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Is the Term “Servant/Leader,” an Oxymoron?


Is the idea of servant/leader just another Christian cliché that we’d like to be true but rarely is?

This week, I received the following email from a sharp, young aggressive 20 something guy, I’ve been meeting with, who’s still “kicking tires” spiritually.

“I have always wanted to lead. In fact, I’ve done a good job of it. I get moved by leading and having responsibility. It seem contradictory that a strong leader is also a servant.”

Is my young friend right? Is the notion of being a servant/leader contradictory? It almost seems so when we read passages like these;

“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” Matthew 20:26

“When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.  Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” Mark 10:41-43

But the Bible also calls some to leadership in the church and in the home. And Moses, David and others were called to lead nations. I believe God would never command us to do the impossible, therefore servant/leadership must be doable. Two critical questions True Christian leaders ought to be asking these two, critical questions of themselves often: Why do I lead? And how do I lead?

1.  True Christian leaders get their directions from God, whether it makes sense or not. A few years after I came to faith, I was still running my manufacturing company. I was convicted by God while reading James’ warnings to the rich, that I should raise the starting hourly rate of our employees. I couldn’t imagine any family living on our starting wage. My HR person thought it was unnecessary. She had dozens of applicants who were willing to work for that wage, so what made me think that wasn’t a fair wage?   But, I continued to come under the conviction that I had to let justice, not the market, determine our starting wage. So we did it.

Not only did we make life better for our employees, but we attracted better employees who more than made up for the higher payroll cost. Being a servant of God means that Gods laws and justice, often trumps “common sense” or conventional business sense.

Then, less than a year later one of our oldest employees died and the funeral was on the same weekend as a golf tournament I wanted badly to play  in. I knew what God wanted me to do, but I waved him off and golfed. Through the grapevine at work I heard later that several non-Christians thought I was thoughtless and selfish for doing that. They were right!

Over the years, I’ve learned this principle, sometimes the hard way: to be a servant for God, you first have to put yourself under the authority of God and his word.

2.  A Christian leader, leads to make life better for others, not just themselves. It has been said that the engine of capitalism is self-interest. Those of us who own, or have owned our own business hate hearing that, but intuitively, we know it’s true.

Most strong leaders say they lead for the good of others, but I’m skeptical. They seem to reward themselves far more financially, than those who are under their authority and take far more credit for their organization’s success then they should.

If the primary reason you are leading, particularly in your vocation, is to increase your lifestyle or for the next promotion, then you may not be a servant/leader. On the other hand, if you’re a leader and you do your best to make others look good and prosper, then you’re heading in the right direction.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:3,4

Meditate for a moment on this question: Why do you really lead?

How a Christian leads is as important as why they lead. There are some “tools” true Christian leaders may never take out of their toolbox. We may not ever use anger, intimidation, lies, power, money or even the Bible to manipulate others to do what we want; regardless of our motives. These are what I call, “dark arrows.” Worldly leaders use these dark arrows to frighten and bully others. They work sometimes, but they are off-limits to the true Christian leader.

Christian leaders are to use the “light arrows” of encouragement, kindness, wisdom and the spiritual and natural gifts of administration to organize others to complete a task. (For more on this light arrows/black arrows idea, read my blog of two weeks ago

My litmus test of a true Christian servant/leader is this: Would anyone you lead, willingly follow you, if they didn’t have to?

So, right now, apply that test to your family? What about at your job or a committee at church? Are you admired as much for your character, as for your competency? Do those you lead, truly believe you care about them, more than you do about yourself or advancing your own ideas? Are you sure? I know. I’ve had to repent occasionally of being a “spiritual bully” just because I thought I had the best idea.

Please take a few minutes and meditate on these questions. Ask your spouse for their honest answer. If we’re not careful and prayerful, the ideal of a true servant/leader can easily be forgotten. Jesus is less interested in what we accomplish than in how we accomplish it, or why we want something accomplished.

How following Jesus works in real life.

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