What is servant leadership? This concept confuses us because these two words don’t seem to go together. When most people hear the word leadership they think of things like power, position, influence, visibility, and platform—all essential for leaders to be effective. Yet true leadership has another side, a relational, intimate, and often confrontational side that ultimately makes or breaks every leader in the world. This is the servant side of leadership. Leaders can climb to great heights while lacking this dimension, but no leader will stay at great heights without it. Eventually, all leaders collapse in a great Humpty-Dumpty fall without this relational and caring dimension of servant leadership. As pastors we lead by serving or we don’t lead at all.
Servant leadership demands character to go with our competence and maturity to go with the greatness of our mission. People measure our character and maturity by how we relate more than by what we accomplish. Relationships tell what we’re made of. As pastors, we must have the unique traits of appropriate intimacy combined with authority. Our relationships have to be born out of a Christ-like commitment to lead those who follow us by serving them. To gain intimacy and authority we must belong to the Order of the Towel, which Jesus instituted in John 13:1-17. This Order consists of leaders, both men and women, who are vulnerable and humble through dependence on Christ so He can use them to sanctify others in the leadership development process. We serve others when we lead them into a closeness with God they would never experience any other way, a closeness that results in their sanctification and releases them to minister with unparalleled power.
Sanctification is more essential for leadership than accomplishment. As servant leaders, we must both be sanctified and the instruments of sanctification in our followers’ lives.
We are effective servant leaders when our followers are increasingly holier under our leadership than they could have been without us. In ourselves we cannot sanctify anyone, but Christ can use us to call others to holiness and cleansing, and this is our responsibility under Him. We grow in sanctification as we enter into the difficult relationships that call us to be Christ’s cleansing agents in the lives of resistant followers. Such tense moments also force us to turn to Christ for our own cleansing and to depend on Him to confront others. We grow as leaders through these difficult times, and this is what qualifies us to serve as servant leaders.
“… Jesus knew the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love” (John 13:1). He loved His men to the uttermost of His being and His life. Jesus had waited for this hour when He would face shame, suffering, and sorrow and be glorified. He knew He would be arrested, scourged, condemned, and crucified, yet He loved—utterly, totally, absolutely. The Creator of the universe became the servant of His creatures because He loved them so greatly. Everything that happens from this point on in the book happens because Jesus loved. Even when He knew His men would deny and desert Him, He still loved them.
Leaders who belong to the Order of the Towel love in the same way because Christ loves through them. Though none of us will face an hour comparable to Christ’s, all of us know we have limited time, so we must focus on loving and leading as Christ does. The ultimate measure of our ministry will be to love as Christ loved. The Doug Johnsons (fictitious name) of our world challenge this ideal because their resistant attitudes, their power plays, and their efforts to take over raise massive challenges to our love. After all, it’s not only our careers that are at stake when a driven elder decides he can do a better job than we. Our wives also are at stake, the health and stability of our families are at stake, all that we have dreamed of and worked to achieve could be gone if we allow the Doug Johnsons to have their way. We are too threatened to love them because we don’t feel safe with them. Where can we find the security we need to love a Doug Johnson?
The answer to this question is that “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God” (13:3). We find the security to love through confidence in God’s sovereignty.
The main reason we fail to love is due to our lack of security: we are afraid to express our opinion, assert our convictions, verbalize our vision, defend ourselves, and so love others. When we face a resident Doug Johnson, we are often so insecure we cannot think objectively and assertively. Certainly we do not think of love in that moment. Too often we ask ourselves “How can I fire Doug Johnson?” not “How can I love Doug Johnson?” Our chief aim is to remove Doug Johnson, not purify him. It takes supernatural security to love the resister, especially when it means giving all we have for the resister’s sake.
Think of the kind of men Jesus loved: competitive, selfishly ambitious, insensitive, uncaring, spiritually deaf, and disloyal. Does this sound like anyone you know? Could it be the man in the mirror? Or the men on our board or your staff or in your church: self-confident, critical, certain they are right, and utterly overbearing about it. They reach out to take over, and, unless we have the security to confront them and call them to cleansing, they will take over. Jesus, the man, found His strength and security to serve through confidence in God’s sovereignty.
