Good educators agree that imitation is one of the best methods and most effective means for learning. The truism that ‘most things in life are caught rather than taught’ is scarcely disputable. We see, then mimic, and eventually become. As has been said: “there are no coincidences of character.” As Paul warns: “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Finding the right role models is crucial for Christians, perhaps especially for leaders.

We see, then mimic, and eventually become.

In this article I want to consider Jesus’ words in Mark 10:42-43. He says, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.” Here Jesus issues a warning regarding who we choose to emulate. These words are pertinent for us, specifically when it comes to Christian leadership and also broadly concerning discipleship.

Jesus’ Disciples Had Rogue Role Models

Jesus’ assessment of the leaders of his day can be captured in two words: (1) tyranny and (2) dominance. And his statement above is tucked in a somewhat embarrassing account, recorded in Mark 10:35-45. This narrative comes right on the heels of Jesus’ third and last prediction of his public rejection, suffering, and death. But the remarkably insensitive request made by John and James snuffs the seriousness of this moment.

Rogue models abound and we can very easily catch their ways.

Jesus rounds off his response to them by underlining the ways of the “rulers of the Gentiles.” We may conjecture that the request of the two brothers and the response of the ten reveals that all of them harboured inclinations similar to those of Gentile rulers. Whether consciously or not, the disciples had chosen rogue models. They were channelling the wrong role models. So the disciples exhibit two attitudes that comport nicely with Jesus’ description of the Gentile rulers in his day.

1. The Disciples Cared More About Positions Than People

The disciples’ unsanctified ambition trumped their affection. Not even Jesus’ intimation of his death could blunt it. Even before this, Jesus had predicted his death and they’d fought about who was the greatest among them (Mark 9:30-36). This time around, James and John make a rush for the gold. They tell Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory” (Mark 10:37). Cravings for positions and power made them ignore the words about his approaching suffering and death.

Love for their Lord had given way to lust for status. Jesus being “spat on, flogged, and killed” didn’t seem to jolt them (Mark 10:34). His messianic mission had become a means to grandeur. When Jesus queried them about whether they were able to “drink of the cup” or “be baptised with his baptism,” alluding to his suffering, they responded presumptuously (Mark 10:38-40), as if to make the point that Jesus could worry about thorns, provided they got their thrones.

Love for their Lord had given way to lust for status.

We may be tempted to smirk and trash the disciples, until we consider how similar we are. You see, African culture is an honour/shame culture. The person at the top of the totem pole enjoys the greatest honour. Our furious pursuit of status is thus culturally ingrained. If status begets honour, then it follows that higher is better, right? Because of this, we are no strangers to self-serving rulers, in both the political and corporate arenas. This also means that rogue models abound and we can very easily catch their ways just as the disciples had.

Christians, we are never more like those villainous Gentile rulers than when we too begin choosing promotion over people, fame over relationships, and riches over friendships, whether at home, the workplace, or church. Even ministry can easily become a cloak for self-promotion. We can become desensitised to the pain of those around us by picking the wrong role models. People can become mere collateral and ambition can quickly become ungodly.

2. They Were More Self-Serving Than Self-Sacrificing

Mark writes, “When the ten heard the request, they were indignant at James and John” (Mark 10:41). Only, this was not righteous indignation at the heartlessness of the sons of Zebedee. The ten were irate because they’d been beaten to the punch. All of the disciples secretly wanted to get ahead. It’s the kind of rage one feels when we get cut off in traffic—it’s barely righteous. As they saw it, this was a zero-sum game. This competitive streak made their relationships stink. Unity often dies where self-regard lives.

Thus, it’s unsurprising that even at the Last Supper “there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (Luke 22:24). They were intoxicated with self. With this kind of attitude, they could hardly fulfil their ministries (2 Timothy 4:5). So Jesus offers the corrective: “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).

Ministry isn’t about self-gratification but self-giving. It’s about servanthood not superstardom.

Ministry is not about superstardom but servanthood. It isn’t about self-gratification but self-giving. Domination and suppression are vices that don’t belong in the Christian community. Sadly, the disciples’ temptation lives on today. We jockey. We elbow others to get ahead at the office—society calls it assertiveness and rewards it. A faithful pastor may forget that the other faithful pastor across the road is a co-labourer, not a competitor. All around us, we see greatness as the exercise of power rather than self-denying service. Without noticing that we buy in, and we become.

The Ultimate Role Model

Jesus’ way, however, is radically paradoxical. He contends that the way to greatness is smallness. The way up is down. He doesn’t only teach this. He holds himself up as a better role model, worthy of wholehearted imitation. Our Lord demonstrates that godly ambition makes us downwardly mobile. “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” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus teaches us that people are more important than positions and that service is true greatness.

Better than the rogue models, Jesus teaches us that people are more important than positions and that service is true greatness. He is the one who refused to selfishly cling to his favoured position as the divine Son of God; rather, he humbled himself, proving that divinity and servanthood are not contradictory (Philippians 2:5-11). Are you following Jesus downward on the staircase of humility or are you passing him on your way up? Is Jesus your role model or have you chosen rogue models?