Growing up I wanted to be Mr. T. What's not to love? Big muscles, innumerable gold chains, a nice Mohawk—he intimidated everyone. His power and ability to physically dominate almost any situation mesmerized me (with the exception of the cinematic climax of Rocky III). I even saved my allowance for a few months, headed to the local JCPenneys, and bought a single gold chain. I was on my way to being the kind of kid nobody would mess with. I was going to be Mr. T.
While some may not share my reverence for Mr. T, almost everyone admires power of one kind or another. It might not involve having gigantic muscles—it could be skill in persuasion, authority to give orders, or being sought out for advice because of a certain expertise. Whether the power we desire involves physical strength, mental prowess, or emotional persuasion, there is a common denominator to power—control.
In John 13, Jesus and his disciples are in a room sharing their final meal together. Starting in verse 3 John writes, "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so … " John says that Jesus has been given ultimate power; and with ultimate power comes ultimate control. Drawing on my knowledge of power, I would expect what follows that loaded word "so" to be a dizzying exhibition of power. Perhaps, "so … Jesus rose, and with his disciples in tow, traveled to the temple and through undeniable argument convinced the Jewish leaders he was the Son of God." Or "so … he ascended to the summit of the nearest hill and from there he commanded the heavenly armies and became ruler of all the empires of the world."
What John writes is nothing like that. He writes, "so … he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist." Jesus has ultimate power and his first action is to perform one of the most humbling tasks a person could do in first century culture; he washed his disciples' feet. No control, no manipulation, no flexing—just a humbling display of service to those who were under his authority. Jesus showed his power by doing a chore reserved for servants and slaves.
Christ-like power looks completely different from the manifestations we're used to seeing—so different that many will mistake it for weakness. If we desire to imitate the Savior we claim to follow, power is not control; it is service, selflessness, and humiliation.
We need to run our beliefs and discoveries about leadership through the filter of Jesus. Just because a leadership principle or method works doesn't mean it is godly. We can read books on leadership and glean insight from the lives of great leaders, but we have to be careful not to be seduced by the vacuous promises of worldly power. Any power we have should be used to serve and guide those under our authority. This will be evidence that we are following Christ, not Mr. T.
Trevor Lee is the Pastor of Young Adult Ministries at Southern Gables Church in Littleton, Colorado.