What Is Servant Leadership?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “servant leadership”—especially because it’s a fairly common term used in the church. This is often the topic of various leadership conferences, the title to Christian “how-to” books, or the focus of a church podcast.  However, this term is not actually used in Scripture.

Jesus often spoke of sacrifice and servanthood, but not explicitly in regards to leadership. This is because leaders in their day consisted of domineering tyrants. Because their culture did not necessarily value or have a concept of leadership like our culture does, Jesus simply lived and spoke these countercultural truths in terms of servanthood.

Therefore, for the sake of better understanding what our usage of the term “servant leadership” truly means, we should look to Jesus’ example and message about servanthood. Within the Book of Mark specifically, Mark focused the second half of his gospel message on painting a picture of Jesus as a servant. From performing miracles that provide for physical needs and healing sicknesses to teaching the people about prevalent issues they faced such as divorce and taxes, Jesus served the people relevantly and sacrificially.

He served people relevantly.

Oftentimes, it can be difficult for us to balance serving physical needs and spiritual needs. It’s easy to collect and donate food and clothing and say, “Jesus loves you,” and move on. Yet sometimes, it’s even easier to say, “I will pray for you,” and not help tangibly at all. Jesus is an example of what it looks like to do both.

Mark 8 depicts Jesus feeding the crowd of four thousand after He had been teaching biblical truth. In Mark 9, Jesus addressed a man’s struggle in faith by saying, “Everything is possible for one who believes” to which the man responded, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief“ (Mark 9:23–24 NIV). Jesus then cast the demon out of that man’s son. Mark 10 relays Jesus’ teachings on divorce, children, wealth, and also portrays Jesus healing a blind man.

“A forgotten aspect of the beauty of Christ’s servanthood is often the fact that He looked at people as a whole.”

He looked at them collectively and individually, within their culture and society, and in terms of their physical and spiritual needs because in this way He demonstrated how we must love not solely in words and speech, but also “with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18 NIV).

He served people sacrificially.

Also within Mark 10, after explaining that “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31 NIV), Jesus shares about the future suffering of the Son of Man. Even after these repeated messages of suffering and sacrifice, the disciples still did not understand. Completely missing the point, James and John asked Jesus if they could sit beside Him on the throne. Jesus responds with a more direct description of servanthood saying “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45 NIV).

Jesus exemplified this servanthood not only in His final sacrifice, but through His daily actions. He perfectly illustrated the sacrificial love described in 1 Corinthians 13.

  • He remained loyal and patient with His disciples in love.
  • He chose to kindly give His attention to people in love.
  • He did not envy others in their worldly positions of power; He did not boast about His true identity as a King; He did not dishonor those who lacked faith or respect.
  • He exemplified righteous anger, but never easy or unreasonable anger.
  • He never acted selfishly, held a grudge, or delighted in evil.
  • He rejoiced in truth, protected His followers, gave them hope, trusted His Father, and persevered through humiliation and torturous death on a cross.

This is the picture we have of Jesus Christ who, being our Savior and King, is also the embodiment of servanthood, love, and sacrifice.

Taking up our cross.

In the midst of all these illustrations of Jesus as a servant, we see Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34–35 NIV).

Cultivating and teaching servant leadership is undeniably important—especially in the culture and society we live in. However, when we commit our lives to the Lord, we must remember that our most important task is to follow Christ regardless of the difficulty, fear, sacrifice, or loss. The result of this will be effective and obedient servant leadership that balances the physical and the spiritual, the grace and the truth. In the words of pastor and author David Platt, “The key is realizing—and believing—that this world is not your home” because then we can truly live with Paul’s mindset that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NIV).

About the Author

Samantha Rodriguez

Samy Rodriguez has been serving with the Calvary writing team since 2020 as a senior at Calvary Christian Academy. Before going to study communications, biblical studies, and intercultural studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, she interned with the Calvary Communications Team and was a student leader in HSM (High School Ministry). She is passionate about communicating God’s Word and looks forward to continuing to serve in ministry after college.