The biblical model for leadership is servanthood to the Church, and the word is akin to slavery. Six Greek words are used for the concept of servant in the New Testament. Two that might be the most familiar to us are “diákonos,” which is like a waiter or attendant. It is this word from which we get our word “deacon.” The other is “doulos,” which is someone who is in bondage to a master and is always subservient, as we read earlier. Some translations use the word “bondservant” for this word.

However, the word that Paul uses for servants in 1 Corinthians 4:1—“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God”—is not “doulos” but “huperetes.” It’s a word that literally means “under rower.” The antonym of this word would be “helmsman,” the person who is directing which way the ship heads.

Under rower. This job doesn’t sound very appealing, does it?  (Not that the other meanings of “servant” do!) The under rower would be down in the dark, lower regions of the ship, pulling along with all the other slaves. Apparently, Paul didn’t want the designation of helmsman. He didn’t want to be regarded as the one who steered the vessel. It wasn’t his desire to be considered the navigator, the one who plotted the course for the ship. The under rower would have absolutely no navigational input about the bearing of the craft which he is helping propel through the water. He is merely part of a team of under rowers, slavishly doing the will of the master of the ship. Just a fellow rower. As an aside, I don’t know very much about ancient ships, but it’s probably not much of a stretch to think that it was wet and a bit odorous down there.

Paul wrote that this is how the Corinthians should regard him.

This is Paul the apostle we’re talking about. Very few people on the planet at that time deserved to be regarded as a “Big L” leader in the Church more than he did. He was a leader extraordinaire. However, Paul told the Corinthians that he wanted them to regard him not as a “Big L” leader but as a nameless, undistinguished under rower. If Paul’s aim was to have the Corinthian believers consider him this way, not a helmsman or navigator, how should our contemporary church leaders tell us to regard them?

Paul was concerned that the Corinthians might improperly gather themselves around Apollos, Peter and himself. He was strongly hostile to that attitude. He wanted the Corinthians to regard them as laborers with them, not men who were trying to gather groups under each of their leaderships. They shouldn’t regard them as those kinds of leaders at all. They were simply pulling oars with them.

This is so contrary to my way of thinking that it makes me dizzy. As a leader, I am to paddle together with the people in the fellowship where I serve and not be concerned if they attach themselves to my leadership or that they notice me much at all. In fact, I should encourage them not to be attached to my leadership in a way that would identify themselves with me. I should, rather, be concerned that they are attached to the leadership of Jesus Christ—that task would be part of my job description as a pastor/leader/elder. Peter wrote, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). The word “overseer” here is the Greek word, “episkopos,” which has been translated “bishop.”

But who is the helmsman of our group? Who directs us as we gather?

This is where the teaching of Jesus comes to the fore. The servant is the leader. He leads, he directs by…serving.

He leads by rowing with them, according to Paul. He leads by listening with them to the Lord and giving his life to Jesus sacrificially in their company and doing great things with, in  and for God and in service to one another. He leads by praying among them. He leads by being part of the strengthening of believers by the exercise of the gifts that happens when they gather together (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 14:26; Ephesians 5:18-21; Colossians 3:16). He leads by submitting himself to the radical, life-denying leadership of the divine Helmsman and helping, admonishing and teaching those in the fellowship to do the same.