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Servant Leadership:

Whom Do We Serve?

  Dr. Daniel Rogers

         A small boy once went to a well. In that well, he found a coin. Uncertain what to do with this coin, he put it in his pocket and ran home. The next day, he found himself drawn back to the well. Once more he found a coin. He added that coin to his pocket and ran home once more. After five days of returning to the well each morning, the boy was feeling quite proud of himself for his newfound wealth, but wondered from where the money came. So, he hid himself in the weeds to wait. Later that day, a man came to the well, wished for wealth, and threw a coin in the well. The boy grew excited and decided to help the man. He wrote on a sheet of paper, “if you desire wealth, stop throwing your money away,” took all the coins he had found in the well, and placed them with the sheet of paper on the edge of the well for the man to find. That boy never found another coin in the well.

           This story illustrates a tension between self-denial and self-affirmation. The boy denied himself the money and seemingly didn’t take his own advice. The man daily affirmed his desire while denying the method to achieve it. As we look to the cross, we find this same tension, especially as we consider its implications for leadership. Stott (1986) says, “Because our new self, though redeemed, is still fallen, a double attitude will be necessary, namely self-denial and self-affirmation, both illumined by the cross” (p. 271). When applied to Christ, we see both explored within scripture. In theological terms, “the so-called kenotic (empty) emphasis in the scriptures [describes] the earthly ministry of Jesus … primarily in terms of his surrender of the prerogatives of deity” (Niewold, 2007, p. 121). Alternately, the “pleromatic (full) emphasis … accentuates the constant deity and progressive glorification of Christ as man” (Niewold, 2007, p. 121). We will consider these emphases in the context of two passages of scripture in light of servant-leadership. We will look to Philippians 2 to explore the kenotic emphasis. We will look to Colossians 2 to explore the pleromatic emphasis.

Kenotic Emphasis

          Philippians 2:4-8 is an interesting passage to consider as we think about servant leadership. It says, Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

          There are many implications within this passage:

  • Every man is told to “look also to the interests of others.” The implication is one of equality between man and man. We are not to just consider our own things, but also those of others.
  • Just as man is equal with man, Jesus is equal with God. But equality of personhood and role have different implications. Jesus, though equal with God, took the role of a servant and became man. But whose servant did he become?
  • The rest of the passage helps us understand Jesus as a servant. It says, “he humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” While many could interpret Jesus’ service to us through his substitutionary death, this passage (through its use of the word obedient) seems to imply that Jesus’ service was primarily to God. As such, we may need to reconsider our views of servant-leadership. John seems to support this view as he quotes Jesus saying, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19), and “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30).

          If we now understand Jesus’ role as a servant-leader to God, then our own approach to servant-leadership may need modification. Leadership at all levels implies power. Os Guiness (2000) says, “Power—the ability to carry out one’s will despite resistance—has always been essential to leadership. But traditionally, power has been held in harmony with two other components: purpose and partnership” (p. 19). While a servant-leader would like any other leader to have access to power, the implication is that he would wield it differently, or perhaps not at all. Through the lenses of power, purpose, and partnership, we will consider how our minds need to be renewed as we look to servant-leadership.

          Jesus was all-powerful, but laid his power aside for a purpose (his substitutionary death) in partnership and service to God. Therefore, in order to follow after Christ’s example within servant-leadership, we would need to not use our power for a purpose in partnership and service to Christ, whom we now serve as Christians. Note that we are not told to give up whatever power we are given. Christ still held all of the power, he just didn’t use it. Likewise, we still can hold positions of leadership and wield power. We are just not to use it according to our own will. Corne Bekker (2005) found an example of this type of sacrifice in Clare of Assisi: “Clare’s voluntary divesting of power, prestige and possessions find its theological context in her deep desire to follow in the footsteps of the kenotic Christ who emptied Himself and embraced poverty for the sake of others” (p. 2).

Pleromatic Emphasis

          Colossians 2:8-15 tells of the other necessary side to consider as we think about servant-leadership. It says,

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Diety lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

          This passage has slightly different implications:

  • We are told that in Christ “all the fullness of the Diety lives in bodily form.” Similar to the passage in Philippians, we see Christ as fully God, but also see that he did, in fact, retain his power in human form.
  • We are described as “complete in him” because we have been “buried with him in baptism and raised with him.” This passage identifies Christ as our “representative,” whereby “he did what we by being united to him have also done: we have died and risen with him” (Stott, 1986, p. 269).
  • This passage makes clear that we are now identified with Christ and given a present glory because Christ has triumphed over principalities and powers. However, present glory has requirements placed upon it. It is by no means an open-ended freedom.

