Authoritarian Leadership | The Voice 12.18: May 01, 2022

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The Voice

Authoritarian Leadership

In our time much has been written about “leadership,” particularly about the different qualities of leadership and various leadership styles. Such interest is a hallmark of our meritocratic and democratic age: former conceptions of hierarchy and nobility carry little weight, and therefore leadership is a trait to be cultivated and leveraged in order to obtain greater influence, power, and thus wealth in our society. A charismatic person who exudes charm and strength will be able to gain many followers and grow in stature and influence, whether for secular or spiritual purposes. We can therefore understand the great anxiety which compels many to pursue a greater understanding of how to be an effective leader; who among us wants to be known or seen as the follower?

Christians do well to enter into such discussions with concern and trepidation; “leadership,” especially as emphasized in modern discourse, is not a major emphasis in the pages of the New Testament. It is not as if Jesus or the Apostles did not prove to be leaders, yet they proved very skeptical about the motivations of those who would become leaders and greatly valued humility and service above self-assertion and aggression (Matthew 20:25-28, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, James 4:7-10, 1 Peter 5:1-5). Conversations about leadership almost invariably prove tainted by the demonic wisdom of this world, seeking self-advancement and the maintenance of self-interest (cf. James 3:1-16). For Christians to be great in Jesus’ Kingdom, they must become servants, even slaves (Matthew 20:25-28): only those who seek to serve others fully are worthy of shepherding others.

And yet even in Christ there are those in whom authority is vested, and who ought to serve as stewards of that authority to glorify God (Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 4:10-11). All of us have some level of authority as citizens, Christians, parents, husbands, or if nothing else, over ourselves. Therefore, we do need to consider different qualities of leadership and leadership styles, but must always do so while fully rooted and established in Jesus Christ the Lord (Colossians 2:1-10).

One form of leadership frequently seen in society can be called “authoritarian leadership.” In an authoritarian leadership matrix, there is one who has the authority to make decisions, and it is for those under that authority to comply with those decisions. We can see authoritarian leadership fully embodied in the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his injured slave in Matthew 8:9:

“For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

The Roman centurion can be seen as the “middle manager” of the Roman army: he was in charge of a group of between 80 and 100 soldiers, and himself would take direction from the leader of the cohort who himself would be directed by the head of the legion, all of whom were subject to the general leading the military expedition. The Roman army proved more successful than not in the ancient world precisely because of its discipline: desertion or disobedience would lead to execution of many soldiers. The Philippian jailor was preparing to kill himself in Acts 16:27 because the consequence for losing control of the prisoners under his charge was death, and it was seen as more honorable and noble for him to do the deed himself.

The Roman army is the embodiment of the style of authoritarian leadership. To this day most militaries still operate with an authoritarian style of leadership in which it is expected that the soldiers directly and fully obey whatever commands they are given by their superior officers. Some countries still attempt to operate as authoritarian societies in which the citizens may have relative freedom in a few domains but are expected to fully comply with the particular concerns and dictates imposed by the tyrant, oligarchy, or junta ruling over the nation. Some companies and individuals also operate under a similarly authoritarian style of leadership; to many people, authoritarian leadership is precisely and only what comes to mind when “leadership” is mentioned.

There are certain contexts, times, and places in which an authoritarian style of leadership may be required. In an emergency setting, the most qualified and trained individual should be in charge, and everyone else should listen to that person and follow the instructions they provide so many lives might be preserved. We can understand why the military would operate under a generally authoritarian model: it would be very difficult to accomplish a military objective if everyone’s opinion had to be heard and decisions made more collaboratively. In many situations, the people who live under authority do not have enough knowledge, insight, or wisdom to be able to participate in a fully collaborative environment, and may do well to be expected to obey rather than question.

Jesus commended the Roman centurion for his faith in Matthew 8:10, but we should not assume Jesus was also commending the authoritarian system in which the Roman centurion lived. Jesus would go on to warn His disciples how the Gentiles lorded their power over others, and that it should not be so among them (Matthew 20:25-26)! Instead Jesus offered Himself as the model for leadership: the greatest among them would be their servant, just as Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:26-28).

