THE SERVANT GENERAL
ON SERVANT LEADERSHIP
HAVING ONE MASTER, THE MESSIAH
Today’s reading: Matthew 23:1-12
says, “you have but one master, the Messiah.”
(Mt 23:10b). We who are leaders in community or in the Church
are all servants of the one Master, Jesus. Thus we understand
our calling to be that of servant leaders. Our scripture reading
today has many lessons regarding servant leadership.
Jesus time, leaders were exalted, while servants were of the
lowest standing. The leaders of society at the time, the scribes
and Pharisees, were often very conscious of their standing
and acted in order to earn praise. “All their works
are performed to be seen.” (Mt 23:5a).
“They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their
tassels.” (Mt 23:5b). Phylacteries were small boxes
containing verses of scripture, to be worn on the left forearm
and the forehead. Tassels were on the corners of one’s
garment as a reminder to keep the commandments. So their
making these larger was to make more noticeable the supposed
evidences of piety.
love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues.”
(Mt 23:6). They were there to be seen and admired.
love .... greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation
‘Rabbi.’” (Mt 23:7). “Rabbi”
means literally “my great one.” Accepting the
greeting gave them a feeling of superiority and pride.
Jesus told them pointedly, “As for you, do not be called
‘Rabbi.’” (Mt 23:8a). Though servant leaders
do teach, the ultimate teacher is Jesus. Whatever knowledge
or wisdom we have comes from God. Whatever position of teaching
authority we have is a delegation by God. Even as we are placed
in such position of leadership and authority, we are all the
same in being children of God and disciples of Jesus. “You
have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Mt
also says, “Do not be called ‘Master’; you
have but one master, the Messiah.” (Mt 23:10). While
we as leaders may have titles (which may be necessary to distinguish
roles, for good order in community), we are to know that we
are all servants of the one Master. Though we pastor people,
it is a task delegated by the one Chief Shepherd, and all
the people, including the leaders, are His sheep, totally
dependent for their well-being upon God.
Jesus in one brief sentence resolves the oxymoron that is
“servant leadership.” “The greatest among
you must be your servant.” (Mt 23:11). Jesus does not
deny the reality that some are called to leadership and as
such will be “great,” that is, they will have
authority, they will be submitted to by their subordinates,
they will be acclaimed for their good leadership, they will
be given places of honor in gatherings, and so on. But they
are afforded all those, in order that they might serve, and
serve more effectively. To serve as a leader requires authority
and the corresponding submission of people. To be acclaimed
and esteemed inspires more people to follow those who lead
Now such acclaim can go to one’s head, especially as
we all struggle against the sinful flesh, prodded by the crafty
enemy. Knowing the true meaning of leadership to be servanthood
is the antidote. But it is so easy to lose one’s way,
so Jesus adds a stern warning. “Whoever exalts himself
will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
seems easy enough to understand. We are to realize our nothingness
apart from God’s grace and strength. If we forget that,
God will remind us by cutting us down to size. This is to
keep us from going deeper into the sin of pride. It is a loving
act when God does that to us. Then, when we have been humbled,
God can again use us. And if we have truly learned the lesson,
then God can allow us to be exalted in our service.
Now Jesus said this teaching (Mt 23:12) a number of times
in different situations. We can learn more as we look at those.
told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk
18:9-14a). We are not to be self-righteous in our actions,
especially when we go to pray, for in the presence of God
we are but dirty rags. We are to recognize our sinfulness,
and that only by the grace of God are we able to come before
Him in worship. We do not measure our piety by the wretched
condition of others, but by the holiness of God. God is pleased
with those who have a lowly servant’s heart. Thus, “everyone
who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles
himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14b).
told the parable of the invited guests and hosts (Lk 14:7-10).
We are not to seek places of honor, but we are to take the
lowest place. We know that we are anointed as leaders simply
by the grace of God, not because of our own merit or qualification.
