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Issues Facing Missions Today 18: The Need for Servants, Not Leaders—Not Even Servant Leaders

Issues Facing Missions Today 18: The Need for Servants, Not Leaders—Not Even Servant Leaders


Sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, many people stopped speaking about Christian ‘ministry’.[1]  People were no longer called by God into the’ ministry’, they were now trained to become ‘Christian leaders’.  Christian organizations needed leaders just like any organization.  So-called megachurches—in reality not churches but organizations with a campus and regular services and programs—needed leaders, even Chief Executive Officers.  Not only trained in theology and ministry, these leaders needed skills in how to lead, to run an organization, and to manage finances.  Moreover, to accomplish the mission of the Church, ‘out-in-front leaders’ were needed, and the woes of the Church could be stated in such a way that the problem to address was the need for Christian leaders.  In this essay, I would like to offer a brief (all too brief) sketch or partial history of the paradigm shift from ‘ministry’ to ‘leadership,’ and then I would like to offer some challenges to this.

A Sketch of the Paradigm Shift from Ministry to Leadership

So, where did we find wisdom for development of leaders the church so desperately needed?  It came from the business world—and continues to do so.  As David Dockery writes, ‘The attempts to create efficiency and order, following the patterns of corporate America, have greatly influenced the role of leaders in Christian organizations.’[2]   While aware that this observation needs expanding, such as by emphasising a more community/family model than a purely business model, Dockery states that leaders of Christian organizations must function as entrepreneurs, mediators, managers, catalysts, politicians, final arbiter, and judge.’[3]  To sum up all these roles, he settles on the term ‘administrator.’  Business books on leadership training became models for the new Christian leadership movement,[4] and the social sciences now told people how to lead well.

I somehow missed this change.  When I was in seminary between 1978 and 1981, we still spoke mostly about Christian ‘ministry’—a word meaning ‘service’ rather than suggesting power and authority.  Then I entered the dark hole of doctoral studies for seven years, and when I emerged I discovered that everybody was speaking about Christian leaders.  Actually, by then another paradigm shift had occurred. People quickly figured out that Christian leadership had to be different from more generic leadership in some critical ways.  After all, did Jesus not say, ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’? (Mt. 19.30).  He actually said this a few times—it seems to have been one of his favorite points (Mt. 20.8, 16; cf. Mk. 9.35; 10.31; Lk. 13.30).  Jesus also contrasted his disciples’ ministry with the world’s leadership practices and pursuits.  When his disciples contended for greatness, Jesus said,

Mark 10:42-45   42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

So, somebody came up with the term, ‘Servant Leadership.’

Now the point seems to have been that we could still learn how to run things from the business leadership model or from politics or one of the other social sciences, but we then need to be careful to do this for other people, as a service to them.  Servant leadership was not quite what we used to mean by ‘ministry’—it wasn’t simply service but involved acquiring power and using it towards supposedly good ends.  Therein lay a cataclysmic shift in ministry: we were still with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking Jesus for power to rule as kingdom authorities instead of servants laying down their lives for others (Mk. 10.35-45).

Servant Leadership as Personal Power to Serve

A questionnaire for African Evangelicals around 1990 asked what the greatest challenge facing the Church was in Africa.  The most common answer that came back was, ‘the need for servant leaders.’  What was said in Africa was probably the sentiment of the Church worldwide.  But what were people asking?  Did they want leaders who, of course, would be servant leaders?  Or were they asking that leaders be more servant-like?  On a continent where, politically, rule often falls into the hands of a few despots who secure their authority through gifting friends—a patronage system—‘servant leadership’ could easily mean a powerful big man who had the resources to award his friends and punish his enemies.  Indeed, any hierarchical system can rather easily devolve into this despotic form of ‘servant leadership’—whether a king, a powerful sheik, a president, a bishop, the leader of a Christian organization, or a local pastor.

Personal power is also what the culture of early Christianity knew.  The culture was a patron-client culture.  Clients daily came to their patrons, who gave them a little money or helped them along a little in life, and in return they gave their allegiance and any assistance that they could to the patron.  The more successful a patron was, the more clients he would have.

