Servant Leaders

John C. Vaughn

FrontLine • September/October 2007

A Christlike, servant’s heart is the antidote to selfish ambition. Matthew 20:17–28 makes this clear. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem for the last time. The roads were filled with travelers on their way to the Passover. Jesus took the twelve aside and told them plainly that when they arrived, He would be betrayed and condemned to death, but that He would rise again (vv. 17–19). One commentator illustrated it this way: “What if a man were to tell his family, ‘I’m going to Chicago. I’ll be arrested and falsely accused, then immediately executed. I’ll be home three days after the funeral.’ How would they respond? Would they have anything at all to say, or just stand there in confusion?”

The mother of Zebedee’s children had a question: “Could James and John sit on Your immediate right hand and left hand when You come back?” The Lord explained that she didn’t really understand what she was asking, but she and her sons insisted that they did. His explanation was that they would certainly follow Him in suffering before they would sit with Him in glory. The other ten disciples were indignant at them, probably out of jealousy, for the rebuke to follow was directed to them all. These men had just heard the Lord tell them of impending betrayal, condemnation, mockery, scourging, and crucifixion. These men had seen crucifixion. We haven’t. Imagine the sadness and shock of that prophecy.

Here were men who were soon to see “the power of his resurrection,” that needed to learn “the fellowship of his suffering” (Phil. 3:10). There in that incredible context, the ambition of the two and the indignation of the ten rise to the surface. The Suffering Servant of which Isaiah spoke is before their eyes, yet selfishness is in their hearts. This little band had been together for just three short years. Jesus had called them to Himself, as Mark 3:14 tells us, “that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach.” It was time for them to be with Him at the cross, and their personal need for Him to go to the cross is being exposed.

It is an embarrassing moment for them — a time for the truth of servanthood. On the one hand, their great ambition; on the other, His great sacrifice. What a context in which to read, “But Jesus called them unto him. …” His brief lesson was pungent with conviction. He pointed to authority structures of the Gentiles, reminding them that what they had just heard among themselves was typical of those worldly methods. “Princes … exercise dominion … and they that are great exercise authority. … But it shall not be so among you.” “Not so!” He says to our flesh, and “Not so!” our flesh replies.

Has ministerial adoption of Robert Greenleaf’s “Servant Leadership” confused us on real servanthood? Can a man think he is a servant-leader, when what he desires is “if I act like a servant, then men will make me a leader”? That was the thinking of James and John and probably what was on the minds of the other disciples. A servant-leader is not an ambitious man who uses servanthood to get ahead; a servant is a Christ-honoring man who simply serves — an under-shepherd to the Chief Shepherd. He takes up his cross with Christ. If he is ever “on the front line” for Christ, it is because he is “behind enemy lines” in genuine spiritual warfare.

John Vaughn is the President of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International.