Servant leader: myth or goal

A professor I met said he is sick of hearing about “servant-leaders” because they always mean, “You are the servant, and I am the leader.” He wondered if anyone read what the Bible said about servant-leaders.

Specifically he was referring to Jesus’ statement to his disciples, who all selfishly wanted to be next to the highest authority in the Messianic world kingdom (Mark 10:37). Then Jesus described the basic secular leadership philosophy, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them [katakurieuo “bring one under power, to subdue, master, hold in subjection or be the master of”] , and their great ones exercise authority over them” [katexousiazo, “wield power,” “become master, gain dominion over,” or “tyrannize, domineer”] (Mark 10:42).

This is not a condemnation of this authority but an observation of it’s existence. Perhaps this is a necessity in the military and governments to function. Jesus’ contrast is pointing out that we are to be people-builders instead of empire-builders.

The lust for this level of power is the drive of the fallen angels who craved for God’s authority over creation (Isa 14:13-14), willing to usurp even God’s throne to obtain it.


Jesus is not saying there will not be “great among you,” but rather how one becomes great and what his responsibility becomes as a great leader is radically different from the secular powers. A Christian executive once told me that he did not think strict biblical principles would work in an institutional leadership role. People will take advantage of the situation and inefficiency would result. Perhaps there are some misunderstandings, but one should never “throw out the baby with the bath water.”


Christians should not practice dictatorial, narcissistic, self-promoting, intimidating, fear or threat based style of leadership. Regrettably, many “successful” ministries are led by this style of leadership. The patrón style leader is often sought out for key leadership positions. He can make things happen. This is the businessman leader.

Hendriksen writes, “They spend all their energies to get to the top and once having reached tat peak, they cause all others to feel the weight of their authority” (Mark, p. 413).

Jesus’ definition

How does this fit with Jesus’ directive? He began, “whoever desires to be great among you…,”(Mk 10:43), which is not a bad or selfish desire if it is not self-serving. “Great” means according to Louw Nida, the “upper end of a scale, with possible implication of importance” (78:2).

Desiring to be a leader that is not self-seeking is the first requirement to be a pastor or elder (“bishop” or Overseerer) (1 Tim 3:1).


Jesus continues, “… shall be your servant” (diakonos, “one who executes the commands of another”). In parallel fashion, the next verse reiterates the principle with a synonym, “And who ever wants to be first among you must be the slave [doulos, “devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interest”] of all” (Mk 10:44 NET).

This paradox is to mark Christianity as distinct. The leader is to live for the interest, needs and wellbeing of others, rather than himself. All the prerequisites (1 Tim 3:1-8) describe a person who is internally and socially healthy to the point that he can be devoted to the needs others.

Jesus gave himself as an example as one who “did not come to be served, but to serve [diakoneo] and to give his life a ransom for man” (10:45). Obviously, we ccnot be the ransom for sinners, but we are to similarly sacrifice our lives freely for the benefit of other people.

Institutional priority

Some live for Christian institutions and use people for the greater good of the organization until such persons are deemed useless. Then they are discarded with little sympathy or care. Jesus’ focus appears to be to serve the needs of people over (or at least parallel with) Christian institutions. This balance act is the struggle of Christian leadership and requires great wisdom to keep Jesus’ priority.

Serving needs

The key is meeting the needs of others. Every believer has the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9), and thus is given a manifestation of the Spirit’s care for others through the “spiritual gift [that] is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Cor 12: 7 NLT). No spiritual gift is self-serving, rather other-serving. Our primary serving to others is through our spiritual gift.

The greater roles are therefore, reserved for those who can meet the needs of more of God’s people.

What do people need?

Paul told the elders at Ephesus to “watch out for yourselves and for the flock of which [not over which] the Holy Spirit has made you overseerers, to shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28 NET). The plural command to “watch out for yourselves” or “watch out for each other” refers to the group of elders who were to keep accountable to each other for obedience in their lives as well as their care of the flock.

Jesus gave a primary focus of the ministry to be “teaching them to obey all things that [he] commanded” (Matt 28:20).

The secret of life’s success is living by the Word of God. No greater service can be given than to teach, explain, exhort, comfort, encourage and preach obedience to all that Jesus commands all believers to obey. The personal psychological, emotional, relational, moral, and corporal needs are foundationally built upon God’s Word.

Symptoms of a servant

Perhaps the key is communicating to each other how import they are personally to you and to Christ. The opposite is all too true about leaders as the tittle of Les Carter’s book on Narcissism, “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

The one who obviously is more interested in others than in himself is the one who should be entrusted with leadership roles. Pay attention to how much people love to talk about themselves with little interest, except criticism, for others.

Servant team

Leadership is always a team effort with each one contributing their strengths and giftedness to the benefit of each other and to the whole task, while keeping each other true to the principles of God’s Word. What a purposeful life!

How to live out the ideal servant-leadership role without a strong natural dominating leader taking over is the challenge of any team ministry. The Body of Christ is not a football team led by a quarterback, rather perhaps the analogy of a soccer team who learn to blend their strengths together helping each other perform their best and reach their goal.

Any organization that is committed to making every member a success and never communicates rejection or failure is bound to succeed. Someone said, “the more people you make successful, the more they will make you successful.”

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