The Scriptures do not explicitly speak of “authoritarian leadership” for good or ill; nevertheless, many have gone beyond what is written and justified ungodly attitudes, practices, and wisdom by commending or justifying authoritarian forms of leadership in ways which run contrary to what has been explicitly revealed about various relationships we maintain in Christ. Children should obey their parents in the Lord, as Paul decreed in Ephesians 6:1; yet parents should not exasperate and provoke their children, but should raise them in the discipline and admonition of the Lord, the same Lord who commanded Christians to live humbly as servants (Ephesians 6:2-4; cf. Matthew 20:26-28). Wives should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22), but husbands must also submit to their wives as to all others in reverence to Christ in Ephesians 5:21, and to love sacrificially, not abusing but cherishing their wives as their own flesh, as the Lord does for His body the church (Ephesians 5:25-30). Workers should follow the guidelines of their employers (Ephesians 6:5-8), but employers should treat their employees well since they all serve the same Lord in heaven (Ephesians 6:9). Elders in the church should be obeyed and their work should be made enjoyable (Hebrews 13:7, 13), yet elders have no right to lord dominion over the flock, but are called to shepherd by example (1 Peter 5:1-4). Older men should be honored like fathers, older women like mothers, younger men as brothers and younger women as sisters in all purity (1 Timothy 5:1-2), yet all should clothe themselves with humility toward one another (1 Peter 5:5). There is very little room to commend or justify an authoritarian posture in any of these relationships!

If anyone had the right to expect blind obedience and to establish Himself as an authoritarian despot, it would be Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Acts 2:36, Revelation 19:15-16). Certainly Christians should obey Jesus as Lord (Romans 1:5, 6:14-21, 1 Peter 1:22); yet Jesus rules as the Chief Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep, continues to intercede for them, and welcomes them to jointly participate with Him in His Kingdom, and even will ultimately share His reign with them (John 10:1-18, 15:1-9, Romans 8:30-35, 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 6:3, 12:12-28, 1 Peter 5:4, Revelation 2:26-28, 3:21). Yes, Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and we are to submit to His authority; but He has not used that authority to demand uncritical or unthinking obedience, but welcomes those who would follow Him to participate in His life and work to glorify Him.

In the world we should expect to find many despots and tyrants seeking to impose authoritarian rule on others; among the people of God in Christ this should not be so. Jesus our Lord, who had every right to impose authoritarian rule on the creation, nevertheless loves us and invites our joint participation in His life and work; we love and serve Him because He loved and served us and gave His life to ransom us. None of us has sufficient authority and standing before God to act as authoritarian despots in any domain of our lives; we will all be held accountable for how we have loved and served others, and rare is the occasion in which an authoritarian style of leadership will provide effective love and service. May we all seek to use the authority God has given us in ways that display the love and service of Jesus to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Authoritarian Leadership | The Voice 12.18: May 01, 2022

It Shall Not Be So Among You | The Voice 12.10: March 06, 2022

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The Voice

It Shall Not Be So Among You

There were many things Jesus taught that the disciples did not fully understand until all things had been accomplished. Most of the time Jesus humored them; He understood from whence they had come, what they were expecting, and how things were not going to work out as they were expecting, and knew they would come to a better understanding when they would see everything play out and the Spirit came upon them. But when it came to their jockeying for position in His Kingdom, He refused to humor them.

The Evangelists narrate the event in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45; Luke records a similar conversation in Luke 22:24-30. In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, James and John–or their mother on their behalf–asked Jesus to stand at His left and right hand when He entered into His Kingdom; the other ten were indignant at them for making such a request (Matthew 20:20-24, Mark 10:35-41). According to Luke, at Jesus’ final supper before He was betrayed, the disciples again disputed among themselves regarding who was the greatest (Luke 22:24).

Jesus rebuked them very sharply: they knew that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded their power over others. He definitively affirmed that it shall not be so among them (Matthew 20:25-26, Mark 10:42-43, Luke 22:25-26). Instead, the one who would be great among them must be their servant; the one who would be first among them must become their slave (Matthew 20:26-27, Mark 10:43-44, Luke 22:26). He appealed to His own example: He, the Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, Luke 22:27).

