Servant Leadership: Pathways
“Servant First, Then Leader–A Word Study” (SL#55)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1:2 – Following Biblical Patterns

Servant leadership, both in biblical example and in today’s practice, gives evidence that being a servant does come first. “Servant” does not merely modify leadership, it is the very way to leadership. Serving those you choose to lead is an expression of leadership, not the position you hold, or the title you bear. We’ll develop this in several ways, beginning with the concept of Robert Greenleaf:

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.–Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, p. 13

  1. The Servant Text, Mark
    10: 35-45

    . . . whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
    and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son
    of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life
    as a ransom for many.
    –Mark 10:43-45

    Since it clearly teaches that service comes before greatness, I sometimes
    think of the biblical teaching of this passage as the benchmark of servant
    leadership. Jesus is the teacher, His disciples are the students, the
    nature of their service is the issue; and Jesus Himself is the example
    of redemptive service.

    Framing the Text–Mark 10:35-45

    When we divide this critical passage into its individual parts, there
    are six elements in the message to view for potential patterns relevant
    to servant leaders:

    • Followers of Jesus, like others, often have towering ambitions;
      but the disciples brought theirs to Jesus. (v. 35-37)

    • Jesus tested their ambitions by His own kingdom standard of total
      commitment, not by right or position. (v. 38-40)

    • Ambitions too often, then and now, create a divisive spirit of
      criticism or party spirit. (v. 41)

    • The world has its own impelling, appealing “power standard” of
      greatness and authority. (v. 42)

    • Self-giving service after the pattern of Jesus is the true standard
      of greatness, of servant leadership. (v. 43-44)

    • Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of redeeming servant leadership;
      He calls us to follow Him. (v. 45)


    • Read through the text carefully, perhaps in different translations,
      and from the parallel in Matt. 20:20-28.

    • What is your response and learning from this great text?

    • How would you restate the central element of each of the six parts?

    • What are the guiding ambitions of your life and leadership?

    • Have they been tested and proven worthy? Have they caused you struggle,
      disruption, refocusing?

    • Do you measure your ambitions by Jesus’ ultimate servant example?

    • How often do your words and attitude include power words like those
      found in Mark 10: “right-hand–left-hand,” “regarded as rulers,” “lord-it

  2. The New Testament Servant Language

    No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one
    and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the
    other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
    –Luke 16:13

    The New Testament describes the place of service and leadership applied
    to a Christian context, with primary words for servant and cognates
    and leader and cognates. Don’t let the inclusion of transliterated Greek
    words distract you. It is an attempt to report clearly the richness
    of Holy Scripture on this topic. [Word study sources include numerous
    concordances, dictionaries, and specialized articles.]

    • doulos (130 times) – a slave, a bondman, a servant–as
      opposed to free or unrestrained–subject to and serving another (see
      Luke 16:13; 1 Cor. 7:21; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:8); used in the New Testament
      to indicate one who gives himself up wholly to another’s will, dominion
      and service (see 1 Cor. 7:23; John 8:34); those whose service is used
      by Christ in extending His cause among people (see Romans 1:1; Acts
      4:29; James 1:1) devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own
      interests (see Matthew 20:27).

    • latreuo – to serve for hire; then, primarily stresses
      details of religious service to God, but is then used for the inner
      attitude of worship; to perform sacred services, to worship God in
      the observance of the rites (Luke 4:8; Acts 7:7; Hebrews 9:14).

      Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God
      and serve him only.’”
      –Luke 4:8

    • diakoneo (and its derivatives) – are used mainly
      for personal help to others; verb form: serve, support, serve as a
      deacon, serve at table; nouns: service, ministry, office, aid, support,
      distribution, office of a deacon (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13), servant,
      deacon. Mark 10:45 gives this term the lofty meaning of loving action
      for brother and neighbor (see also 2 Cor. 3:3; Eph. 6:21; 1 Peter
      1:12; 1 Peter 4:10).

    The variety of service and relationship to God, to the church family,
    and to fellowmen is expressed in three word groups in the New Testament.

