41 – The Principle of Service

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25-28)

Jesus announced the same principle later in His ministry: "But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Matt. 23:11-12). The theocentric principle undergirding this principle of rulership is the need for a ransom payment to God. God's wrath must be placated. Someone must pay.

Jesus Paid It All

Jesus identified Himself as the one who would pay it on behalf of man. For paying this price, God the Father granted Jesus absolute power. "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth" (Matt. 28:18b). This was God's gift to Jesus. His sacrificial death led to His glorification in history.

Jesus gained absolute power over history, not solely in His status as God, but also in His status as human. He had possessed absolute power prior to His incarnation, but not in His status as human. To achieve this on man's behalf, He had to humble Himself in His status as God. Paul wrote: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:5-11).

What God did, covenant-keeping men must imitate. To achieve dominion in history, they must subordinate themselves to God. The evidence of this subordination is their service to other men. They must become servants.

Dominion Through Service: Covenantal

Jesus here made it plain that dominion is a legitimate goal. This has to mean dominion over others, i.e., holding an office. Hierarchy is basic to creation — point two of the biblical covenant model.1 God has placed man over the creation (Gen. 1:26-28). Some men are placed legally over other men. This is the doctrine of judicial representation — also part of point two. The question is: What are the legitimate means of attaining dominion?

We begin, as Jesus did, with a description of ecclesiastically illegitimate means. He said that the princes of the gentiles exercise authority over their subordinates. This means that they issue commands, and these commands must be followed. Those who refuse risk the pain of negative sanctions. This requires a top-down chain of command. This is the kind of authority that Jesus exercised over sickness. When the Roman centurion described his own authority over his troops as analogous Jesus' authority over illness, Jesus praised this confession of faith. He healed the man's servant from a distance, which the centurion had affirmed that He could do, so great was His authority (Matt. 8:8-10).

This form of military command is not the model for the church's government. The military is a subset of civil government. The military serves the nation. Officers serve the nation best by placing at risk their lives and the lives of their men. Yet even here, the successful leader places his men's interests above his own. He protects his men's lives before he protects his career. He obeys orders that place his men at extreme risk, not to advance his career, but to serve as a model for his men. A battle plan sometimes involves the deliberate sacrifice of some units. Even here, the Western military tradition encourages volunteerism: high-risk operations are very often staffed by volunteers or special forces.

Jesus was speaking to His disciples in their capacity as church members. He was not speaking to a group of soldiers. The principle of leadership that He laid down here is not appropriate for the army, whose task, as one officer has put it, is "to kill people and break things." Leaders in the church are supposed to be servants, not military commanders. The proper way to authority in the church is the way of service. Paul made this clear in his first epistle to Timothy. "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity" (I Tim. 3:2-4). The person described here is self-sacrificing.

That this is the avenue to ecclesiastical authority is not intuitively obvious. The exercise of power is the more common avenue to public greatness. The strong man compels obedience. He also rewards it. He rules by means of sanctions, positive and negative. But how is this different from authority in the church? The distinction is not easy to state. For example, we can say that the way to authority in the church is through service to those without any power, but this is not true in a church where members vote. The members have sanctions to impose. They vote to hire or fire a pastor. They vote for officers. If a man's goal is high office, the favor of those possessing these sanctions is surely valuable to him. Similarly, in the worldly quest for power, men serve those who possess greater power. They subordinate themselves to those who can reward them. But church members who vote can also reward others with leadership positions. Those seeking authority do subordinate themselves to those with the votes. Where, then, is the distinction between church authority and other forms of authority? What did Jesus mean when He said, "But it shall not be so among you"?

Service Unto Death

Christ's service was service unto death. This places His service beyond the ability of men to repay. He did not die to placate men. He died to placate God. He subordinated Himself to evil men in history in order to liberate men from sin and death.

Service in the church is to be analogous. The legitimate road to dominion is through service to those who cannot repay. God will raise up such a servant to a position of leadership. Yet in the modern church where members vote, almost everyone can repay. This is also true in civil government. To understand what Jesus was getting at, we must consider His era.

In the gentile world in Jesus' day, democracy was a relic of the past. Rome had moved from a republic to an empire under Caesar Augustus in the generation before Jesus' birth. The trappings of representative government were still visible, but not the substance. To gain and hold power, men had to seek favor with members of the oligarchy that held it. The people could not grant political office or withhold it from those above them. There was no public veto over the affairs of state. Power was granted from above.

