How many of you love listening to people who are retired discuss their life achievements? If you have a family member who lived through the Great Depression, or World War II, or some other devastating event, you often hear them celebrate the sacrifices and achievements of others whom they worked beside. In fact, they seem to delight in remembering the contributions of family and friends who made their work possible. When you consider your own achievements, how many people come to mind whom you might acknowledge as integral to the success of your own work? Few of us accomplish any worthwhile goal without the sacrificial work of others.
While the church today (and the world as a whole) seems preoccupied with leadership and the achievements of leaders (with endless books and seminars on how to become a better leader), it leaves me wondering whether anyone might purchase a book or attend a conference on “Becoming a Servant.” Yet, when we consider the work of the early church, leadership and sacrificial service were inseparable.
Perhaps this is one reason why the apostle Paul addressed most of his letters to whole churches rather than individuals. In correcting error, in offering encouragement, or sending praise, Paul rarely writes directly to leaders. Likewise, he rarely singles out individuals as leaders. What does that tell us about authority and gender in the early church?
Turning to Paul as an example, we notice that though he referred to himself as an apostle, most often he called himself a servant or slave to Christ. Just as Christ came to serve and to give his life for many, Paul recognized that leadership and authority are rooted in service. In contrast to the Gentiles whose leaders lord authority over others, the followers of Jesus were to be ready to sacrifice their lives for others. Paul equates his authority as a leader with his commission to build up and encourage the Church, a commission we all share (Acts 7:49, 20:32, Rom. 15:2, 1 Cor. 14:12, 1 Thess. 5:11, Jude 1:20).
While our world seems eager to grasp positions of authority and leadership, Scripture makes it clear that hard work, sacrifice, and service are integral to one’s calling as a leader, guide, shepherd, overseer, deacon, and elder. Biblically, a case can be made that one’s reach as a leader stretches only as far as one’s willingness to stoop and serve others.
While we debate whether women might serve as elders, deacons, pastors, or overseers, perhaps we should also consider who among us is consistently working hard, serving, and sacrificing for others? Whoever is most prepared to put aside their personal wishes and ambition in order to build others up, is most ready for leadership. In selecting leaders, perhaps we should see who is first to sign up for a “Servants Seminar.” Yes, there are specific gifts of leadership. But accompanying them is a readiness to serve and this may be one reason why Paul sent his letters to the whole church, and why he rarely referred to specific individuals as leader, deacon, shepherd, elder, or overseer. Everyone is called to serve!