25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves."
“Do not lord it over others!” That’s the most common explanation of servant leadership.
But is it really that simple? Is this a commandment to demote yourself, to not use your authority? No. To make yourself inferior is not the mark of a leader. To act inferior would invite others to lord it over you who are supposed to be the leader. Authority belongs to the leader after all, not to those beneath the leader.
Jesus is at great pains here to remind them that he is still the one who reclines at table in the position of greater authority. His power and authority are not diminished, even though he serves them in a way they cannot comprehend. He wears the waiter’s apron and even washes their feet to help them get the idea that he is their servant. But he is a different kind of servant. He is still their Lord. He is therefore a servant-leader, not a servant-follower.
Perhaps we should call it Servant Lordship, because servant leadership concerns neither self-demotion nor self-promotion. No, it’s about something else entirely. It’s about what I call the “kenotic ethic," based on the word meaning self-emptying (Philippians 2:7). Kenōsis describes the self-emptying act of Jesus when he empties himself of godly power in order to be our savior. With the power of God in him, he could have saved himself, but he chose instead to save all humanity, so that he might be like us and make us like him. That’s Servant Lordship. Servant leadership is like that, too—it’s using our power and authority (not abdicating it!) for the sake of our people, and not for the sake of ourselves. This is how a servant leader fulfills God’s purpose.
© Bruce D. Baker 2013