The idea of ‘servant-leadership’ has gained the status of conventional wisdom to describe leadership styles both in religious and secular contexts: Serving your constituency, listening to her/his needs and being available, etc., are wonderful values that are sure to create repeat customers and loyal followers in short order.
Scripture certainly sees the idea of “servant” as the hallmark of what a leader does. Moses is the “servant of the Lord” (Joshua 12:6) as is David (Psalm 18:1). In the world of the Old Testament the title of servant represents a high ranking official in the same way we think of a minister as a high ranking member of a government today (the idea of a ‘public servant’).
This title of authority betrays something deeper as well: Moses was “the meekest [=humblest] man of all the earth” (Numbers 12:3). David intimately knew the value of humility as well, though it came at a price for him (Ps 51). The idea carries over into the New Testament as well. Paul, the “Apostle” (a big title of authority!) also sees himself very much in a humble light: “I am the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8). He too uses the language of “servant,” (Romans 1:1) but now the word is directly tied to a much less prestigious title, that of “bond-slave” whose life is entirely owned by another, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. So the idea of ‘servant-leader’ seems to have different shades of meaning, but which is the best one? Servant as high ranking official filled with authority and power? Or servant as slave and beholden to others, stripped of all power?
In Mark’s Gospel, the ‘go-to’ place to capture what “servant” means comes in chapter 10:35-45. Twice already Jesus has announced to the disciples that He was going to die in Jerusalem and “on the third day rise again” (see Mark 8-9). For some reason, however (could it be their hardness of heart? Mark 8:17), the disciples keep missing the point and are bent on seeking the exaltation and the glory they know Jesus represents (see 8:38 and especially 9:33-34). So in chapter 10:35-45, James and John feel it’s time to make their move with Jesus. They feel their ship has just come in and wish to secure their place in glory with Jesus: “to sit one at your right hand and one at your left” (10:37). To this request, Jesus says, ‘you have no idea what you’re talking about and what you’re actually asking for!’ (10:38). What Jesus means by glory and what the disciples mean are two entirely different things! In their thinking, they’re about to receive a big promotion, yielding great authority, reputation, prestige and honor. But Jesus has something entirely different in mind: something that looks more like a demotion.
James and John’s power grab fantasies and blind self-confidence (“we are able”) become the perfect opportunity to define what it means to be a servant, Jesus style. Jesus creates an enormous distance between the way the lordship of Caesar and imperial rule works (= powerful and authoritative) and the way a disciple must function (10:42-44). The lordship of Caesar and the Lordship of Jesus are so opposite and so far apart that it’s impossible to connect them together (“great ones” and “first” vs. “servant” and “slave”). Here Jesus challenges our conventional wisdom. He really isn’t talking about ‘servant-leadership,’ but only about servantship or ‘followership.’*
Jesus goes a couple of steps further in 10:45. The well known title for Himself “the Son of Man,” normally evokes the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14 who will one day have authority over all things and all peoples:
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him
But here in this context, Jesus turns this title of supreme authority completely on its head: the Son of Man is no longer the One who is served by everyone, but He is the One who serves others by paying the ultimate sacrifice: “the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give His life (Mark 10:45). To be sure Jesus will be exalted at the End in the presence of all the nations (Mark 8:38). However, before this exaltation can takes place, the title Son of Man also means He is the Suffering Servant. When Jesus says that He “will give His life,” He is telling us in no uncertain terms that the glory and authority the Son of Man has can only be reached through the path of suffering. The path to Glory is through sacrificial service, which for Jesus means death. In fact, the glory is in the sacrificial service itself. This is glory only a servant and a slave can receive. A ‘Caesar leader’ will never get close to this ideal since by definition they are served by others and would never see themselves as a slave of others. This is a hard lesson to take for James and John! It’s a hard lesson for us.
The final piece of what Jesus is saying in 10:45 reveals Jesus’ mission and why He will die to serve others. When He says “as a ransom for many,” it means He will buy back (the meaning of “ransom”) those who are enslaved by becoming a slave Himself. He becomes a substitute in the stead of others (“for the many”). Like a substitute teacher is a stand in for another, Jesus takes on the form of a servant/slave to buy us back from the slavery of our sin, rebellion and brokenness before God. With this substitute image, Jesus actually merges the image of the Son of Man of Daniel with the image of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:1-12
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
Jesus is telling us here that if there is to be a hyphenated title, it should be ‘suffering-servant’ rather than ‘servant-leader.’
The cynic and the skeptic among us have a good case to be made when we take a close look at Christian leadership through the ages: abuse of power and authority, violence, intimidation, profiteering, self-aggrandizement, you name it. Take any century out of a hat and you will find bad examples of Christian leaders! Here, however, Jesus continues to tell us there is a better way to lead and it’s actually to follow, to follow Him to the Cross. The path to exaltation is always through sacrificial servantship. This is a lesson both James and John would soon learn (Acts 12:2; Revelation 1:9). Darrel Jackson (in the book “‘Servantship” edited by Graham Hill) puts it this way:
“Far from the throne rooms….a ministry of service and humility accompanied by sacrificial suffering… is capable of a revolution of cosmic scale, for it is a call to royal service in a kingdom against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).
What is it the Lord is asking you to give up for the sake of others and the Gospel?
It could be a career promotion, a trip, a treasured possession, our schedules, our phones, summer plans, life plans, convenience, college plans, house, location, you name it. In a society with endless opportunities for self-promotion, exaltation, comforts and conveniences, the opportunities to put this teaching into practice are equally endless. We also remember that the key to giving up our rights is obedience, whether the thing God is asking us to give up is small or big.
Equally, maybe the Lord wants to give you greater opportunities for sacrificial service, which could mean actually accepting a job ‘promotion’ (= more sufferings!); or embrace the new thing God is doing, but with the understanding the glory will be in the sacrificial service rather than mere increase in rank and privilege.
In what way have we allowed ourselves to be ‘Caesar leaders?’
Do we understand that the true glory lies in the service of others? Caesar leaders see opportunities for leadership in places that will feed their appetite for self-promotion, self-preservation and aggrandizement. Suffering servants see opportunities for service in completely different places, in the stead of others, in helping those who can’t help themselves.
In all these questions, we turn to Jesus who loves us and is patient with us in our journey through this wilderness called becoming disciples. The Gospel of Mark offers us great comfort. Even as the disciples don’t really get it right away , they do get it in the end. They stayed with Jesus as He stayed with them. This is our promise too as we get frustrated with ourselves, our spouses, our children, our friends and those around us. God will grant us the power to persevere in this wonderful call to the truly exalted life as followers of Jesus and servants of others (Mark 10:29-30)
*A friend of mine, Don Fairbairn introduced me to this idea of ‘followership’ in contrast to ‘leadership’