          This new passage offers us additional details into Jesus’ role as a servant-leader. First, by combining the passages we’ve seen in Philippians and Colossians, we are able to see the meekness of Christ. I don’t want us to misunderstand meekness, however. Winston (2002) says, “The Greek term is a rich term and more fully translated into ‘controlled discipline’” (p. 41). In this view, we can understand Christ’s power as fully his, but under control as directed by the Father. Therefore, we can also see the expectation on us as followers of Christ: we are to use our power in a controlled manner, as directed by Christ. Therefore, returning to Guiness’ (2000) combination of power, purpose, and partnership, we see Christ’s purpose as partnership with God to offer us power we by no means deserve—the power of the gospel.

          Jesus’ power was made perfect through sacrifice, for in his sacrifice he defeated the principalities and powers of the world and triumphed over them. Likewise, we must choose between selfish ambition and sacrifice in our own roles as leaders.

          Jesus’ purpose was to complete the will of the Father. Therefore, when we are in leadership, we have to choose whether or not to bridle our power. Stott (1986) describes it this way, “Leadership and lordship are two distinct concepts. The symbol of an authentically Christian leadership is not the purple robe of an emperor but the coarse apron of a slave; not a throne of ivory and gold but a basin of water for the washing of feet” (p. 280). Again, this is all true in light of service to Christ. We are not in bondage to the world or its people, but to Christ.

          Jesus’ partnership with the Father required suffering over comfort for both Father and Son in order to accomplish God’s greatest work. We, too, are asked to choose between suffering and comfort if we expect to follow Christ’s leadership.

Practical Application

          Our service to others is not open-ended, but specific to our purpose. Stott (1986) says, “Sometimes God calls us to deny to ourselves things which, though not wrong in themselves or attributable to the Fall, yet stand in the way of our doing his particular will for us. This is why Jesus, whose humanity was perfect and not fallen, still had to deny himself” (p. 277). Our actions as leaders will require us to deny ourselves things to which our office entitles us. Are you willing to forgo comfort to follow God’s will for your life?

          Service to man is only an outgrowth of service to Christ. Christ affirmed man in three ways (Stott, 1986, p. 274). First, Jesus spoke of the “value of human beings in God’s sight” (Matthew 6:26; 12:12). Second, Jesus attitude to people was such that “he went out of his way to honor those whom the world dishonored and to accept those whom the world rejected.” Third, Jesus’ mission and death was expressed well by William Temple (1941), “My worth is what I am worth to God; and this is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me” (p. 74). Do you view individuals as God views them—with value, honor, and sacrifice—even when the world does not?

          Service to Christ requires that we seek not our own will (John 5:30). In fact, Stott offers three deaths and resurrections illustrated by Paul in his letters. There is a legal, moral, and physical death. Legally, we are now owned by Christ. Morally, we cannot continue in our sin and remain Christ’s servants. Physically, we must recognize Christ’s strength in our own weakness (1 Cr 9:27). Are you joining with Christ in his sufferings—legally, morally, and physically?


          We have considered the tension between the kenotic and pleromatic emphases of Christ’s life and found them to be complementary within the view of servant-leadership. Both have allowed us to see Christ as equal with God, Christ’s service as primarily to God, and our resulting actions as necessarily in obedience to Christ and his example. Using Guiness’ combination of power, purpose, and partnership, we found Christ made perfect through weakness and found ourselves joined with Christ. Christ gave us an example of sacrifice, service, and suffering.

          As Christians, we live between the “already” and the “not yet.” While we are presently joined with Christ, we are not yet glorified. Therefore, our lives must mirror that of Christ. We must sacrifice our lives to God and live according to his direction, regardless of our comfort. We must serve individuals with value, honor, and sacrifice that the world shuns. And we must daily join with Christ in his sufferings: keeping the sight of the cross in clear focus.

          Stott says it well, “In theory we know very well the paradoxical principle that suffering is the path to glory, death the way to life, and weakness the secret of power. It was for Jesus, and it still is for his followers today.” To join with Christ will in fact improve our minds and bodies, because they will be brought into subjection to Him. And He provides all we will ever need.


Daniel Rogers is an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard; he currently serves as an Organizational Performance Consultant in Miami, FL. He holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University and was most recently published in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Biblical Perspectives on Leadership. Dan can be reached at or 954.237.1901.