The Ungodly Doctrine of Servant Leadership

[From the archives.]

Servant leader? Where’s that in the Bible?

The Bible talks of servant servants – that is, servants who serve other servants.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35.)

When I read or hear someone speak of servant-leadership it usually comes across more as an emphasis on the fact the person is the leader, and less of a description of a humble servant. Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9 focuses on the latter while his disciples were arguing about the former.

Christ washing the feet of the Apostles. Icon of Pskov school. 16th C. (Wikipedia)

Christ washing the feet of the Apostles. Icon of Pskov school. 16th C.

That’s why I am convinced that servant-leadership is unbiblical; it puts the emphasis on who’s in charge. Servant-servanthood is what Jesus taught:

  • Stoop down to meet someone else’s need, like Jesus did when he washed his friends’ feet. (John 13:12-17.)
  • Give yourself up for others, just as Jesus gave himself as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28.)
  • Refrain from using your own power to overcome adversaries, even as Jesus did when he allowed himself to be arrested. (Matthew 26:52-54.)

This is what true servanthood looks like. It looks like Jesus.


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15 Responses to The Ungodly Doctrine of Servant Leadership

  1. “…it puts the emphasis on who’s in charge.”

    Well, you’ve got to know who to kowtow to as they are ‘serving’ you… 😛

  2. Pastor Bob says:

    Many a supervisor will address the employee with words such as, “what can I do for you?” or “what do you need.” We stretch the word “servant” but I have seen and model helping those who are under you. Might it be more correct to state “Serving as Leader?”

  3. While I’m not sure that the idea of servant-leadership is unbiblical, I do think it is often misused as is most power in the church sadly. Jesus is the leader and Rabbi of his disciples, but he continually serves them and in theory that is what servant-leadership is to be modeled after. Of course we could just say that we should strive to be Christ-like no matter our position and leave such a concept as servant-leadership behind. That would be fine with me.

  4. Michael says:

    Tim, good thoughts. I fear that the term “Servant Leader” is just one of the many overused catch-phrases in our some-what churches today,,,,why can’t people just speak English, use outmoded words like “Pastor”, “Deacon”, “Sunday School Teacher”, granted, these don’t have a lot of sex appeal but they do beat trying to sound hip/happen’n or provide an aura of super-spirituality to those in the pews. Just say’n.

    • Tim says:

      Good points, Michael. Each member of the body is to serve the other members. So whether it is as a pastor or in hospitality or teaching or encouraging any of the other ways that people serve, the label “servant” should be utterly superfluous. Adding it on as an appednage suggests that it’s really missing in practice.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I often hear servant leadership referenced in conversations regarding male headship over women, due to the Christ>Man>Woman hierarchy. As I’ve heard it described, it’s putting the needs of the person under your authority above the needs of your own–but making final judgments to guide them to the correct path. Ergo, the woman is man’s responsibility as the church is the responsibility of God, who died on a cross to save his “bride” from her own misbegotten ways.

    I’m not exactly sure what to make of this correlation, or how servant-servanthood is even possible if only one can make the final decision/has the final authority. It would appear to me that an unequal power structure still exists between servants and leaders. Which would seem to make servant-servanthood just another “feel good” façade of sorts to be used by leaders. Who takes responsibility in a servant-servanthood relationship?

    • Tim says:

      I agree that there are problems with living under a “Christ>Man>Woman hierarchy”. Happily, that is not the system the Bible teaches us to live under. Rather, we are all under Christ equally. As for who takes responsibility in this type of relationship within the body, we all do. And when it comes to marriages, the responsibility is still equal under Christ. Marriages aren’t democracies nor are they a matter of one person leading and another following. The two have become one, not a hierarchy.

  6. Pingback: Not ungodly at all! | See, there's this thing called biology...

  7. Well, Jesus was by all accounts a “leader” apart from his serventhood (teaching, leading multitudes, rebuking Pharasees, etc) yet he was a servant in the basic sense (he fed the poor, healed the sick, washed his disciples feet, etc). I have no qualm with the term so long as it is applied to actually mean someone who leads by serving others. But you can have a leader (CEO or local church pastor) who makes a practice of investing in the least among them and thus lead in the natural sense yet honor the picture of servanthood in the midst of said leadership. I do think it is important to emphasis the servant element though. We are all leaders, the questions is, what are we leading them to?

    • Tim says:

      Good points. The problem I see is captured in the sentence of the post: “When I read or hear someone speak of servant-leadership it usually comes across more as an emphasis on the fact the person is the leader, and less of a description of a humble servant.” That is when the doctrine becomes ungodly.

      • Agreed, I think it was probably created by someone with the right outlook however as with anything the flesh molds it to fits its own agenda. It’s a lesson for really anything. We have to have the heart of a title or religious practice before we can enjoy it’s sacredness.

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