Charism & Power (Matthew 23:8-12)


“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one teacher, and all of you are brothers. And don’t call anyone on earth ‘Father,’ for you have only one Father, the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘Teachers,’ for you have only one teacher, the Christ! The person who is greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

There have always been a variety of conspiracy theories associated with the origins of the Bible and every now and then someone confronts me with one.

‘Isn’t it true that the church hid the original Bible and that the version we have has been deliberately changed so as to hide the fact that …’ (for example):

  • Jesus had a wife and children
  • That He really taught reincarnation
  • That Mary Magdalene was an Apostle (and perhaps His only Apostle)

And such conspiracy theorists point to all the bits that don’t seem to have been included in our Bible, such as the Gnosticism and bits of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My question is, if the church was really in the practice of weeding out the bits it didn’t like, why on earth did we leave this bit in!

“Call no man ‘Father” says Jesus. What’s that doing here?

For the church has always referred to its clergy as ‘Father’, and certainly people have been calling me ‘Father’ almost every day for the last twenty-two years. Indeed, as I like to point out to everyone, twenty-two years ago I had the privilege of becoming a father twice in one week, and that’s not because my eldest has some little-talked-about sister or brother somewhere that we keep hidden, but because I was ordained only a few days after Veronica was born!

And ever since then people have been calling me ‘Father’ (my own children included), and I like it (most especially when it comes from my own children, who are not to be encouraged to call me by my first name on the basis of this passage, thank you very much!)

Now I will admit that I do feel a bit funny about being called ‘Father’ by persons who are senior to me and even by my peers, but when I’m at the Youth Centre or training some young guy at the Fight Club it seems entirely appropriate to me as I don’t want the kids to think of me as their peer, nor as their boss, nor as some government-employed social worker. ‘Father’ seems about right to me, and indeed it mirrors the Biblical pattern that the Apostle Paul wrote about:

“Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him as if he were your father. Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, and younger women like sisters ….” (1Timothy 5:1-2)

So why did Jesus have a problem with it – “Call no man ‘Father’”?

When I was at Moore College – that bastion of Protestant puritanism – this verse was indeed regularly cited as an example of how little regard there was for Scripture at the Catholic end of the church, and certainly none of my peers at the seminary would have dreamed of ever adopting the title ‘Father’ for themselves. No, they wanted to be called ‘Teacher’ – the title that was also barred from use by Jesus in the same breath!

In point of fact there are three titles apparently barred from use by Jesus in these verses:

  • Call no one ‘Rabbi’ (vs.8)
  • Call no one ‘Father’ (vs.9)
  • Call no one ‘Teacher’ (vs.10)

And the interesting thing about these three titles that I didn’t realise until last night is that while all three are titles given to clergy in our day, in Jesus’ day they were not!

Certainly the first and the third terms – Rabbi and Teacher – were the titles people used when they address the Pharisees, who are the target of Jesus’ dialogue but, according to the scholars I’ve read, nobody would ever actually refer to a Pharisees as ‘Father’!

Some Biblical commentators have suggested that Jesus is thinking of the way his contemporaries talked about the Patriarchs (ie. Father Abraham et al.) or perhaps He was simply referring to our earthly dads – urging us recognise that it is God who is ultimately the Father and Mother of us all, such that all of us – parents and children alike – are ultimately equals, as brothers and sisters under the parenthood of God

For you have only one teacher, and all of you are brothers” (“and sisters” He would have added, had any of his female disciples been present).

It’s all about equality!  This indeed is the heart of the issue. We are all equals, and so nobody has the right to lord it over anybody else as if they are superior to them. And so it’s not ultimately about words – Rabbi, Father, Mother or teacher – but about the way we relate to each other, and it’s about leadership!

There are two different forms of leadership on view here – one which is based on the wielding of power and one that is all about service:

“You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them”, says Jesus, “and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of the others – like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served but to serve.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

Or as he puts it here in chapter 23:  “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vs. 11-12)

Real leadership, Jesus says, is about humility and service, and not about wielding power at all!

I’ve mentioned many times (I’m sure) about the opportunity I had a couple of years ago to interview Seyed Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran, who was out here promoting ‘dialogue between civilizations’. And I asked him then, “if we can get ordinary people to dialogue, can we get politicians to dialogue too?” to which he replied, “politicians never dialogue. They negotiate.”

And I thought that so brilliantly captured the way politics works, with power-play and negotiation, where it’s all a game that’s being played with a view to winning control in the relationship, and where truth and honest engagement really have no role to play.

