Chapter Two: The Desire to Lead





When our two sons were young boys, one of them asked me, “Dad, is it right to want to be the greatest preacher in the world?”  As I recall, I did not have a very good answer at the time. He had asked a very profound question, one which still challenges me to think very deeply. To some degree, I believe we are all challenged by this question.

            Our subject in this chapter is “The Desire to Lead.”  As previously stated, we are basing this book on the story in Matthew 20:20-28.  This story raises many leadership issues. We will read again the entire story, but we will focus our attention in this chapter on verses 20-21. In these two verses the issue of the desire to lead arises.

   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."

            Our feelings about whether or not we should want to be leaders are often very mixed.  Our Bible schools are built with leadership training in mind.  The same is true of local church training programs.  Nevertheless, we sometimes make students feel guilty when they want to lead.

            When I have asked students whether or not they want to be leaders, I have received mixed replies. Some have replied, “Yes” or “No” without any qualifying comments. Others have qualified their answers with statements such as, “It depends on what you mean by leader.”  Some replied “Yes, in “God’s sight” or “No, not in man’s eyes.” If I were to suggest that a qualified answer would suffice, I believe most would give such a response.  What I mean by “leader
in my question is important to their replies.

            Several points attract our attention as we consider the desire to lead. We will discuss (1) the desired positions, (2) the reply of Jesus, (3) our evaluation of the desire to lead, and (4) the results of leadership through service. All these points will help us with our feelings about wanting to lead.

The Desired Positions

            First, Mark indicates that James and John came to Jesus with the request to sit on His left and right hands in His kingdom.  However, Matthew says the mother of Jesus came with James and John and made the request.  Obviously, all three were in agreement. Concerning this point, Frank Staggpresents this view: “Whether Matthew is removing some of the blame from the two disciples or simply supplying further detail to Mark’s account, both Matthew and Mark show that the disciples themselves were responsible for the selfish and benighted request” (1969, 195).

            Second, the mother of James and John is generally thought to be Salome (Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40; Mark. 16:1; John. 19:25).  Whether Salome or Mary, the wife of Clopas, was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is sometimes debated.  If Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, she was the aunt of Jesus.   Whatever conclusion is reached about this, with the support of James and John, Salome's request (verse 21), was, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.”

            Third, many commentators make the point that the disciples, including James, John, and their mother were expecting a temporal Kingdom on earth.  Others maintain that the kingdom they expected was like the future Jewish messianic Kingdom.   Concerning a temporal Kingdom, Albert Barnes proposes that:

They were still looking for a temporal kingdom.  They expected that he would reign on the earth with great pomp and glory.  They anticipated that he would conquer as a prince and a warrior.  They wished to be distinguished in the day of his triumph.  . . . The disciples, here, had no reference to the kingdom of heaven, but only to the kingdom which they supposed he was about to set upon the earth.” (1987 Reprint, 208)

            According to James D. Smart, James and John had in mind the Jewish conception of a future Kingdom.  The future Kingdom would be both temporal and unending.  He holds that:

James and John share with the others, as becomes plain in verse 41 [Mark 10:41], the current Jewish conception of a future world order in which the nations, in being subjected to God’s law, would be subjected to a perfected Israel and the whole world would be ruled from Jerusalem.  What James and John are asking is not places of precedence in an enlarged disciple group or in a future church but places of the highest responsibility in a future world kingdom as Jesus’ first assistants.  (1979, 290)

            The text does not actually say what the kingdom was that the disciples expected. However, it seems clear that there was a gap in understanding between what Jesus taught and what the disciples understood.  We see this gap even as late as between His resurrection and His ascension when Jesus interacted with the disciples as follows (Acts 1:6-8):

  6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?"
  7 He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority;
  8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth."

            Fourth, the evaluation of scholars concerning Salome and her request range from condemnation to what I would call conditional approval.  As John C. Hutchinson indicates, Jesus had already promised that the disciples would rule (Matthew 19:28) in His messianic Kingdom (2009, 57).  The request of the disciples had to do with prominence in the Kingdom. Given the understanding the disciples had concerning Christ’s kingdom and other factors, some scholars are reluctant to condemn their mother or the disciples for making this request.  William Hendriksen, who accepts the view that Salome was the aunt of Jesus, does not condemn her.  He makes these comments:

