Biblical Models of Servant Leadership

1 January 2017

There are basic attitudes which we see in the lives of those whom God called to servant leadership in the Bible. These include a serving attitude where the leader sees his[1] primary responsibility to those whom he leads as to serve and develop them to fulfill their God-given mandate. The leader serves by putting on a redeeming attitude, like Moses and Joshua. In other words he takes responsibility for those he leads, recognizing needs and reaching out to meet those needs rather than positioning himself for power and prestige.

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We see these virtues demonstrated by Jesus. His life was completely lived to serve the course of the Father through reaching out to the disciples. He trained and gave them confidence to move into leadership and do even greater tasks (John 14:12-14). This chapter takes a look at a few Biblical models in the enterprise of servant leadership considering the principles they used. The Old Testament identifies two main servants of the Lord: Israel and the promised Messiah (Isaiah 49; 50; 52:13f; 53). God showed that to be named a servant is to be recognized as one whom God has shaped with special care and for whom God is personally committed.

We see both these themes in Isaiah 44:1-2. As we look at the leaders God called and used, it becomes evident that a covenant relationship was involved. It is this same attitude we see in Jesus who Himself was the greatest Servant of all. For Jesus, “leaders are servants who stoop to minister from the servant’s position and bring cleansing to the body of our Lord. ”[2] 1. Moses and Joshua: The Preparation of Servant Leadership Preparation is considered an important aspect of any endeavor in order for the fulfillment of a successful enterprise; in particular, the business of leadership built upon principles of servant leadership.

Jesus referred to it as “counting the cost,” or the “taking up of one’s cross” as a reference to considering the consequences of the task ahead (Luke 9:23). Suffice it to say that few are willing to take the slow path of preparation and so face the temptation of choosing to cut corners and move ahead to the next rung of taking up leadership responsibility even without being prepared. It is in Midian that Moses received his preparation to serve in leadership.

His sphere of preparation being found in the shepherding of Jethro’s flock agrees with “the literature of the Near Ancient East and later” that says “the role of the shepherd symbolizes leadership…and shepherding is considered a training ground for those destined to lead. ”[3] On the other hand, Moses’ humble beginning that resulted in a drastic change in his early status from a slave‘s house to the palace (Exodus 2:1-10; Acts 7:20-22) may have had a drastic effect upon his personality. He grew up to be the proud child of the Pharaoh (Exodus 2:10), yet in his heart burnt the Hebrew love (Exodus 2:11-12)!

But considering the way and manner he went about, one can not help but notice he needed to be prepared for the task ahead (Exodus 2:11-15). Moses thought he was doing God’s will in God’s own way when took the initiate to defend the poor Hebrew slave by killing the Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12)! It only led to confusion and failure. He realized that “people can not be managed; people must be led. ”[4] His willful defiance could not attract him a followership from his Hebrew brethren until he showed deep respect for their aspiration for deliverance forty years later.

Notice that he believed himself to be the deliverer, many years before he received his commissioning at the burning bush. “He assumed everyone else would realize it, too. He thought all he had to do was start the ball rolling and the Hebrews would rally around him, hailing him as their champion. ”[5] If defining a leader includes people following him, then certainly at this period Moses was alone, lost and not a leader! While Moses may have sensed God’s call upon him, success demands the proper and right kind of preparation. God prepared Moses through a process and over time and so Moses had to learn to wait.

Usually it is while the leader waits that his mind and perspective is broadened, his life matures in relation to knowing the One who enlists him, he is empowered to withstand the storms of leadership, and is humbled to be able to submit to serve. Moses had to submit to God’s way of preparing him for the task of pioneering a leadership for a people that had gone through decades of pain and misery. Charles R. Swindoll particularly referred to Moses’ desert experience as a means for his preparation for the long lonely way of leadership that was ahead of him.

He adds: “some of the world’s greatest leaders have been people who lived lonely lives. In Moses’ long career as a leader he would be questioned, attacked, accused, hated, and betrayed. Through it all, he would stand alone. ”[6] It took the desert experience of preparation for him to stand alone. In the course of Moses’ preparation to leadership he had to learn that God appoints and directs leaders as He wills, and that the leader has little to say in all that. Swindoll again adds: Moses learned that lesson from failure … more often than not, God’s leadership candidates are aghast at their selection.

They look with chagrin at the assignment before them. They can hardly believe their ears when God says, ‘You are the man’; or ‘you are the woman. ’[7] This came out clearly in Moses’ response when God confronted him with the leadership role he had to provide for the redemption of the Hebrews from Egyptian domination and enslavement (Exodus 3; 4). This is characteristic of godly servant leaders that they often wonder why they are chosen to serve the followers at the time they are chosen. Moses’ failure and retreat into Midian broke him down and he became humbled (Exodus 2:16-17).

