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Servant-Leadership is Unbiblical

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[Today’s guest post is by my long-time friend, Tim Fall, who blogs at http://timfall.wordpress.com/. I hung out with Tim when I was a student at UC Davis in the late 80s, and then we lost touch for too many years. About a year ago, I kept seeing this guy, “Tim” commenting on all the sites and blogs I was visiting, and I really liked what he had to say.  I finally decided to figure out who he was, and to my surprise, it was my old friend, and I am delighted to have him here today. Here’s his take on “servant leadership.”]

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Tim Fall, blogger, judge, husband, dad — a genuinely awesome guy!

Servant leader? The Bible talks of servant servants – that is, servants who serve other servants.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35.)

When I read or hear someone speak of servant-leadership it usually comes across more as an emphasis on the fact the person is the leader, and less of an elevation of a humble servant. Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9 focuses on the latter while his disciples were arguing about the former.

That’s why I am convinced that servant-leadership is unbiblical. Servant-servanthood is what Jesus taught:

  • Stoop down to meet someone else’s need, like Jesus did when he washed his friends’ feet. (John 13:12-17.)
  • Give yourself up for others, just as Jesus gave himself as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28.)
  • Refrain from using your own power to overcome adversaries, even as Jesus did when he allowed himself to be arrested. (Matthew 26:52-54.)

This is what true servanthood looks like. It looks like Jesus.

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

29 thoughts on “Servant-Leadership is Unbiblical

  1. A big thank you for your article.Thanks Again. Great. feceadeddafd

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  3. Behind with my blog reading as usual, great post Tim. You make a good point in few words. I need to develop that skill – I’m always so wordy. I particularly appreciate this: “When I read or hear someone speak of servant-leadership it usually comes across more as an emphasis on the fact the person is the leader, and less of an elevation of a humble servant. ” -Yes, that is exactly what I have encountered too – “I’m the leader and don’t forget it!! But oh, I’m a servant leader!” Sigh.

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    • LOL, Laura, i had the same reaction — I said in like 1000 words what tim said in 200. Sigh. Its like I have this irrepressible impulse to gnaw (in print) over every single nuance of a subject. Maybe when I grow up I’ll be like Tim.

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      • I was kind of hoping to be like you in some ways when I grow up, Karen! You have a straightforward way of communication that I have envied for decades. (Is it bad that I just confessed to envy?)

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    • “But oh, I’m a servant leader” – Exactly, Laura! That’s the problem I’ve seen too, people using the word “servant” as a bludgeon over the people they insist regard them as leaders. It’s not the type of servanthood Jesus described or modeled, that’s for sure!

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  4. Karen, I’ve been enjoying your blog this afternoon. I esp loved “The Woman in the Fascinator.” So glad you and Tim have reconnected after all these years! I’ve reestablished old friendships through the blogosphere as well. Delightful!

    Tim, I was pondering your post this morning when one of the greatest in the Kingdom paid me a visit. A friend from our community group –who has had many physical and financial challenges and recently lost her job — showed up at our back door with a bag of games to play with my little ones. She said she was just here to help so I could have my hands freed up to get some things done. She also brought a bag of hand-me-downs for my baby. While I was in the basement working on laundry, she started loading breakfast dishes into the dishwasher! My husband and I were recently discussing what we could do to help her family and she beat us to the punch! I’m pretty much stunned and in awe right now.

    As for the term “servant-leader” — you’ve made an important distinction here which I’ve never fully considered. But I get it and I’m with you on it. Thank you for bringing this subject to light. So important that we define ourselves with terms which reflect the true essence of our faith.

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  5. Hi, Karen and Tim.
    I’m sorry – I’m feeling a bit dense here.
    I agree with what you say about the characteristics of Jesus, Tim. I just don’t get the argument. I guess what I am missing is the other side of the argument: I don’t know the people you are arguing against or what exactly they have said.

    The way I have heard “servant leadership” defined and taught about, the way I understand the term is: you have a position of leadership/authority, and you don’t use it selfishly to your own advantage or consider yourself to be above the others. Instead, you serve those you are leading. You consider their needs and wishes and best interests when you make decisions. And you take your responsibility for their well-being seriously.
    I can’t see how that is in contradiction with what Jesus does in your examples. Jesus was the leader of the disciples, after all – He was the one who made the decisions of what to do and where to go next. He called the shots. But He didn’t do it obnoxiously, selfishly or manipulatively.
    So why is it unbiblical to call that “servant leadership”?