Jesus knew His past, His future, and His present all came from God’s hand, so no matter what He faced in His men or His life, He was totally secure because all things were under His power. Whether viewed from the Upper Room or Caiaphas’ house or Herod’s throne or Pilate’s palace, the assertion that all things were under His power was ridiculous. To Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate, He was a nobody; powerless, and virtually condemned, soon to be an after thought to these busy Roman rulers. In less than twenty-four hours He would be dead, a corpse thrown on the junk heap of history, the victim of heedless, heartless Rome. His followers would deny Him and flee in panic. It was incomprehensible to say that the Father had put all things under His power. But it was true.
God’s sovereignty gave Jesus a threefold security. First, He knew who possessed true power, no matter what Rome proclaimed. Rome could drive its chariots, fly its flags, try its accused, crack its whips, and even hammer its nails, but Jesus had power over Pilate, no matter what Pilate thought.1 Jesus knew He had power from God, and He drew strength from this knowledge to stoop and serve those who were too weak to serve another. His security in God’s sovereignty enabled Him to love one of the biggest collections of Doug Johnsons in history.
Jesus drew more strength from God’s sovereignty; He drew purpose from His origin. He knew He came from the Father. He was no biological accident, no mere blip on the screen of history, no matter how Caiaphas, Pilate, or Herod regarded Him. God had sent Him for a specific purpose, and He was about to fulfill that purpose. There is something empowering and defining about knowing where we come from, something that gives us a sense of heritage and purpose.
We also have come from the Father—not in the same way as Jesus, yet for the same purpose. Our past, our future, and our present come from God, just as Jesus did, and this is true no matter who resists us. The Son of God came to reach the lost, and, in Him, we complete His sufferings (Col. 1:24) and carry out that same purpose. We can have the same confidence as He had. The confidence of an eternal purpose from God that lifts us above the smallness and the meanness of the many to the glory of the one true God. As pastors we can be bigger in spirit and heart and humility than the Doug Johnsons of our ministries. We cannot be hampered by the invisible shackles of insecurity because we come from the Father even as Jesus did. As pastors we must never lose sight of our origin because, as soon as we do, we lose the security we need to be God’s instruments in transforming the Doug Johnsons of our lives into Peters on the Day of Pentecost.
Further, Jesus knew His destination: He was going back to the Father, not in humiliation, shame, and defeat, but in triumph, power, and glory. What a reunion that was when the Son was restored to the glory He had before the world was and the Father received Him with open arms. Jesus’ long self-humiliation was over.
We, too, are going to the Father and we, too, will be exalted in Christ. Only this exaltation matters. We cannot seek our own exaltation or measure ourselves by the number of people who hear us preach or read our books or recognize our names. Why do we strive for such puny and passing exaltations when our only hope of glory is to be exalted in God’s presence by Christ (Col. 1:27), escorted there by the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” We’ll never hear those words unless we express our love by serving.
Imagine what it was like to see the sovereign Lord stripped to His waist, on His knees washing His disciples’ feet. Stunned, silent, shamed, confused, all they could do was submit to His service, that is until He came to Simon Peter. Peter always did things no other disciple would, and he was not a disappointment on this night. Now Doug Johnson (factious name) showed up. Peter interrupted the shocked, deadly silence with a word of strong protest. “YOU—wash my feet? No way!” Jesus responded with a patient explanation. “You can’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will later.” Peter protests again. “NEVER will You wash my feet!” (Jn. 13:6-8).
What does the Servant Leader do now? Does Jesus do what Peter wants? Is that serving Peter? Is He serving only—or even primarily—Peter? No. And we are not serving only the Doug Johnsons of our churches. We are serving the Lord Christ and we must serve others the way He served Peter. Jesus, the Servant Leader, told Peter exactly what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. “Either I wash your feet or you have no part in what I am doing because you are useless to Me. I cannot have an uncleansed man leading My cause. My atoning death is the only thing that will cleanse you. Accept it, or you have nothing to do with Me. Others will participate with Me, but you will not. The choice is yours” (13:8 expanded). Until now we have seen that the servant leader serves or he doesn’t lead at all.
