"Always in need of being purified"(2): Jesus, Children and Church Leadership
2. We need to return to the source. The mission of the Church was outlined by Jesus and we must listen to Jesus with renewed care. The elements of the Church’s mission with which I am concerned are a) Jesus’ teachings on how his disciples should utilize power and authority; b) the particular teachings on how persons with authority within the Church should treat children; and c) the warnings and punishments for those in authority in the Church who misuse and abuse their power and authority. Even within these parameters I will only draw on a select few verses. Inherent in this discussion is my understanding that Jesus did pass on power and authority within the Church to certain individuals, the apostles primarily, and that the Church today properly invests certain people, the successors to the apostles, with this power and authority. As to whether we today understand power and authority as Jesus did, as to whether the institutions in the Church today in which power and authority is vested are rightly ordered, and as to whether the relationships today between those with authority and power and the laity are rightly ordered will be considered in the next section.
Jesus clearly passed on authority to a select group of people, that group known as the twelve apostles primary amongst them, and they participated in Jesus’ mission even during his lifetime (Matthew 10 and parallels). The core of the mission remains the same today, even though some elements of it have clearly changed from Jesus’ initial charge. For instance, Jesus’ command to "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans” (Matthew 10:5) is no longer a part of the Church’s mission. I believe this was a part of Jesus’ historical charge to the apostles and do not consider that Jesus was wrong, naturally, to issue this command, but I am aware that at some point the practical and theological reasons for this charge came to an end. I do not believe, that is, that we would find apologists today for a desire to return to the Church as it used to be, in its pristine state, when it had only Jewish apostles and disciples. There are two points I am trying to make here: one, institutions are always changing, so it is important that we do not simply take the approach that a return to the original state is always the best path; and if change is essential we must be aware that it might even be necessary at times in order to continue the mission, as it was for the introduction of the Gentile mission. Change is essential in the Church, therefore, but the change must be authentic and congruent with the mission of Jesus Christ, because the Church was established by the authority of Jesus Christ himself. If we were to examine Jesus’ charge not to evangelize the Gentiles and Samaritans more fully, we would see that the Gentile mission was intended for the future and that both Jesus and the Scriptures spoke of it. The Gentile mission, therefore, did not run counter to or in opposition to Jesus’ intentions for the Church, it was intended for the Church at some undefined point in the future.
These apostles, though, clearly made up the leadership of the earliest disciples of Jesus and Peter himself is chosen from amongst the twelve for a special position (Matthew 16:13-20; John 21:15-19). The apostles were chosen by Jesus for the task of leadership, and one of the topics to which Jesus often returned was the ways in which leaders in the Church were to behave. What does Jesus say about leadership in the Church? When James and John in Mark 10 attempt to curry favor and position with Jesus, Jesus challenges them and ultimately explains the nature of leadership amongst his chosen Apostles: "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). Leadership in the Church is not intended to be a means to “lord over” or to tyrannize, but to serve. It is not a means to accrue power or wealth, but a means to imitate the service and sacrifice of the Son of Man. If Jesus came to serve all people, including the weak and the lowly, how much more should those chosen to follow him mimic this same behavior? Since such behavior is recommended based upon the model of Jesus’ life, “poured out for many.” and his teaching, it seems clear that this is not a facet of leadership which has come to its end for the successors to the apostles. Service to all is at the heart of the Church’s leaders. The apostles represent the person of Jesus: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me (Matthew 10: 40).
There is, obviously, more that Jesus teaches. Jesus instructs the apostles in Matthew 10:7-8 (and parallels) to “proclaim the good news, "The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Especially significant is another command given to the apostles by Jesus: “you received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8). The role of apostle is not a role that should be guided by financial demands or need. In the ancient world people liked money as much as they do today, and they needed it like everyone needs it today, but the task of the apostles was to be dependent upon the goodwill of the people they served and to whom they ministered. Money was not to be a driving force in decision making or in their advancement.
Jesus, however, was aware of the temptation for those in power to “lord it over others” and to tyrannize. He gives a parable in Luke that speaks to this. It is also found in Matthew 24:45-51, but only in Luke 12:41-46 does Peter ask a question regarding this parable that takes us in the direction of Church leadership. Peter asks if the parable is being told for “everyone” or “for us”. Joseph Fitzmyer thinks “us” refers to all of Jesus’ disciples (Anchor Bible Commentary Luke X-XXIV, 989), but I am convinced it refers to Church leadership, the apostles, in particular. The parable focuses on those who have charge of the other slaves in the absence of the master, Jesus. If those in charge of the other slaves abuse their power, they will pay a heavy price for their sins: “if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12: 45-48). First of all, this parable makes clear that within the Church we all serve the master, whether one is a bishop, a priest, a child or a wealthy landowner. Second, to be put in a position of leadership in the Church does not entail the perquisites of power, but increased responsibility to care for those with less authority in the Church. Judgment will be harsh, especially for those who knew their responsibilities, but did not carry them out.
