The essence of biblical leadership is servant leadership. Jesus focused on this in John 13:1-17, giving the example of washing the feet of the twelve disciples. By doing this, he gave them a visible example to help them better understand the actions of a servant leader. Below are a few things we should keep in mind concerning servant leadership.
Servant Leadership Means a Yes to Leadership
Typically, we see someone as a leader or a servant, but not both. Jesus, however, combined the two ideas. A Christ-like leader must think and act with a servant mindset. Jesus didn’t neglect leadership. In Luke 22:26, he taught that “the one who rules” should do it in a servant attitude. He didn’t say we should give up ruling/leading. It is good to give direction, try to achieve goals, expect accountability, take responsibility, correct mistakes, and make decisions.
When God has called you to specific ministry in his kingdom, it is your responsibility to lead. There might be different reasons you are hesitant: perhaps you feel insecure in your personality, or you don’t feel gifted (e.g., Moses felt he is not eloquent enough). Likely God is calling you to work on these fears and gain self-confidence.
Servant Leadership Means Serving
Jesus washed the feet of the twelve. This was the duty of a slave. John reported in detail how Jesus took off his clothing, wrapped a towel, and poured water into a basin (v. 4-5). Peter initially refused. On previous occasions, the disciples had been astonished at Jesus’ actions and words. For example, Jesus talked about the “little ones” in Mark 9:42: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea…” It is easy to utilize young children or make a profit off them. Servant leadership includes welcoming the little ones.
When the disciples came to Jesus and asked who is the greatest, Jesus called a little child and had him stand among them (Matthew 18:1-9). A serving attitude is easy to discover when we look at how someone is treating the little ones. This also includes the hungry, thirsty, stranger, and those who are sick and in prison (Matthew 25:32).
Serving means acting for others without any benefit. Our hearts and minds need to be pure and humble.
The most outstanding example of servant leadership, however, was not the washing of feet. It was Jesus’ death on the cross. He went to Jerusalem to die on the cross for the sins of the world. It was for the benefit of others—which includes us. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He who was without sin offered himself to set others free.
Are we willing to set aside our own rights, needs, and wishes for the purpose of someone else? Leighton Ford once described this as “the freedom to surrender what one wishes in order to serve the purpose of God and the good of others.”1
Servant Leadership Begins with a Call from God
We must honestly answer a number of questions:
- Why are we leading?
- Are our motives like those of James and John, who requested to sit at Jesus’ right and left side (Mark 10:36-37)?
- Are we leading because we want to be special or significant?
- Do we want to lead because we love to have power?
- Do we want to be successful, famous, and popular Christian leaders?
If these are our motives, then we choose the position for ourselves. It is all about what we want. The opposite is what God wants. It is a call from God. The difference seems to be very small, but in reality, is quite significant.
First, when we lead by a call of God and not our own authority, we actually have authority. It is God’s kingdom and we are just the caretakers. However, we can act in the King’s authority. We don’t put ourselves in the spotlight. All glory belongs to him. We gain the freedom to act upon kingdom’s principles. Because we don’t care about our own reputation, we are able to make hard or unpopular decisions because we have true authority.
Second, when we lead by a call of God and not our own authority, it gives us godly identities. Our identities could be based on our own (extraordinary) gifts or social status, but when we are aware that God has called us, he is the center and we are deeply secure in his identity.
Servant Leadership Is about Shepherding
Servant leadership finds a vivid and picturesque motive in shepherding. The shepherd cares for the flock. He feeds them (John 21:15) and looks for green pastures and fresh water (Psalm 23). He seeks after the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4) and is even willing to lay down his own life (John 10:11).
After his resurrection, Jesus told Peter, “Take care of my sheep” (John 21:16). Being a pastor today carries the same connotation: looking out for the good of the people in our churches; caring for the spiritual well-being of the people; being watchful for dangers; and seeking those who got lost and taking responsibility for their lives. The focus is not on the shepherd; it is on the sheep.
Servant Leadership Involves a Clear Mission Statement
By not looking over the well-being of the people for whom we are responsible, we are more likely to forget the mission we have to fulfill. Leadership without a clear mission of where to go is bad leadership. Jesus knew he was sent (John 4:34; 6:29; 20:21). In the synagogue in Nazareth, he shared his mission: “…to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” as a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy (Luke 4:18-21; Isaiah 61:1-2).
He also knew why he was sent: to call “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32); “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45); “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10), etc. Jesus had a clear sense of destiny. He even instructed the disciples concerning the time after his death: there is a global mission to fulfill (Matthew 28:18-20).
As servant leaders today, we need to know our mission statement. If we don’t, we may do many things, but we will not fulfill God’s global mission. As leaders, we must have a very close relationship with God in order to know where to go. We need to study his word in order to know the principles of the kingdom; we must also apply these principles or we will be blind guides (Luke 15:14).
When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, Peter initially refused. Jesus responded with, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Before we can serve others and wash their feet, we must allow Jesus to wash our feet. He wants to serve us, refresh us, comfort us, cleanse us.
This is an invitation to sit at Jesus’ table. Out of the refreshed community flows ministry. Jesus, after all, doesn’t want to have slaves, but sons (Luke 15:31).
1. Ford, Leighton. 1991. Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values & Empowering Change. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press.