The Quest for Power in the Church

“The worst and most blatantly self-centered prayer ever prayed” [John Stott, The Cross of Christ].  Those words by Stott describe the following sentence by the sons of Zebedee, [ the apostles James and John]: “Teacher,” they said, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

I am not sure I would call that a prayer, more likely a request.  Self-centered?  You bet.

What are these apostles asking?  The words are from the book of Mark and they are asking Jesus for power. 


They want to sit at Jesus’ right hand and His left in His glory.  They want positions of honor, thrones.  Jesus knows His mission; He has come to this earth to hang on the cross, to suffer weakness and shame.  They don’t know that or don’t believe that.  Jesus says to them “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  He knows they don’t want His future but Jesus knows what they want.

They want power.

The church is an institution and individual churches are institutions within the larger institution.  Every church has a power structure that emanates from the pastor.  Sadly, churches have many people like James and John.  Stott calls these people “go-getters, status-seekers, people who are hungry for honor and prestige, people who measure life by achievement, who are aggressively ambitious for success.” 

The problem is nothing could be further from the life that Jesus Christ led, nothing could be further from the goals that Jesus Christ had.  “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Power seekers make choices that are of this world.  When they join a church, they want to run it.  They want to have the ear of the pastor.  They want to be the most important people in the church.  They want to set the tone.  They want to make sure they are at the “top of the heap”.  It is just their nature.  Stott says they have a choice between self-ambition and sacrifice and they have chosen self-ambition.  When Jesus calls for humility, that call falls on deaf ears; they don’t want that.  They only understand the opposite of that: pride.

The second choice these power seekers make is between personal power and service.  Stott writes it seems clear that James and John were not seeking “seats on the floor, or on cushions, stools or chairs, but on thrones” [280].  James and John focused on the glorious Son of God but ignored the other part of the equation—the suffering servant.  Jesus knew that He would only enter glory by suffering, but James and John did not understand this pathway to glory.  Perhaps they missed their former life where they were well-to-do members of a fishing family that had enough success to have servants.  Perhaps they fantasized about being Roman rulers or even tyrants like Herod.  The model they knew was based on people who “threw their weight around,” manipulative people, exploiters, and tyrants.  “The symbol of an authentic Christian leader is not the purple robe of the emperor but the coarse apron of the slave, not a throne of ivory and gold but a basin for the washing of feet” [Stott, 280].

The last choice a power-seeker makes is between comfort and suffering.  No one can doubt it; following Jesus was hard.  James and John had become vagrants.  That happened to all the apostles as they followed Jesus.  Maybe they wanted some creature comforts instead of moving from place to place with no real place to rest, no real place to call home.  Stott imagines they would rather have goblets of wine, sumptuous banquets and luxurious pre-banquet baths.  Who wouldn’t?  “The spirit of James and John lingers on, especially in all of us who have been cushioned by affluence [Stott, 281].  The life of an apostle was one with little security.  Comfort was not a priority; hardship was the theme of the day.  “To follow Jesus is always to accept at least a measure of uncertainty, danger and rejection for His sake” [281].

This brings us to the ways of the power-seeker.  How does a person exert influence in the church?   James and John made a direct request but most often the road to power does not  come through words. 

Money is a key factor for most power-seekers.  When a person can tithe and donate large chunks of their wealth, most pastors avoid antagonizing such a person.  Churches have to have funds to operate.  The catch is that people who make large donations expect access; they expect some decision-making ability in how a church operates.  They expect to wield power.

A second factor is community status.  High-ranking officials in a community naturally exert power in the church.  If a person has a high-profile in the community, they will have a high-profile in the church.  People who are not members of a church may look at who attends and they may be impressed that a mayor, a judge or chief executive officers attend.  The idea is that some of this prestige may rub off on them.  This makes a church a fashionable place to attend.   The high-profile person wields power.

A third factor (believe it or not) is service.  Service is what Jesus expects of His followers, but what about people who serve too much?  I have seen people who make it their job to serve at church so much that no one else is asked to do the work of the church.  What is this person’s goal?  They want to be seen by the pastor as “indispensable”.  When a problem occurs, an initiative needs to be tackled or a mission needs to be accomplished, this power-hungry service-oriented person is consulted because they have a track record of getting things done.  This type of person can insinuate themselves into top leadership in a church just like a wealthy person or a high-profile person. 

Look into their hearts.  What are their goals?  Are they truly doing the work of the church or are they enjoying the credit for doing the work?   It says in Matthew “Only God knows our hearts, and only He knows whether this person has sincerely put his faith in Christ as his Lord and Savior” [7: 1].   Many hard workers are true servants and they do not have ulterior motives.  Others have power as their motive and service is how they achieve their goal.

Stott says the selfish, power-hungry request of James and John is sandwiched between two explicit references to the cross.  That offers a contrast.  Compared to Christ’s sacrifice, their request is described as “shabby, tatty, threadbare” [281].  More importantly this single episode of two power-hungry apostles highlights the choices the church has to make on a regular basis. 

Does the church follow the “way of the crowd?”

Does the church follow the “way of the cross?”

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