As I sit down to write this blog, I remember the old days of 2003 when three things were still true: Bill O’Reilly had not yet fallen from grace, Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for Governor of California, and I was still watching Fox News. The incident that jogs my memory thus is a moment on the O’Reilly Factor when Bill was grilling Arnold on his potential solution to a rather sticky problem in California. Arnold replied: “Well, Bill, it’s going to take leadership.” That was all the detail the aging physical specimen would give, but I must give the former Governator this: he stretched out the first syllable of leadership for at least three seconds. Classic rhetoric!
We would all probably be inclined to agree with the Great American Austrian that sticky political situations, like so many things in life, require leadership. The problem is that there is very little agreement about what makes a good leader. Given that I spend way too much time on Facebook, I can speak to this with some authority. Every day I see memes telling me four things: 1. Barak Obama was the greatest President in American History, 2. Barak Obama was the worst President in American History, 3. Donald Trump is the best President in American History, and 4. Donald Trump is the worst President in American History. I have a Treebeard perspective on these points of view, and discussing them would far too painful, but the point stands: there is great disagreement about what makes a good leader.
With reference to political leadership, my friend and former partner is fond of a famous quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (Philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs). The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” This of course, reminds us all of the sentiments of Uncle Scar’s hyena flunkies: “No King, No King, lalalalalala!” Expanding on Tolkien and the hyenas, we might be inclined to think that leadership in general does more harm than good, and we would all be better off without it. But this is where that pesky Bible foils us yet again.
In his superb biblical theology titled Thy Kingdom Come, J. D. Pentecost puts leadership in its proper context. Dr. Pentecost explains that the grand unifying theme of the Bible is the Kingdom of God. Ever since creation, God’s Kingdom reign on earth has been mediated through the appointed human agents. In other words, God’s sovereign reign on earth has always been carried out through representatives. If you want all the details, I highly recommend reading Dr. Pentecost’s book. Our present focus is what we call “the church age,” which is the present age in which we are living. In this age, unlike most of Old Testament history, God is not working through one Nation. Rather, he has called out an assembly of believers from all nations under the headship of Jesus Christ (Eph 2:11-21).
How is God’s Kingdom rule mediated in the present age? I’m so glad you asked. God’s appointed authority structure includes at least four realms: civil authority (Rom 13:1-7, 1 Pet 2:13-14), the home(Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:18-21, 1 Pet 3:1-7), work relations (Eph 6:5-9, Col 3:22-4:1, 1 Pet 2:18-20) and the church (1 Tim 3:1-13, Tit 1:5-16,1 Pet 5:1-7, See Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 292-96). All of this means that, much to the chagrin of our anarcho-Christian friends, anti-church-government-of-any-kind friends, and, dare I say it, our egalitarian and Christian feminist friends, God has established authority structures in these realms, and he requires submission and obedience. Of course, as Pentecost rightly observes, no authority besides God’s is absolute (Thy Kingdom Come, 296-97). Authority that seeks to cause us to disobey God must be resisted in any of these realms. Exactly where that line is drawn is certainly a matter of discussion among Christians, but, however that may be, we are required to submit to the appropriate authorities if submission to God is not at stake. Why? because this is how God has seen fit to mediate his authority on earth. As Arnold said: “It’s going to take leadership.”
In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul tells us that desire for church leadership, at least, is a good thing. A contra my great hero J.R.R. Tolkien, who apparently thought no man but Aragorn fit to rule other men, I think this principle could legitimately extend to the civil realm. Tolkien seems to assume that the only reason one might want to be a civil leader is to boss other men. I think it is possible (however unlikely) that a gifted leader, recognizing the ravages of self-centered leadership in the world, might want to tear a leaf from Byonce’s book and be a better man. In other words, men might desire leadership to protect the innocent and help the needy. But our subject is marriage, so let us get back to it.
Talking about biblical leadership means we need to define precisely what biblical leadership means. Anyone aspiring to be a leader in any of the realms we have mentioned would do well to pay attention to what Jesus says about the essence of godly leadership. Let us have a look:
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up 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 do 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 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:35-45, cf., Matt 20:20-28).”
Matthew 20:20 tells us that it was actually the mother of James and John that did the asking. Some would call this a contradiction, but it isn’t. Mark is emphasizing the source of the request, whereas Matthew is telling us the mode of the request. Apparently, James and John thought Jesus would respond better to their mother, perhaps knowing that the request looked a bit self-aggrandizing. But the other disciples’ response shows that nobody was fooled about whose request it was. It may even be that their mother made the request first, and they echoed it immediately, we see clearly in Matthew that they were present and Jesus responds to them rather than to momma.