    • leitourges – originally expressed voluntary service
      for a political community, and then priestly service; to serve at
      one’s own cost; to do a service, to perform a work; Christians serving
      Christ, whether by prayer, instruction or other ways (see Acts 13:2;
      Phil. 2:17; 2 Cor. 9).

      But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on
      the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and
      rejoice with all of you.
      –Phil. 2:17

    • pais – often a child, boy or girl; also a servant,
      attendant, minister (Matthew 8:6, 8, 13). Jesus was identified from
      Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 42:1-4) as God’s servant (pais)
      to bring by His suffering both victory and hope (Matthew 12:18-21).

    • oiketes – A domestic servant having a close relationship
      to the master’s household; usually lived within the household family
      and could not have two masters (Luke 16:13; 1 Pet. 2:18).

    All of these ways to understand service, as presented in the New Testament,
    come to bear in their own way on your tasks as a servant leader today.
    We might even say that to be a servant in the Christian sense is enriched
    by understanding the many different ways there are to be in service.
    Whether emerging from the routine, or from a grand context, the service
    concept as a whole is central to following Christ’s lead!

  3. Servant Texts and Concepts

    Examples and instructions from the New Testament reinforce
    the concept of servant-first leadership. Which of these texts speak more
    clearly to you?

    • John 13:5 – Jesus sets this important example by assuming the role
      of a household servant to wash His disciples’ feet.

      Another Servant Text: After that, he poured water into a
      basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with
      the towel that was wrapped around him.
      –John 13:5

    • Luke 16:13 – Service is so crucial that the servant must clearly
      choose between masters he will serve (douleo).

    • Luke 22:27 – At the “Lord’s Supper,” Jesus served His disciples
      and declared His role in their midst as one of servant.

    • Matthew 25:40 – Service to others in need is service as unto Christ
      Himself, and becomes a principle of accountability and judgment.

    • Romans 14:4 – As the (household) servant was judged by his own
      master, so we are judged by the Lord whom we serve and who empowers
      us to stand.

    • Romans 15:8 – Christ became a servant (minister) to the Jews, demonstrating
      the truthfulness of God’s promise to them.

    • 1 Cor. 13:4-7 – Without using the word/terminology of service or
      leadership, this great love text describes richly the characteristics
      defining the person who is truly “servant first.”

    • Phil. 2:5-7 – “Servant” (doulos) is the very essence,
      the essential nature, Christ chose for Himself when He was incarnated
      in human likeness; what a lowly station; what an exalted role!

      Christ Jesus . . . being in very nature God, did not consider
      equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing,
      taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

    • 1 Peter 4:10-11 – Service (diakoneo) to others is the
      intended purpose of every spiritual gift; faithful administration
      of the grace of God is the mark of a servant. Service is actively
      expressed through the strength God supplies; you are not on your own.
      And the outcome is praise and glory to God, not self.

    The pattern–the pathway–of servanthood is there before you. It is
    no less than the way of Christ! Now, is it “your serve . . .”?

  4. “Then leader” – A Short Biblical

    Think of servant leadership as a two-layered image. On the bottom–the
    foundation–is the rich presentation of service as described on the previous
    pages. Laid over the top, in perfect harmony with servanthood, is an almost
    equally rich portrait of “leadership.” Together, they form the servant-leadership
    principle: a vision of leadership in the pattern of Christ. Without the
    element of service, leadership would forfeit its Christian mooring. Without
    the perspective of leadership, servitude loses its direction, its ability
    to imprint followership, and its potential to fulfill the Christian mission.
    Let’s complete this article by making the important Scriptural journey
    from servant to leader.

    Biblical language is rich with the description of leadership: its abilities,
    practices, and positions. The terms “leader” and “leadership” are often
    used to translate diverse terms; and, other terms are often used to convey
    a portrait of leadership.

