But you are not to be called rabbi (teacher), for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:8-12
Evidently these words were put into Jesus’ mouth by the community that produced Matthew’s gospel and reflect the egalitarianism and communism that characterised it. The phrase that gives away their origins is ‘you have one instructor; the Christ’. ‘The Christ’, as we know, was a creation of the early church and it is highly unlikely Jesus would have referred to himself in such a way. In the synoptic gospels he is reticent even about claiming the Jewish title of Messiah for himself. In any case, the reference is patently to a third party, and is by an author or interpolator who subscribes to the later, supernatural Christ.
In the unlikely event, then, that these words emanated from Jesus himself, all they achieve is to demonstrate his lack of understanding of human psychology. Even as ‘Matthew’ set about recording them, the newly founded church was already ignoring them, which is perhaps why he felt the need to have Jesus say them. Here’s Ephesians 4.11, written by someone pretending to be Paul round about 80-100CE, contradicting them:
Christ gave (us) the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers…
The imposter who wrote 1 Timothy (5:17) up to a hundred years after Jesus’ death goes further, endorsing the exaltation of those who teach and rule others:
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.
Why? Because human beings like hierarchies. Almost all human societies are hierarchical in nature and groups invariably arrange themselves hierarchically. There will always be people who see themselves as leaders and teachers and still others who look to those who’ve set themselves up as authorities to tell them what to do.
Despite what Jesus or ‘Matthew’ might have preferred – everyone being equal while those who ‘exalt’ themselves are humbled – it just doesn’t happen in human culture. It certainly wasn’t happening in the movement that emerged following Jesus’ death, in the church that existed by the time Matthew was making Jesus say that the only authority Christians should recognise was God’s and his own. The institution that was appearing in place of the end of the age – an institution that Jesus neither anticipated nor instigated – could not function effectively as the simple band of ‘brothers’ he is made to suggest. It was in need of structure, and a hierarchy was it.
And so it was that, before long, the first popes emerged – ‘pope’ deriving from the Latin for ‘papa’. Each of these exalted figures would come to be referred to as ‘Holy Father’, a title still in use today. With complete disregard for Jesus’ instructions, other priests (meaning ‘elders’) in the Catholic church also assumed the title ‘father’. Evangelical churches, lest they think the Catholic church is the only guilty party, have their ‘pastors’, meaning ‘shepherds’, who, by definition, lead others. A common or garden ‘clergyman’ is a ‘learned man’, while a bishop is one who ‘looks down from above’. An archbishop is chief look-downer and exalted indeed. Elsewhere, showmen preachers in mega-churches ‘teach’ with a mixture of anecdote, wild conjecture and stuff they make up as they go along; tune into TV’s God channels for a taste of this particular brand of humility. The church in all its manifestations has, from the beginning, been hierarchical from top to bottom.
Jesus, however, didn’t want there to be a top or bottom; if Matthew 23.8-12 is to be believed, he commanded there shouldn’t be. He envisaged his followers living in harmony with everyone equal under his and God’s authority. No-one was to set themselves up as teacher or leader; no-one was to exalt themselves above others. If any did, they would need to be humbled. But this isn’t how human beings organise themselves, and never how the church has conducted itself. Shouldn’t he have known that?