Working with each other--this is one of our great challenges! Many problems that we may have with our colleagues revolve around questions of authority, honor, position, and other relationships. Our reactions to these problems are crucial. We can react in ways that make the problems worse or we can respond in ways that overcome the problems. To effectively build the kingdom of God, we must overcome our problems with our colleagues.
We recognize that some conflict is inevitable and, indeed, may be necessary for growth to occur. It is important for leaders in any organization to openly discuss issues and to evaluate goals, processes, and procedures. Jim Van Yperen posits that that
Conflict offers us the chance to grow, to change our minds and to create new commitments based upon the truth God reveals. This opens the door for a whole new set of assumptions and principles for spiritual leadership . . . The first assumption is that conflict is necessary. The second is that leadership is a call and gifting. (1997, 241)
Although it is true that conflict can lead to progress and to unity, there are times when conflict is intense and has disastrous results. The conflict that we are discussing in this chapter has to do with how prospective leaders speak about their path to leadership and the potential reactions of their colleagues. As with other conflicts, it is important for everyone that they all find a basis for united thinking and action.
At least two Bible stories have an interesting bearing on this subject: (1) our text which is Matthew 20:20-28, and (2) the story of Joseph in Genesis 37:1-36. Because of their relevance, these stories form the background for this chapter. We will read our text, with a focus on verse 24, and refer to Genesis 37.
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."
The disciples were very angry with James and John because these two wanted to elevate themselves above the others. Their reaction was typical of many colleagues. Quite normally, there can be considerable resistance! Our relationships with our colleagues are very important. In our lesson today, we will study (1) prospective leaders, (2) colleagues of leaders, (3) pathways to leadership, and (4) a course of action.
There are many prospective leaders. As we consider them, we will present some thoughts on the leadership ladder, the story of James and John and the story of Joseph and his brothers.
First, many men and women will attempt to climb the leadership ladder. As long as there are people who associate with each other, there will be leaders and followers--this is a fact of life. Many men and women will attempt to ascend to leadership. Others may not actively seek leadership, but it comes their way. In one way or another leaders will emerge.
When prospective leaders are emerging, they may well face indignant and even angry colleagues. Because of this, they do well to take a close look at what they say, when they say it, and consider how their colleagues will react. When emerging leaders speak judiciously, they often can minimize potential opposition. As we consider this topic, we will study Joseph as well as James and John.
Second, let's begin by examining the story of James and John, evaluating their motives in desiring to lead, and observing the effect of their actions. All this will be instructive for us. Speaking to Jesus, the mother of James and John made this request (verse 21): "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left." With regard to James and John and this request, several points are relevant:
One, James and John were part of a peer group. This peer group included the twelve disciples (compare Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:13-16, and John 14:22). Peter is always mentioned first, and Judas Iscariot is always mentioned last.
This group of twelve appears to be constituted of three sub-groups. Group A included two sets of brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Andrew lived in Bethsaida. Assuming that Salome (some say Mary Clopas) was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, James and John were cousins of Jesus. John wrote the Gospel of John, the three epistles bearing his name, and Revelation. Group B includes Philip, who lived in Bethsaida, Bartholomew or Nathanael, who was won to Christ by Philip, Thomas, and Matthew, the publican who wrote the gospel. Group C included James (the less) the son of Alphaeus, Simon, Lebbaeus Thaddaeus or Judas, and Judas Iscariot. The name Lebbaeus is not included in the NASB or NIV, but the KJV says, “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus.”
James and John were young and appeared to be ambitious. Already, they had achieved, along with Peter, some status among the disciples. Their sub-group seemed to be closest to Jesus. For example, we note that Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-7). However, James and John did not have enough status that the others clearly recognized them as above them. Now, they were asking to be raised to positions of honor, authority, and power.
Two, we cannot know with certainty what motive someone else has because motives are internal. We can only observe external behavior and surmise what the motives are. We should keep this in mind when judging others. Matthew describes the behavior of the disciples but he does not tell us their motive. Jesus did not rebuke James and John, but he did inform them of the cost of leadership.
The other disciples believed that James and John were presumptuous and inconsiderate. No doubt they felt some disdain for James and John. They felt that these two disciples wanted to exalt or, as we sometimes say, aggrandize themselves and their ministries. Although this is entirely possible, it also is possible that they were sincere in wanting to serve better, but they were unwise in knowing how to do this. The most likely conclusion, as I see it, is that their motives were somewhat mixed. In any case Jesus did not condemn them.
