In the book of Matthew, chapter 23 the writer recounts a moment when Jesus addresses a crowd and his disciples. In addressing both the curious and the committed this message is applicable for everyone. He speaks directly to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day, saying, “…observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do, for they preach, but do not practice.” Simple. Attend to the truth that they speak, but do not mimic their actions. More so do not be confused by the hypocrisy. They preach, and this is good and right and true. But they do not practice, so simply ignore that. Do not observe it. Do not attend to the works lest you be led astray.
Jesus goes on to describe how this hypocrisy shows up. How the leaders lay heavy burdens on the people but are not willing to do any work themselves. How whatever work they do actually accomplish is done for the sake of being seen by others. The leaders love their societal standing, their titles, the attention, their occupying of prime seats, and how they exaggerate the religious accessories they wear.
Then Jesus addresses how his followers are to be different. Over the course of three sentences Jesus changes the use of three words. Rabbi, father, and leader (also translated as master or teacher). There are two things of note here.
First, followers of Christ are not to be called Rabbi or leader. With Christ, there is no need for titles of honor or prestige. The relationship among believers is not hierarchical. We are all brothers and sisters of equal value. We have one Rabbi and one leader, that is Jesus Christ. The rest of the organizational chart is flat. Now it should be noted that not everyone has the same skill, gifting, or specific purpose in the body of Christ – but we all have equal value. Our equality is expressed in that God can use anyone at anytime for His purpose, He can give and take away whatever He desires from anyone at anytime. The problem with titles of honor is that they set social power dynamics. People adjust to abide by or protest the social power dynamics that are set by these titles. Relationships have been known to change because of these dynamics. The titles, when given, may even make some people feel more important (more valuable) than others. No. For the believers, there will be none of this.
Secondly, Christ says that believers should not call anyone on the earth Father, but only our Father in heaven. God has exclusive rights to the name, and all that comes with it. No more fathers of a tribe. No more authors of a family, legacy, or tradition. There is only one, the author of all things, the transmitter of all information. The only one to hold this place of honor, albeit with Christ at His right hand. Our Father, who art in Heaven…
If none of this clarified the dynamic in which the disciples were to relate to each other and God, Jesus presses the issue. “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” And in case they didn’t make the change? “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled” and for those who were wondering, “whomever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
So how in the world is a believer supposed to operate in a world in which advertising and the exalting of oneself is expected AND, if we are found to be popular in our particular industry, we may be pushed into seats of honor.
First, no more titles. Masters, legends, gurus etc., are out. If we have been given wisdom through revelation and experience by the Grace of God, our responsibility is to share what we’ve been given (especially with those seeking that wisdom). The responsibility of the seeker is to support the opportunity for that sharing to happen in whatever way they can. In that way, all are provided for: giving what they are tasked with giving, and receiving what they need to receive.
Secondly, we have to be consistent in God’s sovereignty and exclusivity. To whom do we give thanks and praise when we are commended for the work God has allowed us to do? Whom do we recognize as the true teacher in the classroom, director of the theatre, leader of the team and organization, or head of the household? Our Father, who art in Heaven…and Him alone.
In this way it is the Truth of God that holds and wields power, not any particular person with any particular title. It is the Truth of God that teaches, edifies, and sets right our thoughts and actions, not a person or any particular legacy or tradition. It is the Truth of God that mediates every relationship and fundamentally defines love.