20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 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. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
There may be a proper motive and a right way to seek desired positions within the church, but it isn’t easy. Whatever it is, James and John still had to learn how to do it and so did their mother.
To refuse a position of responsibility, should it be offered to us, is to risk sounding like Moses. He argued with God at the burning bush over his calling to lead Israel out of Egypt. At the same time, to seek the position is risk looking like Zebedee’s family in the passage above.
God calls people to take positions of responsibility. We don’t call ourselves. The most balanced attitude toward this service/greatness tension might have been both expressed and lived out by Archbishop William Temple, who said, “I have never sought and never refused a position of greater responsibility,”*
The key might be in the love of the service itself, rather than the position. Paul put it like this in 1 Timothy 3:1, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” The task, not the office, is the motivator. Jesus uses terms like “servant,” “slave,” “to serve,” and “to give his life,” to describe his own mission. Ours may look similar to his.
If we focus on service, we won’t get derailed by seeking positions. It may be that a higher position of some sort will come our way. If it doesn’t, we still get to serve right where we already are.
*Quoted in Green, M. (2001). The message of Matthew: the kingdom of heaven (p. 191). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.