Servant Leadership

Christian faith is paradoxical in so many ways. The early church preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor.1:23), a declaration that must have seemed an oxymoron. The Christ, the Messiah, was expected to be a victor, not a victim. The pre-Christian Paul himself appears to have regarded the crucifixion as proof that Jesus was cursed by God (Gal. 3:13). It would have seemed self-evident that a crucified Jesus could not be the Christ. And yet, as Paul came to learn, he is.

There is much discussion today about servant leadership.The concept embraces what must also appear to many to be a self-contradiction. Isn’t a leader one who is served, not one who serves? All of us can think of public figures who operate according to that model. This was also the popular view in the time of Jesus. “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” (Mark 10:42) To be a servant in the ancient world was to have little or no social standing. It is not a role many would assume voluntarily. Nevertheless, Jesus goes on to say, “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (vv. 43-44).

It is fascinating that here as elsewhere, Jesus does not reprimand the disciples for wanting to have significant lives. He does not tell them to become nothing. What he does do is redirect them toward a wholly different source of significance. The same phenomenon occurs in Mark 9:33-35:

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

That this was a hard lesson for the disciples is unsurprising. It is just as hard for believers today. Like most of us, the disciples were egocentric, jostling with others for prominence, looking to others for affirmation. Egocentrism is a profoundly weak state of being. Indeed, it is a kind of bondage. Jesus, by contrast, was strong enough to serve. We see this most movingly in the story of the foot washing in John 13. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart… Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God…poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” Jesus was the only one in the room who knew who he was, and therefore the only one free to serve.

Christian service springs from such strength — strength of faith, strength of identity in God — and not from self-centered weakness. This helps to counter the understandable concern that a call to service is actually a veiled means of domination. The service Jesus undertook was a choice made in love and was directed primarily at the weak, the marginalized and the dispossessed — in other words, those in no position to command his service. Moreover, Jesus was remarkably unconcerned with human opinion, especially the opinion of those who might advance him. Again, this demonstrated great strength of faith and of character, ultimately expressed in the victory of the cross.

So it is that we speak at Perkins of being both called to serve and empowered to lead. In the paradox of Christian faith, serving and leading go together, as do calling and empowering. As is so often the case, what is required is the maintenance of a creative and healthy tension. Empowerment without service is destructive, just as service without empowerment is oppressive.

Of course, it is God who calls and empowers for ministry, but God works in part through human agents. It is our great privilege to serve our students so that they in turn might be equipped to serve the church and the world.

Grace and peace,

Dean, Perkins School of
Southern Methodist University