Ambition is a strange, wonderful, glittering but dangerous characteristic for any Christian leader. With it, we can achieve amazing and faithful gains for the kingdom; without it, we are passive, workshy, and go with the flow. But with it we can also domineer, control and make ourselves the enemy of a grace-filled gospel.
Jesus is crystal clear on the subject:
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk. 10:35-45)
That’s a famous set of contrasts, that has given us a famous phrase: ‘The Servant leader.’ But it does raise an intriguing question: was Jesus himself ambitious? Is it possible to be ambitious but still be humble? What would that look like?
It is an obvious question to us, but it is not a new one, because Mark has structured it into his gospel. Jesus makes three unmissable predictions about his death and resurrection, and for us they occur in consecutive chapters: 8:31, 9:31-32, and 10:32-34. But notice this: each one leads immediately into teaching about what it means to lead and to serve (8:32-38; 9:33-37; 10:35-45). Peter disagreed with him (8:32); all the disciples argued about it (9:34); James and John had a major row with the others about it (10:41).
What is it about ambition, that it splits us from Jesus and his work so fundamentally?
The glittering alternative
We can see what Jesus was saying more clearly when we look at the opposite. On four occasions, the New Testament warns us about selfish ambition (Gal. 5;10, Phil. 1:17, Jas. 3:14,16), and one occasion gives us a pen portrait of what that looks like. In 3 John, we meet Diotrephes, who is a church leader, but turning into a cult leader. John says,
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
(3 Jn. 9-11)
Now, notice what has happened. Everything has gone wrong, because Diotrephes loves to be first. Before we come to messy interpersonal issues, there’s a heart issue at stake. He loves to be first. That’s what selfish ambition looks like. Everyone else, everything else, is merely a tool by which Diotrephes gets to feed his ego.
And the ugly truth is, you and I have seen churches like that. Perhaps we’ve been in one. Perhaps we’ve been involved in leading one one. Perhaps we still are.
But because a church is more than a club – it’s the body of Christ, and because John is not just any writer but an Apostle of Christ, Diotrephes’ activity has four damaging consequences:
- He has isolated the church: he will not welcome John, and he refuses to welcome other believers. This is a church where the defensive shields stay up, because everyone else is excluded.
- He has undermined the apostles. Not have anything to do with the apostles is a serious business.
- He has excluded other Christian workers. The phrase translated other believers here is better translated the brothers – itinerant Christian workers, needing food, a home and protection. So they are other workers who should be his colleagues, and those who have an authority over us.
- He bullies other Christians. John says that Diotrephes is spreading malicious nonsense about him and his team, and when he finds someone who wants to be more welcoming, he stops them and puts them out of the church.
And all because he is ambitious.
To cheer us up, there is a counter example in 3 John as well:
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honours God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth (vv5-8).
But Diotrephes, who loved to be first, was lurking in the shadows.
- Do you think Jesus was ambitious?
- Do you think you are ambitious? How are the reactions of the disciples similar to yours?
- How do you think Diotrephes justified his actions to himself?
- How was the first reader of the letter (Gaius, 3 Jn. 1) the opposite of Diotrephes?
- How could you prevent yourself from being like Diotrephes, and instead more like Gaius?
- Is your church at all like the one Diotrephes led?
I wrote a whole chapter on 2 John and 3 John in The Message of the Church (Bible Speaks Today)
You can order it (discount) from 10ofthose here,
Aussie? Koorong has it here.