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Understanding Servant Leadership

Updated on June 28, 2013

Leaders Must Serve Those They Rule

Since great stress is laid upon the leadership role in both the secular and religious world, it is surprising, therefore, to discover that in the King James Version of the Bible, the term “leader” is mentioned only six times (three in the singular and three in the plural). That is not to say that the theme of leadership is not a prominent feature in the Bible, but it is usually referred to in different terms, the most prevalent being “servant.” It is not “Moses, my leader,” but “Moses, my servant.” The emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

Although Jesus was not a revolutionary in the political sense, many of his teachings were mind-boggling and revolutionary, and none more so than those on leadership. On our complimentary world, the term “servant” has acquired a very lowly definition, but that was not so as Jesus used it. In fact, he did it a great service by elevating and equating it with greatness. Most of us would have no objection to being masters, but the idea of servanthood is most unappealing.

Christ’s view of God’s kingdom was that of a community of members serving one another—mutual service. Paul puts forward the same idea saying, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). And of course our loving service is to spread to the needy world around us. But in the life of the church today, it is usually the few who serve the many.

Jesus well understood that such an otherworldly concept of servanthood would not be welcomed by a self-pleasing world of men and women. But nothing less than that was what he required of those who desired to rise to leadership in the kingdom of God. The contrast between the world’s idea of leadership and that of Christ is brought into sharp focus in Mark 10:42-43: "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. 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."

It was a lesson Jesus’ disciples, like James and John, had not mastered. They had, however, taken seriously the Master’s promise, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28). In selfish ambition they used their mother’s influence in an attempt to step on the toes of the disciples in order to seize the best thrones in the house and secure their eternal positions in the coming kingdom.

But Jesus would have none of that politicking and backbiting among his disciples. There must be no lobbying for office or jockeying for positions in his kingdom. Jesus said to the brothers, “You do not know what you are asking for” (Mk 10:38a). They wanted the glory, not the shame; the crown, but not the cross; to be masters, not servants—the ruling party, not the poor peasants. Yet their request afforded Jesus the occasion to present two leadership principles that are permanent as well as relevant: First, there is sovereignty in spiritual leadership and second, there is suffering in spiritual leadership.

The Price Of Servanthood

First, there is sovereignty in spiritual leadership. Jesus said, “…but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those whom it has been prepared” (Mk 10:40).

Our emphasis would probably have been, “It is for those who have prepared themselves for it.” But Jesus emphasized the fundamental difference in leadership principles. “But it is not so among you” (Mk 10:43). Places of spiritual ministry and leadership are sovereignly assigned by God. The Good News Bible translation of verse 40 states, “It is God who will give these places to those for whom he has prepared them.”

No theological training or leadership course will automatically confer spiritual leadership or qualify one for an effective ministry. Jesus was later to tell them, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appoint you…” (Jn 15:16). To be able to affirm, “I am not here by selection of a man or the election of a group, but by the sovereign appointment of God,” gives great confidence to the Christian worker.

Second, there is suffering in spiritual leadership. Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mk 10:38b) He spared his disciples of any hidden agenda. In all honesty he did not hesitate to have them focus on the fine lines of the contract: the cost in the service of the kingdom. The task to be entrusted to them was tremendous. Jesus needed men and women of keen perspective and deep conviction. Disciples with both eyes wide open, hearts fully committed, and wills completely surrendered to him. Men and women who would follow him to the death.

The Lord’s searching question was superficially answered, “We are able”—thus these disciples displayed a sorry lack of self-knowledge (Mk 10:39). Jesus told them that they would indeed drink the cup and experience the baptism. They must learn that for an influential spiritual ministry to bear fruit, there would be a steep price to pay—and that it cannot be acquired in one easy payment. In the end, it cost James his head, and John finished his days in exile doing hard labor in the island of Patmos.

These men desired to attain leadership “at a bargain basement price,” but Jesus’ words soon disillusioned their dreams. The fundamental lessons that “greatness comes by way of servanthood,” and that first place in leadership is gained only by becoming everybody’s slave, must have come as a great and unwelcome shock.

If there was an only example that Jesus left his disciples with, it was when he washed their feet (Jn 13:15)—a supreme example of servanthood. And only once did any other writer say that he had left an example—and that was an example of suffering: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). Thus the thought of suffering and servanthood are intertwined, as it was in the life of our Lord: the suffering servant (Isa 53:3). And is the servant greater than our Lord?

The Spirit Of Servanthood

A messianic passage in Isaiah 42:1-5 reveals what the spirit of servanthood means and outlines in this prophecy the features that would qualify the coming Messiah as the ideal servant of the Lord.

The nation of Israel had been chosen by God to be his servant through whom he could reveal himself to the world. But the nation failed to live up to its calling, its divine commission, at every turn. However, where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded, and the principles of his life must be the pattern for ours. Here are some of those principles:

Dependence. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold” (Isa 42:1a), a statement with Messianic significance. In fulfilling this prophetic utterance, Jesus voluntarily “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7), surrendering his privileges and the independent exercise of his will as the Son of God. Though he possessed all the powers and prerogatives of deity, of his own free will he made himself completely dependent upon his Father’s will through the Holy Spirit. Though he “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3), he set aside his divinity and took on our humanity thereby needing to be upheld by the Holy Spirit of God. In fact the Father said, “I have put my spirit upon him” (Isa 42:1c). In the measure in which we yield to this same act of dependence will the Holy Spirit be able to use us.

