At Swinburne University in Melbourne, the School of Business is teaching servant leadership because evidence for the effectiveness of Jesus’ teaching on leadership has been building for decades. Harvard Business Review famously called it ‘Level five leadership’—a humble, eclectic, teachable and even wise form of leading that puts the goals of the corporation above the personality of the leader. There is nothing sentimental or ideologically skewed towards championing introversion here. This is business: this form of leadership is justified by the superior results it achieves.
Leadership is complex for us in Melbourne. Our city is obsessed with critiquing leaders; with looking for leaders and removing them
But leadership is complex for us in Melbourne. We know that our city is obsessed with critiquing leaders; with looking for leaders and removing them. It is one of the ordinary goods we have anxiously made into an ultimate purpose as we seek the keys to a meaningful life on our own terms. We deeply believe that if we just get leadership right, all will be well.
But this is Australia where we practice a brutal form of egalitarianism. We cut down without mercy even the most beautiful and deserving of our tall poppies. We knock down those who might have excelled, given time, grace and opportunity. Then we complain wise people steer away from leadership in public, corporate, and church life—leaving weeds behind.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians show us that these wrangles over leadership are not new. Different leaders had accumulated different factions within the church. People were lining up behind Paul, Cephas (Peter) and Apollos—and, by 2 Corinthians, possibly Titus. There were the Super Apostles who were abusing and misleading the young church.
Paul wonders if the Corinthians are crazy. Why make idols out of leaders? “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). His point is that leaders in the church are not saviours, they are farmers:.
I planted [did mission] and Apollos watered [taught and pastored] but it is God who gives the growth.
(1 Corinthians 3:6)
As Paul unpacks the teaching of Jesus on servant leadership for the churches in Corinth, we learn that church leaders, ministers and pastors are both more important and less important than we think.
Church Leaders, Ministers and Pastors Matter More than We Think.
Some contemporary Christians think that churches don’t need leaders: We know better than our pastors. We are educated (professionals with our own standing in the community beyond the church). We exercise our own brands of leadership every working day. We can do a better job—and doesn’t the Bible itself teach that the church is a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9)?
But for Paul, a church saying that it doesn’t need leaders would be like a city saying it doesn’t need farmers.
At the end of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul notes that some gifts are fundamental to establishing the church and enabling the other gifts of the church:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues…
(1 Corinthians 12: 27)
This is consistent with what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
(Ephesians 4:11, 12)
In other words, the task of people in the ministry is to build up and equip the rest of the church do to the ministry of the church wherever and however they find themselves. Our church leaders, our ministers and pastors do not have all the gifts that a church will need, but they are more important than we think in the way they help other people to exercise their own gifts.
Church Leaders, Ministers and Pastors Matter Less than We Think.
Large and successful churches have big ‘L’ leaders and we want to train people going into ministry to be those sort of people … Paul says ‘no’.
If some Christians undervalue leadership, others overvalue it—believing that a good leader is essential to the success and growth of the church. Typically ‘good” here means a charismatic and extroverted personality with winsome teaching gifts. ‘Success’ means attracting people into our church and putting us on the map. We note that large and successful churches have big ‘L’ leaders and we want to train people going into ministry to be those sort of people. That is how we want to be led.
But again, Paul says, ‘no’:
What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake… for God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory… displayed in the face of Jesus Christ … but we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power is from God and not from us.
(2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
How odd that one of the most successful authors of history, the co-founder of the largest volunteer movement in the world—one of the church’s most influential and successful missionaries—should have the view that it is the weakness of our leaders, their lack that allows others to see the grace of God at work in them, rather than their competence and brilliance. Writing again about leadership, he says:
Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.
(2 Corinthians 10:17-18)
Why do we need to be reminded of these things? Because, as Paul says, it is too easy to lead a church by the appearance of success (or what our culture defines as successful) rather than substance—which, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:7, is belonging to Jesus Christ.
Applying Paul’s Teaching…
- The future of the church does not depend on how well-crafted and presented our strategic plans are. They will not give life or growth or resurrect the dead. The future belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the one who was raised from the dead. (for example, on planning see 2 Corinthians 1:12-22)
- The truth of the church is not assured by our academic qualifications or publications, or by clever apologetics or learned sermons. It is in Jesus Christ because he is the truth about God. (for example, on truth see 1 Corinthians 1:20-31)
- The life of the church is not to be found in our community social gatherings or friendship networks or small groups. The power to live well, love well, forgive well is in Jesus Christ. (for example, on community see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)
- The mission of the church is not captive to our programs. It’s success depends wholly on Jesus Christ and what he is already doing in people’s lives which we need to discover and participate in. (for example, on cross cultural mission, see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
Of course our planning, teaching, community and mission efforts matter, but only in the way that farming matters. They are essential to do but they do not achieve growth on their own. They do not produce salvation or purpose because it is God who gives the growth. Our effort is the appearance but Jesus is the substance.
What we and our leaders do is to point people away from ourselves to Jesus Christ. We are the jars of clay containing the treasure of the good news about Jesus, so that—through our faults and weakness, rather than our accomplishments and strength—people can see God’s grace and gift in us (and then want to seek it for themselves).
Insofar as our ministry does this, it will be a success. Insofar as it points to ourselves, or builds likes and followers, or influence for our leaders and church brands, it is a sadness.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1 that ‘All the promises of God find their yes in him.’ It is Jesus whom our servant-leaders are to serve. To put it in pragmatic terms, that is the ministry that will work.