A biblical perspective must define servant leadership for the church. The book of Matthew offers one of the clearest pictures of such leadership (Matthew 20:20-28).
In a 1996 article, “Positions of Leadership: Some Reflections From Matthew’s Gospel,” Catholic theologian Rod Doyle noted that the term “servant” (Matthew 23:11) is the lowliest of church offices, and it comes from the verb ‘to serve’ (diakonein). Jesus used that verb, Doyle said, to express the self-description of his own mission (Matthew 20:28). Verse 28 leaves no doubt that Jesus came to serve. Chuck Colson once said in a speech, “All the kings and queens I have known in history sent their people out to die for them. I only know one King who decided to die for His people.” Jesus' death is his ultimate act of service.
In the Matthew passage Jesus teaches his disciples that Kingdom greatness requires being both a servant and a slave. In his article, "Servant Leadership and Follower Commitment," Gilbert Jacobs, a retired professor, leader, and lieutenant colonel comments, “Considering the leadership influence of Jesus over the last two thousand years, we who are studying leadership will do well to take note of His life and character.” Jesus Christ calls his disciples to follow His example of humility, service, and self-sacrifice. Matthew 20:20-28 reveals Jesus’ approach to servant leadership as focused on God and lived out in service of others to advance God’s Kingdom.
The call of believers to servant leadership should naturally produce a longing to glorify God through leading. Believers are called in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) to make disciples throughout their lives. Connecting servant leadership with the Great Commission provides guidance for effectively making disciples. Likewise, the application of servant leadership to disciple-making could prolong a believer’s effectiveness at raising up disciples who make more disciples. Oswald Sanders, who “led the reorganization of the CIM [China Inland Mission] into the Overseas Missionary Fellowship,” stated, “True greatness, true leadership, is achieved not by reducing men to one’s service but in giving oneself in selfless service to them. And this is never done without cost. … The true spiritual leader is concerned infinitely more with the service he can render God and his fellowmen than with the benefits and pleasures he can extract from life. He aims to put more into life than he takes out of it.” Making disciples must not rely upon a motivation of guilty obligation, nor should it advance one’s own kingdom. Instead, it should be to glorify God and serve Him faithfully.
Servant leadership rarely appears in discipleship models. Any omission of servant leadership, whether purposefully or incidentally, removes a critical element from disciple making. The possibility exists that, even with correct motivation, a longing to produce disciples with an industrial-type efficiency has caused churches to lose sight of one necessary component.
One’s desire to be a servant leader must flow directly from God-given instructions. Rightly, the church has significantly emphasized making disciples and the call to teach and baptize. But, the task could be vastly enriched if the attitude and approach of servanthood were implemented.
The connection between servant leadership and the Great Commission is unavoidable. Living out God’s call to disciple-making requires an attitude of service and rightly placed motivation. Moreover, fulfilling the Great Commission is not about the number of disciples any one believer makes, but is about a life surrendered to Christ’s cause. Living out that cause requires service and the heart of a faithful servant. “Servant leadership that is rooted in a deep and genuine love for God provides the wisdom and strength needed to give our lives in service to others,” said Liberty University Professor David Duby.
Jesus’ example of servant leadership provides a guide for the church in fulfilling the Great Commission. Seminary professor Don Howell, Jr., notes, in regards to the Matthew passage, “the servant is one who seeks to promote the welfare of one’s brother and to sublimate all personal agendas under the all-consuming ambition of promoting God’s name and kingdom in the word.” That removal of one’s own personal agenda provides room in the hearts of Christ followers to have true motivation to be servant leaders.
Correct perspective and motivation clarify the process of disciple-making. Any discipleship model that lacks a foundation of servant leadership simply needs a stronger foundation.
Jesus promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20). Author Ken Blanchard wrote, “As we seek to leave a legacy of servant leadership behind when our own season of leadership is finished, we can do so by modeling our values and investing our time in developing others.”