This system works in western contexts too, even where there are less open personal power or patron-client relationships.  The dean of a seminary does a favor for a young faculty member, perhaps supporting him openly during a faculty review, giving him time off, or raising his pay within his pay bracket.  He then expects the faculty member to support him, do what he wishes, and be loyal in all the power plays that a faculty might experience as policies and positions are voted up or down.

Whether in Africa, antiquity, or the contemporary West, the notion of a leader runs somewhat the same.  The person who is a leader is a person who seeks and has power.  Two things distinguish leaders:  their competence to exercise this power and whether they do so for personal purposes or for others.

Jesus’ Deconstruction of Power

Is this really what the Church needs?  Is it really what Jesus was saying?  No, not at all. If this was what Jesus was saying in Mk. 10.42-45, then Jesus would have said something like the following:

‘You know that among the Gentiles they have fantastic training in leadership.  You need to learn how to exercise equal skill at leadership—just be sure to do so for other people.  Understand organizations, business principles, how to get power and how to use it.  Whoever wishes to become great needs to do so by using his or her great leadership skills for other people and not for himself or herself.  For the Son of Man came in great power and with great leadership skills, and he is using this power for other people.

There is something is a little wrong with this!  Becoming a servant is not learning how to be the master and then serving people out of a position of power.  Becoming a servant is all about giving up power in order to serve.

Jesus said that the ‘Son of Man’ came to serve and to give up his life as a ransom for many.  The ‘Son of Man’ of Daniel 7.13ff, however, was pictured as a person with divine power and authority:

Daniel 7:13-14  13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Jesus’ shocking interpretation was that this Son of Man with power from God Himself understood this power as the power of the cross: a service so powerful that it offered forgiveness of sins to the world, reconciliation to God, and the hope of resurrection life beyond the grave.  As Jn. 13 tells us, Jesus took off his cloak, put on the servant’s towel, and washed his disciples’ feet.  The Son of Man did not come to use heavenly power for good but understood that power as service: not power for service but power as service.

Not convinced?  This is precisely what Jesus’ temptation was all about after his baptism.  At his baptism, he heard the heavenly voice say, ‘This is my Son’ (Mt.3.17).  Each temptation that Jesus went through in the wilderness was over Jesus’ status as ‘Son of God.’  Satan challenged him by saying, ‘If you are the Son of God….’ (cf. Mt. 4.3, 6).  What Jesus wrestled with in the wilderness was understanding power and authority as service itself.

Jesus passed the test in the wilderness of Judea, and so he was ready when the challenge returned in the Garden of Gethsemane.  One of his disciples determined to protect Jesus and his followers by drawing a sword, and he cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (Mt. 26.51).  Jesus’ response was,

Matthew 26:52-54   "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?"

Jesus was not saying, ‘We need to find a way to use power for good.’  He was saying, ‘The way of the cross is God’s way.’  He was not teaching his disciples to be servant leaders, but to be servants.

A Humble Service

Just how, then, does this play out in ministry?  Jesus gave some guidance on the subject, and so did Paul.  Jesus’s first beatitude was, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 5.3).  Discipleship begins with repentance, a humble heart that knows its need for God.  Jesus opposed the haughty religious leaders of his day.  He said to his disciples,

Matthew 23:5-12  5 [The scribes and the Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven.  10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  11 The greatest among you will be your servant.  12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

How do these words challenge us today?  First, ministry must not be a show of piety in order to gain others’ respect and honor.  I remember a president of a seminary in Africa wielding inordinate authority in his conduct of the seminary only to bend over double to acknowledge the authority of his bishop.  Here was a person who viewed the world through the eyes of the world, not through the eyes of Jesus.  For him, it was all about authority.  He wanted everyone under him to honour him with the same honour that he gave to anyone above him.  Everyone had their place in a hierarchy of authority, and the right thing to do was to play the part.

