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Servant Leadership: A Counter-Cultural Perspective

Opportunities for leadership can be found in every context where people gather together for a unified purpose. Someone will eventually step up or be asked to be a leader over others in the group. God regularly uses leaders to partner with Him in His purposes.

But what is leadership supposed to look like? Can we trust the world to teach us about leadership? Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 20:25-28, contrasts worldly leadership with servant leadership:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and 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 many.” (NASB)

A Living Definition of Servant Leadership

I am so thankful that God gave us a living definition of servant leadership – Himself. Jesus rejects the world’s way of abused authority and sets His life as our example. Jesus doesn’t reject the disciples’ desires to be great. Instead, he wanted to transform their perspective into one that reflected God’s.

As we look to Jesus and what He did, we learn that the love He demonstrated was unconditional and sacrificial.

Unconditional love means that no one is exempt from His love. Regardless of how sinful and broken we are, His love remains.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(See Romans 5:8-11)

Sacrificial love is seen by the choice Jesus made to empty Himself, dwell with humanity and die on our behalf (1 John 4:9-10). Jesus disregarded His rights as King over every man and lowered himself to the position of a servant – even washing His disciples’ feet:

“Jesus, [with] all things under his power … began to wash his disciples’ feet … [and said,] ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.(See John 13:3-5, 15-17)

The greatest leader of all time came to earth as a servant and became an example for us. We should continue learning about Him so we can walk according to His definition of servant leadership.

Fulfilling Needs vs. Satisfying Desires

Every day we have a choice to focus on others or to focus on ourselves. In the context of leadership, it is easy to make decisions that satisfy our own desires rather than decisions that fulfill the needs of others.

There are three major idols that are contrary to godly leadership:

  • Idol of power: Your desire to have control can be met when in leadership over people. Being able to exercise power and authority temporarily satisfies your need to be significant.
  • Idol of value: Your value as a person is found in the way that others evaluate you. Such a position over people temporarily satisfies your need to be loved and accepted.
  • Idol of pride: Your position of leadership is seen as a reward and evidence for your superior spirituality or abilities. Forgetting that these are both gifts, pride reigns as you look down upon those you are supposed to be serving.

Our desire to be significant, loved, accepted and rewarded are valid desires. But these are supposed to be met in Christ (a person) and not in leadership (a ministry). Having our focus on fulfilling these desires will cause us to serve ourselves. But by putting others above ourselves, our focus will be on fulfilling the needs of others. This is the leadership that God requires.

God expects that our servanthood is founded in selflessness, not selfishness.

So it’s crucial for us to evaluate our motives for leadership.

Then we can be confident that our thinking is according to the Bible’s definition of servant leadership.

Necessity of Humility and Unity

In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul urges the Philippian church to follow Christ’s example of humility. In John 17, after Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples, He prays for all believers. He chooses to focus wholly on unity with God and unity with each other. In 1 Corinthians 12-13, Paul writes extensively about having an attitude of unity and love.

It is clear from the Bible that mankind has an unending struggle with pride and division. This struggle doesn’t relent as you mature and it doesn’t relent as others begin to see you as a leader. As your reputation with people grows, it will be easy to be prideful in your view of yourself.

Will you boast that you are someone special (1 Cor 4:7)? Or will you consider others better than yourself (Phil 2:3b)? Recognizing that everything we have is a gift will keep us in a state of humility before God and people. Pride tempts us to put ourselves above others and to “lord it over them”.

Humility teaches us to put ourselves below others and leave the exalting to God (1 Peter 5:6).

Having attitudes of humility before God and people forms a beautiful unity in the Body of Christ. This divine unity is only available to believers, and it’s constantly being threatened by sin. Jesus’ desire for unity in the Body of Christ is not limited to servant leadership. But as a leader we set an example to other believers.

We should be leading the way by being dedicated to the same values Jesus held.

A Life-Long Process

Becoming a servant leader is a life-long process.

We are slowly being sanctified and transformed into the likeness of the One who was the perfect servant leader. 

Loving like Jesus loved, living like Jesus lived, and thinking like Jesus thought can keep us safe from making leadership into an idol.

The world offers many philosophies contrary to biblical wisdom. If you’re ever given the opportunity to step into leadership, I hope that you will walk according to God’s definition, as a servant leader.