Relinquishing Power: A Christian Minister's Code of Ethics

Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28, Mk. 10:41-45, Lk. 22:25-27). In Mark’s version, “you must be slave to all” (Mk. 10:44). The apostle Paul described his obedience to this fundamental Christian ethic, saying, “I have made myself a slave to all” (1 Cor. 9:19; see also 2 Cor. 4:5, Gal. 5:13). Similarly, the apostle Peter quoted the teaching in his exhortation for those with social authority in the community to “be eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet. 5:2-3). 

To live in light of the gospel and in accordance with reverence to Jesus as the Lord (kyrios) who refused to lord over (katakyrieuo) anyone, one must fundamentally choose to relinquish status and power over others in order to assume the lowly position of a servant (Php. 2:5-9). To refuse to do so is to prove oneself ineffective in the faith (Philem. 6, Jas. 2:14-24) and, a risk posed especially to those with much power to give away (Matt. 19:24) such as slave masters, fathers and husbands (Eph. 5:22-6:9, Col. 3:18-4:1). 

There is a special responsibility then for any Christian who would accept and assume any form of religious or spiritual power. They are held to a higher account because of this authority (Jas. 3:1) and are therefore to be subjected to greater scrutiny (1 Tim. 3:1-7, 5:19-20; see also Mt. 7:1 and Rom. 2:17-23). Therefore all who would assume such power are to take on the lowly roles of servant (minister/deacon), sheepherder (pastor), and humble caretaker (overseer). Jesus explicitly forbade titles or roles establishing anyone superior status or authority in the church and instead commanded that all construe themselves as siblings (Mt. 23:8-12). Paul and the early church then emphasized this universal sibling status amongst believers and also used the egalitarian monikers of co-workers (Rom. 16:21, Philem. 1, 24), co-heirs (Rom. 8:17) and fellow servants (Col. 1:7, 4:7). Whoever wants to be great in the kingdom, and whoever wants to accept a mantle of spiritual authority in the church, must consistently and intentionally relinquish all superiority in status and authority. 

This is the central foundation of ministerial ethics. Paul acknowledged it constantly, putting himself forward as an example of a Christian minister who sought to lay down his clout as such (1 Cor. 9-11, 2 Cor. 11:7-12, Philem. 8-9). Indeed it was precisely this behavior of offering a worthy example of relinquishing power in a Christ-like way that was to be fundamental to the work of Christian ministers (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1, Php. 3:17, 4:9, 1 Th. 1:6, 2 Th. 3:7-9). Indeed Peter puts forth “being examples to the flock” as the antithetical cure to not “lording over” (1 Pet. 5:3). Often ignored is the crucial fact that it is precisely in imitating Christ’s relinquishing of power that ministers are to offer a living, practical model of Christian ethics. In this way Paul can say, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Only to the extent that a Christian lives a life that serves as an effective model for Christian sacrificial relinquishing of power can one rightly be construed as a Christian minister. 

This then is what it means, most essentially, to be a minister and to do ministry. The mode is the message. Understanding this ethic is doubly essential because it is quintessential to what the gospel implies and also because ministry itself subjects one to the kind of power that is so tempting to hold onto. In other words, the spiritual authority correlated with ministers gives such ministers the greatest responsibility to imitate Christ’s relationship to power and also makes them the least likely to do so. The calling creates both the responsibility and the temptation such that the role of Christian minister constitutes a kind of morally self-defeating paradox. 

To overcome these challenges and succeed as ministers of Christ, Christians must commit to intentional and unnatural practices of relinquishing power. The following is a non-exhaustive list:

  • Refuse to be the supreme authority in any given room, community or circumstance.
  • Elevate the voices and opinion of those who would otherwise be delegated to secondary authority.
  • Reject titles and/or positions that place oneself in a hierarchical superiority over others.
  • Delegate tasks, leadership and decision-making authority.
  • Refuse to treat roles such as pastor, elder, or leader as constituting decision-making authority.
  • Listen well and actively committing to respond to what was said.
  • Proactively pursue accountability in all of these practices by actually asking for feedback, making it safe for feedback to be given, and responding to feedback.
  • Install affirmative action type policies and practices in order to consistently undermine natural hierarchical social forces and to keep from being complicit in the marginalization of those with low status.
  • Speak with humility and openness as a fellow-learner and co-laborer in Christ, refraining from acting as a divinely appointed representative of God.
  • Actively refute any seeking to give you an unchristian spiritual authority, whether it be other authority figures or those seeking to submit to a powerful figure.
  • Submit to others by treating everyone else in the church as your potential teacher, minister and leader.
  • Regularly confess your temptation to power and publicly acknowledge the awkwardness of the fact that your role itself presents such temptations.
  • Earnestly ask the church community to join this journey of delegating social and spiritual authority and then help make it possible for them to do so.
  • Admit when the temptation has become too great and step out of whatever position or role is granting the potentially corruptive power. 

At first, these practices will appear and feel radical, painful and even unnecessary. This is an indication that they are utterly necessary. But practice combined with awareness is transformative, so an earnest commitment to relinquish power in every facet of life and to reflect on failures and successes will slowly create change. Over time it will instill the kind of character that allows one to easily, naturally and even joyfully relate to others in Christ-like, self-sacrificial ways. The key then is to enter into a positive cycle of intentional behavior, followed by intentional reflection, which leads to further intentional behavior and so on. It is this kind of committed feedback loop that qualifies one to function as a Christian minister and a representative model and ambassador of Christ. It is also precisely this kind of progressive commitment to working out our own character development that the Spirit of God promises to aid and enable in us (Php. 2:12-13).

Tim Ritterpower