Chapter Seven: The Role of Authority



            The mother of James and John expressed her desire for her sons to have positions of honor at the right hand and left hand of Jesus. Clearly, the other disciples felt that James and John wanted these positions, and they became indignant. It was at this point that Jesus spoke about the Gentiles lording it over others and exercising authority.  With this in mind, this chapter is about “The Role of Authority.”  In our discussion of authority, we include the related concept of power.  

            What Jesus said presupposes that the leaders of the Gentiles not only had the authority but also the power to rule over their subjects.  Thus, the two key words for this chapter are authority and power.  As Charles H. Kraft points out, “The Greek words representing what Jesus gave His followers are dunamis, power, and exousia, authority”  (1997, 66).  He defines power and authority as follows:

The power of God is ordinarily referred to as dunamis as is the power Jesus gives us (Luke 9:1).  But earthly power, whether of rulers, of armies or of weather, was also labelled dunamis.” . . .  Exousia, though often referring to power, focuses on the right to use power rather than on the power itself.  . . .It is a personal right, either because of status or by delegation, to assert power, whether in legal, political, social or moral ways in the human world or in the spiritual realm.”  (1997, 67)    

            The words power and authority overlap in meaning, but they are not totally synonymous.  Power has to do with the ability a leader has to make others do what he wants, to conform to his will.  Authority, on the other hand involves the right to act within the designated spheres.  It means that the leader has the freedom to act.  A leader may have power without authority, or he may have authority without power.  Many leaders, like the Gentile leaders that Jesus mentions, have both power and authority.    

            Whenever people associate, whether in or out of the church, questions of authority and power arise.  Our concern here is with the church.  Should there be rank, organization, authority, and power exercised in the body of Christ?  Or, should all people be equal and autonomous? We are equal at the foot of the cross. Are we equal in our working relationships?  Our Matthew story deals with authority and power and can be applied to its exercise in the church.

            Once again, I will present the Matthew story as our text. This time we will focus our attention on verse 25.  This verse raises the issue of authority. Although it does not fully treat the subject, it gives us the springboard to bring the issue into focus. Another passage of Scripture,
Exodus 18:13-26, will be vital for this chapter.  I will present this passage later. 

            20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons,
         bowing down and making a request of Him.

   21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left."

   22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able."

   23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."

   24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.

   25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.

   26 "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,

   27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
   28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

            We will begin this chapter with the concerns of Jesus and talk about the abuse of authority.  Then, we will discuss the necessity of authority, the right use of authority, and end with a discussion of what we should do.  As explained above, this involves the abuse of power as well. 

The Abuse of Authority

          As virtually all people would recognize, authority can be abused.  Very often this happens when people subscribe to a popular philosophy that makes power the priority of their existence.  This approach is self-defeating.  As leaders we should avoid all tyranny.  We turn now to a discussion of these matters. 

            First, Jesus warns the disciples against the abuse of authority and power. He used the Gentiles and their “great men,” or leaders, as an example.  Jesus said (v. 25):  “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.”  Today, as always, having and holding power is a major objective for politicians.  For some, it is the objective.

            Jesus was not giving a full treatment of authority and power in this verse. Other Scriptures let us know there is a proper use of power in leadership, but power as an end in itself is an abuse. This is what Jesus strikes down. He went on to say (verse 26), “It is not this way among you.” He was speaking against power as the indispensable element of leadership. When power is the primary objective, it can soon turn to tyranny.  With regard to power Tead indicates that:

The desire for enhancement of the essential ego of every individual is one of his central driving motives--one which colors and influences all behavior, and one which is, of course, natural and essential. . . . But this love of self-enhancement can easily get out of hand; and if the leadership situation becomes, as it well may, the sole channel for the release of the will to power, the dangers of excess are real. (1935, 215)

            Second, Michael Korda, expresses a popular secular philosophy.  Although written in 1975, millions of people in the world cling to this as their philosophy of life.   According to Korda:

All of life is a game of power. The object of the game is simple enough: to know what you want and get it. The moves of the game, by contrast, are infinite and complex, although they usually involve the manipulation of people and situations to your advantage. As for the rules, these are only discovered by playing the game to the end. ……………………………………………………………………………………………

