This is the fourth and last installment in the series, The God Who Serves. In the first three posts, we saw that our amazing Savior’s ministry to His disciples was one of simple servanthood, including being so servile that He attended to their needs as a waiter and cook. However, we saw that the most challenging of Jesus’ teaching concerning leadership may be His command that His disciples were not to “exercise authority” over others, which is how Gentiles lead (Matthew 20:25). It seems clear that this denial of the exercise of authority would apply to positional authority, not spiritual authority, since Jesus and His disciples, apostles and elders obviously had spiritual authority. Jesus is teaching us that servants in His kingdom are to have no positional authority. This is very difficult for us to obey in a practical way today. How does a pastor/leader lead a church or ministry using spiritual authority only? The use of positional authority would be necessary to accomplish almost everything in leading an organization, including the hiring and firing of staff.

Jesus has thrown a spiritual grenade into the midst of our leadership paradigm.

As challenging as it is to consider that leaders should be servants and not exercise authority, there is yet more in Jesus’ teaching that we must consider. Let’s return to that breakfast on the shore after His resurrection. All of those present knew that Jesus had been crucified not many days ago. This very One who was serving the disciples a meal that morning had also died for His sheep. When Jesus took Peter aside, He told him to feed and care for His sheep. Peter understood that shepherds lead sheep to green pastures, so they can obtain nourishment. He was also surely aware that shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep. Since this passage has been referenced earlier, you may recall that after Jesus heard the disciples wrangling about who would reign with Him, He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28 ESV emphasis added). Notice how Jesus tied servanthood to life-giving sacrifice. Jesus also taught them at another time, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:11–13 ESV).

We are faced with what seems to be an impenetrable dilemma. Not only do we not comprehend how to lead like servants and thus not exercise authority over others, we also don’t understand how giving up our lives—even to the point of death as Jesus and His disciples did—is achievable for a leader within our current church structure. Giving up one’s life for Jesus and others may be a praiseworthy—and we do praise it—but how is it leadership? Death is weak. Sacrifice is a diminishing of one’s power. Weakness is not in our existing leadership paradigm. What in the world could it accomplish? No, we must be strong. Purposeful. Visionary. However, we should reject this unbiblical way of thinking. Why? Because this is precisely how those of Jesus’ time thought about the Messiah. He was to be a strong leader, not a dying one. What would that dying accomplish for anyone? It was laughable.

And laugh they did.

However, this should give us pause. Do we, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, not understand the nature of true leadership? Is the biblical truth concerning leadership so counterintuitive that it is impossible for us to employ today?