The mighty Moses and prince of Egypt, now in the desert and stooping to water animals! He stayed with Jethro’s family and was away from the popular and prestigious. This marked the turning point in the life of Israel’s future leader. Here he learned servanthood and total reliance upon God’s sufficiency, provision and direction. The temptation before Moses was to avoid the preparation stage for his leadership of the Hebrews. This is being repeated over and over again in the leadership quest of many pastors within the ECWA leadership as they try to do God’s will their own way.

Most of the time desiring to carry out the will of God, eager to do great things for God, the leader often forces a situation that easily leads to personal and or corporate disaster. [8] Some of these pastors work to become highly qualified in their field of endeavor but prove themselves completely useless, despite their credentials as “polished, capable, well-educated leaders of men. ”[9] In the case of Moses, the program of leadership had to wait another forty years so God could take him through his second and final stage of preparation.

This became another painful forty years of hard and brutal labor for his people! However even in leadership we see the grace of God which may never be frustrated within the economy of God’s plan for the church; God would always accomplish His purpose in spite of the leaders’ temptations. Norman J. Cohen, a Jewish rabbi and writer summarizes Moses and his leadership thus: Who better than Moses to hold up as a paradigm from whom every future leader can learn? His vision, actions, and skills serve as models for future generations of aspiring leaders, including those of our day….

In engaging with the Biblical text, we come across no more important character and model than Moses, the most celebrated, yet solitary. [10] He looks at Moses from the point of view of a Rabbi, nevertheless he agrees with the Biblical presentation of the call and commissioning of Moses to lead God’s covenant people. It is clear from the foregoing that Moses had to learn to wait on God so as to hear Him clearly regarding the call to serve, and by so doing submit to pursue that leading with resigned submission. Waiting is a tough exercise in the preparation of leaders. It takes a heart that is sold out to God to wait, listen and follow.

Joshua had to learn to be a leader through a tough and weary forty years of wilderness and painful confrontations between his master and the rough Hebrews. He had the opportunity to choose the easy way out yet he held on. He had the privilege of being prepared for leadership through a mentoring–discipleship relationship with Moses (Exodus 24:13; 32:17). His was a smooth course since Moses went through the hard experiences of the desert preparation. This is the model ECWA has being practicing over the years when young and newly engaged pastors are posted to serve under the supervision of older and experienced pastors.

However this hardly has the desired impact seeing that most of the time either the younger pastor becomes full of self or the older feels threatened by the younger one. The church has suffered from conflicts arising from either the senior pastor lording it over the young pastor and deliberately set to refuse mentoring him, or the young pastor choose to undermine the leadership of the senior pastor. Moses moved forward and shared his passion and knowledge with Joshua as his successor, thus he imbued in him the skills and the insights he needed to have when he assumed the leadership of Israel as they marched into the Promised Land. Joshua ained this passion and knowledge from the time he was called to serve under Moses’ mentorship through the experience of spying on Canaan.

As Moses’ aid, he had the privilege to be with his leader and that could have given him an insight into Moses. Notice this gave Joshua the impetus, strength and courage to march the people into their territories. Thus “Joshua is also imbued with wisdom, a prerequisite for all successful leaders. ”[11] Joshua’s choice as a leader shows us that leaders are chosen by God; however they must give their hearts to Him, be teachable, and possess a heart of justice toward the people they are called to lead.

In Numbers we see Joshua exhibiting this when he was called to stand against the majority even when it meant becoming unpopular (Numbers 13). The influence Moses left on Joshua paid off as he made up his mind to never give up in spite of the leadership challenges that loomed ahead. This is best noted at Joshua’s inauguration and commissioning when “Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance’”

The “be strong and courageous” charge became a refrain as he led. Joshua’s case again confirms that leaders for the church are people chosen and ordained of God. Chuck Swindoll could not have agreed better, noting that “spiritual leadership, which is the heart of servant leadership, is not a carnal thing as it requires the right timing – not assumed – and it is God appointed – not self created,” and adds; We often feel that because someone is doing well elsewhere we want to force church leadership on him.

Servant leaders for the church are not “natural leaders,” but “super,” ones appointed by God, people who have surrendered, completely, first to God’s will and second to serve the body! [13] This was what Moses saw and he proceeded to hand over the mantle of leadership to Joshua, and history has shown it was a decision that led to a successful transition from being wandering nomads, to a nation on their own land. From the life of Moses to Joshua, it is evident that preparation for servant leadership is, first of all, a call to know and walk with God.

