According to the Hebrew creation narrative, hierarchical relationships are a fruit of the relational schisms that took place in the garden; they are not reflective of original creation (Genesis 1.26 mentions authority over creation, but not authority over others.) Even in a perfect state, the narrative seems to hint at humanity’s inability to exercise authority over one other. Nor are they reflective of the new creation that has come through Jesus. (See 2 Corinthians 5.17, NIV.)
The early followers of Jesus understood this vision. Notice Paul’s description of how the church that met in Corinth functioned: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14.26, emphasis added) The gatherings of the early church, historical scholars agree, were not ones where the majority sat passively silent while the same person taught every week. These were communities that embraced the priesthood of all believers, each one possessing a gift to share that would contribute to and build up the body. They saw themselves as having only one teacher (the Messiah), and they were are all humble students, together, showing each other what Jesus was teaching them. These were communities where following the “one-anothers” of the New Testament could be practiced as well as put on display for the world around them to see.
The early followers of Jesus believed that together, they equally became a dwelling place for God. (See Ephesians 2.22, where the “you” is plural, not singular, and 1 Peter 2.4-8.) They believed that together, they were functioning here on Earth as the visible “body of Christ,” with only Christ as their “head” (Ephesians 4.15)—not “lording” authority over each other, but humbly and lovingly serving one another. In this way, they, as a community, believed that together, they were partaking of the “divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1.4) and that “all of them” were “one,” just as the Father was in Christ and as Christ was in the Father. “They” saw themselves in Them. (See John 17.20-21.)
The body metaphor used by Paul is especially telling when taken with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23. When our head signals to our hands, it doesn’t first signal the arm to tell the hands to move; neither must the hand submit to the arm in order for it to obey the head. The brain sends direct signals to those body parts it seeks to influence; consequently, the head controls all of the body’s parts immediately and directly. It doesn’t pass its impulses through a chain-of-command scheme invoking other body parts along the way.
The proper application of the body metaphor preserves the unvarnished truth that in the world changed by Jesus, there is no hierarchical authority practiced by Jesus’ followers over other of His followers. There is only one source of authority in the church: Jesus Christ.
It is mutual submission (i.e., being submitted to one another and then together to Christ), not hierarchical submission (i.e., being submitted to someone else as they are submitted to someone else who has submitted themselves to Christ), that engenders the proper coordination of the body of Christ.
We are not called to put on display simply a religious version of the corporate structures of this world. On the contrary, Jesus is inviting us to experience (and then to put on display) a world where, rather than exercising power over others, we—together, as a community—come under His authority , each of us together learning how to listen to Him. And instead of “lording” power or position over each other, we learn what it means and what it looks like to serve each other with humble servant love.
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