The Great Servant Leadership Mistake

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In her next chapter, Aimee Byrd continues a similar pattern. She says a lot of good things, like a handful of pearls with no thread to make a necklace. But she also says some worrisome things, and then third, she assembles part of what she says to support her central non sequitur. After addressing these three sorts of statements, I want to circle back around to write about something that has been hovering in the background the entire time, but which has become explicit in this chapter—and that is the matter of servant leadership.

But First . . .

Here are some of the good things in this chapter:

“As we serve him in our different cultural contexts, we long for the day when everything will be holy again” (Loc. 2023).

“If our personal households are a microcosm of society, then unity and harmony in God’s household should model the cosmos of the new heavens and the new earth” (Loc. 2054).

“Not all men in the church function as heads, but the churches I am addressing understand Scripture to uphold that the ordained office is for certain qualified men only. They also understand Scripture to teach that in marriage the husband is the head of the household” (Loc. 2187).

“Priscilla was able to discern that Apollos had the right intentions but was missing a key element of the gospel (see Acts 18:18–28). She was well equipped, along with her husband, to serve as a necessary ally to Apollos in spreading the true gospel to many” (Loc. 2212).

To all that kind of thing, and there are plenty more, I am happy to say well said, well done.

But Second . . .

But here are some of the worrisome things:

“In an honor-shame society, women upheld family harmony and honor by subordinating themselves to the men in these social structures” (Loc. 2033).

But when women subordinate themselves to the men, is this to be understood simply as a function of living in an honor/shame society? Or was it a feature of the creation order? Did Adam and Eve live in an honor/shame society? And are the two places where Aimee earlier acknowledges the continued authority of our assigned sexual roles to therefore be understood as honor/shame societies? Is she saying that the family is supposed to function on an honor/shame basis? Is the church to function on an honor/shame basis? I acknowledge that they sometimes do, but I have not ever seen it done in a healthy way.

And then there is this:

“Today, women rightfully participate alongside men in society, receiving distinctive authority based on skill, opportunity, and other factors” (Loc. 2036).

In other words, Aimee appears to be saying that there are two reservations where the older traditions can still live—and sell fireworks and cigarettes to the outside secular society—but outside those two reservations (of church government and family government), the creation order appears to be an irrelevance. Is she arguing for a genderless meritocracy in the military? In politics? In business? Is egalitarianism true and right everywhere except our two little enclaves of family and church?

So that is troublesome.

And Third . . .

Here is an example of the non sequitur she keeps returning to. It is not pronounced in this chapter, but it there, and it is a central theme of the book as a whole.

“God’s people actively pursue deep, loving relationships” (Loc. 2174).

Yes, we do. We should do it to the extent of laying down our lives for one another. We are to love one another with a fervent love (1 Pet. 4:8). But it does not follow because we have been given the corporate household status of brothers and sisters, sealed in an intense koinonia fellowship, and covered over with fervent love, that we may therefore transfer the intense prerogatives of that kind of relationship to a completely different kind of relationship. We already know that men and women can be brothers and sisters, right? We know that by definition. We also know that they can be spiritual brothers and sisters. We know that too, also by definition.

But can they be friends? That is a different question. It is a different relationship, different category, with different rules. Aimee is consistently assuming what she needs to prove. Can the fervent love that I am commanded to have for the people in my congregation, including all the sisters, transfer straight across to just one of those sisters, not related to me by blood or covenant, singled out for special attention? The answer I am putting forward is that no, it does not transfer. The commanded fervent love I must have for scores of sisters cannot make one of those sisters a close friend without transforming the nature of that fervent love.

The Great Servant Leader Mistake

A hidden driver in much of this discussion is what might be called the great servant leader mistake. But before getting into a discussion of that mistake, we must start by acknowledging that the mistake was not manufactured out of whole cloth. There is such a thing as a biblical servant leadership. And so those who have fallen into this mistake have a strong prima facie case, provided they limit themselves to a certain kind of text.

