When Jesus washed their feet and put on his outer clothing, he reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me teacher and Lord, and you are speaking rightly since that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:12)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us perhaps the best definition of what biblical leadership should look like. He shows us the importance of servant leadership, laying it out for us in Scripture.
Before diving deeper into more Scripture that discusses servant leadership, I want to emphasize that the Bible is not our personal book on leadership. There are biblical texts that teach us about leadership, and leading without the guidance of Scripture is not a healthy idea, but the Bible was not intended to be a leadership textbook.
In this way, we must allow Scripture to guide us as leaders without losing sight of all the other wisdom the Bible provides to us.
With that said, I want to look at a few passages where we get a better image of what biblical leadership should look like.
The Gospels: Being among our people
Luke 22 teaches us that leadership means walking alongside our people. As the disciples debate who should be considered the greatest among them, Jesus reminds them that they should not follow leadership styles of the time.
Instead, they should be among their people, serving them, just as Jesus did when he walked among us on Earth.
In the same way, in John 21 Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. “‘Do you love me?’” Jesus asks. “Feed my sheep,’’ he instructs. This is another example of Jesus reminding us that as leaders, we need to live life with our people.
Even though Peter is given a pastoral role to “feed Jesus’ sheep” and help the Kingdom grow, Jesus reminds him that the key to taking care of Jesus’ people is being among them, feeding them. Essentially, Jesus is saying that if Peter does not smell of sheep—if he is not alongside his people—then Peter is not leading them well.
I’d like to challenge you to reflect on where you stand. Are you walking with your people? Do you smell of the sheep? If not, how can you alter your disciplines and habits to spend more time doing life alongside your people?
Romans: Loving our people
I recently met with a group of women who lead a ministry for women coming out of sex trafficking. They have a secret location where people can get refuge from their past lives and begin the process of healing and finding a better life.
When I met with the women leading the ministry, they were in a season of particular weariness. We talked about the challenges that women leaving sex trafficking often face, such as mental illness and drug abuse, and we discussed how the ministry can best serve those women.
Romans 12 gives us a great outline of how to approach challenging ministry situations. Verse 8 teaches us, “When showing mercy, do it with cheerfulness.” Later, Romans 12 reminds us to love one another deeply and to outdo one another in showing honor.
For the women running their ministry, and for all of us as leaders, we see that loving our people is essential to biblical leadership.
Finally, Paul’s letter to Titus provides us with explicit characteristics that we can try to develop and refine in ourselves. In chapter one of the letter, Paul explains what church elders should look like.
He says that elders are to be blameless, faithful to their spouses, and trusted by their children. Elders should be blameless, hospitable, self-controlled, upright, and holy. Most importantly, elders should rely on the “trustworthy message” (the Gospels) so they can encourage others well.
As leaders, we should ask ourselves if we are fulfilling these characteristics. While it is important to remember that we are human and therefore always imperfect, we must also continue to strive to improve ourselves.
Here are a few reflection questions we can ask ourselves:
- What is the state of my household? How is my relationship with my husband/wife? Do my children trust me and respect me?
- How am I treating others? Am I living out the characteristics that Paul provides in Scripture?
- Have I relied on Scripture to guide my leadership lately? How can I improve in this area?
- How well am I walking alongside my people and encouraging them with the gospel?
I’d encourage you to reflect on these questions every so often. A key element of leadership is reflecting on ourselves in order to improve, with the goal of serving our people the best we can. Because, as Jesus teaches us in the Gospels, servant leadership is the key to any church leadership we may engage in.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair at Wheaton College, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.
The Exchange team assisted with this article.