Ecclesiastical Office

The church reflected this hierarchy. When it came time to replace Judas, the eleven apostles made the decision regarding who would be the two candidates. Then they turned it over to God. "And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:23-26). On what basis did the apostles narrow the list of candidates? The text does not say. But we know what it was from Jesus' words: those in authority decided in terms of the service of the two men. The standard was not service to the apostles, but service to the congregation.

Those with power in the church must heed Christ's words. They must use service to others than themselves as the criterion for screening the candidates for high office. It is clear from the passage in Acts that democracy was not part of the procedure. They could use the casting of lots to allow God to make the final decision. This practice had to be replaced in A.D. 70: the fall of Jerusalem, when judicially authoritative divine revelation ceased. Then to what extent is Acts a legitimate model for today?

Hierarchy has not been annulled. How do Jesus' words apply to church hierarchy? First, there must be a screening procedure. The standard of service to others must be applied by those who are not being served. The screening committee must not become self-serving. It must not choose its successors based on service to the personal interests of members of the hierarchy. Committee members must be able to perceive that a potential candidate is active in his service to the members.

Second, there must be competition. There must be more than one candidate for each office. The screening committee can and must apply the criteria, but it must not assume that only one person is capable of holding office. This assumes too much wisdom on the part of a committee. Committees are rarely creative. They function best as nay-sayers. They veto bad ideas. They should decide only what things in general should be done and not done, and to hire and fire the senior officer. Implementation must be left to individuals who answer to the committee.

Third, there must be third-party sanctions. Someone other than the screening committee must have the final decision. In the case in Acts, God was the third party. To lodge final authority in the representative body is to create an implicit tyranny. The representatives should always face a veto by those represented. As in the case of a committee, the large body that comprises those represented cannot devise and implement specific policies. They covenant with each other in a mutual quest of general goals. Then they choose who will lead them. But they cannot escape responsibility before God. If their leaders fall, they fall (Lev. 4).2

The gentiles served those above them. Obedience to an ever-more narrow hierarchy was the way to power. Rulership was a matter of coercion: issuing orders to those below. The authority to issue orders was seen as the great prize. Jesus announced a different system of hierarchy: the principle of servanthood. Instead of issuing orders to those beneath, the ruler is to serve them. Coercion is thereby minimized.

Servants' Rights

Men pervert this rule when they seek leadership roles by serving only those who can repay them with the robes of authority. They imitate rebellious Absalom, who stood in the city's gates and promised justice to all men.3 They pretend to serve. They flatter those served in a strategy of gaining the power to issue orders.

How can those served protect themselves? First, by not consenting to a system of administrative rule. They must keep church government weak. All government is a system of hierarchy, but the biblical model for church and State (but not family) is a bottom-up hierarchy. Rulers are judges who hear disputes (Ex. 18). They are not to issue orders that do not arise from either the formal settling of disputes or from the application of God's Bible-revealed law. Court decisions can become precedents. Precedents can be codified. Law books summarize court decisions. But the idea of a legislature that issues new laws by fiat is contrary to the principle of the appeals court.

Second, those served must exercise judicial sanctions from time to time. They must decide who will rule over them. In doing so, they exercise a veto over the decisions of the representative body, either directly or indirectly.

Third, they must decide whether to remain in covenant with a local congregation. Competition among congregations is as good a thing as competition among candidates for church office. Servants should be allowed to vote with their feet. Original sin teaches that men cannot be trusted with unilateral power. If power is exercised only downward, the result is tyranny. If a self-appointing hierarchy determines the distribution of the inheritance, those who provide the funding should reduce that inheritance by transferring their membership and their tithes.

Dominion Through Service: Free Market

The free market order is based on a principle of service analogous to the one that Jesus set forth as binding in the church. The producer must serve the consumer if he wishes to maximize his return. He must act in the present as a representative of future consumers. He must forecast what they will be willing and able to pay in the future. Then he must enter the market for production goods. He must buy or rent them, restructure them, store them, advertise them, and deliver them to paying consumers. If he misforecasts, he will produce losses. If he forecasts correctly, he will produce profits.4

Consumers are legally sovereign over their assets. The consumer decides whether or not to buy an item offered for sale. The seller has no legal compulsion over him in a free market economy. The seller has a legal claim on his own products, but he does not have a legal claim on the consumer's money. The seller of goods is legally sovereign over what he owns, just as the potential consumer is legally sovereign over what he owns. But the consumer is economically sovereign. Why? Because he possesses the most marketable asset: money. The seller owns a specialized asset. It has a much narrower market. There are far fewer people rushing to give him money in exchange for his asset than there are sellers who are pursuing consumers for their money. The consumers, because they owns money, are economically sovereign.

