Servant Leadership: Pathways
“Jesus, The Ideal Servant Leader” (SL#53)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1:2 - Following Biblical Patterns

“What would Jesus do?”

Every servant leader today needs a champion, a model to go by. As a Christian servant leader today, why not follow the example of the Lord Christ? Jesus throughout His life and ministry among people, including His first disciples, pioneered the pathway toward servant leadership. In this article we intend to make a journey down through the events of His life and instruction; this seeks to develop naturally the fundamental principles of servant leadership.

Think about your own journey. How often do you ask yourself the question, “What would Jesus do?” WWJD has become a popular motto for many contemporary Christians, especially young Christians. Decades before that, “What would Jesus do?” was raised as a life-challenging question from Charles M. Sheldon’s novel, In His Steps. Lives were changed as town residents tried to live out their understanding of that question in many circumstances and roles of life. But the highest motivation for this call to follow the ideal pattern of Christ is found in Holy Scripture:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.--1 Peter 2:21

Put yourself on a journey with Jesus. At this point in your journey, how would you assess your development as a leader? In this article we will briefly summarize several events and principles in the life of Jesus. Assess yourself as to how your own life and leadership exhibit, and are committed to, these ideals. For now apply these events and principles discovered in the life of Jesus as your “standard.” Add any important comments or insights about your present journey, or your understanding of Christ’s journey. Each leadership principle is related to a physical place or event.

1. Development: The Nazareth Principle

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was presented as an infant in the temple, but Nazareth was his hometown. At his birth and his presentation, great things were spoken of him, but he grew up in Nazareth with personal, family and holy attention. The development outcomes were spectacular. At age twelve when a Jewish boy becomes a “son of the law,” a visit to Jerusalem and back to Nazareth opens a window of understanding about His earliest development. (Luke 2:39-52)

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him (Luke 2:39-40). And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men ( Luke 2:52).

This development principle, briefly stated, affirms that to be a servant leader today calls for a lifetime of intentional growth and development. Jesus’ early development as a leader may in some cases be much like your own; it can be applied in many ways to your pathway toward being a servant leader:

2. Relationship: The Jordan Principle (see Luke 3:21-22)

. . . and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’--Luke 3:22

Jesus demonstrated that the servant leader’s primary relationship is a love relationship with God, a living relationship through the Holy Spirit. Jesus' baptism was a public dedication to the messianic task for which the Father sent him into the world. His baptism identified him with the Old Testament prophetic assurances from God that the day of redemption was to come as his Servant/Son. The baptism of Jesus identified him with John the Baptist, the forerunner sent from God to point to the Lamb of God. Jesus' baptism identified Him with the human race, many coming to repent of sin and turn to God under the preaching of John. For us as servant leaders today, dedication to any great enterprise requires the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, often coming with the quietness of a dove. Others have come before us to labor in the kingdom service of God; we build upon their labors. Others serve Christ in your relationship sphere; build strength with them.

3. Preparedness: The Desert Principle (see Matt. 4:1-11)

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1)

As a servant leader, Jesus prepared for vocation and life, at the front end and along the pathway, by depending on God (see Matt. 4:1) He did not take a shortcut or a low road. His pathway was to follow the way of God, as prefigured in Holy Scripture. There are at least five areas of preparedness found in His desert experience; follow this principle.

4. Purpose: The Homecoming Principle (see Luke 4: 17-21)

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.--Luke 4:21

The most significant, internal guidance for life and leadership is an impelling, worthy mission in life; such a mission must be articulate and full of opportunity. It must be invested in purposeful action. Jesus had a very clear picture--biblical, profound and challenging--of His purpose in life, His mission on earth. After His 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, the epoch experience was framed in the three-fold test pictured by the bread, the temple, and the mountain. Then Jesus returned to Galilee proclaiming the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures about His coming. In His own hometown, the most significant place of His childhood, He committed himself publicly to a prophetic statement of His life’s work. (See “homecoming” in NIV Study Bible Dictionary.)

5. Discipleship: The Personnel Principle (see Matt. 4:19-20; 10:37-39)

‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.--Matt. 4:19-20

The personnel principle is that Jesus put His team together in order to do His redemptive task; He put them not on the payroll but on the kingdom task force.

