The Lie of Servant Leadership

Sharing Options
Show Outline with Links


So a little something happened a few days ago, and I thought that it was of such a nature that it required a little extra comment, and so here I am, as helpful as ever. The good folks at Canon Press posted a clip from our Man Rampant show on Amazon, and it sort of chummed the water. The clip was at 50K views as of yesterday, and if my hunch is to be credited, a bunch of people probably thought we were objecting to the word servant, when were actually objecting to something else. What is that something else? Gather round, and I will tell you.

The Jesus Way

It would be very easy to react to a “clickbait” title like The Lie of Servant Leadership, assuming that we were somehow going after the concept of being a servant. This would be a big mistake, because having a servant’s heart is a sine qua non of Christian discipleship. The real problem is found in that word leader. I could prove seven ways to Sunday and back that husbands are supposed to have that adjective servant in front of their title. But what title do husbands actually have? And where did this pestilent word leader come from?

And incidentally, I am not approving of clickbait. But you have to recognize that we live in tumultuous times, when all you have to do is tell the truth and they think it is clickbait. “Grass is green,” said the troubler of Israel. And he wasn’t sorry afterward either.

So let’s consider the ur-text for all of this, that place being where Jesus washed His disciples’ feet.

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

John 13:12–15 (KJV)

We can all see here the important acts of Christ stooping, wiping, drying — performing the functions that a slave would ordinarily perform. And this is part of the shock; it is so glaringly and shockingly obvious. Jesus is Lord, and He washed the disciples’ feet.

So we all know what Jesus did. But what did He say right after He did it? Read that text again. You call me “Master and Lord.” You say “well,” for “so I am.” He was a servant master. He was a servant lord. He did not use His service to erase His lordship, but rather to define it. Why do we find it so easy to speak of servant leadership, but we would choke on something like servant lordship?

So the first lesson in Christianity 101 is learning to say amen to the radical demand for sacrificial and bleeding service. This is the calling of every Christian — it is not the case that only 30% of us have to take up our cross daily and follow Him. We must all do it. And if we must all do it, then this includes every Christian who occupies any position of authority whatever — admirals, shift managers, governors, presidents, parents, umpires, mayors, CEOs, chairmen, and husbands. And they must do this without relinquishing their authority.

How could they relinquish their authority when they are in fact establishing it?

Mercy and truth preserve the king: And his throne is upholden by mercy.

Proverbs 20:28 (KJV)

Steadfast love and faithfulness preserve the king, and by steadfast love his throne is upheld.

Proverbs 20:28 (ESV)

And we are not left to infer that a husband’s authority over his wife is established in this way. We are told it explicitly.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it

Ephesians 5:25 (KJV)

Of course Christian husbands are to be servant somethings. But servant what? They are called to lordship, rule, authority. And no, not like the Gentiles.

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister”

Matthew 20:25–26 (KJV)

Rulers and Leaders

So what could be wrong with the term leader? We need to start by recognizing that in many cases, and in many places, nothing is wrong with it. Many Christians simply use that word to describe the general authority structure for the home that Scripture outlines, and so there is no need to quarrel over words. If the thing is there, then how we describe it is of less importance. At the same time, we must recognize that a number of substantive changes have been smuggled into modern life by means of seemingly innocuous changes in how we speak of things.

So we must consider what C.S. Lewis considered a “deeply significant change of vocabulary,” as he was speaking of how we have exchanged our rulers for leaders.

Our rulers have become like schoolmasters and are always demanding ‘keenness.’ And you notice that I am guilty of a slight archaism in calling them ‘rulers.’ ‘Leaders’ is the modern word. I have suggested elsewhere that this is a deeply significant change of vocabulary. Our demand upon them has changed no less than theirs on us. For of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality.’”

De Descriptione Temporum

Rulers must possess character, for they are called to apply an objective “rule” to the situation they have responsibility for. There is a standard outside themselves — a constitution, or by-laws, or the tradition, or Navy regs — and they are responsible to the standard and for their people. Leaders, on the other hand, must possess personality, charisma, or what Lewis failed to call razzle dazzle. They are responsible to their followers. There is no fixed standard to which everyone must submit, and so the husband can only be the leader so long as he maintains the requisite charm.

And then if you combine this underlying understanding of leadership with the adjective servant, what happens is that the husband comes under the authority of the wife. This is a very different thing from him loving her under the authority and example of Christ. The home has become a democracy, and she is the voting electorate. Easy divorce has made recall elections a snap, and now many husbands are trying to navigate their marriages in a time when everything has gone crazy. He cannot depend on an outside cultural support any more. How could he? The outside culture doesn’t even know any more which one is the husband and which one is the wife. And you can’t help them by pointing out which one had the babies because they will simply reply that “husbands can have babies.” Only a hater would deny that.

So in this climate, solid Christian marriages are those in which both husband and wife, regardless of what the culture outside is doing, read their Bibles, and both understand that the husband is called to rule in the home, according to Scripture, and the wife is to submit to her own husband, as to the Lord. I speak as a madman. His rule is to be imitative of the Lord Jesus, which means that he will not be a tyrant, but rather one who bleeds for others.