Christian leadership needs to be marked by humility

Nowhere more clearly do we see the humility of Jesus than when he washed his disciples’ feet in the upper room (John 13.1-20). 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) humbled himself beyond measure by taking upon himself the role of a slave as he washed his disciples’ feet. This was a ‘scandalous’ act. Today’s church leaders would do well to heed Jesus’ words: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13.15).

Almost certainly the Apostle Peter had the incident of the footwashing in mind when he wrote: “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another” (1 Pet 5.5).The Greek verb translated ‘clothe’ (egkombousthai) is derived from a word for the ‘apron’ or ‘overall’ (egkomba); which slaves fastened in front of their sleeveless vest to keep it clean. Peter was hinting that followers of Jesus should imitate their Master, who tied a towel around himself in order to wash his disciples feet. As a result the GNB translates this verse: “All of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another”. This call to serve others includes leaders. who need to understand that the ‘humility’ of which Peter speaks is “an attitude which… thinks of the desires, needs, and ideas of others as more worthy than one’s own” (Wayne Grudem).

The metaphor Peter employed here may well have yet even further significance for church leadership. For in the ancient world what people wore was a sign of their social position. In the light of this, wrote Joel Green, “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 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 the 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”. The fact is that leadership in the church has nothing to do with status, but everything to do with service.

Although the Apostle Paul does not refer to the incident in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Phil 2.1-11 shows that Paul was very much aware of the model of humble service which Jesus set us all. This understanding comes to particular expression in 2 Cor 4.5: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves (douloi) for Jesus’ sake” (NRSV). Strangely most English versions tone down Paul’s language by translating the phrase as “your servants for Jesus’ sake”. But Paul doesn’t use the Greek word diakonos, servant, but doulos, slave. A slave by definition has no rights; slaves belong totally to their masters, to whom they owe absolute obedience. For Paul to describe himself and his fellow-workers as ‘slaves’ means, in the words of Arndt & Gingrich’s standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament they are “unconditionally obligated to serve them”; or as Murray Harris puts it, Paul envisaged his relationship to his fellow Christians “as unquestioning service for the benefit of the other, as the result of unconditional but voluntary surrender of all personal rights”. Earlier in his letter, Paul had said: “We do not lord it over your faith”, but instead are “workers with you” (2 Cor 1.24 NRSV). But here Paul goes much further and anticipates his declaration: “I will most gladly spend and be [utterly]spent for you” (2 Cor 12.15 NRSV).

Where does this amazingly extravagant language come from? Surely it can only come from Paul’s understanding of Jesus, who by “taking the form of a slave (doulos)”, humbled himself for our sake. If Jesus is our pattern for ministry (‘service’) then this means that all Christian leadership needs to be marked by such amazing humility.

2 comments

  1. Paul – I’m sure you’re right. In my first church I was told that one of the things which really touched people was my readiness to go down the manhole and rod the blocked sewer!

    On a lighter note, I’ve always thought that the typical Communion set-up in our churches, with a large chair for the Minister and smaller ones for the Deacons, sends the wrong message (admittedly the big chair is often hard, knobbly and uncomfortable!) We should really be on three-legged stools!

  2. The two Christian leaders who have influenced me most were probably the most humble people I have come across and seemed to me to model Christ most perfectly…I often feel grateful for their example. So I totally agree with you!

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