Three, the effect, or impact, of the actions of James and John was not surprising. The result was that their colleagues were indignant. Instinctively peers often react to group members who are trying to take authority. The tendency for the peers is to try to impede the progress of the offending members toward leadership.
Third, we will follow the same approach to the story of Joseph. We will consider the story, evaluate the actions of Joseph, and observe the result of what he did. The story of Joseph is right on point. Friends, relatives, and co-workers may be offended by one who is rising to leadership.
One, Joseph was seventeen years of age when this story begins. He was the son of Jacob's old age (Genesis 37:1-4). Joseph was pasturing the flock with his brothers and took a bad report of their activities back to their father. His father loved him more than all his brothers and gave him a multicolored coat. As a result his brothers hated him.
Then Joseph had a dream, told it to his brothers, and they hated him more (Genesis 37:5-8). In his dream they were binding sheaves in the field, and Joseph's sheaf rose up and stood erect while the others sheaves bowed down to his. This caused his brothers to ask (verse 8): “Are you actually going to reign over us?” In anticipation of this possibility, their hatred for him grew even stronger.
Joseph then had still another dream (Genesis 37:9-11). The sun, moon, and stars were bowing down to him. Joseph told this dream to his father and to his brothers. Because the dream indicated that Joseph's father and mother, as well as his brothers, would bow down to him, his father rebuked him. His brothers were jealous, but his father “kept the saying in mind” (verse 11).
Two, as we evaluate Joseph’s actions, we should remember that Joseph merely reported the dreams as they were revealed to him. Although the text does not say so, it seem clear that the dreams were from the Lord. We are not told what Joseph's motive was in reporting the dreams. We are told, however, how the disciples reacted. They were very negative and resentful. As the story unfolds, we begin to feel that Joseph was unwise in telling what he had dreamed. However, at the end of the story, we realize how much good God brought out of what appeared to be unwise actions (Genesis 50:20).
Three, as we have seen, the brothers of Joseph became very angry over his dreams and hated him more. They plotted against him, threw him into a pit, and sold him to some Ishmaelite traders who were passing by. They, in turn, sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh's officer, the captain of the bodyguard. This was the beginning of a victorious new story which would be written! For the moment, however, the important point is that brothers sometimes become angry when one among them lets it be known that he is rising to leadership.
James and John expressed their desire to lead, and Joseph reported his dreams which identified him as the leader. The result among the peers was the same--they became very angry. The Bible says that the brothers of Joseph were jealous (Genesis 37:11). Jealousy is a strong and negative force. It causes much havoc in the church.
Our primary concern here is the reaction of the other disciples to James and John and of the brothers to Joseph. However, we will pause to note the reaction of Joseph's father as well.
First, Jacob, who was Joseph's father, was in a place of authority. Moreover, he very much loved his son Joseph. When Joseph told him his dream, Jacob rebuked him but “kept the saying in mind.” One wonders how often, through the years of Joseph's absence, Jacob thought of Joseph's dreams. He did not know, of course, what was taking place in Joseph's life down in Egypt.
Second, let us consider the disciples and the brothers. The disciples “became indignant” with James and John, and the brothers of Joseph were “jealous” of him. To a degree, I suppose, these colleagues had a “right” to become angry. Many of us would have been angry too!
However, it would appear that the motivation of the colleagues was not all that pure either. Tead states: “Feelings of jealousy toward others who may aspire to rise to the status of a leader are also encountered as subtle evidences of a desire to have self-power remain unquestioned” (1935, 215). When others rise to the “top,” our own status, authority, and self-esteem may be challenged. This is enough to spark indignation or anger in our hearts.
Third, the disciples and the brothers were “hot-headed.” It would have been better for them to remain “cool.” The disciples should have trusted Jesus who would not award positions of honor to the undeserving. The brothers should have trusted Jacob who had their interests, as well as Joseph's, at heart. Instead the colleagues took matters into their own hands. In so doing they demonstrated their own flaws.
