It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave– Matthew 20:26
If you haven’t seen the 2019 action/sci-fi blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, then, one, what are you doing; and two, I am about to spoil it for you. In one of the most climatic cinematic events in all of movie history, bearing the weight of nearly a decade’s worth of anticipation, Iron Man stands at a crossroads. Iron Man has been a self-indulgent disaster throughout the franchise and only serves himself. But here, he is the only one with enough power to stop evil from taking over the whole universe, and it requires him to sacrifice himself.
In a now infamous scene, he stands, breathless, with the power gauntlet in hand. He says his famous line from the comic book, “I am…Iron Man.” He snaps his fingers and removes himself from existence to save everyone in the universe. That, my friends, is servant leadership!
You see, many Christians think that servant leadership is about leaders that do good things. We think of Mother Theresa, Abe Lincoln, or Gandhi. While it’s not less than that, Jesus does not mean servant leadership stops at gentle leadership. Rather, becoming a servant-leader requires a fundamental shift in what we perceive to be our source of authority. It requires reorienting our identity as leaders to an identity as servants. This leads to the very sacrifice of power and identity.
Moses Gives Up His Power
Moses went through this very thing right before receiving the ten commandments. He’s in the wilderness with the Israelites when his father-in-law, Jethro, meets him. Moses has been playing prophet, priest, and judiciary king all day, every day, for months. Jethro says this is not good (Ex. 18:17)! Moses needs to relinquish much of his power and responsibility to keep leading well.
Here, Moses must have found himself at a bit of an impasse. Either he could give up much of his power and authority, or he would risk losing the entire kingdom to exhaustion. Thankfully, Moses decides to check his pride at the door and delegate much of his leadership role to the nation.
Now, while that story has a ton of great applications, the main one is this: the best way Moses could lead Israel was by allowing the nation to become prophets, priests, and kings in his place. He had to sacrifice his position of power and identity to do what God had called him to do.
Three Steps to Servant-Leadership
You, too, can do this today! We can take three steps right now to orient ourselves to this leadership style and begin to do what God has called us to do.
First, and most importantly, remember to whom we are the bondservants. Paul says we are slaves to God (Romans 5:18). Which means we go where God goes, whatever the cost. The true essence of servant-leadership is that we fully trust who God is and what God is doing in our lives. Just like Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). We are called to trust God as our Lord and master – whatever it takes.
Secondly, we can stop the power grab. We tend to focus more on the leadership part, whereas Jesus wants us to focus on the servant part. His mention of servant leadership begins with a story of two brothers who want to be His right-hand men (literally!). They think the way to the top is to claw, steal, and bargain. Now, as leaders, we may not literally do this. But we certainly do this relationally. We refuse to take responsibility; we tell little white lies and cover up our mistakes the best we can. All in an attempt to appear strong, powerful, and in charge! But this is exactly what Jesus warns the brothers against. In the kingdom of God, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Instead of clawing for power, we can rest in where God has called us.
Finally, in a spirit of gentleness, we can do good to those in our spheres of influence. It’s not that servant leadership isn’t about doing good things at all! Instead, those good things come from trusting and resting in God as our creator. Once we accept that God has us where He wants us, we can begin to serve that space effectively. No longer are we worried about the next thing or angry that it didn’t go as planned. Instead, we are focused on who God is and reflecting His light to those around us. By doing that, we truly become His servant-leaders.
Bringing it Home
This isn’t too difficult for us to imagine in our day-to-day lives. For example, we have all had hard days at work. The boss is unhappy, the coworkers are irritable, whatever it is. Do we come home and use our God-given leadership ability to boss our families around? Or do we see the pile of dishes in the sink, respond with affection, and roll up our sleeves and get to work? In the first instance, we have focused too much on being the leader. But when we roll our sleeves up, we take care of our families as loving servants.
If you have been a small group leader for any amount of time, you know there are instances when someone may say something you disagree with. When we lead our small group discussions, do we argue our own theology, thoughts, and ideas with the group? After all, we are the leaders! However, we should see ourselves as servants. As servant-leaders, we should empathize, delegate, and trust our groups and God in those times.
Let’s choose to lead as servants today.
This article was inspired by the work or ideas of New Testament scholar Dr. Michelle Lee Barnewall. Learn more about Dr. Barnewall here.