In rare instances, the producer is sovereign. These cases usually are unique life-and-death situations. The physician at the scene of an accident is sovereign over a critically injured person. The injured person is not in a position to negotiate. But such cases are exceptions. The general market principle is this: consumers are economically sovereign over producers. While both parties are buyers and both are sellers, he who sells money is considered the buyer. He is economically sovereign because he owns the most marketable commodity.

To maximize their returns, sellers must conform to the demand established by buyers. The structure of the free market is not a pyramid-like hierarchy. Sellers and buyers meet on equal legal terms. Neither is legally sovereign over the other. Neither can compel the other to meet his demands. The only negative sanction that either of them can impose on the other is the refusal to enter into an exchange. The free market is therefore not a covenantal institution.

Covenant vs. Market

In a covenantal institution, there is a hierarchy of legal authority. Subordinates take an oath before God that they will defer to the decisions of ordained superiors. They owe them allegiance, for they owe God allegiance, and their superiors represent them before God (Lev. 4). The superior has a legal claim on his subordinates. This is not the legal relationship between buyers and sellers in a free market economy.

Any attempt to insert the legal structure of a covenant into market relationships undermines the economic sovereignty of asset-owning consumers. Other consumers, who do not possess sufficient assets, or who wish to use their assets for other purposes, may decide to call for the State to redistribute wealth. They may call on the State to compel producers to meet their demand at below-market prices by legally forbidding the bids of competing consumers. The substitution of one party's legal sovereignty over mutual exchange undermines the sovereignty of consumers in general.

Legislation favoring certain groups is introduced and passed on the basis of a deception. The public is told that the legislation protects an entire group, when it really favors one segment of this group at the expense of most of the other members. Above-market returns are possible only because one segment of the group is protected by law from competition against other segments. The higher the returns, the fewer the beneficiaries: fewer participants to share the loot. Consider legislation passed in the name of producers' sovereignty: tariffs, import quotas, cartels, quality controls, price floors, compulsory trade union laws, and regulation in general. Or consider legislation passed in the name of defending consumers' sovereignty: price ceilings, quality controls, laws barring racial discrimination in renting or selling, and rationing. Such legislation annuls the legal sovereignty of excluded producers and consumers over their own property. It forcibly removes them from the competitive bidding process. In doing so, it restricts the market, thereby lowering the division of labor and reducing output per unit of resource input. It reduces the wealth of those discriminated against, all in the name of the public interest. In the name of a "government-business partnership," it revokes the legal sovereignty of politically unskilled producers. In the name of "consumerism," it revokes the legal sovereignty of politically unskilled consumers.


The principle of hierarchical service governs the covenant. The covenant is bound by an oath to God, implicit or explicit. It involves legal claims. Where hierarchy is covenantal, the rulers are to seek dominion by serving the needs of their subordinates. God honors those with the power to enforce their will on others when they restrain themselves and sacrifice their own interests for the sake of their subordinates. This is what Jesus did in both of His offices: God and man.

The top priority here is service to others. This rule governs all men: "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil. 2:3-4). But it especially governs those who have been entrusted with authority by God and man.

1. Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant (2nd ed.; Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), ch. 2.
Gary North, Leviticus: An Economic Commentary (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), ch. 4.
"And Absalom rose up early, and stood beside the way of the gate: and it was so, that when any man that had a controversy came to the king for judgment, then Absalom called unto him, and said, Of what city art thou? And he said, Thy servant is of one of the tribes of Israel. And Absalom said unto him, See, thy matters are good and right; but there is no man deputed of the king to hear thee. Absalom said moreover, Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice! And it was so, that when any man came nigh to him to do him obeisance, he put forth his hand, and took him, and kissed him. And on this manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment: so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel" (II Sam. 15:2-6).
Frank H. Knight, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (New York: Harper Torchbook, [1921] 1965).

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