Besides, if our assumption that she was probably Jesus’ aunt should be correct, this family relationship may also have encouraged her to make her request.  But even if this should not be correct, at least she knew very well that within the largest circle of Christ’s followers there was another, smaller circle, namely, The Twelve; that concentric with these two, but still smaller, was the circle of The Three; and finally, that two of these three were her own sons, James and John.  Now, then, if the reign of God in all its splendor should be established next month or perhaps even next week, and Jesus should be enthroned in majesty, should not her sons be seated at his right and left?  Was not this the way of kings and other dignitaries?  See Exod. 17:12; II Sam. 16:6; I Kings 22:19; (II Chron. 18:18); Neh. 8:4. (1973, 747-748)

            Mothers will do things like this!  Many years ago, my father and mother were serving as missionaries in Senegal.  They were invited by the American Embassy in Dakar, Senegal to a reception for Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.  They were in the greeting line when Mom decided to ask the Vice-President to write to her sons, my brother and me.  When she was shaking hands with the Johnsons, she made her request.  Lady Bird wrote a note about this and put it in her purse.  Sometime later we received a letter, signed by the Vice-President, in which he said the following:

Dear “Flatterys,”

When Lady Bird and I got back from Dakar and she cleaned out her pocketbook, she found a note she had made during our visit.  We met your parents in Dakar at a reception given at the American Embassy and promised we would write you.  They looked well and seemed to be enjoying their work in Senegal.  It was nice to meet some fellow Texans in that faraway place.

Mom and Dad were not Texans, but my wife, Esther, and I were living in Texas at the time. 

            The request of Salome, along with James and John, was a far more serious matter, but the actions of a mother on behalf of her sons is well understood by us.  As a result, many tend not to be severe in their judgment.  Matthew does not tell us exactly what their full motivation was, but it appears to me that it was mixed.  They were motivated to follow Jesus, but mixed in a very human desire for position and honor.

            Fifth, we can draw upon the Old Testament to understand Salome's request. The stories of Bathsheba and Ezra illustrate the importance of being seated on the right hand and left hand of a person in leadership. 

One, Adonijah, the brother of Solomon, went to Bathsheba and persuaded her to ask Solomon to give him Abishag the Shunammite as a wife. When Bathsheba went to her son Solomon, the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne (1 Kings 2:19).  Then, he had a throne set for her, and she sat on his right. Sitting at the king's right was clearly a place of high honor.

            At this point Bathsheba made her request. Although she was sitting in a place of honor, her request was not granted. Solomon correctly assessed the situation, blamed Adonijah for the request, and had him executed.  He told his mother that she might as well have asked him to give the kingdom to Adonijah.

            Two, Ezra the scribe was called upon to read the law of Moses to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-4).   They had gathered at the square which was in front of the Water Gate. Ezra stood at a wooden podium which was made for this purpose. He was accompanied, on each side, by a group of men. These assistants stood at his right hand and at his left. The presence of these men at his right hand and left hand suggests honor, delegated power, and responsibility.

            Being at the right and left hands of a leader in Old Testament times suggested honor, power, and position. This was not only a common meaning in the Old Testament, but it has been in many cultures throughout history. In a royal court both the right hand and the left hands are places of honor. The left hand is only slightly less glorious than the right. 

            Sixth, Salome may have understood that her sons would be called upon to serve others, but she wanted them to have positions of honor, power, and fame. The common meaning of “right hand and “left hand,” the indignation of the disciples, and the reply by Jesus all suggest this. She wanted her sons to be prominent in the kingdom.

            With regard to Salome's request, R. C. H. Lenski posits that “Despite all its fault, Salome's request contains something worth noting. All about us men seek the world's honor and high places, here are three persons who put the kingdom and glory of Christ above everything else. The wish of Salome, duly purified, has been seconded by many a mother who prayed for her son that he might serve Christ is some high work in his church” (1943, 786-787, Italicized words translated).

The Reply of Jesus

            Jesus did not condemn Salome, James, or John for their desire to lead. Rather, he responded by showing them the cost of true leadership and by defining leadership for them.  Rather than condemning them for their desire to lead, He showed them the way.  His explanation begins with the price of leadership.

            First, Jesus confronted the disciples with the price of leadership. He asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
 On this point Lenski cites Luther and Augustine.  According to Luther, the ambition of these disciples springs from faith and needs only to be purified.  Augustine said, “They sought the exaltation but did not see the step” (1943, 787). The “step” usually shortens the line of “would be” leaders. Real leadership, as Jesus would define it, usually has a high cost.  I will discuss the price of leadership more fully in our next chapter. 

