The Honorable, Shameful Service of True Leaders

My local friends in Central Asia really believe in authority. We could generalize and say that most Eastern cultures lean this way. They view society as hierarchical and they understand each tier of authority going up the social pyramid to be both necessary and worthy of great respect. They can teach us a lot about honoring authority. However, they also hold very strongly to the view that some kinds of tasks or service are not only below a leader’s dignity, but even shameful for him. Leadership is to be honored and supplied with its privileges. However, leaders are not to bring shame on themselves or their community by stooping to do the dirtiest, most menial jobs. Humble service is for those on the bottom, not those on the top.

My Western culture, on the other hand, is thick with anti-authoritarian feeling. Authority and hierarchy are often viewed through the crude lens of oppressor/oppressed. Westerners want to believe that the true nature of society is flat and egalitarian. Hierarchical leadership is to be done away with when possible, and only tolerated when necessary. The real thing, the West feels, is for us all to treat one another as equals and for no one to feel that they are above the most basic, even dirty, work. In Western society, we express these values by sometimes mocking our leaders (keeps them in their place) and by often glamorizing the work of the little guy. Even in the Church, the teaching of mutual service can be wielded in such a way as to deny the goodness of authority.

Interestingly, in John 13, Jesus honors authority while also transforming that authority through humble service. In doing so, he holds two things together that we tend to drive apart.

[12] When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? [13] You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. [14] If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. [15] For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. [16] Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

John 13:12-16

Notice how Jesus says in verse 13 that his disciples are right to call him teacher and Lord. Jesus, by washing his disciples’ feet, is not doing away with the hierarchical relationship that exists between himself and his disciples. They are right to honor and respect him as their leader, and he does not want them to lose sight of this. However, he has just done something positively scandalous for a Jewish religious leader of the first century – he has washed his disciple’s feet. This was a job not only reserved for slaves, but for gentile slaves. Jesus, the respected authority, humbled (even shamed?) himself and did one of the dirtiest, most dishonorable tasks of all. Then in verses 14 and 15 he tells his disciples that he wants them to serve one another in this same way. Here Jesus models and commands something that breaks the leadership paradigms of all fallen cultures: servant leadership.

This passage serves up a rebuke to both the East and the West. The East is rebuked for its penchant to privilege leaders so that they exist to be served, rather than to serve. Pride and entitlement in leaders is called out, but interestingly, not their role. This is where the West then gets rebuked. Leaders and their roles are still to be respected. The values of humble servant leadership do not negate the reality or the goodness of a world full of hierarchies. Jesus does not support some eventual Christian future where the priesthood of all believers means leadership is no longer necessary nor honored.

The balance that Jesus models so well for us is one in which leaders are honored, but they respond to this honoring by embracing sacrificial and costly service. This service in turn generates more respect, and that respect spurs on more lowly service, in a dance of sorts of mutual submission. Ancient Roman patrons were known not to address their clients as such, but as “friends,” meaning equals. But Christian leaders are called to go even further than this, not merely using different titles to communicate that they are gracious patrons, but embracing work that actually puts them lower than their followers.

What might this kind of lowering look like? In the West, it might mean staff pastors sometimes helping out with different tasks that are commonly delegated to the interns or to volunteers, similar to how in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, the high king of Anniera was known to often go out and work the totato fields alongside the farmers. In Central Asia, it might mean a pastor refusing the seat of honor, and instead sitting closer to the door, or helping to clear the dishes from the floor after a meal is finished. Yes, the leaders of the church need to be free from waiting tables in order to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer, but this shouldn’t mean a complete separation from the kinds of service that would be our equivalent to foot washing.

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15)

True leaders should be honored while also engaging in service that is viewed as below them – yes, as even shameful.

Photo by Danique Tersmette on Unsplash

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