Servant-hood, obedience and authority

An unexpected message

The biblical message about servant-hood and leadership is often the reverse of the way societies tend to operate. Essentially the Bible depicts God as expecting leaders to be servant-hearted rather than throw their weight around.

The image of the suffering servant

In a famous passage from the Old Testament (see Isaiah 52:13–15, Isaiah 53:1-12), the prophet Isaiah talks about God’s chosen leader as being someone who will be persecuted, rejected and ultimately sacrificed. Christians interpret this as a reference to Jesus, who they believe was God’s Son who came to earth specifically to serve people and ultimately die for them. 

The humble leader

Matthew 20:28 reveals that Jesus knew that his purpose was not to insist people respect his authority but to serve others: 
the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. 
                                           Matthew 20:28 ESVUK     
The Washing of the Feet by TissotJesus’ actions also showed that he was willing to humble himself to serve others. In New Testament times, the job of cleaning guests’ feet was a very menial one, yet Jesus did it for his disciples (John 13:1–17). When Peter resisted, Jesus explained he was setting an example, calling his followers to a life of servant-hood. This message was echoed in Matthew 20:20–27:
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,                                         Matthew 20:26b–27 ESVUK     
This was an attitude hard to accept in first century Palestine. The ancient Jewish homeland was oppressed by an occupying force (the Romans) and the Jewish people were desperate for the promised arrival of a warrior king who would come in power to forcibly remove their enemies. Although Christians regard Jesus as the promised Messiah, he was a man of peace, with little worldly status – not at all what the Jews had been expecting.

God’s ultimate authority 

According to the Bible God has the ultimate authority over the universe (see Psalms 24:1-2, Psalms 93:1-2). This means that 'the powers that be' are there by God’s permission and so humans are expected to obey these earthly rulers, who are themselves subject to the judgement of God (Hebrews 13:17). The early church was taught:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.       Romans 13:1-2 ESVUK    
It was ideas such as this which fuelled the concept of the divine right of kings and was also used in the eighteenth century to justify the necessity for slaves to submit to slave owners (who conveniently forgot about their own responsibility to care for their slaves as they would themselves – see below). See Big ideas from the Bible > Slavery.
The only time when disobedience was sanctioned was when the edict of a human ruler ran counter to the commands of God (as when, for example, Daniel refused to pray to his King, for which he was thrown to the lions – see Daniel and the lions). 

Human obedience

According to the Bible, since the depiction of humankind’s initial disobedience by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, fallen humanity has had a pre-disposition to seek autonomy, usurping the authority of God. (See Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, 'Second Adam'.) Yet the Bible teaches that humans are subject to God and any claim to honour God must be matched by actively following his commands:
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.             1 John 5:3 ESVUK     
However, Jesus taught that obedience to God should spring out of a loving relationship with him, not be inspired by fear or religious duty (although the Bible is also clear that everyone’s actions and attitudes will be ultimately judged - see Big ideas from the Bible > Judgement). 

A covenant response

Obedience is expected of believers as a way of honouring their part of the agreement or covenant whereby God protects them. See Big ideas from the Bible > Ten Commandments, The
In the New Testament, Jesus summarised the responsibility of believers as:
  • Loving God with all the heart, mind, strength and spirit (Matthew 22:37-38)
  • Caring for other people as much as caring for the self (Matthew 22:39).
Acting on these attitudes opens up the way to blessing (James 1:22–25) during earthly life and will also be rewarded in heaven (Luke 6:22–23).

Other cultural references

Texts: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes briefly covers the idea of heavenly rewards
Art: Many painters have painted the crucifixion, as a depiction of Jesus’ ultimate act of obedience and servant-hood, including Rembrandt, van Dyck, Tintoretto, Gauguin, Salvador Dali.

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