Now we learn another truth about servant leadership: the servant leader serves by leading or he doesn’t serve at all. Next Peter responded by going to the opposite extreme. He went from never to now, from nothing to everything. “Not just my feet, but all of me.” Though it sounds humble, Peter is still reaching for power. Once again the Servant Leader must respond to his resistant follower, since doing more than the Leader wants is no better than doing less. The issue is obedience, nothing more, nothing less. The Servant Leader asserted His authority by telling Peter he was already clean all over; his only problem was his feet (13:10). In other words, salvation totally cleanses believers, but our feet become contaminated by our daily walk through the streets of sin, and they need to be cleansed.
At that, Jesus washed Peter’s feet. The Servant Leader served Peter by doing what He planned to do all along. He listened to Peter’s protests, responded patiently to his resistance, answered only what Peter could understand, and did exactly as He determined He would from the beginning. The Servant Leader serves by leading, and by leading with authority and direction.
The only reason we humble ourselves and serve proud, angry, controlling, demanding people is because we love God with all we are and our neighbor as ourselves. Servant leadership is relational (people, not things), humble (self-giving while expecting nothing in return), and loving (seeking only what is best for those it serves). This means that servant leadership, while being gentle and compassionate, is firm, strong, determined, directive, and demanding. When we meet that standard we become models for others to follow, exactly what we are to be as servant leaders.
As pastors, we follow Christ’s example and minister as He did. Of course, it is He who does the ministry through us as we abide in Him (15:1-11). In John 13:12-17 Jesus does three things as He commands and motivates us to lead as He led.
First, He affirms His identity and establishes His authority (13:12-13). He begins with a question. “Do you know what I have done to you?” He raises this question in order to make them think as He makes His point. You recognize My authority over you by calling Me Teacher and Lord, and you do well because that’s Who I am. I am your Teacher and your Lord; I do have true authority over you.
We struggle to understand the nature of our authority as servant leaders. Often pastors are afraid to assume authority lest they become arrogant or presumptuous, yet godly servant leaders in the Bible do not have this fear. Jesus had no struggle here. He declared His authority without doubt or hesitation. Paul expressed no doubts about his apostolic authority when in 2 Corinthians he asserted it with great energy and emotion. The same is true in Galatians where he dealt with the essence of the gospel and asserted his authority to define the truth. Paul also directed Timothy to exercise authority in the Pastoral Epistles when he told him to tell women how to dress (1 Tim. 2:9-10) and the rich how to manage their money (6:17-19). Servant leaders have authority, but their authority does not come from themselves. We find it in Christ, not from our position, but through our submission to Him. Our authority results from our Christ-likeness, and we gain authority as we become like Him. If we fail to earn and exercise servant authority, we face accountability from our Teacher and Lord who has commanded us to minister His way, and He ministered with authority.
Second, He affirms Himself as our example and tells us to wash one another’s feet as He washed ours. His words are simple and clear. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (Jn. 13:14-15). This command describes a debt, an ethical obligation that we must fulfill.2 We are certainly no better than Christ; if He washed feet, can we expect to do any less? This is the heart of servant leadership.
Finally, Jesus gave a special blessing to those who obey this command (13: 17). All commands are given to be obeyed, but this command brings with it a special blessing. What is more difficult than humbling ourselves to our peers and serving them in ways we want to be served? We have thoughts like, “I should be doing this rather than helping him do it. I’m better than he is at this anyway.” Or, “How did he get where he is? I was a better student than he was in seminary.” Competitive thoughts cloud our thinking, lock our knees, and paralyze our hands. We don’t want to wash each other’s feet. We leave the basin empty, the towel hanging on the wall. “We would gladly wash the feet of our Divine Lord; but He disconcertingly insists on washing ours, and bids us wash our neighbor’s feet.”3 Yet there is a blessing in this; it is the blessing of obeying Jesus, of growing more like Him, of gaining freedom from our pride and fear, the blessing of making a difference in the lives of those whom we serve.
How do we gain this blessing? What has Jesus done that we must do? Has He humbled Himself? Absolutely. He left His throne, His power, and His glory to become the humblest of the humble (Phil. 2:5-11). What more could He do to humble Himself? He was found in the form of a slave, subject to His Father even at the cost of His life (Matt. 26:36-45). How much more enslaved could He be? How can we follow His example? By humbling ourselves and enslaving ourselves to one another for Christ’s sake? Absolutely (Phil. 2:1-4). What does this mean? It means involvement with others at the deepest level of their needs, the level of cleansing their soul, whether for salvation or sanctification. Servant leadership means we serve others by becoming involved in the messes they make of their lives in order to bring about their deliverance from sin so they can participate in Christ’s purpose for them. Otherwise, like Peter, they have no part with Christ. This is vital to our identity as pastors.