Approval. “My chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa 42:1b). The delight of the Father in his ideal servant is echoed in the Son’s response recorded in another messianic passage saying, “I delight to do your will, O my God” (Ps 40:8).

Modesty. “He will not cry or lift his voice, nor make it heard in the street” (Isa 42:2). The ministry of God’s servant would not be harsh or showy, but modest and self-effacing. Jesus was always unwilling to draw attention to himself. When he would perform a miraculous work or teach a divine truth, he would redirect his audience toward his Father and give him due credit. In this day of blatant and arrogant self-advertisement, modesty is a most desirable quality to possess.

The devil tempted Jesus on that point when he challenged him to create a stir by taking a leap of faith from the pinnacle of the Temple. But Jesus did not succumb to the tempter’s entrapment.

God’s servant works so quietly and unobtrusively that many even doubted his existence. His method justifies the statement where it says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself” (Isa 45:15). It is recorded of the cherubim, those angelic servants of the Lord, that they used four of their six wings to conceal their faces and their feet—a graphic representation of contentment with hidden service only known to God (Isa 6:2).

Empathy. “Abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42:3). The Lord’s servant would be sympathetic and understanding with the meek and fallen. Men and women are often crushed under the calloused condemnation of their fellowmen. This is not so with the ideal servant. His specialty was to mend bruised reeds and fan dimly wicks into flaming torches.

Many, even Christian workers, ignore those who have failed and “pass by on the other side.” They want a ministry more rewarding and more worthy of their powers—something more spectacular than bearing with the relapses and backslidings of frail human beings; but it is a noble work to reclaim and restore those whom the world despises. How dimly Peter’s wick burned in the night of denial, but what a brilliant flame blazed on the day of Pentecost!

Optimism. “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established just in the earth” (Isa 42:4). God’s servant could never be discouraged. A pessimist never makes an inspiring leader. Hope and optimism are essential qualities for the servant of God as he battles for the souls of men and women. God’s servant would be optimistic until his full objective is attained; until he finishes the race and can say, “It is accomplished.”

Anointing. “I have put my spirit upon him” (Isa 42:1). By themselves, the preceding five qualities would be insufficient for his tremendous task. A touch of the supernatural was required, and that was supplied by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Ac 10:38).

The same anointing that God’s ideal servant received is available for us. Until the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism, Jesus created no stir in Nazareth. But then events of world-shaking importance began to unfold. Is the servant greater than our Lord? Can we dispense with that which was the prime essential for the effectiveness of his ministry on earth?

After Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples, he put on his robe, returned to the table, and said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17).

Jesus, their Lord and Teacher, just completed the lowliest task that one can perform within any Palestinian household at the time. Feet washing is a menial service relegated to or reserved for slaves and not for one as exalted as their Master. As he rejoined Peter and company, Jesus challenged them to think about the significance of what he had just done to them. It was highly unlikely that he was instigating a special regulation of cleanliness that they should literally perform. The point that the Lord implied in this symbolic action was that he wanted to teach his followers that they should all have a spirit of readiness and/or willingness to perform the most humble of services for one another. He took a daily common task that everyone took for granted and gave it a new meaning for those who choose the serve the kingdom of God. No act of service should be beneath the servant leader even if the bottom rung of the ladder meant that they should perform a service that is humbling or demeaning. If Jesus set them an example by embodying the lowly act of service done to them, they ought to wash another’s feet as well.

Jesus, “…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7). Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

“Don’t step on each others feet to get ahead, but wash each others feet like Christ who is the Head”—Gicky Soriano.

© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.


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    • profile image

      samuel obeng 

      5 years ago

      with God all things are matter how the circumstances.because he make a way where there is no way. i do believed that is only Jesus who can lead us to heaven.To my understanding i think jesus christ is a good leader.

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      JesusEater, yes the Master's teaching on servant leadership is downright subversive. It causes us to take up our crosses, it invites us to die daily, and it calls us to follow in Jesus' steps in the knowledge of the suffering to come. That's what it means if we choose to live out the truth in Galatians 2:19-20: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who live in me." It can't get any more revolutionary than that.

      Thank you for your comment and visit. May you continue to live, contrary to the world, crucified with Christ.

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      Amen drpastorcarlotta. Indeed suffering is the one tool in God's workshop that chisels the image of his Son upon our characters. The Lord's servant cannot sidestep suffering for it is a necessary step toward blessings. Based on your comment, you know this to be true. God bless you sister.

    • JesusEater profile image


      9 years ago from Quezon City, Philippines

      It's really a complete reversal of values--this Kingdom that Jesus espouses. May it propagate and demolish anything contrary! Amen! Who'd dare lead by serving? I mean genuinely? No one, except the revolutionary--those who crazily eat Jesus.

    • drpastorcarlotta profile image

      Pastor Dr. Carlotta Boles 

      9 years ago from BREAKOUT MINISTRIES, INC. KC

      Oh! How I suffered and still do! But this suffering is covered by the Blood of Jesus which I can bare. This Hub is wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You Go Gicky! Much Love to you!

    • Gicky Soriano profile imageAUTHOR

      Gicky Soriano 

      9 years ago from California

      Amen coeffesnob! Thanks for the comment and visit.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Sovreignity and suffering in leadership. Ahh, but not just leadership, spiritual leadership. Oh I want to know christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering...powerful hub


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