There’s nothing more fun that a good oxymoron. Let me share a few: cruel kindness, approximately equal, civil war, burning cold, explicit innuendo and my all time favorite, servant leadership. Oxymora are a combination of contradictory or incongruous words or concepts. This is actually quite different than a paradox, which is a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is true; often conveying a profound truth, difficult to fathom. Oxymora, are contradictory and illogical; paradoxes only appear to be so. Jesus used paradox very effectively, he didn’t use oxymora.
The term servant leadership has become common, even ubiquitous in Christian circles nowadays. I suppose, if we think about it at all, we chalk it up to being a paradox; something that seems contradictory but really isn’t. I’d like to propose that, in fact, the concept of servant leadership is a true oxymoron. As such it should not be worthy of our consideration as a concept for guiding our behavior.
Our confusion comes from two interrelated issues. First, Jesus is talking about something that is common to all human communities; leadership. It doesn’t matter what culture we come from, nor what strata of that society, some are leaders, some are followers. The second confusion comes from Jesus talking about leadership with a contradictory concept; servanthood, at the same time.
Let’s look at Jesus’ brief lesson on leadership and see what he actually said:
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (Lk. 22:24-27).
When we read these words we commonly think Jesus is giving us a new kind of leadership, or a different kind of leadership or a way of being a leader with a different attitude. Nothing could be farther from the truth; he is giving us something to do instead of being a leader. Servanthood isn’t a different way of being a leader; it is not being a leader at all. He is saying “don’t do this; do this instead.” He wasn’t saying something similar to I’ll give you a new way of being a leader; he was saying don’t be a leader.
Why do we keep trying to turn Jesus words back into the very thing he told us not to do? Why do we feel compelled to use his vocabulary to describe what he was preaching against? I believe there are two reasons, one is motivational and the other is organizational. First, the motivational reason we try to avoid real servanthood, instead embracing leadership, in the name of servanthood, is that we are unconsciously succumbing to foundational principles of the world (Gal. 4:3,9; Col. 2:8.20). The world we know needs leadership to function. Leadership, like all of what Paul called weak and miserable principles (Gal. 4:9), are the way the world works. It’s the worldly way of doing things. The biblical Greek word for this is stoicheia, translated, ‘basic principles or foundational principles of the world.’ But we are to live above and beyond the hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ (Col 2:8).
But there is also an organizational reason we keep falling into the clutches of the worldly leadership principle, human organizations can’t function without leaders. The buck has to stop somewhere in an organization. They need presidents and team leaders, titular pastors and CEOs. But the Church, local, citywide or universal, is not designed by God to be an organization. It is designed to be a body with Christ as head. A multi-headed church isn’t a body, it’s a beast. We have the new covenant. Christ speaks to our hearts and minds (Heb. 8:10). Jesus Christ can function perfectly as our Head. He knows how to talk to us and his Spirit can control us. And we can function as members one to another who need each other and serve each other; one body, with one head, yet many members.
So what should we do about leadership? We should do exactly what Jesus said, “But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” Don’t be a servant leader; it is still being a leader. It may be a new or different kind of leader than most are used to, but it is still a leader. Do exactly what Jesus actually said, do something else INSTEAD. Just love people through helping them. Let Jesus be their Lord. If you just point out where Jesus is, and encourage them to follow him, it will be enough.
- Can you think of other reasons why we feel compelled to fall back into the basic worldly principle of leadership?
- Can Christ truly lead us, in real time and in practical ways, or is his lordship merely to be understood as a good doctrinal metaphor?
- What would the Church look like if we all just did what Christ told us to do then loved and served each other? Would it be chaos?
- Could part of the problem be that we really don’t trust Christ (faith) and believe he can lead?