The Master’s Master Principle

June 5, 2017
David Dunlap

“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all” – Mark 10:43-44

The teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ stands in stark contrast to the principles of the world. Indeed, that which the world holds in high esteem is usually regarded of little value by our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord’s teaching was considered revolutionary. Consider just a few of His principles: Concerning our fellowmen He says, “Love your enemies”; concerning taxation He said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”; and regarding persecution, “Bless those that curse you and despitefully use you.” However, the greatest of our Lord’s teachings may be found in the area of leadership: “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). Most people have no objection to being a “boss,” but servant-leadership holds little attraction. In the modern world, the term “servant” has a very lowly connotation, but not so with the Lord.

Throughout the Bible we find this same principle. For instance, we do not read, “Moses, My leader,” but “Moses, My servant.” Many of the Bible’s greatest leaders were called servants: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David among others. In fact, the word “leader” occurs only six times in the Bible—three times in the singular and three times in the plural. In contrast, the noun “servant” is used over 800 times, and the verb “to serve” is used over 300 times. More than fifty times in the Old Testament, King David is called a “servant of the Lord”, and Moses is called a “servant” over forty times. Although the term “servant” has a connotation of lowliness and insignificance in our contemporary world, our Lord raised it to an essential principle of spiritual leadership.

Our Lord viewed the church as a body of believers who would serve one another. The apostle Paul expressed the same idea: “Through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). And of course, our loving service is to stretch out beyond the walls of the church to the needy world around us. But unfortunately, it is usually the few who serve the many. Our Lord knew that such a principle would not be welcomed in the world; however, nothing less would be required of those who desired to rise to New Testament leadership. Sadly, jealously, envy, and criticism are often more common. A former professor of theology at Wheaton College, Dr. Merrill Tenney (1904-1985) writes,

“…the disciples’ minds were preoccupied with dreams of elevation to office in the coming kingdom.  They were jealous lest one of their fellows should claim the best place.  Consequently, no one of them was likely to abase himself by volunteering to wash the feet of the others. They were ready to fight for a throne, but not for a towel!”

Servant leadership in the New Testament church comes at great cost. To esteem others as “better” than ourselves, and to look not every man to his own things, but every man on the things of others (Philippians 2:3-4) doesn’t come easily to us. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ only said once that He was “leaving an example” and that was the example of washing the feet of the disciples (John 13:15)—an example of servanthood. No theological school or leadership course will confer this kind spiritual leadership to his people.

Finally, the best and most effective leadership is humble servant-leadership. Have you ever noticed that nearly all the leaders (or servants) God raised up were men or women who didn’t seek after the position? There is hardly a single effective leader who was not thrust into the position by the inward pressure of the Holy Spirit and the need of the situation at hand. Such were Moses, David, Samuel, the prophets, and the apostle Paul in the New Testament. There is hardly a single godly, effective leader from the time of the apostle Paul to the present day who promoted himself or selected himself for leadership.

No, rather, I believe that it is just the other way around. The man who is overly ambitious and self-assured, is surely disqualified as a biblical leader. The true leader will have no desire to lord it over Christ’s people, but will be humble, gentle, and self-sacrificing. He will be as ready to follow as to lead. Yet when the Spirit of God makes it clear that he is to take greater leadership, he is ready to serve with all that is in him. This is the kind of leader God seeks and this is the kind of leader we need.