Is ‘servant leadership’ a biblical concept?

On what the Bible says about leadership among Jesus’ disciples.

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Apparently, it was the writer Robert K. Greenleaf (1904–1990) who coined the phrase and concept “servant leadership”. He used such wordings in his essay ‘The Servant as Leader’, around 1970.

Since that time, some have begun to use that originally business-related concept in a religious context. They have built dogmas around that phrase, often in connection with church hierarchies and similar things. But, is “servant leadership” a biblical concept? That is: Did elders in the saints’ fellowships act as “leaders”? And, did for instance the apostle Paul present himself as a “leader”? Some writers have claimed so, and a number of bible-translators have made it seem so, but what does the New Testament really say about this?

This article takes a closer look at what the scriptural record tells us in regard to leadership among Jesus’ disciples.

Matthew 23:8–10 shows how many leaders the disciples were to have.

Before going to Matthew 23, let us first consider something in chapter 15.

The 1769 edition of king James’ bible does not contain the word “leadership”, but if we look for the word “leader” in its New Testament part, we find one passage, this one:

Matthew 15:14 Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. (KJV1769)

The context shows that Jesus was talking about the Pharisees. (They had managed to make themselves “religious leaders” in Judea.)

Then, let us consider a passage in Matthew 23, the “Pharisee chapter”. It records what Jesus taught his disciples in regard to how many leaders they were to have.

Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; [a] […] 6 “And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. 8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. [b] 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; [c] for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, [d] that is, Christ. 11 “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (NASB77, note signs added)

a Verse 2: Just as the above-quoted NASB77 has it, the meaning of the Greek text is, “the scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses”. That is, they acted as if they had such a seat.

b Verse 8: As you can see, Jesus said to his disciples that they were all brothers. That is, equal. None of them was “higher” than the others.

c Verse 9: Jesus told his disciples that they were to have only one [spiritual] Father – God the Father in Heaven.

d Verse 10: Jesus told his disciples that they were to have only one leader – Jesus.

A note: Many bible-translators have rendered verse 3 in ways that could cause casual bible-readers to think that Jesus somehow upheld the scribes and Pharisees and their teachings. But, he did not do that. The rest of that chapter as well as other NT passages show that he castigated them and warned people about their teachings. The details regarding Matthew 23:1–4 cannot be included here, but here is a short synopsis, in the form of a translation of that passage:

Matthew 23:1 Then spoke Jesus to the crowds, and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. 3 And so, they demand you to follow all kinds [of rules], without limit, [saying], ‘Observe, and do!’ – But, do not do according to their works [or tasks], for they do not do the things they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves do not touch those burdens with one finger.” (BPT)

(The article noa120.htm has more on this translation, and on the Pharisees in general.)

More in the earlier quoted verse 8: Jesus forbade the use of religious titles, such as “rabbi” (which came from the Hebrew rab, “great”, and meant “my great one”, that is, “master”, “teacher”). – The article naa080.htm has more on the matter of religious titles.

Some notes: Jesus does not have any mortal “deputies” or “special representatives” here on Earth today. Some “religious leaders” have claimed or let it be understood that they are some kind of “proxies” for Jesus, or even “vice rulers”, but that is merely a copy of old Catholic dogmas and practices. Some have even copied the Catholic talk about “Peter’s keys”, and claimed or insinuated that they are in some way “successors” to the apostle Peter. That subject is too large to be included here. The article nba070.htm has more on Matthew 16:19 and the “keys of the Reign of the Heavens”.

Then, regarding verses 11 and 12 – consider this translation:

Matthew 23:11 The man who would be the greatest among you must be your servant. 12 Whoever shall exalt himself will be humbled, and whoever shall humble himself will be exalted. (20CNT)

Verse 11, “the man who would be the greatest” – that is, someone who against Jesus’ clear instructions, see the earlier quoted verses 8–10, would nevertheless try to make himself a leader over the others. Jesus told his disciples that they were all brothers (equal) and that they were to have only one Leader and Teacher, Jesus, and only one spiritual Father, God.

