Chapter Nine: Leading Through Service

Leading Through Service


            All of the chapters in this book have been based on the leadership story in Matthew 20:20-28.  Each chapter has highlighted various aspects of the Matthew story.  This chapter will focus our attention on verses 26-27. These two verses give the central message of the story which is “Leading Through Service.” Once again, we will present  the entire text.

   20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him.
   21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in
Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your
   22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you  able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able."
   23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."
   24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.
   25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
   26 "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,
   27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
   28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

            Jesus addressed His remarks in verses 26-27 to “whoever wishes to become great among you” and “whoever wishes to be first among you.”  As Lenski points out, the human will is involved. The same Greek verb (thelo) is used in both Matthew 20:26- 27 and the parallel passage in Mark 9:35.  Commenting on Mark 9:35, Lenski writes:

It is a question of the will: ei tis thelei [if anyone desires], one must determine, set his will upon being first [or great]. The thing does not drop into one's lap, it requires will, effort.  But this thing of being first is open to anyone (tis); we may all be first.  In the world all cannot possibly be first.  This indefinite pronoun is an invitation to you and to me to be first just as it invited the Twelve to step into first place. (1946, 391, Transliteration Mine.)

To those who have the desire to be great, to be first, or to be great leaders, Jesus points the way. The way, as we soon will see, is paradoxical and very challenging and costly. 

            Before we proceed to discuss leading through service, we need to see the relationship between greatness, being first, and leadership.  James and John wanted positions of honor and power, greatness in this sense.  Jesus replied with His declaration that true greatness and being first is achieved through service.  Although one may be great in serving without leading a group, the emphasis of the story is on those who do.  Jesus does not use the words “leader” but He clearly is talking mainly about those who guide and direct a group.

            When Jesus gives His reply, we see Him as the Master Teacher at work. In short, pithy, and profound statements he challenges His disciples both to great achievement and to the right kind of motivation and accomplishment.  As we study His teaching, we will discuss (1) the types of leaders, (2) an inverted order of greatness, (3) the necessity of meeting needs, and (4) ways to lead by serving.

Types of Leaders

          The term “leader” can be used in a variety of ways.  In chapter one, we identified several types of leaders.  Here, we will recall those types in order to identify the ones that Jesus has in mind in verses 26-27.

            First, many people are leaders in the sense that they are explorers. They are the first ones to climb the mountains, or to discover some new territory, or to try out new methods. As we said in chapter one, they are “ahead” of the group. They are sometimes in a very lonely position. The very nature of their task demands this.

            Tead draws a contrast between the guides and the explorers in mountain climbing with these comments: “They [the explorers] are, no doubt, the greater climbers; they may be compared to the seers and prophets of the world. The world needs both kinds. But the opportunity for the guide type of leader in a democracy is particularly great” (1935, 269).

            Second, James and John were not trying to be explorers. They wanted to be great and first among the disciples. It appears that they wanted to have positions of honor and to rule over others. Thus they wanted to be either “a head” or “the head” of the group. We might think of “a head” as a guide and “the head” as being more autocratic.

            The guides help others climb the mountains. They are coaches, counsellors, teachers, and are people-centered. They help people cooperate toward the goals which they come to find very desirable. There is a self-sacrifice in this which the “explorer” is sometimes loathe to make. 

            Third, Jesus was a prophet, priest, and king.  The teaching of Jesus in verses 26-27 applies in some way to all three types of leaders.  The prophet is “ahead” of the group.  Even so, his prophetic activity and pronouncements should serve the group.  The king is “the head” of the group.  Typically, kings tend to be dictatorial, but they will experience true greatness only through service.  The priest is “a head” of the group.  He serves as a guide. He is at his best when he serves the interests of the group.  In all three cases, the premise is that serving is strongest way to lead, but the main emphasis is on those who want to be “a head” or “the head” of a group. 

An Inverted Order

          What Jesus says about being great and being first stands in contrast to what much of the world believes.  However, even secular business and other organizations have come to see that it is best to lead through service.  The term “servant leader” has become very popular.  Several point can be made.

            First, the world's idea of greatness is completely inverted by Christ. The world thinks of greatness in terms of position, honor, and power. Jesus declared that Christian greatness is represented by service. The great one is the servant of those whom he leads. Robertson writes: “This is a complete reversal of popular opinion then and now” (1930, 162).

            The use of triangles illustrates this point. The world draws a triangle with one angle at the top.  Then it puts the great man on the top angle and the people being led on the bottom horizontal line. The Christian triangle is turned upside down. The great servant is on an angle at the bottom of the inverted triangle and the people are on a horizontal line at the top.

