An Intertextual Reflection on Cruciform Leadership

Leadership not “like the nations”?

I hear a lot about “servant leadership” in Christian circles. Nonetheless, I see a lot of tacit, unexamined interest in and exercise of coercive power. For God’s people, conforming to the cultural patterns of leadership of the “nations” among which we live has  always been easy. In fact, there is no evidence that Israel ever accepted the model of kingship held forth in Deut 17:14–20. Nor, for that matter, does Christianity have a great track record for leadership that imitates Christ. It’s as though the church tends to take Jesus’s teaching about leadership in Mark 10:35–45 to be a category mistake: his example is valid for the purposes of salvation but impractical for leadership. Humble service for others may be a virtue or criterion for assigning leaders, but leadership per se is still often an exercise of power and authority that, in practice, is not confused with service and self-sacrifice.

In the imaginations of many, savior and king are distinct categories. In fact, many evangelical Christians say the problem with nominal believers is that they have accepted Jesus as “Savior” but not “Lord.” In this way, they maintain the dichotomy: it is possible to accept the gift of Jesus’s sacrifice without obedience to his rule and commands as lord of my life. The kingship of Jesus, in other words, is still about Jesus fulfilling the authoritarian role of the kings of “the nations,” in distinction from the humble self-sacrifice that qualifies him to be king. In this imagination, the narrative of Jesus’s humiliation and exaltation still ends with a position of power and authority on the analogy of existing cultural models of exaltation.

In my reading of Mark, however, Jesus is at pains to make the definition of Christ (king) inseparable from his humiliation and death (and vindication in resurrection). And this means more than that only the one who is humbled will be exalted: the sacrifice itself is the kingship; the humiliation is the glory. For John, the cross itself is clearly the “lifting up” and “glorification” of Jesus (e.g., John 12:20–28). If this is less clear in Mark, I think he has the same idea. The inversion is absolute in Mark: the servant is great, the slave is first. And this is a claim about both position and the exercise of authority—the practice of leadership itself. What the leaders of the nations—”those recognized to rule” (οἱ δοκοῦντες ἄρχειν) and “their great ones” (οἱ μεγάλοι αὐτῶν)—actually do is called “ruling over” (κατεξουσιάζω). It is with this kind of leadership that serving all and imitating Jesus’s redemptive self-giving is the contrast.

Then again, what other option is there if not analogy with existing cultural models of leadership? How else can king signify? Here we run up against perplexing issues in linguistics and ethnotheology. Now doubt, we have to start with existing models, but the question is how radically the encounter with Scripture transforms those models—moderately, completely, or something in between? In this case, I’m convinced that there is consistency in the vision: leadership imagined specifically in contrast to the cultural models that, without fail, conceive of power and authority in violent, coercive, and utilitarian terms.

Jesus is, finally, the one who embodies a kingship not “like all the nations” (Deut 17:14). I think, in other words, that Deut 17:14–20 echoes in Mark 10:35–45.

Deut 17:14–20 (NRSV)

14 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,”  15 you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community.  16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.”  17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.  18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.  19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,  20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Mark 10:35–45 (NRSV)

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;  40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.  42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles [the nations] those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In what way can Israel’s king be like those of the surrounding nations if he cannot build military might (many horses; Deut 17:16), ensure political alliances by marriage (many wives; Deut 17:17a), or garner the prestige and influence of personal wealth (much silver and gold; Deut 17:17b). What sort of king’s primary charge is to meditate on God’s will daily and refuse to “exalt himself above other members of the community”?! These guidelines break the existing models—the analogy becomes extremely thin. But it remains intact. That is to say, if Israel wants a “king,” then the very idea of kingship must be redefined. The text subverts the dominant concepts of leadership and takes possession of the word king.

Thus, as the king of Israel who fulfills Scripture, Jesus brings to life a different kind of leadership. His self-sacrifice is his exercise of authority. His exemplary obedience to God’s will is his influence. His humility is what God the Father exalts.

The use of coercive (e.g., military, political, and economic) power is not only contrary to such leadership, it is irrelevant to it. It is categorically a different thing. It is far from enough to say that Christian leadership is nonhierarchical or democratic or egalitarian. Any of these leadership styles may still be unlike Jesus’s. Certainly, some of them may be more fitting for Christian leadership than the alternatives, but that is a matter of contextualization (Jesus, for example, leads his followers initially by taking on the first-century model of “rabbi”). Regardless, neither equality, populism, nor inclusivity are at the heart of Jesus’s leadership. Rather, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Ransom—the price of freedom. Not service for the sake of humility. Not character or spiritual maturity in a vacuum. Self-sacrifice in order to lead followers out of captivity.

Christian leadership is redemptive by definition: it liberates those it leads, at personal cost.

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