Second, Jesus defined greatness. A good definition identifies what a thing is and what it is not. Jesus said what true greatness is not.  It does not make power the indispensable element.  People can be great without being in positions of power. Jesus said also what the essence of true greatness is. The indispensable factor of greatness is service. Those who would be great must be the servant of all. Without this they are not great.

            Third, Jesus recognizes without condemnation that some have the will to be great. When people have the desire and determination to be great in service, much good can be done. We must remember, however, that servant is itself a position with its own greatness. Other positions may come to the servant, but he must be willing to serve without them.

            Fourth, the reply of Jesus is paradoxical. True leadership puts service before power and honor. By putting service first, one can become a true leader. By putting power and honor first, one loses true leadership.  This is true not only of leadership in the Kingdom of God but in secular contexts as well.  Writers such as Greenleaf have stressed servant leadership both in the church and in secular environments.

            Jesus does not condemn the desire to lead. He redirects that desire from position and power to service.  Sanders observes that “an ambition which has as its center the glory of God and the welfare of His church is not only legitimate but positively praiseworthy” (1967, 11).   Similarly, Wolff states, “legitimate ambition, the desire to be a leader, does not run counter to true humility.  Paul’s admonition, ‘In humility count others better than yourselves’ (Phil. 2:3), does not abolish the concept of leadership” (1970, 13).  The desire to lead, when kept in its proper perspective, is not condemned. Jesus captures this motivational force, puts it in proper perspective, redirects it, and uses it for very productive purposes. This gives us a wholesome approach toward the desire to lead and helps us to proceed without ambivalence.


The desire to lead can be right. Paul wrote in I Timothy 3:1, “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition (NEB).  The NASB has this translation:  “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.

            First, here, Paul clearly approves of the desire to lead. He sees the office of overseer as an opportunity for someone to serve. Thus, he does not put down the desire for this office. Instead he puts his blessing on it.

In church circles we tend to not be very open about the desire to lead.  For example, anyone who lets on that he or she wants to be the General Superintendent would likely be ruled out.  However, we all know that some ministers have that desire. The lack of openness is not true in all cultures. 

On one occasion, as president of ICI (now Global University) I flew into the Philippines to conduct business for our school.  I was met by a minister who said, “I would like to be the General Superintendent, but if I do not get elected, I would like to be the pastor of Bethel Temple.  And if I do not get elected as pastor, I would be willing to be the ICI director.”  Whether that was just his approach or a culturally accepted way, I do not know, but it clearly showed us how we ranked in his mind. In our country, few in the church would take this approach.

Whether or not we approve of the desire to lead depends to some degree on our culture and values. Please observe the following categories. In our culture we would consider the desire to be a pastor as good and one that we can admit, but we are more ambivalent about the desire to be a presbyter or superintendent. Even though the desire might be considered honorable, few would admit to having it. Some motives are not considered the best, such as wanting a luxury car, but we are willing to admit it. Other motives, such as personal aggrandizement, are considered bad, and we do not readily admit them.

Second, to desire to lead through service is both honorable and important. We should not be ambivalent about this. Some people have become leaders when initially they did not want to lead. However, as they acquiesce to the will of God, the desire to lead is to some extent born. Others begin with a greater desire to lead.

            Sanders illustrates the issue of the desire to lead from the life of William E. Sangster.  In a private manuscript found after his death Sangster records his growing conviction that he should be a leader in the Methodist church. Sangster wrote:

  • This is the will of God for me. I did not choose it. I sought to escape it. But it has  come.
  • Something else has come too. A sense of certainty that God does not want me only for a preacher. He wants me also for a leader--a leader in Methodism. 
  • I feel a commissioning to work under God for the revival of this branch of His Church--careless of my own reputation; indifferent to the comments of older and jealous men.
  • I am thirty-six. If I am to serve God in this way, I must no longer shrink from the task--but do it.
  • I have examined my heart for ambition.  I am certain it is not there.  I hate the criticism I shall evoke and the painful chatter of people.  Obscurity quiet browsing among books, and the service of simple people is my taste—but by the will of God, this is my task.  God help me.
  • Bewildered and unbelieving, I hear the voice of God say to me: “I want to sound the note through you.”  O God, did ever an apostle shrink from his task more?  I dare not say ”No” but, like Jonah, I would fain run away. (1967, 22, bullets mine, from Doctor Sangster, by Paul Sangster, 109)

