The call of Christ is a call to service, or more accurately, a call to servanthood. Jesus pointed out that the way human organizations tend to operate — that is, in a top-down fashion (“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”) is completely inappropriate for his community of disciples (“Not so with you; instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” [Matt. 20:25-28, NIV]).
Other passages, such as Mark 10:17-27, indicate the difficulty with which a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven, or even one such as Luke 9:49-50, which suggests that a centralized church organization is likely, even at its most primitive levels, to exclude some authentic workers for Christ.
These passages appear to be woven from a common thread—a picture of the kingdom of God whose structure is not institutional but organic, whose power is not political but personal, whose strength is not in what it can command but in how it can respond, whose persuasive power is drawn not from any form of coercion but from the very freedom of those who are being persuaded.
It is an unfortunate reality of our world that human organizations, however noble their purpose, and however varied their particular structures, hold in common that tendency of which Christ spoke, to have leaders who “lord it over them,” and high officials who “exercise authority over them.”
This is true in governments, unions, corporations, and even (or sometimes, most notably) in religious organizations.
It is hard to imagine a world in which this would not be the case; yet its effect is that power within such structures becomes a nearly universal ambition, and the ability to acquire and exercise such power is admired as a virtue.
Seeing all this, how does a Christian, to whom Jesus has said, “it shall not be so among you,” behave, especially if, as is undoubtedly the case with most of us, he or she is already immersed to some degree in one or more such structures? This is a large question, with easy answers not readily available. Some directions are suggested by the gospel:
1. In the case of several of the Apostles, the initial answer was a clean break. Andrew, Peter, James, and John all left their nets (by which they were entangled in the socioeconomic order) and followed Jesus. To a rich young ruler who valued his possessions too highly Jesus said, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor; then come and follow me.” Failure to heed this particular call presumably prevented that young man from entering the Kingdom. (Note that Jesus did not say, “Give me all you have and I will distribute it ot the poor.” No centralized organizational strategy for redistributing wealth is suggested by the gospel.)
2. If the approach taken by the Apostles (at Jesus’ bidding) is a bit too radical for modern sensibilities, we might take comfort from some further observations. When Jesus extolled the faith of the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:10), he did so without placing any requirement on him such as that placed on the rich young ruler. there is also nothing to suggest with certainty that Zachaeus did not, after divesting himself of his illicit profits, return to the occupation that made such profit-taking possible. Isn’t it quite possible that the presence of a humble and honest tax-collector might be as remarkable a sight, and as effective a Christian witness, as a former tax-collector turned itinerant preacher (namely, Matthew)?
Nowhere does Christ call for an overthrow of the existing social order, though certain individuals seem called to specific forms of non-participation in that order. The rest of us, on some basic level, are called upon to reject the values embodied in it, to be aware that we are infiltrators and subversives in a system (=cosmos/world-order) that is at heart hostile to our own loyalties. We are in it, but not of it.
This infiltration is not of the sort we think of in the modern sense of political espionage, but is the infiltration, as Jesus put it, of sheep among wolves (Matt. 10:16). When our foremost goal is to make the love of God in Jesus Christ known to individuals, and we use our position within social, political, or business organizations to further that goal, we may well find ourselves, like it or not, subverting the organization’s goal of prestige, power, or profit.
A good case in how this infiltration works might be found in the Apostle Paul. He participated in many of the established institutions of his day: the synagogues, philosophical debates in Athens, temple worship at Jerusalem, and the Roman judicial system. Yet he used each of these for the “furtherance of the gospel” rather than any other purpose, and in fact he seems to have been exposed quite regularly as an infiltrator and subversive in the eyes of his contemporaries, for whom his manner of using the system appeared, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Rightly so, from the point of view of those for whom the preservation of the system was the first order of business.
From that perspective, someone who might use the system to gain personal power, (generally seen as, we have noted, a commendable motive) would become dangerous only when that power began to be great enough to threaten the structural integrity of the system; but equally dangerous would be the individual who, like Paul, used the system to promote a message that repudiates power-seeking. (For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake…. Love works no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.)
If we take seriously the command of Christ to let our ambitions—all of them—be ambitions to serve rather than to be served, we might well want to reexamine the way the Bible uses words like power, authority, submission, and obedience. We might, then, ask ourselves whether our lives, individually and corporately, conform more to our Lord or to the “lords of the Gentiles.”
Such discussions, I think, are needed in the church; and these comments are offered more as a suggestion of the sort of thing that might be fruitfully explored than as a dogmatic statement of any type. We who seek to faithfully follow our Lord would do well to explore the notion of servanthood as something central to the personhood of Christ, the message of the gospel, and the role of the Church in the world.
—Robert C. Buehler
[The above article was published in Vital Christianity, vol. 108, no. 6, on May 18, 1986. It appeared on page 13 clearly marked “Opinion.” Except for a poem or two, it was the author’s only published material for ten or more years thereafter.]