To be servant leaders today, we must do no less than that willing but unproven band of disciples. To lead others, we must first follow Him, and in His name, serve others. Because Jesus chose to do His kingdom work with and through others, His call today is still to come and follow Him, to bear His cross, to be on His team; it requires a lifetime of discipleship and service. To lead others, we must truly first follow Him in service.

6. Kingdom: The Mountain Principle (see Matt. 6:19-24, 33)

The mountain principle was that kingdom priority was to be the disciples' highest, conscious treasure to be sought. It was to cascade down into the valley, into the valley of human need. When Jesus drew His disciples aside to teach them what we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” it reflected His own experience of the transcending true satisfaction of whole-hearted service and single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God. He taught His disciples to serve in this manner and to expect the provision of God for all their needs.

Matthew 6:33-34: To seek first the kingdom (“of God” in some MSS) is to desire above all to enter into, submit to, and participate in spreading the news of the saving reign of God, the messianic kingdom already inaugurated by Jesus, and to live so as to store up treasures in heaven in the prospect of the kingdom’s consummation. --Zondervan Commentary

7. Service: The Towel Principle (see John 13:1, 4-5)

The principle is clear: Jesus came to serve and by example to teach us to do so. Jesus, at a high feast of worship, expressed serving love for His disciples by washing their travel weary, dusty feet, and drying them with a towel--the servant's towel. This not only met a practical deed of hospitality in His context but has forever given us the model and symbol of servant leadership.

John 13:4-5: Sometime during the meal Jesus rose, removed his outer cloak, tied a towel around his waist, and began to perform the work of the servant who was not present. It was a voluntary humiliation that rebuked the pride of the disciples. Perhaps it accentuated the tension of the situation, because Luke notes that when the disciples entered the room, they had been arguing about who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Luke 22:24).--Zondervan Commentary

8. Mutual Love: The Radical Principle (see John 13:34-35)

Love is the radical principle for every servant leader today. Jesus led his followers by loving them and, out of that love, drawing them to love one another in such a way that it demonstrates that they are His disciples. Even those who serve in the private and public sector are discovering that qualities of love are powerful components of leadership in the workforce.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.--John 13:34-35

9. Confrontation: The Temple Principle (see Matt. 21:12-13)

The servant leader today must know when to confront evil and wrong-doing. That is the lesson for us from this Temple episode. Jesus usually expressed His leadership through nurture, acceptance, and encouragement; He was first a servant. The hungry, the lame, the ill, the despairing, the outcast, the bereaved--they all knew His tender and specific care. But Jesus knew when and how to confront those who intentionally broke the higher spiritual laws of God. So, to be a servant leader today does not mean to be weak or condoning in the face of evil; rather, it means to discern and to act as those who would stand for the things of God. True enough, we do not always have the pure discernment as our Lord.

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’--Matt. 21:12-13

10. Redemption: The Cross Principle (John 19:16-18)

The “cross principle” sets forth God's purpose and bearer of redemption for all mankind. John 19:16-19 and other texts report the record of Jesus' death. He was crucified on a real cross at a time in history, under a renegade Roman colony. The meaning of the cross was explicitly proclaimed by the early church: "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Jesus pursued the way of the cross: its burden and its death, in the midst of those He loved, pursuing the high mission of their salvation. A redeeming relationship is described as being crucified with Christ; it is the pattern of our highest expression of servant leadership today.

11. Power: The Resurrection Principle (Matt. 28:6-7; Acts 1:8)

In God’s power, Jesus overcame death and the grave to arise as our living Christ, to send us out in His power and to be His witnesses throughout His world. The core message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Lord of Life. We are to live in His presence, to proclaim that central message, and to serve Him faithfully in His resurrection power.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.--Acts 1:8

12. Commission: The World Principle (Matt. 28:16-20)

Jesus commissioned His followers to go into all the world, to make and baptize disciples, to teach obedience to His commandments, and to enjoy His enduring presence. That is the high road of servant leadership!

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.--Matt. 28:19-20

Reflection/Assessment Application:
Think about how your life and leadership embody each of the above leadership principles, and assess yourself now. Read related Scriptures and develop your own informed definitions of each principle.

For additional characteristics that shaped Jesus’ life and ministry, see Reggie McNeal’s A Work of Heart, pp. 51-70.

Close this window 

© 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership