Summary: Humans have this tendency to want to be in positions that make them feel valued. The default way to achieve feelings of value is through one’s relative status when compared to other human beings. Jesus addressed the issue of status head-on and taught the disciples how a servant’s heart strives for lower status in all relationships to be greater.
I had a dear friend, mentor and master counselor once tell me…
Most people that become church leaders and counselors do so because they struggle with self-esteem and feeling valued. Those chosen career paths provide ways to feel better about themselves through the avenue of helping other people feel better about themselves.
Now this example is just one specific manifestation of how people will deal with their longing for status, belonging and self-esteem. People everywhere are striving for these through many different avenues; whether it be their work or relationships or whatever.
His point was basically that humans have this tendency to want to be in positions that make them feel valued, and the default (fleshly) way to achieve feelings of value is through one’s relative status when compared to other human beings.
This jockeying for position is happening in all the spheres of the world around us; including most churches. The result is all sorts of competitive and divisive behavior, even when people don’t even consciously know they’re doing it. That’s right – it can be very subtle, and it can be in the name of “servant leadership” and “using my gifts.”
But Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was different.
Oh how the tables got turned
Let’s take a look together at the main trait of a servant’s heart, and let’s start with Him.
How did the Lord Jesus Christ function in his efforts to serve others? Fortunately for us, He makes it very clear in Luke 22:24-27…
And there was also rivalry among them concerning which of them should be looked upon as the greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors (an honorific title in Jesus’ day). But you are not to be like that.
Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
The disciples had to be like…wait, what? Come again?
You see identity and self-esteem in Jesus’ day was tied to a person’s status in the social hierarchy of society. The better your status, the greater influence you had, and the better you felt about yourself of course.
This is why even among the disciples there was competitive rivalry as the above verses point out. They had identity and self-esteem issues. In these verses, their status as a church leader was becoming their particular chosen outlet to massage those issues.
Here they are with who they thought was the coming King of the Kingdom of God and He was saying that He was a servant. That made no sense to them. Jesus was turning the tables.
Striving for lower status
How in the world could a King be a servant? Check that…Jesus took it even a step further. In Matthew 20:25-28, He says…
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles 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.
How in the world could a King be a slave? There’s only one way. In the Kingdom Jesus was bringing, the bottom must be the top and the top must be the bottom. That’s really the only explanation. The Kingdom He’s talking about must not be of this world (John 18:36).
In both of the verses above, Jesus is addressing the issue of status head on. He’s pointing out that in this world people strive for higher status in their relationships to be greater; whether they be in the personal, social or public sphere of life. But those who live in the Kingdom of God actually do the opposite.
The #1 characteristic of a servant’s heart is striving for lower status in all relationships to be greater. He showed this perfectly when he took a towel, assumed the lowliest of positions, and washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:5). This was the ultimate servant leadership example.
Remember these were very immature, fallen men at the time…and God in the flesh was treating them like they were more important than Him!
Here’s what Jon Zens, author of 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers says about higher-status leadership…
Exercising (positional or status) authority over people is simply out of the question in Christ’s kingdom. The person being served at the table had the status. The one serving by bringing out the grub had no status.
Like a waiter serving a table
People mistakenly think the main characteristic of servant leadership is doing things for people. They think it’s the sacrifices they make and the ways they give of their time, money and energy to people.
The feeling is that the more committed you are and the more you serve, the more “leadership” you’re showing and the more deserving you are of recognition. Whether or not they get paid, some even do it so much it’s mentally, emotionally and spiritually unhealthy.
But Jesus shows us how to be a servant leader. He shows us that it’s not based on the foundation of the things that people DO. It’s based on the foundation of where people place themselves in relative status to others in their relationships with them.
What is then done for people emerges from the position and status of a servant. When He washed the disciples’ feet, He was assuming a lower status position and then behaving in a way that was consistent with that status.
Christ also said “the greatest among you should be like the youngest.”
Why does he bring up age? Because the youngest in a group have the lowest status. So He’s saying the same thing. Those who have the greatest Kingdom influence are those that act like they have no positional authority or status in relation to others.
If you are truly placing yourself below another, the things you do for them are only what they give you permission to do for them.
Like a waiter that’s requested by diners that walk into a restaurant, the ones dining are in charge. The server doesn’t decide things for the diners with claims they should do so because they understand the menu better. The server offers themselves available to serve how the diners decide they’d like to be served.
Each Christian has the autonomy and power to decide for themselves, regardless of how mature the server deems them to be.
We must be careful not to sway too far the other way on this matter. Being a servant in the Kingdom isn’t exactly like being a servant in the world where you are taken advantage of.
Instead, a Kingdom servant serves by permission in ways that are helpful and healthy to those they’re serving. No, they don’t just do what people want them to do. That’s worldly servanthood and slavery.