Is it possible, though, that the apostles did not know what the Master wanted with respect to the treatment of children, that this responsibility was unclear to them? Is this one of those cases where the apostles, and so their successors, deserve not to be “cut in pieces” or to receive a “severe beating,” but only a “light beating? It is not possible to make this case, for Jesus’ teaching on the treatment of children and other “little ones” is extensive and clear. I will give short excerpts from a recent book of mine on children, co-written with Cornelia Horn, Let the Little Children Come to Me: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity(Washington: Catholic University Press, 2009).
We claim that the passages in which Jesus instructs his apostles on the treatment of children within the Gospels come directly from Jesus. “It is highly probable that the sayings are authentic teachings of Jesus because of their dissimilarity to attitudes of the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. Children were generally not held up as models of spiritual enlightenment in Judaism and only rarely in early Christianity. That is, Jesus’ reception of children, precisely because they were children and not spiritual prodigies, did not proceed from any existing model in Judaism, nor did early Christians, who initially concentrated their ministry and missions mostly on adults, readily adopt Jesus’ ministry to children or accept children as models of spiritual perfection or as model disciples” (252-53).
We argued that the first complex of Jesus’ sayings regarding children had this original form:
“A) If you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me (Mark 9:37; Matt 18:5; Luke 9:47);
B) Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone (Mark 9:42; Matt 18:5; cf. Luke 17:2);
C) See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for their angels always behold the face of my Father (Matt 18:10);
D) Whoever gives a cup of water to one of these little ones, he will not lose his reward (Matt 10:42; cf. Mark 9:41).
The teaching has a parallelism which is based on a larger structure that can be identified as consisting of the components: “welcome the child”; “if you do not welcome the child, you will be punished” // “do not despise the child”; “if you do not despise the child, you will get a reward.” Jesus’ original teaching regarding the reception of children, as far as we can reconstruct it from the sources, concerned the concrete reception of children into the Christian community as children. They were welcome as they were and they were to be protected from all who would prey on them” (my italics; 258-59).
What might be surprising to see in the reconstruction of Jesus’ sayings in this form is the extent to which Jesus was aware that children’s lives and well-being would be threatened even within his own Church. Of the four parallel clauses, three deal with the protection and care of the child!
The second block of sayings takes us further into the nature of the child and how Church leaders must treat the child:
“In his receiving children and welcoming them into the community, Jesus set the standard to be followed. That his teachings soon became spiritualized indicates the difficulty that early Christianity had with accepting these teachings as concerning actual children. That early Christians maintained and passed on the traditions indicates their authenticity and authority. The extension of these passages as a metaphor implying that all Christians are children of Christ may have received its impetus from Jesus’ preaching about the relationship of all people to God the father, and perhaps even of a priority for those who were marginalized and outcasts. Yet this does not have to distract the reader from Jesus’ reception of children into the community and his emphasis on these children as the model for other disciples.
In light of the preceding discussion, we reconstruct this passage according to its form in Mark:
A) They were bringing children to Jesus, but the disciples rebuked them (Mark 10:13; Matt 19:13; Luke 18:15);
B) Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, do not stop them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16);
C) Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; cf. Matt 18:3);
D) He laid his hands on the children and blessed them (Mark 10:16; Matt 19:15).
The key to understanding this passage is that the children themselves were received and blessed. Adults in the community were to accept the kingdom of God “like a child.” They had to receive the kingdom in the manner in which children responded to Jesus, with all the implications of what being a child meant, for example, showing greater faith in who Jesus is and greater knowledge as to the nature of following him in faith. Also, the way in which children themselves were received in the community was the measure and manner of the kingdom of God in the midst of the Christians. What remains and demands acceptance in either case is that children were seen as the measure of discipleship” (261-62).
What is radical in Jesus’ teaching about children is his presentation of them as models of discipleship and his charge that those in positions of authority become like them and his warnings not to harm them. If children are being harmed by those in authority in the Church and, subsequently, that harm to children is systematically covered up by the authorities in the Church so that they do not lose power and so that children, parents, and others lose faith, what must be done to return to Jesus’ teaching? Because to my mind “the way in which children themselves were received in the community was the measure and manner of the kingdom of God in the midst of the Christians” (262). What must change to make the Church a place that welcomes and blesses children everywhere and that takes on the characteristics of a child?
John W. Martens