A Theology of Servant Leadership

Posted by Jeff Iorg on

Last week, we considered the essence of servant leadership—the motive that drives the actions. Now, let’s discover—in summary form only—a theological rationale for this perspective.

One foundational passage on servant leadership is Matt. 22:34-40. Jesus was clear about the greatest commandment—love God. The second, and the context indicates it is a close second—is to serve people. “Love God; serve people” is a good recipe for leadership effectiveness. The first commandment, in its broadest sense, addresses a leader’s integrity, motive, and ultimate Evaluator (God). The second commandment addresses attitude, motive, and who benefits in the leadership relationship (our followers). “Love God, serve people” is a great bumper sticker summarizing servant leadership.

Another key passage is Mark 10:35-45. In this passage, James and John reveal some confusion still common to Christian leaders today. They were struggling with understanding Jesus’ radical message about relationships in contrast to their culturally ingrained understanding of leadership. In short, they were struggling with ambition—the foundational motive for leadership in many secular settings. Jesus bluntly contrasted Christian leadership with worldly leadership. They are not only not the same concept; they are polar opposites. Although they are not always opposite in the leadership skills required, they are always opposite in motive. Notice in the previous paragraph the common denominator in understanding the first two commandments—motive. Motive, in my view, is one of the primary distinctive features of servant leadership.

A third passage which supports this conviction is John 13:1-11—the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Peter was aghast that Jesus would wash his feet. He objected vehemently. But why was Peter upset? He had, no doubt, been the recipient of many foot-washings from low-level servants over his lifetime. So having his feet washed wasn’t the problem. Peter objected because it was Jesus washing his feet. Peter objected to the Person performing the task, not the task. He objected to the attitude demonstrated, not the act accomplished. Peter simply couldn’t abide the Leader abasing himself in this way.

Paul later wrote, “Have this attitude in yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus… (Phil. 2:5). We aren’t required to emulate every act by Jesus, but we are called upon to live out His attitude. We may not do every menial task possible in our ministry setting, but there must be no task we consider ourselves above doing.

Servant leadership, then, is about loving God and serving people. It’s about proper motive. It’s about confronting ambition and putting your followers’ best interests ahead of your own. It’s about right attitude more than specific actions. Study the passages above. Memorize key verses (as I have Philippians 2:5-11). Ask God to help you develop a sound theology of leadership based on these passages and others as appropriate.


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