In the Kingdom, the servant also has a choice of how and when to serve. Just because they choose to take on bottom-rung-of-the-ladder status doesn’t mean they are to be controlled by those they are serving.
There’s mutual choice and mutual serving within the confines of Kingdom relationships. No one controls anyone else, but they choose together to strive for the bottom rung of the ladder in relation to each other.
This striving with each other is like a dance that mirrors what’s going on within God Himself. It’s an eternal synchronized dance of joyful love among the Three. Each member of the Trinity points faithfully and selflessly to the other in a gracious circle…the persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, and defer to each other. This is what it means to be in loving relationships within the Body and Family of Christ.
This whole set up is voluntary.
Jesus showed us this with His ultra-immature disciples.
It’s about demonstrating the life of Christ
Now this is not to say that it wouldn’t be wise for the less mature to give more of a listening ear to those who they’ve experienced as more mature than themselves. In fact, the NT teaches that it would be (Hebrews 13:17).
But the choice to do so always lies squarely and autonomously with the one being served. Those more mature servants of Christ make sure that those rights are never violated. This shows the maturity of their servant’s heart.
Don’t be mistaken by incorrect interpretations of certain Scriptures because of imperfect English translations that so-called or self-proclaimed “leaders” will throw out there.
Despite what they might try to lead you to believe, verses like the one in Hebrews and others get misunderstood and twisted to apparently mean those who are “non-leaders” should give over more control of the direction and decisions for the church to those who are “leaders” until they’re more mature and can be considered a leader (which may be never under that kind of philosophy).
But those verses don’t actually mean that.
If they did, it would mean the authors were completely violating what Jesus said about Kingdom servant leadership.
On the contrary, they mean that each Christian should choose for themselves to give more weight to particular people’s influence because they’ve seen the life of Christ demonstrated more faithfully through their example in relationship; part of which is always making you feel like you have a higher status in the Kingdom than they do.
The less mature still carry just as much decision-making power by rights as any other brother and sister in the family. It’s just being pointed out that they’d be wise to choose to generally heed (not blindly) the perspective of those that are more seasoned. It’s wise to always be suspicious of ourselves.
Know when you’re dealing with a Kingdom leader
So here lies a key distinction in discerning when someone is exercising worldly leadership or Kingdom servant leadership. Do they claim (or simply assume) that their maturity or knowledge or talent or gifting affords them a license to “lead” by seizing more control over the direction for, the decisions for, and the participation of you and the church?
How many servants and slaves have you heard of that made decisions for the ones they were servants and slaves of?
Do they expect you to be passive and less involved in these things than they are? Does it feel like there’s an assumption that you should cooperate (instead of collaborate) with their direction and guidance? If so, you’re not dealing with a servant’s heart.
(Side note: If you find yourself actually wanting other people to have more control in these areas, that’s a whole other issue to deal with regarding Christian identity, what it means to be a disciple, and your commitment and responsibility as a co-equal member of Christ’s Body/Family.)
On the other hand, if someone makes you feel like you’re a more important part of the Body/Family of Christ, you’re an essential co-participant in hearing the voice of Christ for the direction of the church, you control your own participation, and that Christ’s true direction and guidance comes from collaborating together in whole-Body/Family unity…that’s the main characteristic of servant leaders.
You may not recognize this by what is said by people. It’s more likely you’ll have to watch their behavior and examine how you feel. Many that call themselves church leaders are slick with words, will say all the right things and will be able to persuade you with Scripture that mistakenly supports their actions.
Ultimately, Kingdom leaders enable the experience of Jesus as the functional Teacher and Leader through the whole body instead of the feeling that there’s a layer of more mature “leaders” between you and the Lord, and His direction for your life and your church’s life together. (No, the concept of elders in the NT doesn’t support this.)
It’s a long, arduous, painful process
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, their minds and hearts were not yet opened to the significance of what He was doing and the example He was setting for them.
He said to Peter in John 13:7…
You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.
Truly understanding and practicing Kingdom servant leadership requires a level of brokenness and humility in a person only brought on by the Holy Spirit’s influence in one’s life over time. Becoming the greatest in a Kingdom where the top is really the bottom is a long, arduous, painful process that doesn’t happen to anyone overnight.
As I pointed out in the first post in this series, it’s learned through mutual submission in Body/Family life over long periods of time. It also doesn’t happen because someone finished some amazing training program or because they’re a talented speaker or because they have a charismatic personality.
It happens because they’ve truly learned and demonstrated by the life of Christ the way of relating to people with no status and are serving them in the ways requested of them by the specific gifts through which Christ’s power works through them.
Their identity is no longer found in competitive behavior that massages their self-esteem, but in the way of the cross that does so for others.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.