            Second, the inverted triangle raises this question:  “What does Jesus mean by the terms servant and slave?”  To answer this, we will examine the way in which Jesus used them, and what that means for us.   Jesus used these terms in a special paradoxical sense.  A paradox reconciles positions that at first glance seem to be contradictory.   To many people the terms leader and servant describe totally different spheres.  Jesus reconciles these terms by declaring that we can lead and be great by serving.  Moreover, He lets us know that we can step up by stepping down!  If we want to be first, we must step down from servant to slave. 

            One, whoever would be great must be the servant.  The word servant is a translation of the Greek word diakonos.  According to Lenski, “A diakonos is one who is intent on the service he is rendering to others. Thus greatness in the kingdom is measured by the readiness and the amount of blessed service rendered to Christ's people” (1943, 791, Transliteration Mine).  Obviously, one can be “ahead” in service without leading a group, but the main point Jesus makes is that one must serve to be great as “a head” or “the head” of a group. 

            Two, the person who wishes to climb a step up from greatness to being first  must step down!  The word “slave” is a translation of the Greek word doulos.  The doulos is the lowest of all servants.  This word is sometimes translated as “bond-servant.”  The slave has a degree of commitment beyond the diakonos to meeting the needs of the people he or she serves.  The leader who would be first must make the greater commitment to service. 

            Third, servants and especially slaves are under the orders of their masters. With respect to Christ, the answer is clear.  We are to be completely under His orders at all times and willing to do His bidding. The apostle Paul opened his epistle to the Romans with these words: “Paul, a bond-servant [doulos] of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).  Paul was fully committed to Christ and the preaching of the gospel. 

            Given our submission to Christ, leaders may still ask, “In what sense are we to be the servants and slaves of the people we lead?”   With regard to them, the work agreement between the leader and the group defines the relationship. For example, a pastor may have a defined working relationship with the board which includes matters of authority. However, we are speaking of something which is deeper than this.  We are speaking about what we must do to meet the needs of the people.

             Are leaders under obligation to the wants and frivolous desires of the people we lead? Our example is Christ. He did not do everything people wanted. Rather, He did what was in their best interest. I believe this is our obligation. We are servants and slaves of the best interests of those we serve. At times this requires some serious and profound thought. We do not have the strength, time, energy, or obligation to be on-call for every frivolous demand. We do have an obligation to serve people in such a way that their long-term and highest needs are met.

            Fourth, the apostle Paul and Jesus provide the examples of service that will guide us in our activities.  Both of them were totally committed to meeting the needs of the people, yet were not servants and slaves in the sense of being under the command of the people in all things.

One, Paul both declares his freedom and his willingness to serve others. He writes “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more” (1 Corinthians 9:19).  Paul is willing to make any adaptation to people under the Law and people not under the Law in order to win others to Christ. He would not, of course, go so far as to compromise the gospel. Moreover, the choice as to which needs to meet is still his. 

            Two, we draw the same conclusion with regard to Jesus.  He fully served, but was not under the control of the people.  He remained, always, the Savior of the world.  As such, He could not compromise with the world.  Wolff is on point with the following comments:

Jesus came to serve.  He was the servant of the Lord par excellence.  His service was motivated by love and culminated in death.  He served to the point of giving his life.  At the same time, he never allowed people to use him for selfish purposes.  He never confirmed them in their egotism through his service.  His service did not promote the pride of man.  The purpose of his service was redemptive, to free man from selfishness and sin as dominating principles. (1970, 31-32)      

Meeting Needs

          Meeting needs is a very large subject.  Our entire national economy thrives when people have jobs and are busy meeting needs.  The same principle applies to the church.  When the church meets needs, it grows.  I have selected several points about meeting needs for discussion here. 

            First, the fundamental principle in leadership is that people are served as their best and real needs are met. These needs are many and varied. Pastors and churches must focus their attention on needs and determine how to meet them. As needs are met, attendance and the impact of the churches will grow. If needs are not met, the influence of the churches will diminish.

            There are many functions that a leader must perform in order for the needs of the people to be met.  A leader cannot leave these tasks undone or the group will descend into chaos.  Hunter amplifies this concept as follows:

     Servant leadership does not allow one to abdicate his or her leadership responsibility to define the mission, set the rules governing behavior, set standards, and define accountability.  The servant leader does not commission a poll, conduct a committee meeting or have a democratic vote to determine the answers to these questions.  Indeed, people look to the leader to provide this direction.
     However, once this direction has been provided, it becomes time to turn the organization structure upside down and help people win!  The leadership now becomes responsive to those being led by identifying and meeting their legitimate needs so they can become the best they are capable of becoming and effectively accomplish the stated missions.  (2004, 51)

            Second, various needs are emphasized by psychologists.  William Glasser, for example, stress two basic needs: “the need to love and be loved and the need to feel that we are worthwhile to ourselves and others” (1965, 9).  When we stop to think about it, we realize how important these two needs are. People must find responsible ways to meet both these needs.