The contrast with the type of leadership Jesus expects us to exercise could not be greater, and if I might introduce a technical distinction at this point, I think a lot of it has to do with the difference between two types of authority – between what we might term ‘institutional authority’ and ‘charismatic authority’.

‘Institutional authority’ in its most extreme form, is that which Mao Tse Tung referred to as the “power that grows out of the barrel of a gun”. It is power that has government backing, power that has credentials behind it. It’s the power you wield when you’re the only job applicant with a string of letters after your name, representing all the University degrees you’ve accumulated.  It’s the power you gain at Ordination – to take over a church and tell everybody exactly what they’re supposed to do (except the Wardens of course [in the Anglican system] who you have to be very nice to, as they can withhold your pay if they don‘t like you [God knows how that clause crept into our constitution].).

At any rate, institutional authority is this exercise of power that comes from the top down – where the guy with the position and the credentials wields executive leadership. ‘Charismatic authority‘, on the other hand, is that which comes from the bottom up!  It’s the authority people give you, or that they recognise in you, such that they choose you as their leader.

When the people said of Jesus, that “He spoke as one who had authority, and not like their Scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 7:24), it’s this second form of authority that we are dealing with, isn’t it? He didn’t speak with authority of the religious establishment behind him – with credentials and backing. Rather, in contrast to those who did have all those things, Jesus spoke as one who had God-given authority, and so His power came from God and from the people, and not from the Government.

And this is the kind of authority that Jesus expects us to exercise, in all our roles, I suspect, and most especially in the community of faith, where there should be no place for power-play or game-playing of any sort.

And yet we (the church) have never seemed to be able to get this right. Our ecclesiastical institutions have always been plagued by greed and corruption and the abuse of power as much as any of our secular counterparts!

Indeed, if you read Leonardo Boff’s great book, “Charism and Power”, you’ll see that he analyses the entirely of Christian history as a series of critical decisions were we (the church) have had to choose between maintaining our integrity or maintaining our power, and unfortunately history shows us that we’ve always chosen the latter!

Is is because we are all too arrogant, or too judgmental, or do we just get caught up in the trappings of power?

The great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, spoke of a time when he was in the Cathedral in Copenhagen, watching his grace the Archbishop of Copenhagen come forward in all his robes, with his miter and his attendants, wielding his mighty staff, at the base of a great procession.  And he read from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – “God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1:27).  And Kierkegaard said he looked around the Cathedral, and nobody else was laughing!  Somehow they all missed the joke!

And yet it’s no laughing matter really, is it – institutionalized arrogance, ecclesiastical spin-doctors and the abuse of religious power!

I had a young guy join me for the first time in Fight Club last Thursday. I won’t mention his name or his ethnicity or his socio-economic background but suffice it to say that he was a rough diamond.

And he wanted to do some rounds, and he obviously wanted to hit somebody, and he was young and he was powerful and of course he thought he could beat up on all us old guys and …

We veterans knew better, and after it was all over and the lad had been suitably chastened in the ring, I said to him quietly, “Humility is the key”, to which he responded immediately by telling me that he didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘humility’!  And in this case he actually meant it quite literally – that he really didn’t know the meaning.

He said, “I’m not very smart and I don’t know what that word means” which, ironically was a very humble thing to say.

And I appreciate that not everybody is good with language and not everybody has an extensive vocabulary.  Even so, I did take this guys’ statement as an indication of the fact he had grown up in an environment where the word ‘humility’ just wasn’t used, and that he was part of a culture where ‘humility’ was simply never talked about.

Never let that be said about us – that we forgot the meaning of humility!

“The person who is greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 30, 2011.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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1 Response to Charism & Power (Matthew 23:8-12)

  1. Wow! The subject of This sermon, as you Know, has been heavy on my mind.
    I cannot believe that GOD is showing me and training me through all my new-found friendships, both physical and virtual, so literally…. so Very clearly. I don’t know how I deserve it but, the messages are coming in such diverse, clear, and frequent manners that they can’t be dismissed.
    It’s like when I began to heal and a visceral thought came back at me through my children to call myself “Glow”, it was a veil lifted, ….then it was obvious. It fit. 🙂
    Well your words fit, they help me immensely, And when I re-tweet them, I’ve been told by others, that they help them too. You are a wise servant, and my guess, an intelligent, decent, funny, and lovely Man, …a great Human.

    THANK YOU Brother Dave, 🙂
    Your Sister in CHRIST,

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