by Winston Hottman
When Jesus arrived as the long-anticipated king of Israel, he was a far cry from the kind of leader that many expected him to be. While the gospel narratives describe him as one with authority and power, it was the ways he used that authority and power that surprised many. Instead of inciting a military revolt against Israel’s oppressors, he travelled around as a homeless man doing things like healing people, feeding them, and washing their feet. In other words, he served people.
Jesus’ leadership in this way is the ultimate example of what many Christian leadership resources have called “servant-leadership.” I believe this is a fitting term. Jesus does indeed provide a model of leadership that finds its modus operandi in service to God and one’s fellow human beings. Christian leadership resources are correct in pointing to service as the functional heart of leadership. However, in my opinion some of these resources, while appropriately citing Jesus as an example to follow, miss some theologically richer dimensions of his servanthood. When understood in the context of the person and work of Jesus, his servanthood has something more profound to offer than just a moral example of what it means to lead as a Christian.
Let me explain by way of a particular New Testament text. Philippians 2 contains one of the central Christological passages of the Bible, the so-called “Christ Hymn.” In this hymn, the Apostle Paul rehearses the incarnation of Christ as the ground of his appeal to the Philippian Christians that they serve one another. He calls them to share in the mind of Christ, “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.”
There are various ways in which we might interpret this passage, and the way we interpret it has profound implications for how we think of leadership. One way is to see Jesus’ servanthood as something beneath the dignity of his divinity but necessary for the accomplishment of God’s plan of salvation; almost a necessary evil (in the sense of an unfortunate necessity). In becoming a servant, the incarnate Son becomes something that he would not otherwise be had he not assumed a human nature. Jesus’ servanthood says something about who we are to be as men and women but not much about the character of God. In other words, the incarnation was necessary in order for God to humble Himself. The appeal then goes something like this: if God was willing to stoop so low, who are we not to be willing to do the same?
There are elements of truth in this interpretation, but in itself it misses the full picture of what is going on in Jesus’ incarnation as a servant. When God the Son becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, the point is that he is not only revealing to us what humanity should be but that he is also revealing to us who God is. The message of of the hymn is not that in becoming a servant Jesus has done something denigrating; rather, in doing so he has actually revealed the dignity of God. Jesus humble form as a servant does not cloud the glory of God, it unveils it!
This is the radical, even scandalous, reality of Jesus’ servanthood. It is scandalous because it is so contrary to our assumptions about God and how He should wield His authority. As Karl Barth has written, such a revelation runs contrary to our idolatrous ideas of God:
What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this [humility]. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble.
As Barth notes, these false gods are reflections of human pride; a pride which, I would argue, is at the heart of our typical notions of leadership. The problem with humanity is that, like Adam, we believe that God-like leadership is obtained by reaching up, while Jesus demonstrates that it is obtained by stooping low. Like Jesus’ executioners, who missed the tragic irony of the inscription they nailed above his head, we look at his weak, crucified form and think, “Surely this cannot be what God is like. Maybe humanity, but certainly not God.”
So what does this have to do with leadership? It drives home at least one important point. The revelation of God as a humble servant gives us a vision of what God is doing among us as we exercise our responsibilities as Christian leaders. Our humble service to God and others is more than a by-product of our “lowly” status as human beings and far from a temporary demeanor we must adopt until we “come into our glory.” Rather, it is in our humble service that we reflect the glorious dignity of our status as image bearers of God and become more and more like Him. It is the glory of God’s humility that is our glory as leaders in Christ.