Lee-Barnewall–leaders as slaves

The claim of evangelical complementarians is that there is a special, God-authorized leadership role for men in the family and in the church. In a chapter of Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian about leadership, Michelle Lee-Barnewall refrains from challenging this. Instead she challenges the idea that leadership in the New Testament is a matter of authority and power.

Complementarians have more and more come to talk about servant leadership. But Lee-Barnewall is not sure many of them understand how radical the New Testament reversal in calling leaders servants is. She shows that the notion derives from slavery, not just from the idea of domestic help or some milder form of hierarchy. In Roman society slaves were at the bottom so far as rights or status were concerned.. There were other pyramids of authority with the emperor at the top. But a slave was at none of these levels. A slave had no individual freedom or rights.

Three New Testament passages stand out in her discussion.
First, is the passage in Matthew 20 where Jesus specifically talks about leadership. He says that there are levels of authority and chains of command among the pagans, but that “it shall not be so” with his disciples. They are not to “lord it over” one another. Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of the others. Whoever wants to be first must be slave of the others. (See Matthew 20:25-26).

I took a look at the Greek in verse 25. There are two words for how Gentile rulers acted. One of them is based on the word for lord and the other on the word for power. Jesus says his disciples should not have this kind of arrangement. Leadership among them must not be about lordship or exercising power. The church eventually developed a structure that contradicted this. In fact, the church eventually took its form of organization from the Roman power structure. So, no wonder we got so screwed up.

But it is more than that. In Matthew 20 Jesus is approaching his crucifixion. The implication is that he is modeling a new form of authority.

Paul picked up on that and saw leadership in the church derived from the cross.

In Philippians 2:5 ff. part of what he is dealing with seems to be conflict among some of the (female) leaders (4:2). In this context, he points to Jesus and says that the Philippians should have the same mind as Christ. Specifically, he points to how Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave when he endured the humiliation of the cross. Yet God “highly exalted” him. So this is the second passage.

But 1st Corinthians provides the largest treasure of material on this theme. The problem was definitely about leadership. Some were claiming allegiance to Paul, some to Apollos, and some to Cephas (Peter). Paul stressed that all these leaders were servants and that they all depended upon God for the effectiveness of their work. Leadership was not about human power and wisdom but about God who showed in Christ and his cross that there was a reversal so that human weakness and foolishness showed the authority of God. This is about the impression that in going to the cross Jesus was foolish and displayed weakness. Paul highlights the powerful reversal of the world’s standards that following a crucified Messiah implies. (see 1 Corinthians 1-2).

Lee-Barnewall gets from this that the New Testament sees true leadership in dependence upon God.

So she thinks that most complementarians have not gone far enough. In the New Testament context we have more than servant leadership.

In this context, “servant” would seem to more than qualify “leadership”. Instead it provides an essential component so that one must be a servant before one can be a leader…. Thus, rather than considering how servanthood modifies a type of leadership, it may be better to ask how servanthood forms a necessary basis for leadership, even authority, and how a kingdom perspective of reversal explains this paradoxical notion (p. 106).

So even if the New Testament gives men a special leadership role, what kind of leadership role would that be? The model of the crucifixion of Christ seems to mean it would be a sacrificial role. But what do leaders sacrifice? The category of slavery seems to point to a sacrifice of rights, status and power. In that case, what would leadership look like?

I think the author makes a number of excellent points here. “Reversal” is a fruitful category.

I hate church bureaucracy and hierarchy. Her idea that leadership is sacrificial and based on dependence upon God is very appealing.

So far, although she has mentioned that the persecution of the church in the pastoral letters and 1 Peter may have called for elders to lead with a stronger hand, she has not really grappled with the situations that led the church to feel a practical need for powerful leaders. Did Jesus really think that the church could go on and on with a free-wheeling, charismatic kind of leadership? Or was this an interim polity, not taking into account the delay of the Judgment Day?


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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