Servant Leadership in Action

Nowhere more clearly do we see Jesus as the Servant than when he washed his disciples’ feet in the upper room (John 13.1-20). It is impossible to overemphasize the menial nature of this act. For the rabbis it was a task which could not be required of a Jewish male slave (Mekh.Exod 21.2.82a, based on Lev 25.39). Washing the feet of another person was seen as an undignified action, a job reserved for Gentile slaves, wives and children.

We are so familiar with this incident that we do not always sense the degradation of the scene. Jesus, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13.3), humiliated himself beyond measure by taking upon himself the role of a slave as he washed his disciples’ feet. In a very real sense this was a ‘scandalous’ act. What is more, it was also a challenging act. For Jesus went on to say to his disciples: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13.15).

I find it fascinating to see the way in which the Apostle Peter later reflected on that incident of the foot-washing. For after giving instructions to the elders, he said to the church as a whole: “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your deailings with one another” (1 Pet 5.5). The Greek verb translated ‘clothe’ is derived from the word egkomboma, which denoted the ‘apron’ or ‘overall; which slaves fastened in front of their sleeveless vest to keep it clean. I believe that Peter may well be hinting that the leaders of the churches to which he was writing should imitate Jesus, who tied a towel around himself in order to wash his disciples feet. The Good News Bible, for instance, translates this verse: “All of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another”. Certainly this call to serve others includes leaders, who like everybody else must put others first; for the ‘humility’ of which Peter speaks is “an attitude which… thinks of the desires, needs, and desires of others as more worthy than one’s own” (Wayne Grudem). Or as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Phil 2.3-4)

The metaphor Peter employs here may well have yet even further significance for church leadership. For, as I only discovered this week, in the ancient world what people wore was a sign of their social position: in the words of one scholar, “one’s garment announces what one is for another, not what one is in and for oneself”. In the light of this, Joel Green argues in his commentary, “Peter’s directive to everyone counters the possibility of blind submission to authority just as it sabotages all attempts to exercise authority on the basis of status”. That Peter would instruct everyone one, leaders included:

… to wear the same garment, irrespective of its colour or quality or texture, is itself a startling negation of the social distinctions that among people in Roman antiquity would have been worn like uniforms in a parade.

Green notes that the word for ‘humility’ (tapeinophrosune) is related to the Greek word ‘to think’ (phroneo) and draws from this conclusion that:

Peter thus concerns himself, and his audience, with a frame of mind or pattern of thinking that belongs to persons who have done with positioning themselves in the world’s social hierarchy in order to ensure that they are treated with appropriate esteem by their social underlings.

Jesus taught that leadership in the church has nothing to do with status, but everything to do with service. The Apostle Peter clearly took Jesus seriously – and so too should we.

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