What if we got church all wrong?
I wonder if Jesus was giving a prophetic warning when He told His disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22: 25-26). I wonder if Jesus knew that the church would adopt the Gentile model of leadership.
The Roman Empire during the time of Jesus had a class structure within society. At the very bottom of the class structure, were slaves, who could legally be bought or sold. Slavery was very common and accepted throughout the Roman Empire.
Above the slaves were the large group of ordinary working people. They were divided into two main levels. First were a group of people who had the privileges of Roman citizenship. Then came the large group of non-citizens who were free but did not have the special privileges allowed to Roman citizens. The apostle Paul, being a Roman citizen, was able to have his trial in Rome whilst Jesus, who was not a Roman citizen, could be condemned to death by the personal decision of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
Above the ordinary people was the Roman aristocracy where at the very top was the emperor, followed by the senators, who were the empire’s wealthiest citizens. Next came a group known as “knights” or “Equestrians” who had reached a certain level of wealth. They were well-educated and often were recruited to serve in the government of the empire. Beneath them were wealthy local citizens, known as “honourable men,” who formed city councils. The upper classes in Roman society wore special clothes and got the best seats at special events. They were, as Jesus said, people who exercised authority and called themselves benefactors. They protected the common people who served them.
Jesus did not want His followers to adopt this structure. Instead He wanted them to be servants or people who are right down at the bottom of the structure who are not wealthy but are there to serve with no expectations. When Jesus set the example of serving by washing the feet of His disciples, He demonstrated what servanthood was all about. Knowing that he would be tortured and crucified did not deter Jesus from serving. He laid aside His identity as the Son of God and His own struggles, to become a servant. Through His disciples’ servant attitude, Jesus wanted the world to know what the church is all about.
From about 100 to 337, the followers of Jesus remained an illegal and persecuted movement within the Roman empire. But by the early 4th century, the Christian movement had penetrated much of the world of the Roman Empire that it became the largest single religion within the Empire. The main reason for this tremendous growth was that even though the New Testament mentioned some key people within the movement, it was the ordinary followers of Christ who were scattered throughout the Empire following Jesus command to make disciples. In other words, each person who became a follower of Christ was discipled to go out and disciple others. It became a movement of Christian communities cared for by elders.
The conversion of Constantine brought about a change in the Christian movement. Constantine extended complete freedom of worship to all Christians and returned confiscated property. He allowed the church to own property without paying taxes. Constantine made Christianity the favored religion of the Empire But it was in AD 391 when emperor Theodosius made Christianity an established or formal religion. Christianity moved from being a movement to becoming a religious institution.
A special group of people were created to lead the church. Bishops were appointed. The church developed a structure that Jesus warned about. By the time we come to the beginning of the 11th century, virtually all power were placed in the hands of the church.
Today we may use different terms to call our church leaders but our church still holds on to a hierarchical structure where power and decision is held in the few and the rest of the people follow the vision and direction of the few.
What if we got it wrong? What if we change the way we do church and we go back to the words of Jesus where He calls us to be servants? What if our focus is to disciple people who can disciple others in this ministry of servanthood? We are called to make disciples, not to build the church. I wonder when we stop trying to build the church and focus on making disciples who can make disciples, will we see Christ build a church movement where the gates of Hell will not prevail against that movement?