What did the ambitious brothers want? They wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and left sides when he would be established as King of Israel, and by extension, the entire world. They wanted to be the dudes! The favorites! There would be King Jesus, then James and John. They were apparently so magnanimous that they didn’t even care that much which one of them was on which side (the right side was the more exalted position of the two), just so long as they were number 2 and number 3.
Jesus responds to their question by observing that they don’t know what they are asking. He then asks a question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” James and John seem eager to show Jesus that they do indeed know what they are asking because they quickly respond “we are able.” After all, he hasn’t said no yet. In fact, they have probably shared a drink with Jesus on numerous occasions, and they were baptized by John the Baptist just as he was. How hard can it be? As sobering as the true meaning of Jesus’ words were, I can’t help but wonder if he chuckled to himself as he responded, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Little did the exuberant disciples know that he was saying they were going to die martyr’s deaths, just like him. To their credit, both men would die faithfully when the time came. Then in verse 40, Jesus transfer’s the answer to their question to God the Father’s authority. It’s not even his decision. In other words, “You guys have a lot of things to be thinking about, and none of them are that!”
Our story is not over, however. Verse 41 tells us that the other ten disciples were indignant at James and John. Now, why would such a bold and outlandish step be food for anything but a good laugh? Because everyone wanted to be Jesus right hand man in the Kingdom, or at least his left. Everyone wanted to be the dude, these two just had the boldness and foresight to ask. Remember that these are the guys that were called “the sons of thunder” around Galilee. This probably means that they were well-known as impulsive loud mouths. Come to a Vik family holiday gathering sometime if you need a taste of this sort of thing.
Putting this together, we see that, while the other disciples showed more reserve, they had the same fundamental problem. If James and John did occupy place 1 and 2, it would be bad for them because it meant their best was hope number 3. If they had the right view – the biblical view – of leadership, this would not matter at all. So this is an important moment for Jesus to tell them what leadership is all about. He begins by with a contrast, the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them.” In other words, the main issue for leaders who do not know God is asserting their authority. The focus is on the ruler and their authority. Who is A#1? In contrast, Jesus explains “It shall not be so with you.” Interested in leadership? Great! God’s requirement is that you must make yourself the servant of all. God’s primary criterion for leadership is service. If your concern is with the perks and benefits of leadership, you are automatically disqualified.
When we learn what the biblical leadership is, many might say “Not for me.” If leaders in each of the realms we mentioned above were to approach leadership from this biblical premise, the world would be a much better place. If you are a Christian, and you have any aspirations to leadership in the civil, professional or church environment, I suggest you come to terms with this principle, or don’t bother! However, with leadership in marriage and family, it can be just a little more complicated. In the last blog, I was pretty bold with my ‘marriage is not for you” statements, and I’m not sorry. But this does need to be qualified. If you are an unmarried man (or woman) who is unwilling to serve, then don’t get married. But if you are already married, a “marriage is not for me approach” is not an option. Not if you want to follow Jesus. Some men might think that male headship sounds great until they realize what it means, but have a desire to opt out once the meaning of biblical leadership jumps out at them. Sorry fellas, if you already got married, your decision is made. Uncle Sam may allow you to opt out of your marriage, but Jesus doesn’t. Culture might allow you to be a passive, self-serving husband who will not take biblical leadership, but Jesus doesn’t. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then his daily call on your life is this:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (Luke 9:23-36).
This, of course, is the discipleship call of Jesus for every believer, but specifically applied to married men, it means you cannot shirk your responsibility to lead your home, which means you cannot shirk your responsibility to be the greatest servant within your home. You must take leadership in making decisions that will affect your family, and in doing so you must put your own needs and wants last. So, my friends, if you entered marriage without understanding that leadership is service, realize it now! If realizing this makes you want to run from leadership, I understand. If we had the option of serving ourselves, then we would have the option of being either passive of domineering, but the way of Jesus will allow neither. If you are starting to get a little terrified with the requirements of biblical leadership, Good! That is a good beginning place, but don’t let it be your ending place. If you are truly a believer in Jesus Christ, then I have great news. God supplies what he demands. God does not expect you to do this in your own power. He realizes that you cannot. He has given us his Holy Spirit to enable us to live out the life he has called us to. A divine model of leadership can only be lived out in divine power.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8:11).
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-17).
The grand irony of all Christian life is that you can do it once you realize that you can’t do it. And this is no different in leadership than in anything else. So, brothers, let me present you with yet one more irony: It’s time to step down and it’s time to step up. It’s time to step down from any pride we had in our leadership roles, and it is time to step up to the discipleship call of servant leadership that God has given us. Let us pray that God will give us the desire, strength and humility to be the leaders He calls us to be.