Paul ran into the same confused line of thinking with his Corinthian believers.  Some people in authority came bounding into their ranks and the Corinthian believers honored them with all the authority the world expects to be paid to such people.  Paul says to the Corinthian believes,

2 Corinthians 11:20 For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face.’ 

Instead, Paul and his missionary colleagues did ‘ …  not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense’ (2 Cor. 10.12).  Paul instead made his appeal to the Corinthians by the meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (2 Cor. 10.1).  Instead of pulling rank as the apostle that he is, he presents his sufferings and hardships—his weakness--as his badges of honor:

2 Corinthians 11:23-30  23 Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman-- I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.  24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea;  26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;  27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.  29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?  30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

Paul was up against ‘super apostles’ in Corinth.  They ministered out of their authority rather than out of their service, and therein lay all the difference.

The second point that Jesus makes is that the scribes and the Pharisees love titles of recognition.  Jesus tells his disciples, however, not to be called ‘rabbi,’ or ‘father,’ or ‘instructor.’  All such honor must go to God.  Paul, for his part, liked to use titles of littleness for himself.  Even the change of his name from ‘Saul’ to ‘Paul’ illustrated this.  Saul, the first king of Israel, was head and shoulders above the height of everyone else.  But the name ‘Paulus’ in Greek means ‘small.’  Paul may have been an apostle, but he says that he was so as one untimely born, the least among the apostles, and unfit to bear the name because he had persecuted the Church (1 Cor. 15.8-9).  He may have been an apostle, but he made himself a slave to all (1 Cor. 9.19).  He may have been an ambassador of the Gospel, but he was an ‘ambassador in chains’ (Eph. 6.20).  To a slave owner, Philemon, he presents himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (Phlm. 1).  There is something very peculiar about persons studying for the degree of ‘Doctor of Ministry’ and then using the honorific and authoritative title of ‘Dr.’ in the course of their ministry.  It is as if Paul had been named ‘Paul’ by his parents and then, after graduating from the teaching of Gamaliel, took on the name ‘Saul’!  I would suggest that we who have doctorates of any sort—the ministerial D.Min. degree or the academic Ph.D. degree—refuse to use them in Church circles.  We do not stand before believers to lecture out of positions of authority granted us in titles from academic institutes.  The only basis on which we stand before others to teach is our knowledge of and faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Gospel.  As Paul said to the Galatians,

Galatians 1:8  ‘even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!’

Some Concluding Thoughts

Our authority does not reside in a degree or a title or in some ecclesiastical status.  It resides only in our faithfulness to what is authoritative in the Church, the Gospel itself.  It is a derived authority, not an authority of status.  Let the minister get his or her doctor of ministry degree or even a Ph.D. if it will improve his or her service.  But he or she should not use the title in the Church.  Jesus’ point was not hyperbolic.  It was addressing only the surface of a deep, deep problem.  The use of titles is just one, simple example of the problem.  The problem lies in the grasp for power (leadership) and the understanding that service is effective through positions of power (servant leadership) rather than that power is itself service (ministry).

[1] Already in 1975, Robert Munger wrote Leading from the Heart and Leroy Eims, once director of public ministries for The Navigators, wrote Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be.[1]  Eims stated in his book that he began his study of leadership with nineteen books from the public library and discovered while reading them that most of what they were saying was already in the Bible.[1]  In 1976, Ted Engstrom wrote a book entitled The Making of a Christian Leaders.  Ted Engstrom, The Making of a Christian Leader’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
[2] David Dockery, ‘Introduction,’ in Christian LeadershipEssentials: A Handbook for Managing Christian Organizations,’ ed. David Dockery (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., 2011), p. 5.
[3] Ibid.  He also mentions that Christian leaders are servants, quoting Mk. 10.45, although what this means for administrators is left unstated.
[4] The ‘Christian Leadership Alliance’ identifies its beginnings with the first meeting of the ‘Christian Financial Executives Association’ in 1976.  Online: (accessed 17 August, 2014).  The concerns of this association were the need for ‘professional growth’ and ‘practical understandings of business fundamentals among nonprofit ministry leaders.’  Also, ‘their ultimate goal was to provide practical training from a biblical perspective on how to run better Christian organizations.’  Just how the Bible is understood to teach people to ‘run Christian organizations’ must be a fascinating study in hermeneutics.  Annual membership costs a mere $3,000 per year.