Sometimes Jesus was blunt and hard-hitting. At these times, there appear to be no exceptions to what He says. He does not soften his language. One of the prime examples of Jesus being so forthright is when He spoke of how we should lead.
For example, in Matthew 20:25 (and similarly in Mark 10:42) He calls His disciples together to teach them about leadership, saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them” (New International Version, UK edition).
Jesus continues by making one of those direct, unequivocal statements: “Not so with you” (verse 26). This is a blunt statement, even more so in the original Greek. It is a statement of strong contrast. It expresses the opposite of what has gone before. Jesus is teaching that this “lording it over” people is wrong, and that Christians should lead in a manner and spirit that is directly opposed to this. Indeed—and this is the opposite—they are to serve those they lead.
Jesus continues, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26–28).
This raises some questions, such as, “What is it about ‘lording it over’ that is so bad?” The answer may be found by reflecting on the occurrences of this word in the Scriptures. Apart from Jesus’ teaching about leadership in Matthew, in Mark and also in 1 Peter 5:3 where this word (katakurieo in Greek) is found, the only other place in Scripture we find it is in Acts 19:16. Here we read, “Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.” The word “overpowered” is the same Greek word we find when Jesus teaches on leadership, namely the word katakurieo. Thus, we see in the book of Acts a demonic overpowering—that is, the work of demons which suppresses people, taking away their freedom and binding them with something evil.
Jesus, in using the same phrase, is indicating what bad leadership is like! It’s behaving like a demon! It’s oppressing others, taking away freedom, and controlling people to do things that are wrong. If that is the case, it is not surprising that Jesus’ words are so categorical and direct! But thankfully, Jesus also points to an alternative for leadership, namely servanthood.
Given the emphasis Jesus puts on this matter, it seems appropriate to ask, “What makes one a servant? How does a servant act?” Indeed, “What are the characteristics of a servant leader?” Here are a few of those qualities.
This might seem so simple. However, we live in a busy world, where we are encouraged to have goals and strategies that we should be working towards. But in that busy world, people just want to be heard—really heard. Listening to their stories and needs validates them; in fact, it is enacting a foundational Christian value that we are each made in the image of God and full of worth. Treating people with such dignity by being present to their needs enables them to share their load with another and helps them see they are not alone.
Servant leaders take time to pray for those in their care. When we see issues in their lives, or we notice that someone is struggling, we don’t always know what to do. God, however, does. It is in prayer that we get discernment about a situation so that we can help; or, through prayer we find that God has intervened anyway!
Yes, we all need a vision for life, especially as a church or body of believers. We are more likely to flourish when we are heading in a God-intended and healthy direction. Leaders serve their people by praying, seeking God and announcing the vision of the church. This can help those who don’t find it easy to see longer-term goals or to have a sense of direction. The casting of vision can bring an excitement about joining with other believers to fulfill God’s purposes on earth.
Sound teaching becomes all the more crucial in this day of abundance of information on websites and social media. Often, we don’t know how to discern what we are seeing, whom to believe or how to act. A wise leader explains things to people and gives them tools to make good judgements on life’s issues. This is often through the teaching of the Scriptures and how they might apply to matters in the world today.
At various times in life, we all need practical help. Those we lead will often have needs that require practical service. There are those moving house. There might be children struggling with their schoolwork. A single parent needs a break from tending to children’s needs. Others might need help in finding employment. The difficulties and struggles of people are important to them, and to God! A leader seeks to help with such situations, but, of course, without creating an unhealthy dependency. This can mean the leader intervenes directly or ensures that there are ways the whole body of believers can help. Clearly, a leader cannot do everything himself or herself, but leaders can ensure that those they lead are activated to help.
Yes, that’s right! We serve our people when we ensure that we ourselves are healthy, communing with God in prayer and seeking to grow in wisdom and understanding, as well as in our love for God and others. We do not serve people well when we are burned out, lacking in direction.
In the struggles of life (in Matthew 13:22 Jesus makes clear that such difficulties exist), people often just need someone to stand with them, pray with them, and encourage them to hold fast, to keep going. A leader’s expression of belief in people is a powerful motivational tool which can enable others to fulfill their calling in life.
The above seven factors are not exhaustive. There are further characteristics that could be mentioned. In leadership, the key is to look to Jesus, seek guidance from Him, wisdom from Him and love from Him that we can then pass on to others. Jesus was the supreme example of serving in that He suffered and gave His life for us. We are called to be like Jesus in doing all we can to help and nurture others. This indeed is servant leadership.
Peter Bunton has lived in the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and the USA. He serves as the director of DOVE Mission International. He is the author of several works, including Cell Groups and House Churches: What History Teaches Us (House to House Publications) and Succeeding at Succession: Founder and Leadership Succession in Christian Organizations and Movements (Wipf and Stock).