‘Biblical authority’, ‘religious authority’, ‘spiritual authority’.

The English word “authority” comes from old Latin noun auctor which meant “the originator”, “the author”. Knowing this, makes it easier to understand that the only true “biblical authorities” are the Bible’s ultimate authors, those who inspired the contents of that book [e] – that is, God and his son Jesus. And again, they do not have any mortal “deputies” or “special representatives” here on Earth today.

e This refers to what was originally written. Here, one must keep in mind that all bible-translations contain errors and bias, and all too often even purposely twisted things. And, even the present-day Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have variants (errors) and even added and excluded words and passages.

The article nsa060.htm has more on the matter of biblical and spiritual authority, who really has it – that is, the question, who can speak for God?

The article nsa070.htm takes a closer look at such concepts as “clergy” and “laity”.

The article nea020.htm has some notes on the originally Catholic concept “ordination”, and shows that it does not have any support in the Greek text of the New Testament.

Did the apostle Paul present himself as a ‘leader’?

Many translators have put into a number of New Testament passages wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that the apostle Paul told people to “follow him” as their “leader”. But, the Greek NT text shows that he did not do that. What he did, was instead that he told the other saints to imitate the example which he and his companions had set, in regard to certain things. The article nma030.htm has more on this matter, including the nature of that example.

Mark 9:35 and Luke 22:26 and the word ‘servant’.

Again, did elders in the saints’ fellowships act as “servant leaders”?

The basics of that matter were discussed earlier in this article, such as that for instance the 1769 KJ version does not contain the word “leadership”, and that the only New Testament passage where it has the word “leader”, talks about people being misled (“led into the ditch”). Also, it was shown that Jesus noted that his disciples were all brothers, equal – none of them was “higher” than the others. They were to have only one spiritual leader and master, Jesus, and only one spiritual father, God.

Chapter 9 in the book of Mark records how Jesus corrected his disciples, because they had tried to create a “pecking order”. (This was before they were converted, before they had received the Holy Spirit.) We read:

Mark 9:33 And they came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. 35 And sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (NASB77)

Verse 34 records that when Jesus asked those disciples what they had been talking about, they kept silent. They did not want to answer him. Obviously, they were ashamed. In other words: They had known better, but they had nevertheless acted in carnal ways. Apparently, several of them had wanted to be “the greatest”.

Regarding verse 35 above, and also the earlier quoted Matthew 23:11–12 – please note that Jesus did not say that those who wanted to be “great”, were to be elected as “elders” or “leaders”. It is obvious that he meant that puffed up persons of that kind were to be put in their proper place – they were to be considered to be of least status among the disciples.

Even the book of Luke records something that Jesus said to his disciples, when they were arguing about which of them was “greatest”.

Luke 22:24 And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. 25 And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ 26 “But not so with you, but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. (NASB77)

(It is such passages as Luke 22:26 and for instance Matthew 23:11, that some have twisted and then used for constructing dogmas regarding “servant leadership”.)

Luke 22:26, “let him who is ‘greatest’ among you become as the youngest and the ‘leader’ as the servant” – the meaning appears to be that those who wanted to lift themselves “high”, were to be put low. Verse 24 shows that the reason why Jesus said this to his disciples, was that they had quarrelled about which of them was “greatest”.

A note: The event recorded in Luke 22:24 took place after Jesus had given the apostles the bread and the wine and was about to be captured and killed. Apparently, they had understood, from what Jesus had told them during the meal, that he would not remain among them. And so, carnal as they still were, they started creating a “pecking order” among themselves. But, he was patient with them even at that time, and corrected them in their folly.

Should believers search the Old Testament for guidance in regard to ‘spiritual leadership’?

