“ the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them … whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:25-26) Either both comments are figurative or neither is. I suggest the latter. Scriptures are clear; leaders are not called to dominate, but to lead while always remaining servants. Having been given power, a leader must control it. To the degree power is exerted over others, they are denied the growth opportunities of self rule. This matters. Only through self rule can we attain our fullest potential.
Synonyms for despotism: authoritarian, oppression, coercion, subjection, supervision, domination, grasp, control, immunity, compulsion, prerogative, superiority … Despotic rule by man over his neighbor has existed from the beginning. It occurs everywhere today; family, church, business, and society.
To one degree or another, it brings destructive consequences such as …
* undermining freedom of choice that flows from God’s gift of free will,
* choking creativity, the fountain head for all innovation and prosperity,
* limiting the growth of character, by removing responsibility and the need for learning.
* It also can cut down hope in a future, by depriving others control of their lives.
The Despotism of the Pharisees and lawyers; their Edifice of Burdens
Christ confronted despotism when He challenged the Pharisees, scribes, and lawyers:
“ … you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers … you have taken away the keys of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.” (Luke 11:46, 52)
Christ called them hypocrites. Their hypocrisy started with teaching the people regulations from which they exempted themselves; but it did not end there. Their ultimate hypocrisy was pursuit of power, rather than service to the people as good teachers of God’s law. They devised countless regulations to exert power over the people. The more one regulates the more power one has; a pattern followed by despots throughout the ages.
What did Christ mean in saying “you have taken away the keys of knowledge”?
These lawyers and intelligentsia actually had a genuine task to perform. Their business was to study and interpret the law, to instruct the youth in the law, and to decide on questions of the law as advisers to some court. By the time of Christ, they had the audacity to claim that their work in forming “the oral law” was the root and key of the written law, when it was by the oral law, or traditions of the elders, that they took away the key, or obscured the true sense of the written law.
They knew the true foundation of the law, but ignored it.
Lawyers had asked Christ “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:35-40) This was the identical answer to the question “what must I do to inherit eternal life? “What is written in the Law?” (Matt. 10:25-28) And the lawyers knew the correct answer. Rather than applying principles from the true foundation of the law, they devised an edifice of burdens that undermined that foundation.
Christ and His Edifice of Self Rule based on Love
Christ came and did something different. He added a deeper, spiritual understanding of God’s law. Paul later wrote an entire chapter explaining what spiritual love is. Were the Pharisees overjoyed to find they got it all wrong? They certainly did not. In their minds they were the great intellectual minds of the day. They did not welcome opposing ideas that threatened their power. They were angry and became vehement. They sought to kill Christ and ultimately succeeded. Despots do not like to be challenged.
Christ desired the people retain maximum power of self rule. In the Old Testament God defined the principles of His law. Christ magnified those principles and showed their spiritual intent. The inspired writings of His apostles further magnified those principles. By His example while on earth and the example of the New Testament Church, we see those principles in action and they inform us how to be Christians, approved by God.
Other Examples that follow the Pattern of Self Rule
God is consistent. The commonwealth of Israel before the kings is the only instance of Him giving a form of government to a people. It was based on self rule. Citizens subjected themselves voluntarily to the written law of God. Representatives were selected as leaders from all the tribes to deal in matters of common interest. Judges were appointed at critical times to represent God, but they did not “rule”. After about 400 years and against the will of God, the people forsook self rule and insisted upon being ruled by a king. God warned against it. They desired an inferior form of government that would certainly lead to oppression, and it did.
The founding fathers of America followed the general pattern God gave Israel. The founders were primarily influenced by thinkers like John Locke and Montesquieu, but the example of Israel approved their path. In their vision, the central power was kept small by the designation of specific and limited tasks, with the balance of power diffused throughout the states. The ultimate check on power required citizens to freely subject themselves to the law of God (they had to remain a “religious people”) and appoint leaders to office who were of like mind.
If you wish to become a despot the last thing you do is give others opportunity for self rule … as God gave Israel, Christ gave Christians, and the founders gave America. You follow the pattern of the lawyers and Pharisees: you “cover the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform” (Tocqueville) and you enforce compliance. You remove the need for individual decision making and accountability. The practice of despotism has existed before the time of Christ and ever since; it is the world’s default system of government. It ought not to be that in any church that claims to follow Christ.
Having power does not of itself make you a despot.
The apostle Paul had power in the New Testament church but he was not a despot. Despotism is a measure of how much self rule and responsibility is denied others. Paul did teach the finer principles of God’s law as situations arose and he expected compliance. Much of the time though, the power he exercised was “influence” rather than “authority”. He understood the difference, and once said “follow me as I follow Christ”. One instance where authority was necessary is found in 1 Corinthians 5. Where possible, he sought not to take advantage of his power, as in choosing to earn a living as a tentmaker rather than taking a salary. He did not wish to be a burden.
We already read Christ saying “… whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:26) From Paul we learn “Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26) Combining these principles and knowing self rule edifies, we understand that power should not be exerted simply because it exists. It should be used to serve others by enabling everyone to reach their full potential including the one possessing the power;
… for those possessing power have a wonderful opportunity to grow in humility.