Co-Workers with Christ

by John R. Kohlenberger III | October 15, 2008
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Last week Mimi explored the unusual fact that Paul addressed most of his letters to whole congregations rather than to church leaders. Paul rarely refers to others by “title.” He introduces Phoebe to the church in Rome as a “deacon” and “benefactor” (Rom. 16:1-2, TNIV), but his other uses of diakonos to describe himself and other named individuals should be translated “servant” or “minister.” He uses “apostle” of himself to underscore his unique, God-given ministry—and that of the eleven “apostles” (Gal 1:15-18)—but his applications of the word to others emphasizes their service (Rom 16:7; Phil. 2:25), not their position or authority. This stands in stark contrast to our leader-driven culture today. Even among Christians there is an abundance of literature, courses, and conferences on “becoming a leader.” Have you ever read a best-seller, or attended a conference on becoming a servant, even a slave for Christ? Yet, throughout Paul’s writings, he consistently associates leadership with service, sacrifice, hard work, and the call to build joy and faith in the lives of others.

Consider how popular the phrase “servant-leader” is among Christians today. While the phrase “servant-leader” has frequently been used for more than twenty-years to describe male leadership in the church and the home, this expression is never used in Scripture. I theorize that when men in church leadership realized the significance of service in the life and teachings of Jesus and Paul, they had to somehow include the term “servant” into their job description. But unlike Jesus, Paul, or the leaders Paul addressed in Scripture, Christians today seem unable to let go of the term “leader,” particularly when referring to male leaders. In John 13, Jesus said that if he, as Teacher and Lord, could serve the disciples so menially—by washing their feet, by dying for them on the cross—they certainly should be able to serve each other. But beyond that, I don’t know of any teaching that combines the term leader with servant in the Bible. Just as everyone is to submit (Eph. 5:21), everyone who follows Jesus is to serve (Matt. 23:8-12), because everyone is to consider others above them and everyone is to work for the good of the body (Phil. 2:1-4).

To be more consistently biblical, the term servant is sufficient to describe leadership. Leadership in the New Testament is an inverted pyramid, with the leaders holding up the body of Christ. It’s not the other way around, as we have come to expect of leaders today. What does this teach us about gender?

I mentioned to a friend once that women were likely the best models of “servant-leadership” because the only way most women have been able to lead historically is through the example they set as servants. Again, not knowing much, I theorized that most women who came into leadership positions did so because others recognized the work they were doing. Paul never refers to any woman (or man) as “co-leader” but as “co-worker.” I think that most male pastors would use “co-leader” when referring to “colleagues,” meaning other male leaders inhabiting pulpits and running churches. I wonder how many would use “co-leader” when referring to people of either gender whose work in the church was mostly invisible.