Some people play the game for money, some for security or fame, others for sex, most for some combination of these objectives. The master players . . . seek power itself, knowing that power can be used to obtain money, sex, security or fame. None of these alone constitutes power; but power can produce them all. (1975, 4)

            Christian leaders should not be engaged in the power game.  Although they do exercise authority and have to deal with relationships involving power, they should not make power itself their objective. When they do, they seriously endanger their cause.  This is precisely what Christ spoke against.   Rather than focusing on power, they make service the indispensable factor of their leadership.  Their service enhances their co-workers as well as the people that they serve together.

            Third, the abuse of power is self-defeating. In Ecclesiastes 8:9 Solomon says (NIV), “There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt.”  Many leaders have suffered because they have put power above service. In so doing they have damaged their own leadership and cause. 

            Apparently, the son of Solomon, Rehoboam, did not pay attention to his father. He sought advice on how to reign (2 Chronicles 10:6-19).  The old men (verse 7) advised kindness. The young men (verse 10) advised Rehoboam to tell the people, “My little finger is thicker than my father's loins!”  Rehoboam should have remembered the words of his father and followed the advice of the old men. Instead he accepted the counsel of the young men. Verse 19 tells us the result, “So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.”

            Fourth, we must avoid tyranny.  Jesus spoke about the “great men” of the Gentiles.  He used two Greek words to describe their leadership.  These words are katakurieuousin, meaning “lord it over,” and katexousiazousin, which is commonly translated “exercise authority.”  According to Robertson, one possible translation of the second word is “play the tyrant” (1930, 162).  The Gentiles mentioned by Jesus were high officials who tyrannized the people they professed to lead.  In other words the essential feature of their leadership was power and authority.  As Christian leaders, we must avoid “lording it over” people and “playing the tyrant.”  While authority must be exercised, it must not be done with power as an end in itself.  Paradoxically, such “greatness’ is really “weakness.”

The Necessity of Authority

          Authority is a necessary element in human existence and in our relationship with God.  We will begin with comments about the authority that Jesus has and has given to us.   Then, we will discuss authority as a part of human association, Biblical examples of the proper role of authority, and lines of authority that help organizations function properly. 

          First, according to Matthew 28:18 Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” and He has passed great measures of that authority on to us as believers.  Kraft made a full study of the believer’s authority.  With regard to Jesus and the disciples, he writes:

During His ministry, He sent them out to heal and cast out demons in “power and authority” (Luke 9:1; see Luke 10:9, 17).  The disciples had worked in Jesus’ authority while He was on earth, and He had promised them that when He left, He would send them the Holy Spirit, the One who had empowered Him, to enable them to do all He had done and more (John 14:12). (1997, 39)

            Second, Jesus spoke against the abuse of authority, but He did not deny that authority is a part of human association. Authority, submission, and organization are all facts of existence and group life. We cannot live and work together without having leaders and followers. When we have leaders and followers, authority is involved.   We can illustrate this with several Biblical examples.

            One, citizens should respect the authority of government.  Paul tells us in Romans 13:1: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” Similarly, Peter writes: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.   For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:13-15).

            Two, with regard to husbands and wives, Paul wrote: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church,” He Himself being the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:22-23).  Paul balances these words with this further comment: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).

            Three, concerning children and their parents, we read in Ephesians 6:1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Once again, Paul brings balance. He states: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4).

            Four, Peter addresses the role of authority with regard to pastors and their congregations.  His comments with regard to the shepherd and the flock suggest the right exercise of authority but also echo the words of Jesus against tyranny. He gives this exhortation (
1 Peter 5:2-4):

   2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;
   3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
   4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

            Five, concerning each other, Paul wrote to the Ephesians  “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).  By exhorting us to be “subject,” he also acknowledges that there is authority. Peter makes a similar comment: “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:5).

            The Biblical evidence about authority is tempered with comments about love, tenderness, and the dangers of excess. As Peter knew, authority has its limits. When he was faced with the command not to witness, he declared:  “We must obey God rather than men” (
Acts 5:29).  This dictum applies to all of the relationships mentioned above.  Nevertheless, the Biblical data strongly supports the proper role, use, and submission to authority.