Servant leaders are not passive. They don’t stand by and let untrained and untrusting elders make decisions that destroy the church. They don’t let sinning, quarreling, petty people bring down a ministry through dissension and disharmony. They join the Order of the Towel and stoop down to wash their followers’ feet and tell them they have no part with Christ unless they submit to the cleansing of their souls. In other words, servant leaders confront prideful and controlling saints whenever this is necessary. There is nothing easy about this; there is everything supernatural about it.
Recently I heard about a man who had to step aside from leading a ministry because he could not confront those who needed to be cleansed. When a senior pastor can’t confront, it is inevitable that there will be dissension, division, and unfairness on the staff. Some will work hard, while others do not. The pastor will not hold the lazy accountable for their irresponsibility. Others will have to make up for what the few are not doing.
When this occurs there is a breakdown in servant leadership. The leader refuses to serve by cleansing the dirt off his followers’ feet, so they track it all over the ministry, usually right after someone else has just cleaned the floor. The one who cleaned the floor screams at the one who tracks dirt over the spanking clean ministry. The one who tracks dirt screams back at the one who has cleaned the floor, accusing him of being uptight or telling him to mind his own business and not be such a busybody. Anger and resentment get out of hand, and the unity of the ministry is destroyed. Jesus did not allow this to happen among His disciples, and the leader who does, while presenting himself as a servant leader, is in fact a passive coward. He does not have the courage to confront. The heart of servant leadership is dependent courage, the courage to rely on Christ to be His instrument in cleansing others. Servant leaders confront to cleanse. This is what Jesus is teaching us to do, because this is what Jesus did, and we are to do what He did through Him.
One of the greatest needs in the church today is for true servant leadership born of love, established through sovereign security, and done according to our ultimate Example. Servant leaders do what Jesus did-they wash feet. But He didn’t only wash feet; He cleansed souls. We become servant leaders when Jesus cleanses souls through us by making our hands His hands. This occurs as we get involved in the messes other men and women make of their lives; this is why gently but firmly confronting others is the essence of servant leadership.
Some of you may be objecting to all of this saying , “But I am not Jesus.” That is true. We certainly are not Jesus. Yet, the infinite difference between Jesus and us does not excuse us from doing what He said. He told us to do what He did. “That’s fine,” you may say,” I will do what He did. I will do the humble task. I will vacuum the church, make the coffee, or cover the nursery in an emergency during mother’s day out. I will do the small, humble things no one else wants to do. But I’m not Jesus and I cannot cleanse souls.” These are all good things, but doing them is not the only way to be servant leaders. We are not Jesus and we cannot cleanse souls, but He can through us, and this is exactly what servant leadership is.
If we refuse to correct others with gentleness, patience, and firmness as Jesus did Peter, we will fail as pastors. We are legitimately afraid because we know we are not worthy of the task. We are illegitimately afraid because we fear the way others will respond when we face them. Nevertheless, Christ has called us to this task. This calls for us to have humble hearts and loose shoe laces because we must always be ready to have our feet washed. Today’s church cries out for this to be done. God’s Word cries out for this to be done. Every Scripture that calls for spiritual restoration cries out for this to be done (Gal. 6:1). Every Scripture that calls for church discipline cries out for this to be done (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). Every Scripture that calls for the correction of false teachers cries out for this to be done (1 Tim. 1:3-7). For us to refuse to do this is for us to cower in the fears of the flesh, more concerned about our careers and our images than about Christ’s command to be His cleansing agents. Certainly we don’t do the cleansing; but we are His instruments, and He acts only when we act. This is the awfulness of our responsibility for those whom God bought with His own blood (Acts 20:28).
