Who Is Lording Over Whom? (Matthew 20:25)

Today while studying Greek I encountered an exegetical puzzle. Who is lording over whom in this verse?

“25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you.” –Matthew 20:25-26 (ESV)

Here is a more specific question: To whom does the final “them” in verse 25 refer?

  1. To “the Gentiles” (like the other “them” in the sentence)?
  2. Or to “the rulers of the Gentiles”?

(Another detail as you ponder: the “their” at the beginning of the second clause translates οἱ, a plural article that could just as rightly be translated “the.”)

Until today, I have always assumed (1) is the correct answer. That is how the ESV and a host of other English translations read most naturally to my ears. In other words, the translations I scanned seem to generally present the two clauses of of verse 25 as parallel to each other:

(a) “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”
(b) “their great ones exercise authority over them”

By this understanding, both “them”s refer to “the Gentiles.” They are the ones being lorded over in both clauses.

Some translations suggest that either the nouns (rulers/great ones) or verbs (lord it over/exercise authority over) of one or the other phrases may be stronger, but the phrases are still usually presented as parallel.

But today I read another translation that suggests something I had never even considered before:

“But Jesus said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles are lording it over them, and the great ones are lording it over them [i.e., over the rulers].”

That is how Rodney J. Decker translates the verse in his Reading Koine Greek textbook. (Decker, now deceased, was no slouch with Greek.) The bracketed explanation is his, not mine.

According to this interpretation, not only are the Gentiles lorded over, but even their rulers are lorded over by those greater than them.

Now that I have read Decker’s interpretation, I see that the there is no grammatical reason why ESV could not also be read the same way (although the “their” rather than “the” at the beginning of the second clause, though a legitimate translation option, distracts from Decker’s interpretation).

I don’t know whether Decker is right.

If Decker is correct, then Jesus was not only prohibiting individual persons from forcibly ruling over others in his kingdom, but he was also condemning a hierarchy of such rulers. And both have been a problem in the church, right?

To test Decker’s interpretation, I’d want to do several things I don’t have time now to do:

  • Compare this passage more closely with its parallels in Mark and Luke.
  • Investigate whether the word usage of “great ones” suggests a higher position than “rulers.”
  • Investigate whether “exercise authority over” suggests a higher position than “lord it over.” (These do come from two different words, despite Decker’s identical translation.)
  • Learn more about how pronoun references tend to work in Greek.

Either way, the essential message of Jesus is clear: If you are my disciples, don’t lord it over others! That’s not how my kingdom works!

What do you think? Which way have you read this verse? Do you find Decker’s interpretation convincing? Why or why not? Share your insights in the comments below.


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10 thoughts on “Who Is Lording Over Whom? (Matthew 20:25)”

  1. I think you are on to something here. Yesterday I watched a movie in which the leading actor habitually exchanged object pronouns for subject (as in “to my wife and I”). It was annoying and left me wondering what he really meant. We should not have to do this with the words of Jesus.
    As for hierarchies, ever since I was installed as an elder in my church, I have appreciated Alexander Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership and recommend it for reading to others who have questions about church leadership

    1. Yes, Strauch is good. I also noticed recently that he came out with a newer book on deacons (besides his earlier one) and from what I read he listened close enough to Scripture to present a view of deacons that is different from what many expositors assume (read into the text). That honesty with Scripture is valuable.

  2. Amen to what Jesus knew to be true concerning my / our desires for power and position. Amen to what David Hertzler said above concerning Alexander Strauch’s book “Biblical Eldership”. The tension we seem to need so desperately here is true spiritual authority. We don’t need another vacuum in the body that results from reaction to abuse. We desperately need brothers and sisters who truly have a word from the Lord and the faith and ability to express it in brokenness and humility. ( Yes. I know there is a proper place for us to express that word. 🙂 Blessings.)

  3. Great post, Dwight, and worth more study and reflection. Whether or not Jesus intended to imply the levels of hierarchy, that is very much how the kingdoms of the world operate, and even in religious institutions it is easy to see leaders that have become enslaved to the “system” and it’s levels of power.

    I wanted to note that in the email version the bracket portion of the quote is missing. I was a bit confused by that until I came to the website where it displays correctly.

    Blessings.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up about the missing bracketed section. I am not very pleased with the format of my emails overall. There are a few other glitches. But I’m not tech-wise enough to produce a better solution. :-/

  4. I’ve seen the passage in Peter [don’t be Lords over God’s heritage] interpreted the same way. I’ve always thought God’s heritage was the brotherhood, but some feel that it is the leadership and that he is forbidding a heirarchy of leadership, like you said above. I’m not sure. I don’t have time to look it all up again right now, either.

    1. Interesting, Lester. I’m pretty sure that “the Lord’s heritage” is the whole church. I had never heard any other interpretation.

      To be more precise on the question of hierarchy in Matthew 20, I don’t think the passage explicitly prohibits any hierarchy of leadership. Rather, it prohibits lording over others. That can happen with or without hierarchy, and perhaps there are ways in which some expressions of hierarchy could function without lording over others, too. I pondered this because this morning, in an interesting bit of timing, I read the passage in Exodus where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro encourages Moses to set up a hierarchy of judges in Israel! I do think there are differences between the OT and the NT in this regard (law in our hearts, focus on leaders passing on the heritage of the gospel rather than acting as judges, etc.), but the whole question of hierarchy is bigger than Matthew 20 and too much for me to discuss now.

  5. I appreciate your grappling with this text! It seems to me that the understanding of this issue hinges on the antecedent of the word “their”; does “their” refer back to the “rulers” or to the “Gentiles? I believe it can be read and understood both ways in English and I look forward to your further discoveries in the Greek!
    I also appreciate the two different prepositions Jesus and Peter use when discussing this topic. While the rulers of the Gentiles lord it “over” their subjects, in the church the leaders are “among” others, ie on their level. The world’s model is so dominant, church leaders need to be continually reminded to live “among” the flock, as one of them, not lording it “over” them with power, position, and prestige.

    1. Thanks, John. I agree with your statements about leadership!

      On the “their” word, I think I recall that the Greek behind “their” is again just an article (plural “the”). Articles in Greek can sometimes be used much as our definite article “the,” and other times are used similar to a pronoun of possession, such as “their.” Many times context is not clear, and it doesn’t really matter much. I would not put too much weight here on trying to determine the referent for a word that we’re not even sure really is intended to act as a pronoun. (See other translations.)

      Thanks for taking time to read!

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