All professing Christians agree that a Christian leader should be a servant leader. Jesus couldn’t be clearer:
“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25–26)
Where there’s not always agreement is how servant leadership should look in a given situation. Sometimes servant leaders wash others’ feet, so to speak (John 13:1–17), but other times they rebuke (Matthew 16:23), and even discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). Sometimes they serve at their own expense (1 Corinthians 9:7), but other times they issue strong imperatives (1 Corinthians 5:2; 11:16).
Wading into Muddy Waters
Other factors muddy the waters even more for us. To begin with, all Christian leaders have indwelling sin, which means even at the height of their maturity, they will still be defective servants. Add to this the fact that most leaders have not yet reached their height of maturity. Add to this the fact that all Christian followers also have indwelling sin and most haven’t reached our height of maturity either. Add to this the fact that different temperaments, experiences, giftings, and callings influence both how certain leaders tend to serve, and how certain followers tend to perceive that leadership — a leader’s genuine attempt to serve might be interpreted by a genuine follower as an attempt to “lord it over” them (2 Corinthians 1:24). And then there are wolfish, self-serving leaders who, while deceiving their followers, appear for a time to behave in ways similar to servant leaders.
So, determining whether or not a leader is acting from a heart of Christlike service requires charitable, patient, humble discernment. It’s not simple. There’s no one-size-fits-all servant leader description. The needs and contexts in the wider church are vast and varied, and require many different kinds of leaders and gifts. We must guard against our own unique biases when assessing leaders’ hearts. Each of us is more or less drawn to certain kinds of leaders, but our preferences can be unreliable and even uncharitable standards.
Marks of a Servant Leader
Still, the New Testament instructs us to exercise due diligence in discerning a Christian leader’s fitness (see, for instance, 1 Timothy 3:1–13). What traits do we look for in a leader that suggest his fundamental orientation is Christlike servanthood? This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are five fundamental indicators.
1. A servant leader seeks the glory of his Master.
And his Master is not his reputation or his ministry constituency; it is God. Jesus said, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood” (John 7:18). A Christlike leader is a bondservant of Christ (Ephesians 6:6), and demonstrates over time that Christ — not public approval, position, or financial security — has his primary loyalty. In this he “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).
2. A servant leader sacrificially seeks the highest joy of those he serves.
This does not conflict with seeking the glory of his Master. Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant . . . even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26, 28). Whatever his temperament, gift mix, capacities, or sphere of influence, he will make necessary sacrifices in order to pursue people’s “progress and joy in the faith,” which results in the greater glory of God (Philippians 1:25; 2:9–11).
3. A servant leader will forgo his rights rather than obscure the gospel.
Paul said it this way: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). What did this mean for him? It meant sometimes he abstained from certain foods and drinks, or refused financial support from those he served, or worked with his own hands to provide for himself, or went hungry, or dressed poorly, or was beaten, or was homeless, or endured disrespect inside and outside the church (1 Corinthians 4:11–13; 9:4–7). And he decided not to marry (1 Corinthians 9:5). This all before he was martyred. Paul’s servant bar may have been set extraordinarily high, but all servant leaders will yield their rights if they believe more will be won to Christ as a result.
4. A servant leader is not preoccupied with personal visibility and recognition.
Like John the Baptist, a servant leader sees himself as a “friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29), and is not preoccupied with the visibility of his own role. He doesn’t view those with less visible roles as less significant, nor does he covet more visible roles as more significant (1 Corinthians 12:12–26). He seeks to steward the role he’s received as best he can, and gladly leaves the role assignments to God (John 3:27).
5. A servant leader anticipates and graciously accepts the time for his decrease.
All leaders serve only for a season. Some seasons are long, some short; some are abundant, some lean; some are recorded and recalled, most are not. But all seasons end. When John the Baptist recognized the ending of his season, he said, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29–30).
Sometimes a leader is the first to recognize his season’s end, sometimes others recognize it first, and sometimes God lets a season end unjustly for purposes a leader can’t understand at the time. But a servant leader graciously yields his role for the good of Christ’s cause, because his identity and trust are not in his calling, but in his Christ.
Be Gracious with Your Leaders
No earthly Christian leader is the perfect incarnation of these five fundamental marks of servanthood. Jesus alone bears that distinction. The vast majority of our leaders are imperfect servants trying to be faithful.
So, some of the greatest gifts we can give our leaders are 1) our explicit encouragement when we see any of these graces in them (loose our tongues), 2) our quiet patience with their stumbling (hold our tongues), and 3) our charitable judgment and gracious feedback regarding decisions that raise questions and concerns (bridle our tongues). And all three can be as easily applied in speaking about our leaders as in speaking to them.
If a leader needs help recognizing the ending of his season, let his faithful friends bring a loving, gracious, gentle, and patient encouragement, and if necessary, reproof.
But sometimes, like Diotrephes (3 John 9), a leader’s sinful defects are too damaging, or like Judas (Luke 6:16), they prove to be a wolf. At that point a gracious response looks like appropriate, godly, mature followers taking the servant initiative to rebuke (Matthew 16:23), and even discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). We’ll know we’ve reached that point because, after a season of observation, it will become clear that these five marks are conspicuously missing in that leader.