            We as Christian leaders can point people to God who loves them and whom they ought to love and who puts the highest value on them. God so values people that He gave His Son to die for them. Moreover, we can develop our Christian community in these virtues, into caring and esteeming societies. These characteristics will strengthen the bonds of the people with the rest of the body of Christ.

            Another well-known psychologist, A. H. Maslow, dealt extensively with human needs.  In 1943, he presented a five-stage model of basic human needs that included the following:  (1) physiological, (2) safety, (3) love and belonging, (4) esteem, and (5) self-actualization (1943, 370-396).   Later, according to Sam McLeod, Maslow added cognitive and aesthetic needs; following this he added a category of transcendence needs (2014,  

            The needs normally are listed from lower to higher.  McLeod, for example, presents Maslow’s eight stages of needs in the following order: (1) physiological, (2) safety, (3) love and belonging, (4) esteem, (5) cognitive, (6) aesthetic, (7) self-actualization, and (8) transcendence (2014,   Fulfilment in the first six stages contributes to self-actualization.

            Mark E. Koltko-Rivera uses the term “self-transcendence” in place of the word “transcendence” and says that this stage has not always been recognized as a part of Maslow’s hierarchy.  He maintains that Maslow “amended his model, placing self-transcendence as a motivational step beyond self-actualization” (  He further states that “At the level of self-transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others and to some higher force or cause conceived as being outside the personal self” ( 

            It is generally recognized: (1) that the lower needs normally are satisfied before the higher ones, (2) that all needs are just partially satisfied, (3) that the higher needs are more unsatisfied, (4) that sometimes the higher needs are satisfied before the lower needs, and (5) that there are exceptions to these positions.
            Jesus was concerned about all the human needs of all people.   We see Him, for example, meeting physiological needs by healing the sick.  However, His primary emphasis was on the spiritual needs of the people.  With regard to obtaining clothing, food, and something to drink, Jesus admonished, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).  This principle applies, I believe, to all of our needs.

            Third, one of man's needs is to be unselfish. Unless we acknowledge this, we can become cynical. The cynical person does not believe in any genuine expressions of altruism. Such a views is hopelessly pessimistic. We understand that people can be selfish, have mixed motivation, and act altruistically.  When people act altruistically, those moments are to be prized, encouraged, and honored.  

            Many church people give generously.  They give for a lot of reasons. Very often people give to a need with which they identify.  Some of the reasons are selfish, but we must remember that meeting the needs of others is the long-term, sustaining reason. Giving to the church, donations to missions, and meeting local needs all depend on this. Our highest example is Christ who gave everything including His life for us.

            Fourth, leadership cannot be sustained without force unless needs are being met. When we are meeting needs, our leadership will be stronger. We will be stronger when (1) all the needs of people are met, (2) the needs of more people are met, and (3) needs are met in greater depth. Also, our leadership will endure longer when the best interests, not the short-term interests, of the people are met. If we only meet superficial needs, the people will soon depart from us.

Ways to Lead Through Service

          As we seek to meet the needs of the people we lead, we look for practical ways to produce the desired results.  There are many ways to lead through service.  We will turn now to a discussion of several of these ways. 

            First, one way to lead through service is to help others find the will of God. This is largely a matter of helping them find themselves--their talents, their ideals, and their ministries. The Spirit distributes ministry gifts, but He usually acts in harmony with natural talents. Within limits, God wants all people to actualize all their potential. Helping people find self-fulfilment within the will of God is a legitimate way to serve them.

            After years of working in administration with people, I have reached the following conclusion. Although there are exceptions, most people (including ministers) will decide to occupy the role which most enhances their ministry. They will usually stay in a given role only as long as it does. This is not contradictory to the thought that most believers would do the will of God even if it did not enhance their ministries. We just normally see the will of God in terms of what blesses what we are doing for Him.

            Second, a related point is that we serve people when we help them achieve great things.  According to Bits and Pieces, a good example of helping others achieve is Charles Percy (April, 1973).

Back in 1958, when Charles Percy was made president of Bell and Howell, he was still under 40. He had come up through the ranks, arriving a few short years before as a trainee. An energetic reporter decided to see if he could find out how Percy had risen so fast. He asked as many people as he could find who had known Percy from the very first days why they thought he had succeeded so quickly. Always the answer was the same: “Because from the very beginning, he showed a knack of being able to get people to make the most of themselves.”

