In recent decades, the phrase servant leadership has become so widespread, even in secular circles, that its meaning has perhaps become less clear and its requirement for humility perhaps less of a juxtaposition on our thoughts than it should be.
In a sense, servant leadership has become more of a catch phrase than a statement of leadership through humility. But in the life of Christ, it was no catch phrase. It was the way He lived.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)
I was reminded of these truths last week as I was rereading Warren Wiersbe’s book, Ten Power Principles for Christian Service and the following paragraph caught my attention:
It’s dangerous, however, to depend on professional and pulpit authority alone, which can easily lead to pseudoauthority or authoritarianism. Authority must be balanced by stature, what people see of the working of the Spirit in our own lives. Authority is given to us, but stature is something we must earn and comes with a price to pay. To be an example to the believer by obeying God’s will and serving God’s people is one of the highest honors possible in this life. Yes, God’s servant/leaders have authority, and they exercise it in love, balancing it with the stature they’ve gained by being faithful to the Lord and his people. (Baker Books, 1997, page 65)
In my own book, Guided by Grace, I wrote along a similar vein:
Good spiritual leaders are shepherds, not saviors; leaders, not lords; guides, not gods. When the tactics of men tend to political maneuvering, position may be gained, but it is without purpose. … Godly leadership and authority are conferred by God and must not be grasped or seized. (Sword of the Lord Publishers, 2000, pages 15, 48–49)
God specifically calls those in pastoral positions of leadership to be shepherds: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3).Good spiritual leaders are shepherds, not saviors; leaders, not lords; guides, not gods. Click To Tweet
True servant leadership is not just words, and it certainly isn’t a title. Rather, it is the humble manifestation of growing Christlikeness through which we use our position of leadership to serve those in our care.
There are many characteristics of a servant leader that we could list, but I would like to share a few that have been on my mind over the past several days:
Lives under Authority
Selfish leaders live without accountability; servant leaders submit to authority.
That Jesus who is fully “equal with God…became obedient unto death” is an amazing testimony to His submission to the authority of the Father. All throughout Jesus’ life, we see His submission.
And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him. (John 8:39)
Spiritual leaders who do not live under authority and have no accountably in their lives become lording leaders. That is, rather than humbly serving their flocks as the undershpherd for Christ, they lord over them. Additionally, they open themselves to doctrinal error and moral failure and can become abusive toward those in their care.
Spiritual leaders must maintain obedience to the fixed authority in their lives—the Lord Jesus Christ. If we fail to submit to Him, we have failed in ministry.
Additionally, spiritual leaders—and particularly senior pastors—must remain under the authority of Scripture and the local church. To those ends, they must invite accountability as they remain approachable and teachable.
Seeks to Unite
Prideful leaders create division; servant leaders seek unity.Prideful leaders create division; servant leaders seek unity. Click To Tweet
For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? (1 Corinthians 3:3–4)
It’s tragic when leaders develop a critical spirit toward other servants of God. I believe strongly in the need for doctrinal unity and am certainly not encouraging ecumenicism (see the recently-published book Keep the Faith). But I also believe in the need for striving together for the sake of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) with fellow Christians. It’s sad to me when Christian leaders who share the same Baptist doctrine and 99 percent of practice will argue with, denounce, or separate from one other at the 1 percent method they would do differently.
What good does it do our congregations when they see their pastors constantly frustrated with or criticizing each other? Who wants to serve on a team of angry people? The only accomplishment of such divisiveness is harm to our own churches. A soldier once observed, “Friendly fire isn’t friendly.”
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. (Romans 12:18)
Seeks No Reputation
Self-focused leaders care about appearances (their own and their church’s); servant leaders care about the hearts of those they seek to lead.
If Jesus could make “himself of no reputation,” surely the image management and self-promotion in which so many Christian leaders engage is contrary to the gospel. What we need is not a better image, but greater integrity and more grace.If Jesus could make himself of no reputation, surely the image management and self-promotion in which so many Christian leaders engage is contrary to the gospel. What we need is not a better image, but greater integrity and more grace. Click To Tweet
Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.—1 Peter 5:5
Uses Influence for God
Driven leaders seek the praise and recognition of others; servant leaders seek the praise and recognition of God.Driven leaders seek the praise and recognition of others; servant leaders seek the praise and recognition of God. Click To Tweet
In a sense, leadership is influence, not authority. Servant leaders recognize that whatever influence they have is to be stewarded for God. Rather than trying to become “influencers” for the sake of self-promotion, they seek to point people to Christ.
Additionally, rather than using the influence given to them by God as a spiritual leader to coerce people into embracing their preferences or become clones of themselves, servant leaders use their spiritual influence to encourage those they lead toward Christlikeness. The distinction may not be as obvious as it sounds, for godly leaders will exercise the kind of leadership that preaches and teaches absolutes from Scripture. The difference is in the goal—control or Christlikeness.
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:1–2)
For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2)
Self-filled leaders change frequently under criticism or pressure; servant leaders hold fast to Bible doctrine and continue in God’s grace.Self-filled leaders change frequently under criticism or pressure; servant leaders hold fast to Bible doctrine and continue in God’s grace. Click To Tweet
One of the marks of a servant leader is someone who remains steadfast in doctrine and has a consistent testimony through trials.
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. (1 Timothy 4:16)
But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; (2 Timothy 3:14)
Sometimes when I find myself surprised by a season of suffering or sensitive to unjust criticism, the Holy Spirit convinces me with the question, “Did you think you’re better than to have to endure that?”
Servant leaders recognize that if Jesus suffered, surely we will encounter difficulty in our service to Him.
The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? (Matthew 10:24–25)
Delights to See Christ Exalted
Carnal leaders lift up themselves; servant leaders lift up their Master.Carnal leaders lift up themselves; servant leaders lift up their Master. Click To Tweet
We looked a moment ago at Philippians 2, but we cut off at verse 8. The next three verses, however, are the climax of the passage.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)
A grace-filled, Christ-centered servant leader looks forward to this day when Christ is fully and finally exalted. Meanwhile, the Christ-focused servant leader worships his Savior and gratefully proclaims the good news of salvation through Him for all who will believe.