The way the Bible describes leaders is clearly intended to contrast with the prevailing secular notions. Thus far, we have examined two of the three primary biblical leadership metaphors: steward (one with a sacred obligation to exercise oversight on behalf of another) and servant (a person who declines pursuit of status and privilege and sacrifices himself for the welfare of those over whom he has charge). Given human nature and history, it is no surprise that a privilege and entitlement notion of leadership proves difficult for Jesus to dislodge among even His closest disciples.
An elusive concept
Though the disciples’ overt campaigning may have subsided following Jesus’ Matthew 18 discourse on servant leadership, it persisted in perhaps more subtle and insidious ways. Sequestered with His future kingdom leadership core to celebrate the Passover meal on the night before His betrayal, Jesus observed that no one took upon himself the menial hospitality ritual of foot washing. Given the weight of the occasion and the urgency of the final revelations to be made that night, you or I might have been inclined to minimize and rationalize this relatively insignificant omission.
This calls for an intervention
Jesus took a different view. This was no mere social slight. It exposed the root of an attitude that, if not confronted, would corrupt the entire Gospel enterprise. Indeed, it has corrupted a good deal of what passes for Christianity right up to the present. John tells us (Jn. 13:3-4) that, with full knowledge of his regal identity and destiny, Jesus ceremoniously arose from the table, girded himself with a towel, filled a water basin, and performed the stinky service. This provoked the predictable reaction of horror, shame, and insensibility—and afforded the teachable moment Jesus sought. He declared, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14).
There’s nothing like a picture
In writing to the Philippians, among whom were apparently many vestiges of pagan relational and leadership patterns, the Apostle Paul reveals that Jesus’ countercultural, upside down leadership values were communicated not merely by exhortation but most of all by example. In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul reveals that the Second Person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and Spirit, took up the demeanor of a bond-servant, voluntarily waived His right to the free exercise of His divine prerogatives, and humbly submitted Himself to the powerlessness of a humiliating criminal execution.
Forfeiture: path to inheritance
What did becoming a servant entail for Jesus? It meant relinquishing His rights, rank, and reputation. Most leaders—I fear even too many Christian leaders—act as if those are precisely the things to which a leader is entitled. They are considered the rewards of “service.” There are rewards for service. But Scripture instructs us that God’s kingdom leaders should reckon that they come in proportion to the forfeit of rights, rank, and reputation. Note that instead of forfeiting His reward, Jesus’ submission to suffering was the path to His inheritance of it.
*Note: This post is excerpted from my 2013 book, The Leader’s Palette: Seven Primary Colors
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