            Third, when people associate and decide to do things together, management and organization become key factors. Organization, like authority, is supported in the Bible.  A key story has to do with Moses judging and leading the people.  The story is found in 
Exodus 18:13-26:

   13 It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.

    14 Now when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?"

   15 Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God.

   16 "When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws."

   17 Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing that you are doing is not good.

   18 "You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

   19 "Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people's representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God,

   20 then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do.

   21 "Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.

   22 "Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.

   23 "If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace."

   24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.

    25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.

   26 They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge.

            This story touches on a whole series of management topics. It is beyond the scope of this book to deal at length with these topics, but I will name some of the topics and comment briefly on them.  Like the Matthew story, this Moses story provides a springboard to many subjects.

            One, Time with God.--Moses was exhorted by his father-in-law to lead in a new way (verse 19).  He was to spend more time with God and bring the disputes of the people to Him. This would give him more rest and clearer vision.  This is a good message for all Christian leaders.

            Two, Time Management.--Moses needed to manage his time better.  He was taking too much time judging the people.  The father-in-law of Moses said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. 
You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (verses 17-18).  Moses explained to his father-in-law that the people came to him to inquire of God.  Because the people came, Moses made known the statutes of God and His laws (verses 15-16).

            Three, Delegation.--The father-in-law of Moses advised him to delegate much of his work to others.  He was to “teach” others the statutes of the laws and “make known” to them the way in which they were to walk (verses 20-21).   Moreover, Moses was to select able men to place them over others” (verse 21), thus delegating responsibility. 

            Four, Structure.--As verses 21 and 24-25 indicate, Moses was to have leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. This suggests that the leaders of tens would report to the leaders of fifties, and the leaders of fifties, to the leaders of hundreds, and so on. In other words a definite structure was advised.  To lead the thousands of people through the wilderness for forty years required some organization.

            Five, Job Descriptions.--In verses 20 and 22 a job description was given.  With regard to the people, as indicated above, Moses was advised to “
teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do” (verse 20).   As for the leaders, "Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you” (verse 22).  The leaders were to “judge” the people and help “bear the burden.”  This great burden could only be handled as it was divided among the leaders.

            Six, Standard of Performance.—This Moses story does not specifically present a standard of performance, but we can assume that Moses expected the leaders to be good judges.  Because they would judge well, the people, as Moses’ father-in-law proposes, “will go to their place in peace” (verse 23).  This projected result could be viewed as a standard that the leaders were to achieve.

            Seven, Responsibility.--The leaders would be given responsibility. Verse 26 tells us, “every minor dispute they themselves would judge.” The leaders of fifties no doubt had more responsibility than the leaders of tens.  The scope of their work would be larger.   There were limits to their responsibility.  The hard cases were still to go to Moses (verse 26).

            Eight, Qualifications.--Verse 21 gives us the qualifications for the leaders.
"Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.”  Clearly, it was important for the leaders to be men of strong character and ability.

            Nine, Training.--The Moses story recognizes the important of training.  The story emphasizes the teaching and training of the people (v. 20).  Although the story does not specifically mention training for the leaders, we can assume that Moses taught them how to properly judge. Moreover, they were among the people who did receive teaching and training. 

            Ten, Service.—Moses’ father-in-law advised Moses to delegate some of his work (verses 18-20).  This suggests that the interests of the people, as well as the health of Moses, were in full view.   The people would be better served through good oversight and management.  Moses would be a better leader, and the people would have more ready access to help. The selected leaders would have the well-being of the people at heart. 

The Right Use of Authority

          Given that authority and power are necessary, we must consider the right use of these elements in leadership.  Leaders should not want authority for its own sake, but rather as a tool to accomplish mutually accepted objectives for the people.  Several points follow from this.

            First, authority is properly used when it focuses on service rendered to people. We organize in order to serve others, not to rule over them.   Using the words of Jesus as a model (Mark 2:27), we might say that “management is made for man and not man for management.”  In the Matthew story Christ was speaking to men who wanted positions of honor and power.  Let them pay the price and desire, first of all, to serve. Then, if they rise to positions of authority, they will use the authority correctly.

