In 1970 a businessman named Robert Greenleaf wrote a book called The Servant Leader. In the book he encouraged men and women in corporate management to adopt the attitude of a servant to the company’s employees, because it served their bottom line. Greenleaf explains that a Servant Leader should focus their leadership around the following questions, ‘Do those served grow as persons?’ ‘Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?’ It sounds almost Christian! Until you continue to read on and see the purpose of this style of leadership is to motivate the employee to become a greater servant of the company.
When this happens the company’s interests get served; the workers become more committed to its vision, they in turn become more productive as human resources, and the end result is greater profitability for the company. Servant Leadership so that the company’s interests are better served. Almost Christian? Not quite. In the New Testament of the bible we see Servant Leadership articulated for the first time in human history, and as God intended it to be among his people. Jesus is its model, and he taught his disciples that it was the way to true greatness in the sight of God because it perfectly reflected his own divine character. As Matthew records for us, ‘Jesus called them [his disciples] together and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles [of the nations] lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. 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 20:25–28)
When we become aware of this character trait of God, we can look back throughout the Old Testament of the Bible and see that it has always characterised our Father in heaven. God created the universe with a commitment to serve us at every point along the way, and as the Apostle Paul will go on to say, this was absolutely necessary because
‘… he [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.’ (Acts 17:25)
And so it makes sense that when Jesus came he reaffirmed this commitment to serve, and it makes even more sense that having been served by our Servant Leader who is also Saviour and Lord, that we too would become what he is.
This is a shift in mindset that needs to take place in the life of every Christian, and one that most obviously displays the work of God’s Spirit in the life of his children. But as we’ll look at in this study, it’s also the most fundamental characteristic of those who lead the church as under-shepherds of our Great Shepherd Jesus.
God wants his people to be led, but he wants his people to be led by men like him, who use their authority to serve, and lay down their lives for his treasured sheep. And not only is this style of leadership counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, there are also unhealthy traditions in the church to compete with. Since the 19 th Century, many Protestant churches have trained and ordained their clergy through denominations and Bible Colleges that each played their part in preparing pastors to serve local churches.
This process has allowed for denominations to fill the many churches within their networks with ministers who know the scriptures well and are aligned in theology, but one of its greatest flaws is that the Bible College / ordination model for preparing ministers for service takes the responsibility of discipleship and training away from the local church.
Bible Colleges are often seen as institutions that churches can use to outsource the training of potential ministers, which means churches are no longer the primary environment for discipleship into eldership, because a large part of that role now belongs to the college and ordination process adopted by the denomination.
This shift has led to an unfortunate ‘professionalism’ among clergy, as Bible College degrees are seen as appropriate qualifications for a position in ministry, in a similar way that universities offer degrees that qualify people for work in other sectors of society. The result of this professionalism is that it implies only those with college degrees are suitably trained to shepherd the church, and the rest of the congregation are known as ‘lay members’.
The categories of clergy and laity are not biblical categories, and not only do they undermine the priesthood of all believers that we see described in the New Testament, they also cut against the biblical model of how elders / overseers are to be raised up and appointed by local churches (keeping in mind the words shepherd, pastor, elder and bishop are all used in the New Testament to describe different aspects of the one role of church overseer).
According to God’s Word in the New Testament, God’s shepherds are those men who are first members of a local church, who have been identified by the existing elders / overseers of that local church, and have the character and competency of a servant leader outlined in passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:6–9 and 1 Peter 5:1–4.
This means the office of elder / overseer is available to all godly, competent men of integrity, who have been recognised by their particular gifting in this servant leadership by the elders / overseers who currently lead the church they call home, in accordance with the qualifications described in the relevant New Testament passages. For example, in the book of Acts were told,
‘Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.’ (Acts 14:23)
Likewise, when Paul wrote to one of his apostolic delegates Titus, he tells him,
‘The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.’ (Titus 1:5)
And we see this principle of elders identifying and confirming the gifts of other men suitably gifted in the life of Timothy. Paul says to this young pastor / elder,
‘Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.’ (1 Timothy 4:13–14)
This laying on of hands is a sign of confirmation that the elders are in agreeance that this person is suitably gifted and called to the task. This is part of the responsibility of every elder, as Paul will go on to say to Timothy himself,
‘You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’ (2 Timothy 2:1–2)
According to the New Testament, the local church is the place Christians are identified, discipled and equipped for all kinds of service. It’s the church leaders who are called to equip God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:11–12), and part of this equipping is identifying those within the congregation who are qualified as elders in the sight of God to serve his people as models of Jesus himself. Not all elders will preach (although they all need to know how to teach), neither will they all be paid. But from among the elders there will be some suitably gifted, who the body of elders may choose to support financially so they can give more of their time over to shepherding God’s people through his Word.
At the same time it would be appropriate to encourage some of these men to go to Bible College, not to earn their qualification, but to be better equipped to ‘correctly handle the Word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).
And finally, the question of gender often arises when speaking about leadership in the church, because as it is in Christian households, it’s God’s will that his sons take the lead. The man who leads should do so like Christ, and the men and women who support that lead do so to support the will of Christ himself.
What is more, shepherds are defenders of truth and the souls of God’s people, and so they must be able to fight off wolves and be willing to stand on the front line as opposition presses against the church. This is where leaders are also called to willing to lay down their lives for their flocks as Jesus has done for them. We never deny the fact that women are called to put their lives on the line to defend the truth as men are – and praise God when they do. But women are not called by God to lay down their lives for their households in the same way that Christian men are, as an implication of the responsibility men have been given by God to provide for, and protect what has been entrusted to them. This isn’t because men are smarter or more godly, but because God has created men for this task in the model of our Lord Jesus who is the perfect male, servant leader, who laid down his life to save and serve his bride.
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