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    • Hi Tuija, thanks for commenting! Maybe Tim will weigh in too today, but from my standpoint I think part of the difficulty lies in the fact that culturally, here in the US we can’t escape corporate and military organizational models. They function as archetypes for us, with a “boss” at the top who dictates for everyone else below him (and lets fact it, its usually a “him”). Christians seem to import this business or military model to the church — wanting a “lead” pastor (or “head pastor), a board of elders that “makes decisions for the congregation” and the like. They do things like flip the org charts upside down so that the pastors and elders are at the bottom, but this is pure optics. Everybody knows that these men (and let’s face it, they are usually all men) hold all the power and the ones in the pews do not. Even if they intend to lead benevolently, they often (without realizing it) function as gatekeepers, keeping “out” the very people they fancy themselves to be serving and hoarding the privilege of decision-making for themselves. As you suggest, the assumption is that a leader has an elevated (note: hierarchical) position and from that elevated position they are to “consider their needs and wishes and best interests when you make decisions. And you take your responsibility for their well-being seriously.” Its the elevated position that gives the whole thing away. As Tim points out, there is no legitimate claim in the Gospels to an elevated position. There ought to be zero hierarchy in Jesus’s church. And, I would go even further and say that when a “leader” has the job of considering needs/wishes/best interests when making decisions for someone else, that “someone else” is infantilized in the process. They are seen as not capable of participating in the decision-making process of the community. They are put in the posture of a child relative to the “authority structure” and this can only go badly.

      When it is applied to interpersonal relationships, it is in the context of marriage and all the same assumptions about business/military functioning attach. I don’t think we can help it, so steeped are we in these models. So when you say “servant leader” that engages a whole discourse for me around top down functioning, about decision making, about importance and the merits and characteristics of who gets to be at the top. Add to that the long history of benevolent imperialism in the West and in the Church and you get why I have such a hard time with people reading “servant leadership” into the Scriptures. In fact, I’m not really convinced that it is correct to say “Jesus called the shots.” Even there we seem to read our modern military functioning into the stories of Jesus and the 12, as if they are some sort of SEAL unit. In contrast, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to give confusing instructions, to baffle his closest followers (by telling parables and then explaining them in equally mystifying ways), by naming the 12 but then making the boundaries between them and the rest of his followers oh so fuzzy, by including women. His was anything but an efficiently functioning top-down operation. The disciples were always flailing and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and he corrected and taught but so very, very rarely “led” proactively in the way we now understand leadership to function. He seems to have taken the leadership reigns so to speak as he approached his crucifixion, but I would argue that he did not lead the 12 from the time he set his face toward Jerusalem. He more seemed to put on blinders and to prepare himself alone for the resolution of his mission. So the instructions he gives the disciples about finding the young colt, preparing the upper room, etc, those are all mandates he gives not so that the ‘team’ operates well but so that HE can function as an individual to complete his work.

      Ok, lots of words, maybe not much furthering of the conversation … I will close with this, that I long held the same definition of servant-leadership that you have. It had the net effect of being very alienating, because as a woman it was 100% clear that despite being told in Scripture to aspire to all the gifts, as a woman I was never going to be allowed to hold a position of pastor or elder — the two “servant leadership” roles in the modern church. I could serve, just not lead.

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      • Thanks you so much for your reply. It helps me a lot to understand how you see and define leadership. Coming from a slightly different culture (and perhaps a less hierarchically structured church, too), my perception of what it means for someone to be “a leader” is different, with less negative and less military/corporate connotations.

        What I meant by Jesus calling the shots was: it was all about Jesus’s message, His ministry, and His purpose on Earth. The disciples were not telling Jesus what to do – in that sense, they weren’t “equal partners”. But I certainly wasn’t envisioning an army unit 🙂
        And it’s pretty obvious to me that Jesus is Jesus, and his human followers should not put themselves in the place of Jesus in relation to their fellow believers. We’re all together under the authority of God.

        Of course I admit that many Christian “leaders” have made and are making a bad job of it. So they need the lesson in real servanthood which Tim is giving here. And we need it in order to distinguish a real servant’s attitude from a counterfeit.

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        • Likewise, it is so encouraging to me to engage with believers who have not had the same experiences I have had both culturally and in the church. It makes me realize just how great a God we all serve and when I can look at these topics through eyes other than my own I see things I wouldn’t normally see — and in the case of this discussion, it helps me to relax a bit and focus on Who is at the core of our faith: Jesus. Sometimes when I am defending or even clarifying an idea I start thinking, “Does this really matter? If we were in a battle for our lives and the lives of others, would we care?” Its amazing to me how many times I answer “No” — and then chastise myself for forgetting we ARE in a battle for our lives! My work with human trafficking victims reminds me of that!

          The army metaphor … um, yeah … American culture is overrun, seriously, with SWAT team imagery. I was just on your website and will peruse it more later, but where are you writing from? Great to meet you!