            Second, ultimately, the power of individual leaders and organizations rests on service.  Although power can be maintained in nations by military might, the stronger basis for authority is service.  Even authority maintained by armies will crumble if it is too oppressive. Thus, the thoughts of the Christian leader ought always to turn to what serves the best interests of the people he leads.  The leader who does this will command the respect and admiration of the people.  

            Third, some leaders are concerned mainly with their authority.  They are the ones who will say “You are under me.”  This stands in contrast to the leaders who puts the priority on the development of staff members.  Also, the effective executive is one who stresses his or her contribution to group goals.  Peter Drucker makes this insightful comment:

The man who focuses on efforts and who stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank. But the man who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for results no matter how junior, is, in the most literal sense of the phrase, “top management.”  He holds himself accountable of the whole.”  (1985, 55)

Our Actions

          Major volumes have been written about how to be a servant leader.  Here, I will mention just a few points that may be helpful.  I will deal more extensively with this subject in chapters nine, ten, and twelve.

            First, we must learn both to lead and to follow. Both leading and following can be done with poor motivation or with proper attitudes.  Every leader is also a follower in some situations.  Although every follower is not a leader in the sense of having a high position, he or she can lead in service.  It is important for us to learn the etiquette of both leadership and followership roles.  Whether leader or follower, we should approach each situation with humility.  This does not prevent us from being creative in leading and following.

            Second, we should lead with diligence.  In Romans 12:6-8 Paul writes about the gifts of the Spirit.  He declares: “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly” (verse 6).   Among the gifts, he lists leadership. In verse 8 we read, “he who leads, [lead] with diligence.”   We must not take the gift of leadership lightly. When God has bestowed this gift, we should exercise it. We need not claim we have it!  Others will know whether we do or not.  When we do, we must take responsibility, put our hearts into service, and follow the Lord where He leads.

            Third, we should esteem others highly, including both our co-workers and our leaders.  The ideal action for all of us is to respect all others at whatever level they work in our organizations.  We all know people who are compliant to those above them on the organization chart and disrespectful to those beneath.  On the other hand there are people who are respectful to peers but disrespectful to those above.  It is better to respect all people wherever they are on the organization chart.

            When we talk about people with whom we associate, many people focus on their superiors, not the people they lead.  At any level of activity, this is true!  Some chafing would appear to be normal.  After all, our superiors can impede or speed our progress, and sometimes they do both.   Nevertheless, good followers will usually find ways to get along with superiors. 

            With regard to esteeming our leaders, Paul says: “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).  As our leaders serve, it is important that we esteem them for their service.  .

             Fourth, we should meet needs and avoid all abuse of power. We must not do things just to maintain power, but to serve others. The needs of people cry out to be met.  Eventually, these needs will override all other concerns.  There are occasions in the life of every leader when authority has to be exercised, but it should be done with the right motive.  When a leader is meeting needs, he or she does not have to use power nearly as often.  There are many felt needs that cry out to be met.  Each of these needs is an opportunity for the leader to build a strong team.  There are, of course, felt needs that simply cannot be met by the leader.  So the leadership task becomes one of keeping people on board even though those needs are not met. 


            Once again we see that service is the indispensable element of Christian leadership. All else is subordinate to this. When we have this principle clearly in view, it will guide us in all that we do.  We will exercise authority when it is our responsibility to do so, but with the well-being of our staff and our constituency in mind.  The ideal of service will move us to act in ways that are for the common good.

Our leadership will involve us in the organizational life of those we lead.  The Moses story is a springboard to a consideration of many management principles and practices.  Management is not antithetical to servant leadership.  Rather, when done properly, it provides a way to achieve the common good. 

            We must all remember that Christ is Lord!  Because He is Lord, we must subordinate all that we are and do to Him. All of us, as leaders subordinate to Him, must seek His will and simply implement His commands.  When followers, as well as leaders, have sought the will of God and have a common understanding of that will, great unity and sense of purpose prevails.