Some have claimed that one must not only look in the New Testament for guidelines in regard to “spiritual leadership”, but also in the Old Testament. Is that correct?

Well, both yes and no. One must keep in mind that the Old Covenant was one thing, and the New Covenant is another. But still, the Old Testament contains certain things which can be said to have a bearing on this matter. Keeping in mind what Jesus taught his disciples concerning how many leaders, masters and spiritual fathers they were to have (Mathew 23:8–10), let us consider certain events of Old Testament times.

After the Exodus, when the ancient Israelites had left Egypt but had not yet reached the Promised Land, they rejected the Lord as their Leader and wanted to have a mortal leader in his place, see Numbers 14:1–4. The result: Those Israelites who were of mature age at that time, were not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Instead, they had to stay in the Arabian desert, until they died. See Numbers 14:27–35. Only their children were taken to the land of promise, forty years later.

A similar matter is mentioned in 1 Samuel 8. Up until that time, the Israelites had not had any mortal ruler or leader; the Lord had been their Leader and Ruler. (Prophet Samuel? He was a judge, and not a leader or ruler. It was the same with Moses.) But, the Israelites demanded to have the Lord replaced with a mortal leader. Verse 7 records the Lord’s words to Samuel. We read:

1 Samuel 8:7 […] for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. (NKJV)

Another translation, in more clear language:

1 Samuel 8:7 […] for it is me they are rejecting, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. (NLT04)

Again: Samuel was not their leader or ruler. He was a judge. It had been the same with Moses. Up until Samuel’s day, the Lord had been the Israelites’ Ruler and Leader. But now they rejected the Lord, and demanded to have a mortal ruler instead.

Consider what parallels can be drawn from those things and events, in regard to spiritual matters.

On the old Latin noun minister.

Some might use even the word and concept “minister”, as an argument in connection with dogmas regarding “servant leadership”.

Here, it can be good to know a bit more about the word “minister” and what it actually means and refers to, in the New Testament. It is church Latin – the makers of the Catholic Vulgate version used the Latin noun minister as a translation of the Greek diakonos. Clarification: Both the old Greek diakonos and the old Latin minister meant “servant”, “attendant”, “aider”. (The article nea010.htm has more on this.)

The noun diakonos is found in around 29 places in the Greek text of the NT. In most of them, the Vulgate translates it into Latin as minister. And again, both words meant “servant”, “attendant”, “aider”.

None of the passages in question refer to “deacons” (the article nea061.htm has more on this), but some of them refer to elders in the saints’ fellowships.

Those elders were not “leaders”. In the New Testament – this is more clear in the Greek text – elders in the saints’ fellowships are described as helpers and aiders, and not “leaders”. Also: Keep in mind Matthew 23:8–10 which was quoted earlier, and for instance 2 Corinthians 4:5 which records how the apostle Paul stated, “For we do not proclaim ourselves [as lords] but Jesus the Messiah as the Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus.”

The saints elected some men among them as elders, but those elders were not priests. The saints had only one priest: The resurrected Jesus. So, how and when were elders turned into “priests” and “leaders” and even “rulers”? The answer is that such things, and “religious hierarchies” in general, are of Catholic origin. Many non-Catholic churches have then copied those concepts and practices. More: Their bible-translators – churchmen working for churches and churchmen – have through their selection and use of words “adjusted” a number of NT passages and in that way created seeming support for those originally Catholic concepts.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

What does the Bible say about the Pharisees? → noa120.htm

What does the Bible say about religious titles, such as “apostle”, “bishop”, “evangelist”, “father”, “pastor” and so on? → naa080.htm

Matthew 16:19, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and “bind” and “loose”. What kind of “keys” and “binding and loosing” was Jesus talking about? → nba070.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm

On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → nsa070.htm

What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → nea020.htm

On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → nma030.htm

What does the Bible say about elders? What was their role in the saints’ fellowships? → nea010.htm

What does the Bible say about deacons? → nea061.htm

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