Servant Leadership: Pathways
“Servant First, Then Leader--A Word Study” (SL#55)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1:2 - Following Biblical Patterns

Servant leadership, both in biblical example and in today’s practice, gives evidence that being a servant does come first. “Servant” does not merely modify leadership, it is the very way to leadership. Serving those you choose to lead is an expression of leadership, not the position you hold, or the title you bear. We'll develop this in several ways, beginning with the concept of Robert Greenleaf:

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.--Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, p. 13

  1. The Servant Text, Mark 10: 35-45

    . . . whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.--Mark 10:43-45

    Since it clearly teaches that service comes before greatness, I sometimes think of the biblical teaching of this passage as the benchmark of servant leadership. Jesus is the teacher, His disciples are the students, the nature of their service is the issue; and Jesus Himself is the example of redemptive service.

    Framing the Text--Mark 10:35-45
    When we divide this critical passage into its individual parts, there are six elements in the message to view for potential patterns relevant to servant leaders:

    • Followers of Jesus, like others, often have towering ambitions; but the disciples brought theirs to Jesus. (v. 35-37)
    • Jesus tested their ambitions by His own kingdom standard of total commitment, not by right or position. (v. 38-40)
    • Ambitions too often, then and now, create a divisive spirit of criticism or party spirit. (v. 41)
    • The world has its own impelling, appealing “power standard” of greatness and authority. (v. 42)
    • Self-giving service after the pattern of Jesus is the true standard of greatness, of servant leadership. (v. 43-44)
    • Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of redeeming servant leadership; He calls us to follow Him. (v. 45)


    • Read through the text carefully, perhaps in different translations, and from the parallel in Matt. 20:20-28.
    • What is your response and learning from this great text?
    • How would you restate the central element of each of the six parts?
    • What are the guiding ambitions of your life and leadership?
    • Have they been tested and proven worthy? Have they caused you struggle, disruption, refocusing?
    • Do you measure your ambitions by Jesus’ ultimate servant example?
    • How often do your words and attitude include power words like those found in Mark 10: “right-hand--left-hand,” “regarded as rulers,” “lord-it over”?

  2. The New Testament Servant Language

    No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.--Luke 16:13

    The New Testament describes the place of service and leadership applied to a Christian context, with primary words for servant and cognates and leader and cognates. Don't let the inclusion of transliterated Greek words distract you. It is an attempt to report clearly the richness of Holy Scripture on this topic. [Word study sources include numerous concordances, dictionaries, and specialized articles.]

    • doulos (130 times) - a slave, a bondman, a servant--as opposed to free or unrestrained--subject to and serving another (see Luke 16:13; 1 Cor. 7:21; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:8); used in the New Testament to indicate one who gives himself up wholly to another’s will, dominion and service (see 1 Cor. 7:23; John 8:34); those whose service is used by Christ in extending His cause among people (see Romans 1:1; Acts 4:29; James 1:1) devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests (see Matthew 20:27).
    • latreuo - to serve for hire; then, primarily stresses details of religious service to God, but is then used for the inner attitude of worship; to perform sacred services, to worship God in the observance of the rites (Luke 4:8; Acts 7:7; Hebrews 9:14).

      Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” --Luke 4:8

    • diakoneo (and its derivatives) - are used mainly for personal help to others; verb form: serve, support, serve as a deacon, serve at table; nouns: service, ministry, office, aid, support, distribution, office of a deacon (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13), servant, deacon. Mark 10:45 gives this term the lofty meaning of loving action for brother and neighbor (see also 2 Cor. 3:3; Eph. 6:21; 1 Peter 1:12; 1 Peter 4:10).

    The variety of service and relationship to God, to the church family, and to fellowmen is expressed in three word groups in the New Testament.

    • leitourges - originally expressed voluntary service for a political community, and then priestly service; to serve at one’s own cost; to do a service, to perform a work; Christians serving Christ, whether by prayer, instruction or other ways (see Acts 13:2; Phil. 2:17; 2 Cor. 9).

      But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.--Phil. 2:17

    • pais - often a child, boy or girl; also a servant, attendant, minister (Matthew 8:6, 8, 13). Jesus was identified from Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 42:1-4) as God’s servant (pais) to bring by His suffering both victory and hope (Matthew 12:18-21).
    • oiketes - A domestic servant having a close relationship to the master’s household; usually lived within the household family and could not have two masters (Luke 16:13; 1 Pet. 2:18).

    All of these ways to understand service, as presented in the New Testament, come to bear in their own way on your tasks as a servant leader today. We might even say that to be a servant in the Christian sense is enriched by understanding the many different ways there are to be in service. Whether emerging from the routine, or from a grand context, the service concept as a whole is central to following Christ’s lead!

  3. Servant Texts and Concepts
    Examples and instructions from the New Testament reinforce the concept of servant-first leadership. Which of these texts speak more clearly to you?
    • John 13:5 - Jesus sets this important example by assuming the role of a household servant to wash His disciples’ feet.

      Another Servant Text: After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.--John 13:5

    • Luke 16:13 - Service is so crucial that the servant must clearly choose between masters he will serve (douleo).
    • Luke 22:27 - At the “Lord’s Supper,” Jesus served His disciples and declared His role in their midst as one of servant.
    • Matthew 25:40 - Service to others in need is service as unto Christ Himself, and becomes a principle of accountability and judgment.
    • Romans 14:4 - As the (household) servant was judged by his own master, so we are judged by the Lord whom we serve and who empowers us to stand.
    • Romans 15:8 - Christ became a servant (minister) to the Jews, demonstrating the truthfulness of God’s promise to them.
    • 1 Cor. 13:4-7 - Without using the word/terminology of service or leadership, this great love text describes richly the characteristics defining the person who is truly “servant first.”
    • Phil. 2:5-7 - “Servant” (doulos) is the very essence, the essential nature, Christ chose for Himself when He was incarnated in human likeness; what a lowly station; what an exalted role!