It is a call to see the powerlessness of the leader apart from God. It is a call to completely surrender to God and recognize that He is the one in charge and that without Him the leadership can never accomplish the God-given mandate. This is the challenge before the thousands of pastors within the ECWA church across Nigeria and beyond. Joshua learned “the acquisition of …skills that help a leader accomplish a ministry assignment”[14] under the mentorship of Moses. Skills here refer to the leadership principles he saw in Moses.

The process for this acquisition took him through the period of time the Hebrews were in the wilderness. Joshua was able to “see the leading of God in each skill he learned and also recognized every one of them was part of the long process of leadership that lay ahead of him. ”[15] This must have been one of the things that caused him to remain a consistent learner. 2. David: The Price of Servant Leadership Every student of the Bible knows that David has been credited to be a man after God’s own heart.

It is this statement that calls our attention to examine him as a model of servant leadership with emphasis on the price he had to pay to earn God’s commendation; “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22), and “the apple of {My} eye” (Psalm 17:8). This is captured in A Theology of Church Leadership; Servanthood is a high and special calling that involves a covenantal relationship with God. It is not a forced obedience to a thoughtless master. There is instead a willing commitment by the servant to a Master who fully commits Himself to the servant as well. [16]

In these words are summarized the price David paid for the cause of servant leadership, as can be seen from the encounter he had with Goliath, to the period he was hunted by King Saul (1Samuel 17 – 24). In 1Samuel17 beginning at verse 24 we see the Israelites cowering in fear and dread of Goliath. There was a dire need of a leader who could point Israel back to God from the fear that had taken their heart captive. However such a leader had a price to pay: surrender his life for the cause of the people of God even at such a critical crossroad of the life of Israel.

In spite of the incentive by King Saul to whoever dared to defeat Goliath, no man was bold enough. This was when David decided to sacrifice himself. Notice David’s response was never based upon the king’s incentive; rather it was upon his experience of God’s call and faithfulness in keeping to His covenant promise (verses 34-37). David yet declared this position to Goliath later in verses 45-47 thus: David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and He will give all of you into our hands. ” Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on First and Second Samuel adds that “David’s speech is a positive witness to the power of the name of Yahweh.

It is also a real indictment of the Palestinian ‘champion’, for it is Yahweh”[17] who has been defied. It was borne out in the course of shepherding his father’s flock. Therefore we see the necessity of the wilderness experience in God’s methodology of the preparation of the leader. David learned even in his tough and difficult moments that he had to let go of his right to do things his own way and to hand over the right of his life to God. Thus in the battlefield he demonstrated an unequalled sacrifice in providing leadership for Israel at a most difficult period of their history.

The glory of God is worth sacrificing the whole of the leader’s life. [18] Only those who share David’s faith at this moment and “have heard his confession would know that he has a massive resource beyond his power that operates for him: namely, the powerful, faithful, living God of Israel. ”[19] David’s success as a leader could be gleaned from the response he uttered to Goliath in 1Samuel 17:45-47. Even in his teens David had discovered the secret of total abandonment in faith unto God and damn the consequences.

This reminisces with Daniel’s friends before the great furnace (Daniel 3:8-25) King Nebuchadnezzar made because they dare to defy and challenge the king’s command to worship the golden image. Notice their response: If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. [20]

This captures the price David paid graphically beginning from his encounter with Goliath on behalf Israel to his leadership of the people, more than anything else. A heart that is sold out to God is committed to do His bidding. Like any other executive, David’s career had its stages: preparation, rise, achievement, and finally, the passing of the torch. But what sets David apart, what made him the most beloved king in Israelite history was his vision, both for himself and for his people that grew out of the faith he had in Yahweh.

David placed God’s wishes and laws before his own personal ambitions, and he inspired a similar dedication in his followers. Despite many challenges and setbacks, he ruled Israel, remaining true to his God and his people, and inspired his subjects to achieve the impossible. In this he demonstrates precisely the kind of leader the church needs today. David’s desert experience compares favorably to that of Moses. This resulted in God creating an obedient heart in him, a willingness to follow authority and leadership, and a commitment to surrender completely to serve the course of his people so they could become what God intended for them.

It also opened up in him a teachable spirit to learn in God’s school of servant leaders (Psalm 71, 119). This is demonstrated in his response to the prophet Nathan’s indictment following David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (2Samuel 11-12). In The Maxwell Leadership Bible: New King James Version, John Maxwell asserts concerning David; “Somewhere along the way, he decided he didn’t need to sacrifice in order to lead well. He no longer prepared for new challenges. When we stop growing, we stop leading. When we stop sacrificing, we stop succeeding.

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