In this story one can sense the ambivalence of a would be leader.  In the end, he accepted that it was God’s will for him to be a leader in Methodism.  Many church leaders seem to accept their role of leadership without going through a time of having  this ambivalence.  Ross and Hendry make this point: 

The leader who has no desire to be the leader is often a person who is ambivalent, if not disinterested, in his leadership role. It has been suggested that persons with insistent needs for dominance, power, and prestige may be expected to have higher potentialities for leadership. This may be, but certainly it can be said that only those with some desire for leadership will be sufficiently motivated to undertake the responsibilities implicit in leadership and thus satisfy the needs of their followers, who, as we will see, desire as leader someone with initiative, a sense of responsibility, and willingness to serve the group interests. (1943, 54-55)

Third, the desire to lead can, obviously, be wrong. We must guard against this at all costs.   As Jesus proclaims, some people desire to be great and others, going further, desire to be first.  Wanting to be first is a more intense desire to lead.  Some people have an extreme desire to lead with too much emphasis on power.  

            We can recognize the symptoms of such an extreme desire in the lives of some would-be leaders. Very often, they emphasize expediency over principle. For them the end justifies the means. We often see great selfishness and the raw exercise of power in reaching various objectives. Generally, such people disdain others and will step on others to get to the top.

            Such people existed in New Testament times as well as ours. John  states, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say
(3 John, verse 9).   As the KJV puts it, Diotrephes loved to have the “preeminence. Clearly, John was unhappy with his attitude.

            Fourth, as believers, we can consider as dead the motives which are by nature wrong.  Also, we can subdue motives that have become wrong because we have allowed them to become predominant. The Holy Spirit will help us do these things.

            Even so, our motives, at best, are somewhat mixed. We often speak as though we can be solely, and purely, motivated by love and service. Thank God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, these motives can dominant our lives. However, we usually also are motivated to some extent by what we might call “enlightened self-interest."  Kept in proper perspective, this is not wrong. Citing the law in Leviticus 19:18, Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

            With regard to great leadership, the indispensable feature is service. As long as men desire to serve, and keep other legitimate motives secondary, they remain true to their Christian beliefs.  Other motives can be captured, disciplined, and put to use for the glory of God.

            Fifth, especially in Christian leadership, but also in other contexts, the pathway to leadership is paradoxical.  R. Earl Allen puts this squarely in focus with this comment: “Men pray for God to humble them and at the same time attempt to exalt themselves.  We are to humble ourselves and let God the exalting” (1963, 117).  We see the paradox of the way to exaltation in Peter's advice to the saints concerning humility and exaltation (1 Peter 5:5-6).

  5 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.
  6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.

            Humility may or may not lead to a position in the kingdom, but God will certainly reward us at the right time and in the right way. A sure way to be ruled out of Christian leadership, however, is to approach it through pride and self-exaltation. Peter wisely advises us to be humble.  Paradoxically, it often opens the door to important leadership roles.

Results of Leadership Through Service

            Salome wanted her two sons to have places of prominence in the kingdom.  Without rebuking James and John, Jesus encouraged them and the other disciples to lead through service.  When we follow this path, what will be the results for us?

            First, the man who wants to lead through service will have ample opportunity to serve. He will be able, no doubt, to meet many needs and help others. This does not mean, however, that he will have a place of prominence, position, and power in this life. He may well serve all his life without a leadership position. 

            Second, sometimes, a person renders great service without any recognition. Even the service itself goes unnoticed. When a person continues to serve under such circumstances, his true greatness is only enhanced. Sooner or later, most of us are tested on this very point.  Once again, we can take comfort that a just and loving God will reward us appropriately. We know that God will appropriately honor us, whether in this life or the life to come.

            Third, many times people are honored for their service. The service itself is recognized.  Moreover, those who serve sometimes come into places of honor and power. Thus, they become great in both the eyes of God and men. Such people, however, will lose the approval of God unless they continue to lead through service. Service is the indispensable aspect of leadership.


            We began with a question asked by one of our two sons, “Dad, is it right to want to be the greatest preacher in the world? If one of your sons or daughters asked you this question, how would you answer? At this point I would say, “Yes, providing you lead through service and put service ahead of all other motives.  Then, whether you are recognized or not, you will not be disappointed.”

            The times, human conditions, and the commands of Christ all demand that we lead. We cannot accomplish all that we must do without leaders and leadership. We must not be ambivalent about this. Rather, we need to properly define leadership, commit ourselves to paying the price, and take up the task of leading through service. May God give us many leaders!