to wait at the back of the line and to give his life for the ransom and freedom of others. And so, what might Jesus’ assessment be of your leadership…of mine?
- Are you a meetings-only pray-er, or is the joy and passion you exhibit publicly mirrored in your personal fellowship with Jesus?
- What is your ratio of platform to armchair leadership? Both Paul and Jesus had big platform moments as well as one to one / small group moments. Are you too tied to platform ministry or are you still able to wash feet?
- Are you at peace with the idea that your role will change and that others will (hopefully) continue your work, more fruitfully than you?
- Do you enjoy the title of your role too much – do you like to be known as the apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher…or is Kevin still good enough?
- Do you understand yourself and your ministry, firstly (and mostly) as that of a servant?
- Do you live with a sense of entitlement in your ministry – especially those of us who are released to serve full time in our calling?
- Can you retire from your calling, happily and peacefully, as a servant is able to peacefully retire from service to his master?
I don’t exactly know what Jesus means when he says that these lost leaders of Israel will receive the greater condemnation… but I know that time spent in the gospels, reflecting upon Jesus who often withdrew, resisting the limelight; who was hands-on and not just a delegator of tasks; who was prayerful and intimate with his father and hard to recognise in a crowd – is time well spent.
Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil 2:6-8)