Fourth, in Matthew 20:25-28 Jesus dealt with both James and John and the other disciples. He spoke to them about authority and service. In thus replying he provided a solution for all of them. He showed them how to solve the problem of colleagues who are indignant. We will deal with these verses in subsequent chapters.
Pathways to Leadership
As we consider pathways to leadership, several points will be of interest. These include, political processes, ministry promotion, God’s promotion, elections, and God’s will.
First, although we would not follow many of the ways of the politicians in rising to leadership, it is interesting to observe the processes they follow. We do see, in some ways, the parallels in the church. Some things, but not all, that politicians do are legitimate in the church.
Titus deals with the way politicians rise to power: (1) Prospective leaders convert groups or clusters of people to new objectives. In so doing they influence the units that they convert from the inside. (2) Leaders may capture an organization or country. Because they have captured the organization or country, they can control it for their own purposes. (3) Leaders may create an organization for the desired purposes. The founders of an organization, at least in the early stages, maintain control. (4) When leaders cannot control an organization through others means, conditioning is the approach. Leaders attempt to condition an organization from the outside (1950).
By way of application, (1) A pastor may become a strong leader by converting a local church to new objectives. For example, a new pastor may lead the church from the inside to become a strong missionary sending church. (2) Using another approach, a pastor might “capture” a church. When he does this, he takes control in a stronger way. The church essentially comes under his control. (3) Many pastors have become leaders by planting a church. This is leadership through the creation of a new entity. (4) Finally, a pastor might lead by conditioning a church from the outside without directly leading the church. Many leaders have this kind of influence. Each of these approaches needs to be evaluated in given situations on its own merits.
Second, sometimes much emphasis is put on “marketing” one's ministry. Some evangelists, singers, musicians, and pastors do it. Very often, the people reached by this “marketing” will accept the ministers of those advertised. To some degree this approach is acceptable. After all, unless people know who you are, what credentials you have, and what gifts God has given you, they may not be interested. The wise minister, however, will be careful. Although the people being reached will accept some promotion of this type, peers are notorious for rejecting it. When ministers overdo their promotion, they risk alienating their peers.
Paul was careful on this point. He wrote to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 3:1): “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.” However, Paul does not exclude all communication about his ministry. After all, his letter is itself a kind of communication.
Third, many times God clearly steps in and promotes someone to a place of leadership. When He does this, He blesses the ministry of the person promoted. For example, as the children of Israel prepared to cross the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you” (Joshua 3:7). When it is obvious that God has done the promoting, people often will follow. This does not guarantee, though, that one's peers will accept your new leadership. Close friends and colleagues often will make excuses for your success. Very happily, even such dissenters are sometimes won over.
Fourth, a common way to rise to leadership is through election. In politics candidates make their desires known, present themselves in the best light, vote for themselves, and gather people around themselves to help promote them. It is doubtful anyone could win an election without doing this. Who would vote for someone who did not think he was the best candidate?
In the church a different process is followed. We stress humility and promoting others. It is never wise to be seen as someone wanting a given office. As a matter of fact, many church leaders do want to be elected to certain offices, but they dare not say so. To make this public would raise the opposition of the voters. It is acceptable, however, to “allow” one's name to stand in an election process. At its worst, this whole process can be a subtle and somewhat deceptive. At its best, it is an unfettered way of allowing God to bring leaders into places of responsibility.
Fifth, for Christian leaders knowing God's will is the most important point. When we are certain that we are in His will, we can proceed with confidence. Wolff avers that “In order to do the will of God it is essential for each man to know his divinely-appointed sphere and limit (II Cor. 10:8-18), to use the gifts which he has received, to be a faithful steward, to trade with his talents, to recognize and to accept his God-given role, i.e. to shoulder his responsibility and to accomplish his task. Such ambition is not only legitimate, but a necessary ingredient of leadership” (1969, 10)
A Course of Action.
With all this in focus what must both prospective leaders and their colleagues do? It will be helpful for us to think about both groups. With regard to the first group, we will consider the ego, criticism, rungs in the ladder, helping others, and timing. Concerning colleagues, we will discuss their roles, the temptation to compare roles, Gamaliel’s advice, spiritual correction, and spiritual cleansing.
First, we have many among us who are potential leaders. Many points could be made about them as they move into leadership roles, but here are a few which stand out in my mind.