      Christ Jesus . . . being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.--Phil. 2:5-7

    • 1 Peter 4:10-11 - Service (diakoneo) to others is the intended purpose of every spiritual gift; faithful administration of the grace of God is the mark of a servant. Service is actively expressed through the strength God supplies; you are not on your own. And the outcome is praise and glory to God, not self.

    The pattern--the pathway--of servanthood is there before you. It is no less than the way of Christ! Now, is it “your serve . . .”?

  4. “Then leader” - A Short Biblical Journey
    Think of servant leadership as a two-layered image. On the bottom--the foundation--is the rich presentation of service as described on the previous pages. Laid over the top, in perfect harmony with servanthood, is an almost equally rich portrait of “leadership.” Together, they form the servant-leadership principle: a vision of leadership in the pattern of Christ. Without the element of service, leadership would forfeit its Christian mooring. Without the perspective of leadership, servitude loses its direction, its ability to imprint followership, and its potential to fulfill the Christian mission. Let’s complete this article by making the important Scriptural journey from servant to leader.

    Biblical language is rich with the description of leadership: its abilities, practices, and positions. The terms “leader” and “leadership” are often used to translate diverse terms; and, other terms are often used to convey a portrait of leadership.

    In a most helpful article, “Translating the Language of Leadership,” Paul Ellingworth admits to the difficult linguistic and cultural task of clearly expressing the significant concept of “leadership.” But he does give a helpful summary of specific words that are sometimes translated “leader, leadership” (Paul Ellingworth, The Bible Translator, Vol. 49, no. 1; Jan. 1988, pp. 126-138. Information is abbreviated and adapted; other language sources used):

    1) In the Old Testament--numerous titles carry the concept: “elders” (Ex. 3:16); “princes” (Num. 21:18); “leaders” (Ex. 15:15); “chiefs” (Ex. 15:15); “heads” (Num. 7:2); “judges” (Judg. 2:16); “nobles” (Num. 21:18); “officials” (Judg. 8:6); “commanders” (Deut. 20:9); “shepherds” (Isa. 56:11); “officers” (Num. 11:16); and “rulers” (Ex. 18:21).

    2) In the New Testament--terms that are, or could be, translated “leader” include:

    • archon: “ruler, lord, prince” (Luke 18:18; John 3:1; Acts 3:17)
    • hugoumenos: “civil, military, religious leaders” (Acts 14:12, 15:22; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24)

      Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. . . . Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.--Heb. 13:17, 24

    • megas: “great one” (Mark 10:42); leading citizens (Mark 6:21)
    • protos: “first” (Luke 19:47; Acts 25:2; 3 John 9)
    • episkopos: “supervisor, overseer, bishop” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7); qualifications are given - 1 Tim. 3:1-7
    • presbuteros: “elder,” or a Christian leader (1 Tim. 5:17--see Zondervan Commentary below); Acts 15:22

      In 1 Tim. 5:1 presbyteros is clearly used in its literal sense of “older man.” In 5:17 it is just as clearly used in its technical sense of “elder.” “Direct the affairs of the church” is literally “preside over” or “rule” (proestotes). It was the responsibility of these earliest church officials (cf. Acts 14:23) to supervise the work of the local congregation.--Zondervan Commentary

    • diakonous: “deacon, servant, waiter” (Acts 6:2; Phil. 1:1)
    • ho kurios: “The Lord,” a reference to Christ; having power or authority, possessor, owner (Luke 1:43; Acts 10:36; Romans 14:8)
    • epistates: “a master, overseer, superintendent,” referred to Jesus, as teacher and one in authority (Luke 17:13)

    3) Along the leadership pathway:
    In addition, the New Testament uses many of the words for leadership common in religious and Roman political structures: tetrarch, governor, prefect, officer, jailer, the police, ruler, procounsul, magistrates, city officials, provincial dignitaries, town clerk, emperor, commissioners. The use of leadership opportunities may be flawed or faithful.

    • A position of leadership may be used from wrong motives or for evil causes (see Luke 19: 47; Acts 3:17; Acts 14:5; Acts 25:5; Acts 28:17).

      There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them.--Acts 14:5

    • The opportunity for servant leadership may be rejected or forfeited--as did Judas and many Jewish leaders (see Acts 1:20; 24:5; 25:2; 28:17).
    • Even believing leaders may fall short of leadership potential--as did new believers (see John 12:42; Acts 3:17; 14:5; 25:5; Gal. 2:2).
    • Leadership is often expressed by enlisting and empowering others in the service of Christ (see Acts 15:22).

      Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.--Acts 15:22

    • The gift of leadership, along with other gifts, is for faithful service to others (Romans 12:8).
    • Leaders in the service of God are to be examined, received, respected, and imitated by followers (see Heb. 13:7,17,24).
    • “Leadership” as an assigned task in the Lord’s service is a stewardship measured by faithfulness (Matt. 25:20-21; Luke 12:42-43; 1 Cor. 4:1-2).

Reflection, Assessment, Application
In this article, have we helped to mesh the elements of “servanthood” and “leadership” to provide the beginnings of a biblical pattern to follow? Write your own thoughts for application. In SL#54 we investigated the example of Christ’s life--in whom we find the one who saw and acted upon this diverse pattern with greatest clarity and purpose.

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© 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