'Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.' - Matthew 23:10-11

Old-timers remember the strong reaction when John McKenzie's book "Authority in the Church" hit the pews in the late 1960s. Some in authority immediately labeled him a heretic; others among the faithful called him a prophet.

I finished the book and simply asked, "How come I never noticed that before?"

The "that" was the great "John L's" methodical exegesis of biblical authority texts. He demonstrated that the most frequent problem our sacred authors faced had almost nothing to do with people disobeying those in authority: In practically every passage, the problem they addressed revolved around how those in authority exercised authority.

Having been faith-formed in an era when the catechism, not Scripture, was the teaching tool, I presumed anyone who questioned or challenged those in Church authority were purchasing a one-way ticket to hell.

When I asked my religion teachers what I should do if someone in authority told me to do something I believed was a sin, I was told, "Do it!" The reason: "Most probably you don't know enough about the intricacies of your faith to accurately label it as sinful. Because he's a priest or bishop, he'll always know more about those things than you."

Rampant problems
But McKenzie demonstrated that when a sacred author addressed abuses in authority, the problems which drove them to put stylus to the papyrus were rampant in the communities for which they were writing.

It's not hard for us to hear Malachi's condemnation of the Jewish priests of his day and age (Mal 1:14b-2:2b,8-10). We presume if they'd exercised their ministry correctly, God wouldn't have sent Jesus to clean up the mess.

It's another thing to read Matthew's famous chapter 23:1-12 passage. Though he has Jesus tear into the "scribes and Pharisees," his readers knew he was criticizing their own leadership.

Already by the mid-80s, some Christian leaders had started to wear distinctive clothes, demand honorary titles and presume they were generally better than those they served. Jesus puts it in clear terms: "Do not follow their example!"

Unique style
Authority in the Church is unique: "The greatest among you must be as your servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Nothing runs more counter to the way authority is exercised in other communities and institutions.

Paul, in I Thessalonians 2:7b-9,13, is forced to deal with the same problem. But instead of having recourse to Jesus, he uses himself as an example of good leadership: "We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children...You recall, brothers and sisters our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God."

Remembering Paul's I Corinthians 10 comment about the oneness of the Christian community being symbolized in the one loaf of "messy" eucharistic bread, we can only surmise that even he realized some styles of early Church leadership were contributing to the mess.