One, all people have an ego. Prospective leaders, no doubt, have stronger egos than others. Given this, they must be careful how they express their egos. Tead observes that, “Broadly speaking, it is necessary that the individual's ego be enabled to express itself in ways that will not hurt others or his relation with others” (1935, 219). In our main stories James and John and Joseph did not observe this principle. As a result, they faced opposition.
Two, remember that some criticism will come your way. The editor of Bits and Pieces included this note: “The late David Sarnoff of RCA once said that he was just as grateful to his enemies as he was to his friends because 'in certain situations, a kick in the pants can send you even further along the path of progress than a friendly hand'” (June, 1973). This is a tough idea to accept, but it is true.
Three, prospective leaders should not be reluctant, or afraid, to put the rungs in the ladder. By that I mean they may know where they are going, but it may take a while to get there. They may have to do many things which will qualify them for their future role. The idea of apprenticeship is to prepare people for their future roles. Sometimes, prospective leaders wish to jump from where they are straight to their full stature.
Four, the apostle Paul wrote, “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24). We can apply this principle to the ministries of others. Those who would lead should help others lead. Paradoxical, perhaps, but true! We demonstrate the Spirit of Christ when we are helping others in their tasks. It other words it is important to be a good follower even when you are a leader.
Five, as we have pointed out, prospective leaders must be cautious about expressing a desire for certain positions. In most cases in the church it is better not to express their desires at all. However, over the years this has changed somewhat. Prospective leaders in the church are much more open than they used to be about their desire to lead. With regard to their vision, a slightly different situation prevails. Prospective leaders must express their vision, but it is important that they have the right timing. If they express their vision too soon, they may encounter much opposition. Leaders must seek the Lord to know when, as well as what, to speak.
Second, we must not focus on prospective leaders alone, but also on our colleagues. Many of our colleagues are peers, although some are either above or below us on the organization chart. Here are some principles that will help us get along with our colleagues.
One, we must realize that, by God's design, each person has his role. Some of our peers may become leaders. Even when this is difficult for us, we must accept it. We must work together for the common good. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote: “For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). We do not work alone. We accept the roles of our brothers and work together with God to build His kingdom. We are, of course, the junior partners in this relationship.
Two, it is wise to avoid comparisons among us. Concerning himself, Paul makes this comment: “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Similarly, in Galatians 6:4-5, he wrote: “But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another.”
Three, occasionally, someone will rise to prominence whose ministry seems, to us, to be unusual and perhaps suspect. Unless the ministry is clearly wrong, we are wise to wait a while before we make a final judgment. Over time, it will become clearer whether or not the ministry faithfully aligns with the Word of God. When Peter and his colleagues were called before “the Council” for their witnessing, Gamaliel gave this advice (Acts 5:38-39):
38 "So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown;
39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."
The ultimate test of a ministry is not its apparent success or failure, but its harmony with God's truth. Obviously, there are times when quick action must be taken, but not always. The Spirit of God will lead us in what to do and when to do it.
Four, when God leads, you may correct a brother or sister in the Lord. You must be sure, however, that your own motives are right. Tead maintains: “Sometimes the candid friend or kindly adviser may be able to bring home to the leader the fact that his will to power has come to be his undoing. In some way he has eventually to become conscious of the fault; and by taking counsel he has to lay bare the causes or reasons why the fault has grown” (1935, 216). There are times when God calls upon us to be that candid friend.
Five, we must ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse our own spirit. Before we say much to anyone else, we must examine ourselves. It usually takes the search light of the Spirit Himself to reveal our own flaws. All too often, our own “blind spots” prevent us from seeing our weaknesses.
Our focus in this chapter has been on verse 24 in the Matthew story. Matthew writes, “the ten [disciples] became indignant with the two brothers.” Wanting positions of honor for her two sons, the mother of James and John made a request that made the other disciples indignant. This story, along with the story of Joseph and his dreams, helps us understand how prospective leaders can stir up the indignation of their colleagues. With this understanding, we sometimes can avoid upsetting our colleagues. I say “sometimes” because some colleagues will be upset no matter what you do.
Although some conflict is virtually inevitable and can be good when properly approached, we know that it is important to have unity as we work together. Whether we lead or follow, it is important to work together in unity. In Romans 12:18 Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” By God's grace, we can and will unite and be at peace with our colleagues as well as all other people.