Servant Leadership

Humility is essential to spiritual leadership that pleases Christ. Jesus said,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1][2]

Jesus told His disciples to take their personal desires and ambitions and redirect them into humble service. True greatness, according to Jesus, is to use our God-given opportunities and advantages to serve others, not ourselves.

Christian leadership is servant leadership. The ultimate display of godly leadership is the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to follow Him in servant leadership.

What it Means to be a Servant

As I understand it, throughout human history, there have been two main types of servants. One kind includes those who serve a master in order to find relief from abject poverty or to pay off debts they could not otherwise repay.  

The other kind of servants were not paid and were more like slaves–those owned by their master as property. Both types of servants had one purpose in daily life: to do their master’s will.

Concerning the passage above, the MacArthur Study Bible explains, “the Lord was teaching the disciples that the style of greatness and leadership for believers is different. The Gentile leaders dominate in dictatorial fashion, using carnal power and authority. Believers are to do the opposite—they lead by being servants and giving themselves away for others, as Jesus did.”[3]

So, if we want to do the will of Jesus Christ our Lord, His will for us is quite plain: we must voluntarily become servants and “give ourselves away” for His people. We are enabled to serve others this way through the grace of humility.

Gentile Motives for Ministry

There are many motives for leadership in Christian ministry that are ungodly:

  • Popularity. The desire to be in front, the center of attention
  • Control. The desire to be in charge, to have authority over others
  • Financial gain. The desire for security or upward mobility
  • Power and Praise. The desire for honor and influence
  • Self-righteousness. The desire to prove righteousness or zeal for God

None with motivations for leadership like these will serve others with humility.

A Fundamental Qualification for Leadership

Now that we have humility on our minds, let’s look at the qualifications for elders and overseers given to us in 1 and 2 Timothy.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.[4]

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.[5]

Humility before the Qualifications

Consider how important Christlike humility is for a man to be qualified for leadership as described here. First, he must submit himself to these qualifications. If he is not qualified, he needs to continue to grow in godly character until he becomes qualified. A potential leader has to submit his life to the evaluation of God’s people. This is humbling.

Once qualified and given leadership, if he then later becomes disqualified, he must step down from leadership. To remain qualified, he must commit to a life of integrity and continual evaluation.

Consequently, a new convert cannot be considered for spiritual leadership, either, for that would set him up for pride and failure. He needs time to prove his character, humility being a major part.

Humility to Be and Remain Qualified

A leader’s marriage, parenting, and the rest of his home life is under scrutiny. He lives in a “glass house.” He must be patient and slow to anger–everyone must recognize that he has self-control. His family’s hospitality shows that he is not greedy or materialistic. All of this requires the daily grace of humility.  

A spiritual leader simply must be clothed in humility. He must not be quarrelsome, one who causes strife. He must be gentle and kind, patient, able to instruct people who are in error. He must be able to disagree with others in meekness. Such qualifications are absolutely impossible apart from the power of the Holy Spirit!

Because of these and many other passages, humility is REQUIRED for those who embrace servant leadership.

Proud “Gentile” Pastors

If a man in leadership becomes lifted up with pride, he will begin to exhibit one or more of these characteristics:  

  • Authoritarian, dictatorial leadership. He demands that people obey and submit to him. He lives by the “my way or the highway” approach to leadership, “lording over the flock.”[6]
  • Unapproachable attitude. People cannot go to him with concerns or necessary criticism, for he will be defensive by default. He will not accept error or wrongdoing, lacking godly wisdom.[7]
  • Greed. They use their position to benefit themselves materially.[8]
  • Anger. When anyone disagrees or doubts anything he says or does, anger erupts.[9]
  • False piety. He acts as though above weaknesses and avoids accountability.[10]
  • Unkindness, impatience, and harshness. This is especially true towards weak and struggling Christians under his care.[11]

If you find yourself in leadership and guilty of these behaviors, repent before God and His people! 1 Peter 5:5 warns us, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”


Christian leaders must lead in a Christian way, Christ’s way. The life of a gospel servant is not a life of gain. It is a life of death, death to self that bring life to others. Jesus calls us to serve by carrying His cross.

Genuinely Christian leadership is not possible in the flesh. In Christ, we can obtain and maintain humility in greater measure. When we fail in pride, and we most certainly will, we must restore humility through repentance.

Forrest McPhail

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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