Jesus presented us with a paradox, not a quest. He powerfully rebuked the very impulse which drove the disciples, and by extension, all sorts of people in their lives and efforts: the desire to be first and greatest, or at least among the great. In the Western world we delude ourselves into thinking that we do not make as much about social hierarchies and standing, and pretend we believe that everyone is equal; to this end, some might want to suggest something less: did not Jesus say that we must serve or become a slave to become great or the first? All of those who have ever lived under clear social hierarchies know better. What does it mean to serve? What does it demand to become a slave? Slaves cannot be the “greatest” by definition; to serve is to take on what is generally deemed a socially inferior position for the benefit of one who generally has a socially superior position. Such is why the disciples found Jesus washing their feet so scandalous: they confessed Him as Lord and Christ, and yet He was “denigrating” Himself by providing the service which should be done by the most socially inferior person present (John 13:1-15). Sociologically, to become as a servant or slave is to abandon all pretense of social uplift and increase; it represents a voluntary humiliation and debasement in terms of social standing and structure.

Therefore Christians do well to sit in the paradox of “servant leadership,” which has become the great fad in the cult of leadership which pervades the Western world but rarely produces the fruit Jesus would have it bear. Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Master, and yet He lived as a Servant to all. The New Testament does not make much of “leadership,” and for good reason: not that there should not be forms of leadership maintained among the people of God, but because any focus on leadership will invariably lead to the kind of power games and manipulation which abounds in the world. Elders are exhorted to live as shepherds, always remembering how they serve the Good Shepherd, not lording their power over others, and demonstrating the life in faith by example (1 Peter 5:1-5). Consider how Paul, in his work of ministry, would exhort and declare all forms of persuasive rhetoric in attempts to encourage Christians to live faithfully according to the Gospel; and yet when he would speak of himself he would boast in his weakness and in the power of Christ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:1-11). Those who would be considered “great” among God’s people, Paul, Peter, and James, wrote letters in which they identified themselves as slaves of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1): in a world saturated with slavery, in which no one wanted to become a slave and all who were slaves greatly desired to be free, who would say such a thing?

We do well to return to Jesus’ temptation of the devil in the wilderness. The devil offered Him dominion over all the nations of the earth if He would bow down and worship him (Luke 4:5-7). Jesus never suggested he did not have the power to do so; instead He declared that only God should be worshipped (Luke 4:8). John vividly described the power of the Roman emperors and Roman religion as coming from Satan (Revelation 13:1-15); thus it was then, so it is to this day. We do not glorify God in Christ if we slide into Satan’s direct messages and ask if his offer is still on the table; we cannot imagine that we can serve Jesus according to the power dynamics which advance Satan’s purposes.

Jesus did not deny the existence of power dynamics among people; in truth, wherever there are people, there are power dynamics, however consciously or unconsciously maintained. All authority comes from God, and God gives authority to the powers and principalities, the rulers of this world, elders over churches, husbands and fathers in the home, parents over children, and each individual person in terms of their autonomy and individual choices (cf. Romans 13:1).

The question, in the end, is whether we will exercise the authority God has given us according to the ways of the world by lording it over people, manipulating them into doing what we desire, rooted in our anxieties and fears, in ways that lead to the self-aggrandizement of some and the suffering and deprivation of many; or whether we in humility will seek to serve others as Jesus has served us, and leverage our power to the advantage of others. Will the rulers of the world use their power to benefit themselves or to establish justice and righteousness in the land? Will elders lord their power over the flock in order to protect the institution and their power base, or will they uphold what is right and good, serving others, and seeking to protect the weak and afflicted? Will husbands and fathers love as Jesus loves the church, proving willing to humble themselves and subject themselves to the needs of their families, sacrificing as Jesus sacrificed, or will they seek to dominate their families and coerce and compel obedience in their anxieties and fear? Will parents seek to raise their children in Jesus’ love and discipline and prove willing to cultivate the people their children are, or will they demand compliance to the form of child the parent expects to have? Will we choose to use whatever authority, influence, and power we have to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, to maintain or obtain lest we find ourselves diminished, or will we use the authority, influence, and power we have to benefit others and to share in the blessings of life God has given to all of us?

Do we, as Christians, truly recognize how radical, countercultural, and definitive Jesus’ instruction regarding power dynamics among His people proves to be? Or would we rather maintain the warped, perverted power dynamics of the world in a futile attempt to wield power and control in ways which do not honor and glorify God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ? The way power is used in the world must not be so among the people of God. Let us confess and lament where we have fallen short, and may we exercise the authority given us in humble service as the Lord has commanded us to His honor and glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

It Shall Not Be So Among You | The Voice 12.10: March 06, 2022