We are always aware how far short we fall of the holiness
of God and the accomplishment of His divine work. It is up
to God to exalt us if that is needed in our service. But even
if we are deserving of acclaim or recognition, when it does
not happen, we still truly rejoice, simply for the privilege
of serving God and His people. Thus, “everyone who exalts
himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will
be exalted.” (Lk 14:11).
Now with servant leadership, we look not only at the proper
posture of leaders but also at the proper posture of those
who are led.
leaders are not perfect. In fact, a great deal of growth in
spiritual maturity still needs to happen. They are still sinful
and weak. But if they are genuinely appointed by God, then
they are His instruments and His servants. They stand in His
place. They represent Him. They do His work.
are people to respond to servant leaders who act more as lofty
leaders than lowly servants? How do they respond to those
who “preach but they do not practice” (Mt 23:3b)?
Jesus makes it clear, “Do and observe all things whatsoever
they tell you, but do not follow their example.” (Mt
23:3a). In other words, go and follow the good teachings of
is where subordinates sometimes fail. They look at their leader,
sees someone who makes mistakes or shows weakness in certain
aspects, and they decide to no longer obey or heed whatever
he is teaching. He may be teaching perfectly orthodox Christian
living, but they can only see the teacher. Or subordinates
might consider themselves more intelligent, more experienced,
better versed in scripture, even holier, and so cannot submit
to a lesser leader. Beware! You might become the Pharisee
in relation to the tax collector. You may be exalting and
not humbling yourself. You may miss out on the words and works
of God who uses any instrument, and certainly weak and imperfect
The other response of subordinates is on the other extreme.
They exalt their leaders. Because he is a good preacher, or
a great healer, or a magnificent Bible scholar, or is exemplary
in many ways, his subordinates begin to look on him as a demigod.
They follow everything he says blindly. They fall over themselves
trying to kiss his hand. When in conflict with another leader,
they immediately line up with him, without even looking at
the situation and seeking the truth. They consider themselves
his disciples rather than the Lord’s.
it is right and good to respect and honor exemplary leaders,
to give them places of honor, to speak highly of them, and
so on. But there are dangers when done in extremes. First,
we make it harder for the servant leader to remain humble.
But second and more importantly, we might be giving to him
what is due to God. Jesus says, “Call no one on earth
your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” (Mt
23:9). Everything that we are as servant leaders is due to
God. If we are called upon and given the great privilege to
serve God’s people, we are caring for His children,
There are practical implications of all the above, for both
servant leaders and their subordinates. Let me cite just some
In community assemblies, unlike in secular fora, we do not
have seats of honor at the front facing the people.
prefer to call our leaders not “heads” but “servants.”
do not have pictures of our leaders plastered prominently
on offices, magazines, tarps, banners, etc.
do not give, and certainly should not orchestrate, standing
ovations for talks or presentations, unless such have truly
been extremely outstanding (even then, appreciative applause
queue with others for meals or other things, and do not
have to be accorded priority.
have no need to put on our letterhead or masthead the fact
that we are recognized by the Church hierarchy. This touts
superiority over other Church groups. It is widening the
phylactery and lengthening the tassel.
certainly should not claim we are anointed, as a way of
asserting authority and commanding submission. The expression
of being anointed comes from others who see that anointing,
not from us as a self-serving statement.
do not wear insignia or regalia indicating rank.
do not have our name plastered as the name of the ministry,
rather than or more prominent than the name of Christ.
do not look to secular award or citations. If these are
accepted when given, it should be only for the purpose of
giving glory to God and advancing His divine work.
greet each other as brother or sister, and never in secular
terms such as “Sir.”
In Christ we live a life of contradiction. The first is last,
the greatest is the least, and whoever exalts himself will
be humbled while whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
As servant leaders, we go forth in the weakness and lowliness
of a servant, but are assured that we take on the very strength
and glory that comes from God.
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