The Dangers of Servant-Leadership

I know I am slicing up a sacred cow here. Therefore, lets straight-up acknowledge that the best leaders are those with a heart of a servant. Even secular leadership models acknowledge this. The Bible clearly declares that those who are the greatest in the kingdom of God are those who serve:

But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for may.” Matthew 20:25—28 NASB

Versions of these words appear in Mark and Luke as well, we can’t escape their importance and centrality to understanding of greatness in God’s kingdom.

The passage, however, does not explain exactly what “great among you” looks like. Many, especially those offering leadership seminars, assume that “great” equals being a leader and exercising the authority of a leader. However, the line following declares that such a person “shall be your slave” (doulos in Greek). How we get being a leader out being a slave is baffling!

Further on in Matthew (23:11) Jesus declares, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 10. Here a different Greek word is used. Instead of doulos which is translated as slave, we find the word pais which is translated as servant. Pais, however, still carries the idea of one under the authority of others and sometimes is used to refer to children or young servants.Neither word, slave or servant, suggests a person exercising authority but doing it with a servant’s heart.

These passages argue for someone joyfully submitted to the leadership of others. They suggest obedience—even submission. In short, Jesus is not prescribing a path to leadership but rather a path to greatness in God’s kingdom. This greatness may or may not include the responsibilities of leadership. It is a declaration of what God sees as greatness.

This servant’s heart is something every believer should have. It should never be seen as a means to an end—a path to leadership. Such a view is corrupting. If we are serving because we yearn to be recognized and lifted into leadership, our service becomes paying our dues, something we endure until promoted. Young people are especially vulnerable to seeing servanthood as a kind of boot camp preparing them for leadership instead of the identity of all followers of Jesus.

If being a servant is seen primarily as the path to leadership, we are exposed to a deadly temptation: bitterness when our service doesn’t lead to leadership. I have seen zealous Christians destroyed by disappointment and resentment as year after year no one rewards their service with promotion. Some hop from church to church hoping their humility will get them noticed. Some abandon the church, even God, when their servant’s heart never pays off.

Even though the Scripture talks way more about following than leading, we have few seminars and books on becoming faithful followers. There are no conferences on meekness. We have more books on how to make disciples than on how to be one. We have blended the gospel with the peculiar American myth that we are all above average and all called to be leaders. By wedding servanthood with leadership, we avoid the kind of service that requires obedience and submission. Too often our service is something voluntary, fitting our goals, inclinations, and convenience.

Of course, we really do want every leader to have the heart of a servant. But we want this for every believer—even those never called into leadership. We want servanthood that is a genuine response to the love and grace we have received in Christ—not something that is merely a proving ground for leadership. In the end, nothing is wrong with servant-leadership as long as it doesn’t stop us from valuing and celebrating servant-servanthood.

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About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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