“If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14).

It would be tedious to multiply examples—we know these texts. We modern evangelicals know that humility is good, service is good, giving way to others is good, honoring others as better than ourselves is good, gentleness is good, and so it has happened that being a beta male has become the best of all. But this is really lopsided. It is a distortion of genuine servant leadership. There is such a thing as genuine servant leadership, but for it to be genuine, the servant part has to be real and the leadership (lordship) part has to be equally real.

The emphasis placed on servant leadership in recent decades has produced a soft complementarianism, one which adopts egalitarian assumptions for most of human existence, but which tolerates a modified pretend hierarchy in the two places where our trained exegetes have not yet hammered out a plausible workaround for us. In this pretend hierarchy, the leaders are allowed to be leaders so long as they do exactly what they’re told. The nature of this distortion comes out in how Aimee talks about the lordship of Jesus.

 “Christ, our King, does not micromanage us—he serves us!” (Loc. 2067).

The mistake is seen in what she juxtaposes, and how she juxtaposes them. She says that the Lord Jesus serves us, which is biblical enough. But she contrasts this service with His refusal to engage in officious meddling. The Lord of Heaven and earth does not “micromanage.” Now of course the Lord does not micromanage incompetently, the way some blustering manager at a badly run company might do. He does not micromanage out of some pathetic ego-need, the way some demanding perfectionists do. But He most emphatically does micromanage. His authority, His absolute authority extends into absolutely everything we do.

“And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).

“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

When Aimee says that the Lord does not micromanage, she sets this out as a pattern for human leaders to follow. What has happened is that a false understanding of Christ and the church has been copied down here below, and as our experience is getting more and more off-kilter, the bad consequences of that are starting to work their way back up into our theology.

And what is happening down here? We will call you leaders just so long as you give everybody their space. We will call you leaders just so long as nobody gets any hierarchical ideas.

Now when hierarchy goes to seed, it really is tyrannical and evil. When a despot serves only himself, the results really are wicked. Biblical authority bleeds for those under authority. Biblical masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.

That said, and gladly acknowledged, the relationship between the sexes is hierarchical.

“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).

“For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement” (1 Pet. 3:5–6).

“Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (Gen. 18:12).

So what would a genuine servant leadership result in? If it were the real deal, the result would be a greater likelihood of the wife being willing to refer to her husband as a lord, and not choking on it. But the moment anyone suggests that we might want to take such a thing seriously, we rush to the abuses, we rush to the caricatures, we rush to the extremes, we rush to the cartoons, and we rush to the barricades. A contemporary evangelical wife, trained in the jargon of soft complementarianism, is more than willing to call her husband her “best friend,” “wisest of counselors,” “true companion,” or someone who “has my back,” who is “there for me.” And actually, those are all good things. Great. Do so more and more. But why the insistence that something like 1 Pet. 3:5-6 cannot be seriously entertained as an option? Why such a demand?

Why do we call it servant leadership? Why not servant lordship?

We should have no trouble with the concept of rulers giving themselves away through service. That is preeminently biblical. True authority bleeds. The problem is that we are dealing with a counterfeit service, not the real thing. We are dealing with widespread abdication that wants to call itself servant leadership. Calling it that makes the painful sensations of having been castrated more manageable. The tag servant leadership is spiritual hydrocodone for the freshly fixed.

The reason we can know we are not dealing with real service in what goes under the heading of servant leadership is that real service results in what? It results in authority, and authority is the great enemy of this generation. Authority is the one thing we cannot abide.

“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:25–26, ESV).

Those who are great in the kingdom are those who have given themselves away like this. So a man who wants his authority to be recognized in his home—whoever would “be great”—must pursue that authority the way Jesus says to do it. But when he pursues the role of servant, he is pursuing genuine authority. He is not pursuing the status of “nullity” or “milquetoast.” And when he pursues this under the blessing of God, the very first person to see it will be his wife.

This is a great mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.