One of the least understood concepts in the Christian world is that of “servant leadership.” While the term isn’t used in the Bible, the concept certainly is, and it’s very important.
The context for the following passage was the “power play” by brothers James and John to secure the top spots in Jesus’ Kingdom cabinet. Jesus gently rebuked the Sons of Thunder for their outrageous, opportunistic request, while the other ten apostles were indignant – as if they hadn’t thought of the same thing! Here’s Jesus’ famous response from Mark 10:42-45:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Three truths follow:
- Servant leadership isn’t something less than real leadership.
The immediate as well as the broader contexts bear this out. In the Bible I use daily, the following words are found just across the column from the passage reprinted above:
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again, he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. Mark 10:32
This was normal. This was the routine. Jesus told them where they were going and when they would leave. He didn’t apologize for his leadership.
Servant leadership isn’t something less than leadership, it is a type of leadership exemplified by Jesus.
- Servant leadership is leadership with a different motive.
What set Jesus’ strong and decisive leadership apart from that of so many others was the motive behind it. As usual, “the heart of the matter was the matter of the heart.” He was determined to reach Jerusalem to keep his appointment with death and resurrection. Frightened rulers and angry mobs were waiting for him there. He had come as a servant who had to die while serving and serve by dying.
The simple question is: “Why do we lead?” God knows the thoughts and motives of our hearts and will reward us accordingly (I Corinthians 4:1-5). Jesus wasn’t denouncing the leadership of Gentile rulers; he was denouncing the tendency of unregenerated rulers to rule for their own enrichment, their own enjoyment, their own “pride of life.”
Don’t forget the insistence of Paul that secular rulers are “God’s servant[s]” (Romans 13:1-5) and don’t miss these words of Jesus from Luke 22:25:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.
Did you get that? In the world’s mentality, being a leader makes you a benefactor – “A favorite title used by the Greek kings of Egypt and Syria,” says the note in my Ryrie Study Bible.
Our own saying, succinctly describing the “spoils system” in American politics, is “To the victor belong the spoils.” It’s a never-ending scandal: you help the politician get elected and he rewards you with a premium appointment.
Do you remember Illinois’ Governor “Blago” and his infamous celebration of having the power to appoint a replacement United States Senator? “I’ve got this thing and it’s _______ golden.”
- Servant leadership is not an abdication nor a repudiation of leadership.
Leadership, inside the Bible and outside the Bible, isn’t something bad, it’s something good, or at least something neutral. Leadership is just “a thing.” Leadership and followership exist everywhere there are two or more persons. Hitler and Stalin were effective leaders and terrible men. Great people are capable of awful leadership; awful people are capable of powerful leadership.
Leadership that leads people to do right is both necessary and important. Not much ever happens without it. If gifted and good people don’t use their gifts of leadership, bad people will use their own gifts of leadership – for evil purposes.
If leadership is inherently bad, why would God tell us to follow our God-ordained leaders?
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
(1) Does our church view leadership as a good gift given by God to some of his children?
(2) Who are the people in our congregation who seem to have the God-given gift of leadership?
(3) How does our church train gifted people to do leadership well?
(4) Do our church’s official leaders view leadership as a gift which God wants them to give to the congregation? If so what are the leaders doing to improve their leadership ability/effectiveness?