            In his book about managing a non-profit organization, Peter F. Drucker stresses the importance of developing the people who work with you.  He gives this example of a leader who developed people: 

One of the most successful developers of people I know is the pastor of a large church.  An amazing number of first-rate leaders have come out of his church, so I once asked him to explain how his church he become the breeding ground, the cradle of volunteer leaders.  He told me the church tries to provide four things to young people who show up for services: (1) a mentor to guide him or her; (2) a teacher to develop skills; (3) a judge to evaluate progress; and finally, (4) an encourager to cheer them on. (1990, 148)

The pastor told Drucker that the encourager had to be the person at the top, so that is the role that he had assumed.   

             During the years when I served as president of ICI, Global University, and Network211, we had hundreds of people work with us.  Many came with great skills already developed, but others came without developed skills.  One of our joys was to help them develop attitudes, work habits, and skills that hopefully have stayed with them throughout their lives.

            Third, group life demands guidelines.  When guidelines are omitted, people will ultimately despise you because they will feel insecure.  They will always be wondering whether or not a given action is appropriate and will be accepted.  Without the discipline of some guidelines, people are short-changed.  Sometimes discipline in the sense of punishment is required. 

            The writer of Hebrews says, '”For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:6).  We may regard this as a hard saying. We do not want to be disciplined, but once we have been, we can look back on it with joy. When we feel responsible, we a much healthier outlook on ourselves and life. 

            Although discipline is needed, every organization also needs the discipline of periodically reducing its guidelines to what is really necessary.  The tendency is for the “manual” to grow without discipline.  Often individual cases are used to support unneeded general rules that apply to everyone.

            Fourth, people want to be a part of something and to share genuinely in its progress. A sense of belonging and mutual respect develops. Not only do people want us to serve them, they want to serve as well.  This illustration about service was in Bits and Pieces in July, 1973.

The great violinist, Nicolo Paganini, willed his marvelous violin to Genoa--the city of his birth--but only on condition that the instrument never be played upon. It was an unfortunate condition, for it is a peculiarity of wood that as long as it is used and handled, it shows little wear. As soon as it is discarded, it begins to decay. The exquisite, mellow-toned violin has become worm-eaten in its beautiful case, valueless except as a relic. The moldering instrument is a reminder that life-withdrawn from all service to others--loses it meaning.

We serve well when we inspire others to serve. When we realize this, we will not be reluctant to call upon others for help in meeting the needs of people around them. 

            Fifth, vision is an essential ingredient of leadership.  A key question is “Where does vision come from?”  Henry and Richard Blackaby discuss several sources of vision including the following:  (1) copying the leader’s own previous success or the success of others, (2) the core values of the organization, and (3) developing vision based on the perceived needs of people to be served (2011, 85-103).  While they recognize these human sources, they put the highest priority on the vision originating with God through revelation.  They affirm that:

There is a significant difference between revelation and vision.  Vision is something people produce.  Revelation is something people receive.  God must reveal his will if leaders are to know it. The secular world rejects God’s will, so nonbelievers are left with one alternative—to project their own vision.  Christians are called to a totally different agenda, which is set by God alone. . . . The visions driving spiritual leaders must originate from God.  (2011, 103)

Although we all want our vision to originate in the mind of God, we must recognize that we often receive that vision through a divine-human process.  As the writer of Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.”

            Very often God gives us a vision that seems too big for us to handle.  Indeed, without God, it is, but with God all things are possible.  When we are sure that God has spoken, we need not be uneasy about getting it done.  Tead maintains that:

     The bigger the setting and the meaning in terms of which each leadership situation can be imaginatively conducted, the stronger will be the leader and the more compelling his inspiration.
     For where strong faith in the particular effort is present and is imparted, it has its own inner power of infection. It has a compulsion which is transmitted, for it pervades every act of the leader and gives him that which others long to have. (1935, 259)

            Unless God is clearly leading, perhaps we should temper Tead's comment with the thought that the vision must not be so large that followers have no hope of implementing it.  In other words we as leaders must work within the range of what is possible.  All too often, however, people of small insight wrap the cloak of impossibility around objectives that with faith are entirely achievable.
            Sixth, we as leaders must be quick to appreciate, applaud, and honor others when they perform well. The observant leader will look for moments to do this in sincerity. If he is not sincere, it will just be manipulation. The manipulator eventually stirs up resentment. We will have ample opportunities, however, to complement others in all sincerity.


            The ministry of Jesus focused on need.  We read in Luke 5:30-32: “And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?’ And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’"

            We must realize, however, that the terms “servant” and “slave” are used by Jesus in the Matthew story in a specialized and paradoxical sense.  The important point is that we are meeting the real needs of people, not that we are subject to every whim and want of the people we serve.  To do so would be to abdicate the calling to lead that God has given to us.

            The challenge to all who would be leaders is to meet needs. By meeting needs we serve those who would follow us.  There is a great cost in meeting needs. This is why Jesus began his response to James and John by focusing on the price of leadership. However, when we see people happily serving the Lord, the price is worth the cost.  The harvest is the reward.