    In a most helpful article, “Translating the Language of Leadership,”
    Paul Ellingworth admits to the difficult linguistic and cultural task
    of clearly expressing the significant concept of “leadership.” But he
    does give a helpful summary of specific words that are sometimes translated
    “leader, leadership” (Paul Ellingworth, The Bible Translator, Vol.
    49, no. 1; Jan. 1988, pp. 126-138. Information is abbreviated and adapted;
    other language sources used):

    1) In the Old Testament–numerous titles carry the
    concept: “elders” (Ex. 3:16); “princes” (Num. 21:18); “leaders” (Ex.
    15:15); “chiefs” (Ex. 15:15); “heads” (Num. 7:2); “judges” (Judg.
    2:16); “nobles” (Num. 21:18); “officials” (Judg. 8:6); “commanders”
    (Deut. 20:9); “shepherds” (Isa. 56:11); “officers” (Num. 11:16); and
    “rulers” (Ex. 18:21).

    2) In the New Testament–terms that
    are, or could be, translated “leader” include:

    • archon: “ruler, lord, prince” (Luke
      18:18; John 3:1; Acts 3:17)

    • hugoumenos: “civil, military, religious
      leaders” (Acts 14:12, 15:22; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24)

      Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep
      watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so
      that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would
      be of no advantage to you. . . . Greet all your leaders and
      all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.
      13:17, 24

    • megas: “great one”
      (Mark 10:42); leading citizens (Mark 6:21)

    • protos: “first” (Luke
      19:47; Acts 25:2; 3 John 9)

    • episkopos: “supervisor,
      overseer, bishop” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7); qualifications
      are given – 1 Tim. 3:1-7

    • presbuteros: “elder,” or a Christian
      leader (1 Tim. 5:17–see Zondervan Commentary below); Acts

      In 1 Tim. 5:1 presbyteros is clearly used in its literal
      sense of “older man.” In 5:17 it is just as clearly used in
      its technical sense of “elder.” “Direct the affairs of the church”
      is literally “preside over” or “rule” (proestotes). It was the
      responsibility of these earliest church officials (cf. Acts
      14:23) to supervise the work of the local congregation.–

    • diakonous: “deacon,
      servant, waiter” (Acts 6:2; Phil. 1:1)

    • ho kurios: “The Lord,” a reference
      to Christ; having power or authority, possessor, owner (Luke 1:43;
      Acts 10:36; Romans 14:8)

    • epistates: “a master,
      overseer, superintendent,” referred to Jesus, as teacher and one
      in authority (Luke 17:13)

    3) Along the leadership pathway:

    In addition, the New Testament uses many of the words for leadership
    common in religious and Roman political structures: tetrarch, governor,
    prefect, officer, jailer, the police, ruler, procounsul, magistrates,
    city officials, provincial dignitaries, town clerk, emperor, commissioners.
    The use of leadership opportunities may be flawed or faithful.

    • A position of leadership may be used from wrong motives or for
      evil causes (see Luke 19: 47; Acts 3:17; Acts 14:5; Acts 25:5; Acts

      There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together
      with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them.

    • The opportunity for servant leadership may be rejected or forfeited–as
      did Judas and many Jewish leaders (see Acts 1:20; 24:5; 25:2; 28:17).

    • Even believing leaders may fall short of leadership potential–as
      did new believers (see John 12:42; Acts 3:17; 14:5; 25:5; Gal. 2:2).

    • Leadership is often expressed by enlisting and empowering others
      in the service of Christ (see Acts 15:22).

      Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided
      to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with
      Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas,
      two men who were leaders among the brothers.
      –Acts 15:22

    • The gift of leadership, along with other gifts, is for faithful
      service to others (Romans 12:8).

    • Leaders in the service of God are to be examined, received, respected,
      and imitated by followers (see Heb. 13:7,17,24).

    • “Leadership” as an assigned task in the Lord’s service is a stewardship
      measured by faithfulness (Matt. 25:20-21; Luke 12:42-43; 1 Cor.

Reflection, Assessment, Application

In this article, have we helped to mesh the elements of “servanthood”
and “leadership” to provide the beginnings of a biblical pattern to follow?
Write your own thoughts for application. In SL#54
we investigated the example of Christ’s life–in whom we find the one who
saw and acted upon this diverse pattern with greatest clarity and purpose.

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© 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership