Shaping and Sustaining Servant Leaders with the Gospel
It is worth reflecting on how a seminary, or local churches for that matter, can shape and sustain servant leaders. We know that it is God’s grace that calls, saves, commissions, enables, and blesses a minister. But we are also told that God normally works through means, especially the fellowship of saints in the local church. How does this happen?
What is servant leadership?
We need to reflect on this clichéd term: servant leadership. Many think servant leadership can be easily identified: picture a person in authority doing some menial task, some thankless duty, and there you have it—a leader serving. Yet this is not a biblical definition of servant leadership. In the Bible, the term servant more often than not really means slave—some slaves run the household, others plow the soil, but all do so at the behest of their master. The underlying point of servant leadership, then, is not a matter of what tasks you do, but of who owns you. Murray Harris sees this evident in the writing, indeed in the very self-identification of the apostle Paul: “The book of Romans is the flagship of the Pauline fleet. Flying proudly at the top of the mast of this ship is a flag bearing the words, ‘Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus’ (Romans 1:1). This flag is two-toned, its white indicating complete freedom yet total surrender, and its purple symbolizing royal ownership and therefore incomparable privilege. The slave of Christ is the emancipated dependent of Christ as well as the willing bondservant of Christ, the exclusive property of Christ as well as the honored representative of Christ.”[i] The apostle knew he was God’s property.
Servant leaders are those who know they are bought by God at a great price; they are his possession, and they do whatever he calls them to do. Oftentimes, yes, this involves the fulfillment of menial or lowly tasks. But slavish fulfillment of tasks is not the essence of servant leadership—it is only a presenting symptom, an outward sign of an inward reality. Real servant leadership involves the continual submission of one’s ministerial agenda to your master’s wishes. Servant leadership is an implication of being Christ-centered.
In a day and age where pastors are frequently called to be managers, therapists, and bureaucrats, surely we need more servant leaders in the biblical sense. We need pastors who see themselves as God’s people, subject to his will. These pastors will do whatever he says—preaching in grand pulpits and praying with diseased inpatients, counseling the despondent and designing the educational curriculum. We need pastors willing to address the prince and the pauper, able to purify the liturgy and the latrine. We need pastors willing to suffer for the gospel when necessary. Chiefly, we need our pastors to join in the ministry of Christ on his terms and in his strength.
Who are the servant leaders?
If servant leadership involves attitudes and action, we must then ask: what kind of person will lead in this way? What qualities and characteristics make up the servant leader? Above all else, the servant leader is someone who has appropriated the glory of the gospel and been freed to care for the good of others.
The gospel tells us that all our needs are provided in Christ Jesus; indeed, “all the promises of God find their yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). We must know that God intends our good, and that he is able and willing to deliver. We see this evident in the sending and sacrifice of his Son. Remember Romans 8:32—“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all other things?” God has already given the greatest gift, surely our daily needs will be met too. The gospel promises life in Christ for eternity as well as for this very day. Every promise is yes in Christ.
The gospel not only tells us that we are provided for, it also empowers our obedience and service to others. Assured of our future in Christ, we are free to give ourselves away in service in the present. We need not fret and frenzy ourselves in pursuit of our security and status, but we can pour ourselves out to those in need. By refusing to justify ourselves, instead resting on the merits of Christ, we can work on behalf of others. This dynamic leads to what is called regularly “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26)—loving service that flows out of those who trust their future to Christ. It is not merely that those who believe also happen to obey: trust and obey. Rather, it is that trust enables and empowers obedience: trust and, therefore, obey. Christian leaders who savor the satisfying power of Christ’s work will be willing to follow wherever he leads—their faith will work itself out in love (Galatians 5:6).
Savoring all that Jesus is for us in the gospel enables our faithful action. Knowing the exalted glory of the gospel sustains our journey through humiliation. Seeing our identity fully in Christ enables us to endure anything for him and to give ourselves to bless others. Put it all together, then, and we see that servant leaders are gospel-saturated believers.
How do we shape and sustain servant leaders?
Servant leadership goes against the grain of our culture and our own selfish tendencies. It simply will not come naturally to those who fashion themselves autonomous or self-made. Therefore, we must be intentional if we wish to cultivate a culture of servant leadership. At Knox Seminary and in local churches, we must ask: how can we shape and sustain servant leaders over the long haul?
We must remind each other regularly of the gospel, its beauty and its power. John Murray said that “Faith is forced consent. . . . In common parlance we say a man commands confidence. We do not trust a man simply because we have willed to, or even because we desire to. And we cannot distrust a man simply because we wish or will to do so. We trust a man because we have evidence that to us appears sufficient, evidence of trustworthiness.”[ii] If leaders are to be bold in service, they must be convinced that the God who promises to meet all their needs in Christ is able and willing to do so. We must portray the trustworthiness of God, so that their faith is sustained. Sermons proclaim this; sacraments portray it. Regular study of the scriptures emboldens leaders by reminding them that God has preserved his people time and again, even in the most adverse situations. All of us need reminders of the wondrous works of God, so that we might cling all the more to his promises and be freed for self-sacrificing ministry.
The gospel sustains Christians and ministries, so we speak the good news to each other daily and reflect carefully on the promises and works of God. In so doing, we fulfill the exhortation of Hebrews 10:23-25—“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” God is faithful—all of us, even leaders, need to be reminded regularly of this truth. We “stir up one another to love and good works” by “encouraging one another” with words of God’s grace and recitals of the gospel message. Going deeper together into the gospel actually propels us outward in love and witness. Thus, we fight for each other’s faith, even the faith of students in seminary and pastors in their parishes, and thus we make possible one another’s service. We pray that you will join us in doing so, thereby shaping and sustaining a counter-culture of servant leadership.