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          • Thank you for your kind words. I live in Finland (and I’m from there, too). I’ve lived abroad, i.e. in U.K. and Estonia, for short bits of time, but my personal experience of American culture is limited to one 2-week trip plus a number of American friends/coworkers at different points in my life. Which reminds me: I tried to think back where I had got my impression of what ‘servant leader’ meant, and I think it’s from meeting and working with some American missionaries. And they were, really, as far as I could see and understand at the time, more like what Tim said “servants who happened to have a leadership role”: they were more than happy to get everyone else included and to pass on those leadership roles as soon as someone else was ready and willing to take them on. So that’s what I thought it meant to be a “servant leader” – no wonder I was a bit confused by Tim’s message here, never having met those “I’m a servant leader so I’m the boss” types. The bossy ones I’ve met never used that expression about themselves 🙂

            I’m only now beginning to understand how many words have meanings and subtexts (in American Christian culture) that I just don’t know, so I should be careful of how I use them. Internet is a great window to get a look into other people’s experiences, but since I’m not a native speaker of English and don’t know the culture so well, I sometimes get the wrong end of the stick. Thanks for being gracious and explaining when I ask. I’ll keep reading and learning more 🙂

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          • Hi Tuija, I love this comment! I wish more of us American’s understood the truth behind what you are saying. I find so many particularly evangelical christians here in the States are so unaware that they even have unique subtexts for words, so there is too little analysis of the underlying assumptions and beliefs. A friend of mine commented recently that she grew up in a very fundamentalist Christian church and that when she left that church for a more progressive environment, she found the believers there actually took the bible far more seriously — really digging deeply and studying — because they understood precisely what you are saying here.

            thank you so much for contributing here — I wish I could speak Finnish or Swedish — my Spanish is passable if I have some Sangria to go with it 😉 But I appreciate your comments and perspective — we live in a big world with lots of experiences shaping our understanding of God, and this is a blessing!

            k

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    • Tuija, I am so glad you came by Karen’s blog. Her writing will knock your socks off!

      Case in point: Karen’s wise response to your questions. I’ll ad just a bit more. If someone is given a task in the church, fine. that task may be in running a particular ministry, so technically the person is a leader. But that does not make them a servant leader; it makes them a servant who happens to have a leadership role at the moment. That same person will not be the leader in other things, though.

      Calling the person a “servant-leader” takes the focus off servanthood and onto leadership, at least here in America (and for all the reasons Karen pointed out). Even more of a problem is that nowhere is a servant-leader noted as such in the Bible. rather we see people who are mere servants. From the woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her tears to Priscilla leading Apollos into the correct way to preach Christ, these are servants.

      Servant-leader is an unnecessary and distracting label, and unfortunately is used to justify leadership that doesn’t really mean it’s a servant but rather means “There, there little people. The leaders are here to serve you., so trust them, don’t question them.” It plays out that way in too many circles.

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      • Thank you, too, for clarifying your point about “servants who happen to have a leadership role.” Now I think I understand this a bit better.
        (It took me a while to write my reply to Karen and I did not see yours before posting it.)

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  6. Oh, SNAP! Nice one, Tim!

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  7. I’m the one who should be thanking you! Great to have you here today!

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    • In furtherance of our mutual admiration society, did you see the opening paragraph I wrote on my blog today to lead people here to your blog? Meant every word, and now I am eagerly awaiting your guest post that I can host at my place.

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      • I did, and awww … I look back on my UCD years with such complex emotions. On the one hand I see God so thoroughly at work and I see the opening scenes of the experiences that would begin to really shape me — and I am beyond grateful and I am humbled too. But I also see such arrogance on my part, misplaced confidence, a lack of compassion and empathy, a “by-the-book” view that I regret and am ashamed of. As most things in my life now, I try to just hold the tension that both were true, both were held in the sovereignty of God, neither “side” of me (bad metaphor but you get my drift) was wrong per se, I was in the process of growing and becoming. I don’t think of myself as wise — desperate maybe fits more 🙂 The funniest part of this — you DID seem so much older than me in those years … funny how age does that to you! And by the way, I’m good with mutual admiration — i could use a bit more of that in my life actually!

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  8. I agree with you Tim that servant-leadership is unbiblical. Not only did Jesus teach servanthood, but He also taught that One is our leader, Christ.

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    • Exactly, Kristen, just the One. I would think that people would recognize what a blessing that is; there is no pressure for anyone else to feel they need to be seen as the leader. Oh well, I see the blessing there now (even though it took me years in my walk with Jesus to stop feeling the pressure to lead).

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  9. Thanks for hosting me here today, Karen!

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  10. Pingback: Servant-Leadership is Unbiblical; Perhaps It’s Even Idolatry | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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