Question: How do we explain Matthew 23:8-12?
Matthew 23 is a chapter of the Bible that takes on the Pharisees, exposing their faults and their wrong attitudes. In this passage, Jesus makes a statement about leadership.
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12 NASB).
What is the problem or the question here? The issue is that this teaching of Christ seems to be contradicted by other passages in the Bible. In Ephesians 4:11, we see that God gave the Church, amongst others, teachers. Again in Hebrews 5:12, the author of Hebrews admonishes the readers that they ought to have already been teachers. Teachers thus is used a number of times in the New Testament- so was this in disregard for Jesus’ teaching?
We see the other terms appearing in the New Testament as well. In 1 Corinthians 4:14-16, Paul says that in Christ Jesus he became the Corinthians’ father through the gospel. In Hebrews 13:17, we are told to obey our leaders, who keep watch over our souls. Again in Romans 12:8, Paul says that those who lead are to lead with diligence. Thus, one might see a contradiction- Jesus said don’t be called Teacher, Father or Leader, and yet in the rest of the Bible, these terms are used. How do we reconcile this seeming difference?
To start, we need to remember a basic principle of Bible interpretation or understanding- always look at the context! Many times, when people have trouble understanding a verse, it is because that verse has been taken out of its context and is being looked at in isolation. The case of Matthew 23:8-10 is great for teaching the importance of looking at the context and broader picture to fully comprehend the point that the speaker or author was making.
If we will start reading Matthew 23 from the beginning, what is the picture or context within which Jesus is speaking? We see that He is addressing the issues of the Pharisees, and is specifically looking at the attitude of the Pharisees towards being leaders. The issues of leadership that the Pharisees had were many:
1- They had assumed a position of authority not given them by God. (Vs 2) They had seated themselves in the chair of Moses. Moses spoke with authority and gave commands to the people- because God had told him to do so! The Pharisees had no such authority from God, but had simply assumed it for themselves.
2- They did not lead by example, but rather laid burdens that they couldn’t even carry on the people (Vs. 3-5). By weighing people down with a preposterous list of laws, they kept people down and under their power.
3- They loved the honor and respect of being leaders (Vss. 6-7). They were especially enamored of the honorific titles- “Rabbi.” In a banquet, they loved to be seated at the high table; in the markets, they loved to be given special greetings; in the synagogues, they loved the seats up front.
We see then that Jesus was responding to these attitudes of the Pharisees when He spoke in Matthew 23:8-10. The issue was not so much these titles, but the attitude of desiring such titles. Jesus was kicking back at a system of hierarchy. We can see this especially in the word that He uses for leader- kathegetes- which contrasts with the word used in Hebrews 13 which is hegeomai. Both of these words have the root hegeomai, but the word used in Matthew 23 also has the prefix kata which means “down.” We see then that this leadership was especially a leadership from someone in a higher position- a hierarchical type of leadership.
Jesus was introducing a different and a new perspective on leadership. The Jews’ perspective was one of levels- leaders come in levels and are above their followers. The perspective was one of masters and servants… the leader being the master and the followers serving the leader, obeying what he says. While Jesus was talking about the Gentiles, this model is well described in Matthew 20:25-28 and Luke 22:24-26.
Matt 20: 25-28 “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. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Jesus perspective of leadership is one in which someone’s influence is not based on them being in a position over others or having a special title, but rather it is of influence that stems from the utility provided- in other words, someone is a leader in Jesus’ view if they are of service to others. Those who would provide the greatest service would be the greatest leaders.
This is a widely acknowledged understanding of Jesus’ view on leadership, but a rarely applied concept. If we were to apply it though, we would look at the titles that appear in the New Testament- such as teachers, evangelists, pastors, and leaders etc… not as positions of hierarchy but rather as terms which describe the capacity or the mode of service that is provided. Jesus had a functional versus positional perspective of leadership.
With this perspective, let us reexamine those passages mentioned earlier on teachers, fathers, and leaders.
Ephesians 4:11 and Hebrews 5:12 talk of teachers, but both passages focus on the function and not position. Ephesians 4:12-13 gives us their function: to equip the saints for the work of service and to build up the body of Christ. Hebrews 5:11-14 refers to the function of teachers, as being those who move beyond elementary things.
Paul calls himself a father to the Corinthians, not because he had a title or position as their father, but because he admonished them (1 Cor 4:14) and he was an example to them (1 Cor 4:16). Paul’s use of the term father is because he fulfills two important functions of fathers; admonishing and providing an example.
Leaders, as defined in Hebrews 13, are those who spoke the word of God, and whose conduct and faith were worth imitation (Hebs 13:7). Again in Hebrews 13:17, leaders’ functions are given: they keep watch over souls as those who will give an account.
SO to come back to Matthew 23:8-12, the point of this passage is that we should not bestow on people hierarchical titles. True leaders are not those who have the title; rather they are those who serve. We can apply this principle then to all issues of leadership in the Church, and I believe we will find that it helps us deal with a lot of the problems and issues of leadership.
Let’s take an example. Generally, in the hierarchical leadership systems that predominate in the Church, leaders control finances. Much of the time, this is a problem, as men often misuse finances, overly concentrate on giving in teaching and preaching, show preference to the wealthy in the church, and many more such problems. If we instead take a functional view of leadership, we would look for those who already manage finances well, who are not greedy, who are generous and transparent, and then recognize their service and yield leadership to them in financial issues. We would not give them financial control because they are leaders, but rather give them leadership because they fulfill a vital function financially.
Another area of control that causes problems is in the area of teaching/speaking in the congregation. In the hierarchical leadership system, the leader passes through some sort of seminary or school or group affiliation (such as belonging to the Pharisees) and then is given control over the teaching and preaching in the congregation. Because they are the Preacher, they determine who is allowed to speak and what is taught. Sometimes, they may do a very poor job of teaching and preaching, but they are still given that control because that is their position. By contrast, consider how this dynamic would work in a functional system of leadership. Rather than giving teaching control to someone because they are a leader, someone would be considered a leader because they provide a vital service in the function of teaching and preaching; such that people are edified, encouraged, and equipped for the work of service.
We can continue to see how helpful a functional view of leadership is if we think of issues such as salary or support. With a functional system, we would not base someone’s support or salary on how much such and such position should pay, but rather would ask the question, “How much is needed to enable this person to best provide the service or function that they provide?” There would not be ill-feelings over some leader getting paid too much or too little because it would not be the person that was being supported, but rather the vital service that was being enabled.
Time will not permit us to consider all the applications and implications of this change in view of leadership, but I believe that the more that we look at the issue of leadership, the more we will find that this view, which Jesus, the Great Shepherd, put forth, would eliminate so many problems in the Church and would in fact lead to far greater leadership, the leadership that Christ desires for His church. Greatness in the church should never be an issue of who has the highest title, but rather who humbles himself the most, who lowers himself the most and serves. "Matthew 23:11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant."
Questions? Comments? Corrections?