C. K. Barrett, in commenting on John 13:1-17 declares, “The apostles, the disciples and servants of Jesus who is the teacher and lord, must follow His example: they must show the same humility, must, in fact, take up the cross and follow Jesus. So far as they do so, they share His authority… the church is the responsible envoy of Christ, sharing His dignity and obliged to copy His humility and service.”4
Leon Morris observes that… if what was happening was only a lesson in humility, then Jesus’ conversation with Peter misses the whole point. Jesus does not speak of being proud and humble, but of cleansing, that cleansing that He would effect, and of belonging to Him. We must see this story first and foremost as a way of setting out in actions the truth that Christ brings cleansing and that no one else does.5
This passage is parallel to Matthew 18:18-20, where the church sits with legal authority to decide whether or not sin has occurred. Ray Stedman summarizes John 13:13-15 well when he states, “The second action [that] Jesus’ example encourages us to undertake is a ministry of helping each other in the church keep our ‘spiritual feet’ clean.”6 Nothing can be more humbling, nothing can be more demanding, and nothing can be more frightening than this overwhelming task. Yet nothing can be more devastating than when leaders refuse to trust their Lord and do as He has commanded by bringing the gift and service of cleansing to each other. We refuse to do this more because of fear of what others will say about us than because of true humility.
Servant leaders do more than act as Christ’s cleansing servants in the lives of the sheep He entrusts to us. We preach God’s truth, we hear the hurt of the broken hearted, we develop organizational structures so the church grows together as a body, and we serve people by helping them develop their gifts. What an amazing trust it is to be a difference maker in human lives, used by God as His instruments to bring others into conformity to Christ’s image. No privilege could be greater than this.
We join with Jesus in a two-fold effort to build believers. We seek to develop competence, that is, to focus on the believers’ doing. In the process of developing competent servant leaders in our ministries, we must face the flawed foundations of their characters. Jesus did exactly this with Peter. Only if we are willing to rebuild a flawed foundation can we see ultimate effectiveness in the Doug Johnsons we develop. This is why we focus on the character of those who follow us, as well as develop their competencies. Once we develop competence and stabilize character, the maturing believer is ready for Christ’s commission, the commission to lead others by serving them, just as Jesus did. This is what we are about as pastors: developing character and competence so those we serve can carry out Christ’s commission. We must remember one thing above all else when we think about servant leadership: servant leaders serve God, not man. Jesus did not serve Peter according to his terms, but according to his needs. In other words Jesus met Peter’s needs according to God’s interests, not Peter’s. Much of our struggle with servant leadership turns on this point. We are confused over the servant concept because we don’t understand who it is we are serving. We are not serving those who follow us in the primary sense. Of course we do serve them, but according to their needs as Christ defines them, not according to their interests, desires, or wants. As undershepherds we are responsible to Christ for the sheep He has entrusted to us. Servant leaders serve God, not man. Our primary task is to serve God and His interests in those who follow us.
On the central quad of the campus of Dallas Theological Seminary, we have a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Few things have influenced me more than this sculpture. I have been so deeply affected by it I have often taken my classes to study it by asking them what they see to help them better understand what servant leadership is. When I examine this sculpture, I see two real men. Peter is a hulk of a man, big boned and exuding strength, with veins bulging and incredulous eyes, amazed that Jesus would wash his feet. Everything about him says he can’t believe what Jesus is doing. If he could, Peter would stop Him at once. Jesus is stripped to His waist with a towel around His middle, down on His knees, left hand firmly holding Peter’s right ankle, right hand holding the end of the towel with Peter’s foot in the basin. His back muscles ripple with strength and determination-He is going to wash Peter’s feet. Jesus is serving God-and Peter-by doing God’s will and going against Peter’s initial will. This is servant leadership: doing what God wants at all costs, even the cost of resistance and confrontation from those whom we serve by leading. Only those who belong to the Order of the Towel are true servant leaders. The rest are either dominators or avoiders. Which are you?
1 A study of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 18-19 shows this to be true even though Pilate had the power to condemn Jesus to death.
2 Fritz Rienecker and Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., editor. A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 250.
3 Morris. Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John, 471.
4 C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, Second Edition (Westminister: Philadelphia, 1978), 437.
5 Morris, Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John, p.471.
6 Ray C. Stedman, Exploring the Gospel of John: God’s Loving Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1993), 363. Stedman also shows the parallel passages of Mt. 18:18-20, Gal. 6:1, and James 5:16.