Few sayings of Jesus are more familiar than this one:
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all,” (Mark 9:35).
It often appears in virtual slogan form on our ministry websites as we assert that “servant leadership” is a core value. I’m afraid, however, that some of the pastors and churches who most often quote this simple and straightforward principle are among the worst violators of its true implications. They spout the slogan but flout its implications.
So, what is the essence of truly biblical and godly servant leadership? On the subject of greatness, Jesus gave an entire sermon, not merely the single sentence to which we have typically reduced the matter.
For Jesus’ disciples, and for too many of us, Jesus’ kingdom is presumed to be like all the others—a hierarchy where rank is everything. But true greatness has nothing to do with comparisons. Jesus turned the assumptions behind their ranking system upside-down. Greatness should be understood in terms of character, not comparisons. Greatness is validated by serving, not status.
In his extended discourse on the subject that encompasses the entirety of Matthew 18 (see also Mark 9 and Luke 9), Jesus spells out six major propositions.
SIX PROPOSITIONS FOR SERVANT LEADERSHIP
Proposition #1: Become like children. Welcome children. Greatness is not advanced by our tendency to subdue and manipulate. Instead, when you regard yourself as unentitled and dependent as a child, you exhibit the character of greatness. When you recognize you are duty bound to serve and protect those over whom you have been given charge, you exhibit the character of greatness (see Matt 18:2-7)
In the first place, we should become like children (Mt, 18:4). The way to greatness, says Jesus, is the way of humility, not exaltation. It is very dangerous—both for leaders and the people they lead—when leaders think greatness looks like invincibility and acts like superiority. Dependency, not power, is the currency of Christendom.
In the second place, we are called to welcome children (Mt. 18:5). A great deal of what we associate with greatness in this world amounts in the end to exclusion and exploitation. Greatness involves a commitment to embrace and serve above all the people who are most like children—those who are incapable of elevating our status, resourcing our agenda, or contributing to our achievements.
Proposition #2: Greatness does not disgrace the kingdom, seeking to elevate itself by denigrating others. Instead, you display greatness when you embrace and affirm others who serve the King, no matter how imperfectly, and when you defer to his ultimate judgment of their relative legitimacy and merit (see Mark 9:38-41).
Many people in positions of leadership presume that they have the prerogative to render judgment and impose sanctions. Jesus instructs his disciples that seeking to make definitive judgments and pronounce condemnation on the activities of other servants of Christ can be a poisonous pastime for leaders. It is often born of envy. It inevitably breeds envy. Greatness and envy cannot coexist.
Proposition #3: Greatness is not pursued by force through which to exploit others or indulge its idolatrous desires. Instead, you demonstrate you are truly great to the degree you treat power as a sacred yet sometimes seductive trust (see Matt 18:8-11).
Few things are uglier or more sinister than abuse of power. And few things are more common among leaders. Jesus warns, woe to the person who abuses the powers associated with elevated rank! Persons don’t become great because they have been entrusted with power. No, persons become great because they refuse to exercise the power with which they have been entrusted in such a way as to disregard or disadvantage people over whom they have been given charge.
Not only does abuse of power manifest itself in various forms of unjust exploitation, it also finds expression in various forms of self-indulgence. Jesus warns: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.”
What if something as essential as your very own hand or eye were to be the cause of your self-destruction? Even if that were so, it would be better to ruthlessly amputate the offending member than to abuse the privileges of your position in self-indulgent and self-destructive ways.
A heart that seeks to abuse power and privilege on behalf of sinful self-gratification is the stealthiest of perils—a deadly peril to be avoided at all costs.
Proposition #4: Greatness refuses to be distracted by the amusements of the world or the accolades of office. God’s true servant leaders share his grief over the spiritually estranged and his urgency for the rescue of the spiritually endangered (see Matt 18:12-14).
What is of greatest importance to the Father? Some of his dear ones have gone astray and are alienated, languishing in mortal and eternal danger. A person of high office might be tempted to curry the favor of the faithful rather than risk the danger and ridicule that a gospel-oriented life and leadership path will entail. More likely, the eternal urgency of gospel reality will simply be blunted and blurred as other contemporary voices are permitted to play the agenda-setting role.
Jesus says there is no such thing as greatness that marginalizes the gospel mandate. The Father’s heart longs for the reconciliation of the lost and imperiled. How can his most trusted and esteemed under-shepherds allow their minds to be occupied with their surroundings and their hearts infatuated with their celebrity?
Proposition #5: Greatness declines to obsess over personal offenses and personal vindication. Instead, great persons humbly and tirelessly pursue reconciliation and restoration for the sake of the other (see Matt 18:15-19).
Greatness is a one-another affair. It is not a matter of indifference when a fellow believer sins. And greatness pursues the other gently, humbly, and persistently on behalf of their welfare, not my well-being or vindication. Placing yourself above your peers, using your position and power as a way to get others to stop offending you, cannot be what Jesus means by greatness.
The truly great, he instructs, intervene in a “Golden Rule” spirit of mutuality, humility, and perseverance. They go to great lengths, in sincere hope, if at all possible, to rescue, reconcile, and restore.
Proposition #6: Greatness keeps no tally of offenses. Instead, great persons gush with gratitude toward God and, in light of God’s infinite mercy, lavish infinite forgiveness on others. Their willingness to forgive is proportional to their awareness of forgiveness (see Matt 18:20-35).
The only thing more scandalous than self-righteousness is the scandal of sovereign forgiveness. God broke the bank for our sake and the only appropriate response for us is to do the same. Infinite forgiveness flows from those who know they are infinitely forgiven.
When I contemplate forgiveness with the face of my offender in view, it becomes duty and drudgery. When I think about forgiveness with the face of my gracious Savior in view, it produces freedom and joy.
Those who withhold forgiveness do not inflict suffering on the offender. They summon it upon themselves.
THE JESUS WAY OF LEADERSHIP
Corruption of the sacred calling to lead is nothing new. The prophet Ezekiel, who himself held the office of priest, railed against Judah’s “false shepherds” who exploited the people they had been called to serve in order to advantage themselves (Ezek. 34). Jesus referenced Ezekiel’s condemnation of the Jewish religious authorities of His day when he thundered that they were “full of greed and self-indulgence” (Mt. 23:25) and “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Mt. 23:28).
The One to whom all authority has been given essentially de-frocked the Jewish clergy once and for all. As in the past, so now and in the future: abusers of spiritual office will face a reckoning from the One who entrusted them with leadership.
Ultimately, those who want to emulate the greatness of Jesus will be called upon to follow him to the cross. The omnipotent, self-sufficient One laid aside the prerogative to exercise his power in pursuit of self-vindication or retribution. In his own words, he “lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all,” (Mark 9:35).
We can join the parade of those who talk the talk, brandishing this saying as a noble, yet benign and insubstantial platitude. Or we can dig deeper into the text and walk the walk, embarking on the arduous path of the life-altering implications of the Jesus way of leadership.
Content taken from Servant of All: Reframing Greatness and Leadership through the Teachings of Jesus by Ralph E. Enlow, ©2019. Used by permission of Kirkdale Press.
Ralph E. Enlow, Jr. serves as president of the Association for Biblical Higher Education (www.abhe.org). Previously, Dr. Enlow served for 28 years as an educational leader at his alma mater, Columbia International University, culminating in a six-year stint as senior vice president and provost. A founding member of Global Associates for Transformational Education (www.gateglobal.org), he has been involved in international teaching and consulting in over a dozen countries.