Servant leadership is a dirty little phrase that has slipped into evangelical culture like a silk pillow over the face.
It tastes sweet in the mouth, like honey, because who doesn’t agree that men should imitate the Lord Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28)? But it is bitter in the stomach, because it makes men subservient to those they are supposed to be leading.
The insidiousness of servant leadership lies in its legitimacy as a term to describe the biblical role of men. A servant leader could be someone who serves others by leading them. The service is what he does, and the leadership is how he does it. This is an impeccably biblical understanding of leadership; kings are to uphold the cause of the needy and fatherless, for example—they serve those people who need their help by ruling them (Exodus 18:13ff; Job 29; Proverbs 20:28; 29:14; Isaiah 16:5). Kings serve society, and especially the most vulnerable in society, by rightly wielding the power delegated to them by God, so as to establish and maintain order. In this, they are ultimately serving God himself.
Biblical servant leadership means “service [by] leadership.”
But evangelical servant leadership is not biblical servant leadership. If you doubt this, simply swap in a synonym for leadership next time you talk about it with someone. If you say “servant rulership,” for example, people start to get very uncomfortable. And if you dare talk about “servant lordship,” you’re obviously a misogynist who wants to make women his doormat.
In evangelicalism, a servant leader is not someone who serves others by rightly wielding the power delegated to him by God, so as to establish and maintain order. Rather, the relationship between “servant” and “leader,” mission and method, what and how, is inverted. Because evangelicalism has detached gender roles from the creation mandate and reduced them to their smallest atoms, it thinks the mission of a man is to lead, and therefore the method of doing that—what leadership looks like—must be service. So Rachel Green Miller, for instance:
As Jesus taught His disciples, we are to lead by serving… A servant leader isn’t so much a leader who learns to serve but a servant who learns to lead through service. (Beyond Authority and Submission, Loc. 344, 349)
This razes leadership. Once it stops being a description of method, but rather an empty term whose function is explained by the “servant” in front of it, a transformation takes place. No longer is leadership about exercising authority or power per se. Rather, since it is defined by servanthood, authority and power become defined by subservience.
A servant leader is authorized to exercise the power of being a servant, taking everything on his shoulders that others don’t want on theirs. Ultimately he is out in front not because people should follow him, not because he is directing their way, but so he can take the flak. “Servant leader” becomes another term for cannon fodder.
Evangelical servant leadership means “servitude [is] leadership.”
This turns biblical rulership on its head, even to the point that servant leadership becomes a kind of bizarre parody of vicarious atonement. Evangelicals know that leaders are responsible for those under their care; but a servant leader, being subservient, cannot exercise power over them. What form does his responsibility then take? It must be the responsibility to make their lives easier, to carry their burdens, to make them happy, to suffer in their place.
Now certainly a biblical ruler should be willing to do these things when it is good for those under him. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). But an evangelical servant leader does not have the discretion of saying no, of determining that it’s fitting for someone else to take the washbowl this time while he sits back (cf. John 1:27). That would be an exercise of authority and power over people! He is making them his doormat. He is being a little tyrant! If he will not deal with the muck so others don’t have to, then he is in dereliction of duty. If he will not work so that others can lounge about, then he is in dereliction of duty. If he will not sacrifice his own desires to authorize whatever alternative path will make his wife or his children or his congregation happier (whether that path is right or not is really just a question of whether it will make them happier), then he is in dereliction of duty.
By redefining masculine leadership in terms of servanthood, rather than defining masculine service in terms of leadership, the evangelical servant leader ends up unable to actually serve, because he is unable to actually lead. All he has left is servitude.
Thus, whereas a biblical ruler is charged with making people holier by reordering their lives, a servant leader is charged with making people happier by reordering his.
A parodious vicarious atonement
This is what we mean by servant leadership becoming a parody of vicarious atonement: when happiness becomes the goal, rather than holiness, and when a man wielding power is treated as automatically despotic—as he is under feminism—he can no longer direct those under him to put on Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 5:24–25). He can no longer bid them to cast their troubles on Christ (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6). Putting on Christ is hard and frequently discomforting. Casting their cares on him requires faith rather than sight. If they are discomforted, clearly the servant leader is not doing his job; something is wrong; he should be taking that discomfort on himself. If they cannot see that everything is ok, he is failing to make everything ok. So the servant leader finds himself having to put on the troubles of those under him, becoming a kind of counterfeit Christ to them.
Needless to say, if your understanding of male headship ends up with something suspiciously like a totally different gospel, there’s a problem somewhere back down the line.
Sexuality is central to Christianity
This is why we consider sexuality a central, gospel issue. We are not differing with egalitarians on some secondary doctrine. This is not a minor intramural dispute. It is not a matter of freedom of conscience. Denying father-rule, however you do it, is an attack on the gospel itself, because without the Father declaring that he is well-pleased with his Son, a Father who really rules in righteousness, who makes us his sons by adopting us through Jesus, and who orders his household in a hierarchy that reflects his authority—without a kingdom in other words—there is no gospel.
Thus, a Christian feminist is as much a contradiction in terms as a gay Christian. Christian feminism has a view of rulership that produces evangelical servant leaders. Christian feminism produces a gospel of feelings over facts.
If you feel ashamed of the fact that God orders his household, and his world, through the rulership of fathers, then he is going to be ashamed of you at his coming (Mark 8:38). If you refuse to exercise the authority he commands of you to build your own household, while you’re yet paying lip-service to his own authority and to building his household, the household of faith…then you are building on sand (Luke 6:46ff). You should not expect to be ushered into a kingdom built on and ordered by the father-rule you despise.
“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed what God has appointed, and those who have opposed will incur condemnation” (Romans 13:1–2).
Given the great seriousness of this issue—the very rule of God over his people, the gospel of the kingdom—we are going on record as utterly rejecting the term servant leadership.
If you don’t want to talk about simple rulership, or patriarchy, or if you want to redeem evangelical terminology, we’re comfortable with servant lordship. Nicholas Beadles, in his prescient paper, suggests stewardship leadership—but Scripture explicitly commends husbands as lords of their wives (1 Peter 3:5–6), and because lordship upsets the feminist boat, the term provokes an immediate confrontation over the real issue: being ashamed of, or hating, how God has revealed his authority be represented on earth.
Servant lordship highlights what we all need to see: that the gospel of feminism is not the gospel of Jesus.
For another helpful take on this topic, interacting with the feminism (aka thin complementarianism) of Aimee Byrd, we recommend Doug Wilson’s article, The Great Servant Leadership Mistake.