Rule by consent of the governed is often cited to distinguish democracies from other forms of government. But when you think about it, every power arrangement is based on consent of the governed, even if it is obtained at the point of a sword. If “all men are created equal,” as it says in the Declaration of Independence, there is no inherent reason why anyone should exercise authority over anyone else. You have power over me because I let you, pure and simple. You may be holding a gun to my head. Or I may think you are better than me in some way: stronger, smarter, older, wiser, richer or better looking. The ancients believed their rulers were gods, which is hard to top. Later kings ruled by divine right. Sometimes they got into squabbles with religious authorities over secular power, which created a dilemma, since God appeared to be on both sides of the dispute.
Jockeying for position was as prevalent in the ecclesiastical realm as in any other. The Gospel of Mark notes that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asked that they be allowed to sit at places of honor at his right and his left. When the rest of the disciples heard about this, they were indignant; however, Jesus decided to use this incident as something of a teaching moment. He called them all together and said, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
The early church was organized along egalitarian lines, with all property held in common. For centuries, Christians were a persecuted minority, so there was little attraction for the high and the mighty. Then the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire. The church was retooled according to the Roman imperial model, with a separate priestly caste that began parading about in aristocratic finery. By the middle ages, the church had accumulated enormous wealth, including vast land holdings that were the envy of secular monarchs.
Having once chastised disciples who jockeyed for position, Jesus would hardly know what to make of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that is now collectively referred to as “princes of the church.” They are called that because church prelates historically occupied a place in society equivalent to the nobility, and their ranks were often drawn from the same aristocratic families as their secular counterparts. So much for not lording it over people the way the Gentiles did.
According to gospel accounts, the resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem and promised they would soon be “clothed with power from on high.” This would come about at the Jewish festival of Pentecost, when “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind” and “there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.” The disciples began speaking in different languages and were soon manifesting other “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” including the power to heal and to prophesy.
Needless to say, this was not power of a kind that the Emperor Constantine would have been familiar with or, for that matter, the princes of the church – those that St. Paul elsewhere referred to as the “principalities and powers” of this world. When Jesus first sent his disciples out to proclaim the gospel, he instructed them to take nothing with them, no food, no money, not even a change of clothes. He warned a would-be follower, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." The closest he came to aristocratic finery was the purple cloak and crown of thorns Roman soldiers dressed him in to mock him before he was taken away and killed.
Power without pomp – there is little historical precedent for such a thing. Pontius Plate, the Roman governor of Judea, was clearly puzzled by this Jewish messiah who had been dragged before him. Why did he refuse to defend himself against all the accusations that had been made against him? “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Pilate asked. "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” Jesus answered, seemingly indifferent to his fate.
What was the source of Jesus’ power? At first it might seem little different from that of the ancient pharaohs who were regarded as gods or the kings who ruled by divine right – but with one critical difference. As St. Paul expressed it, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This was the power that Jesus promised to his disciples before Pentecost, the power to become children of God. Once possessed of this power, you understand, as the Quakers do, that there is no need to bow down to anyone else. But even more important, based on Jesus’ example, you understand that no one need bow down to you.
Mark 10: 42-44