the weblog of Alan Knox

Servants vs. Rulers

Posted by on Apr 14, 2009 in books, elders, office, scripture | 14 comments

Thanks to Lionel for pointing me to a book by Lawrence O. Richards and Clyde Hoeldtke called A Theology of Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980). I haven’t read the entire book yet, I thought the section on leadership by service went well with my post from yesterday called “It shall not be so among you” concerning Matthew 20:25-28:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)

This is how the authors contrast leadership by rule vs. leadership by service using the passage above:

This passage attacks many of our ingrained presumptions about leadership and help us define how a servant leads. In the paragraphs below are a few of the contrasts that are explicit or implied in the illustration Jesus uses…

Relationship with the led
The passage states it clearly: the ruler is “over” those he leads. But the servant is “among.” We cannot be servant-leaders if our position or role or our own attitude tends to lift us above others and makes a distinction between us and the rest of the people of God.

Rulers “lord it over” and “exercise authority” over the led. Here is a command-type of authority, which tells others what to do and demands conformity of behavior. But we cannot even imagine that a servant entering a household where he is assigned would issue commands! To attempt to use such a command authority calls forth one of God’s most powerful rebukes: “not so with you.”

Command authority tells others what to do. The leadership mode involves issuing orders, passing on decisions the leader has made. Servants have one role in the household – to serve. Rather than tell, the servant shows. Example, not command, is the primary mode through which the servant leads.

The command authority of the secular ruler does lead to behavioral change. There are all sorts of sanctions that secular leaders – be they in the military, in government, or in business – rely on to obtain the behavior they require. But servants must rely on an inner response in those they influence. Without the power to coerce behavior, servants must seek the free choice of the ones being led. The one style achieves behavioral conformity; the other style achieves heart commitment.

The secular leadership style has a wider range of coercive means to enforce response. In business, raises or denial of raises and many other symbols of approval and disapproval are used to coerce behavior. But in the church of Christ no such means of coercion are available. All such methods are decisively rejected! (106-107)

I think it is possible, effective, beneficial, and healthy to lead without ruling – that is, to lead through serving. But, it is also much more difficult.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 4-14-2009


    It’s amazing that even though Jesus has clearly described what a true leader is and how a true leader should function, the leaders in most churches today still lead according to worldly principles.

    I think when leaders in the Body of Christ truly lead by example, as Jesus taught, that it will change the world.


  2. 4-14-2009

    I’m currently poking around some Scriptures that address a very similar topic. Glad to see others desiring to figure it all out as well.

  3. 4-14-2009

    To tie this in with your previous “mutuality” topic, we are all to be “mutually submitted, one to another.” It isn’t so much that it is an egalitarian system–all are “esteeming the other better.” In our communities, we don’t even think about “climbing” the ladder. Being of service to others is our highest ideal.

  4. 4-14-2009

    very well said, Art! Both your comment here and your comment after mine on the last post (re: “leading servant”) are excellent, and stated way better than I could have said it.

  5. 4-14-2009


    I read that book in 1981 as well as another of his “A theology of Personal Ministry” both worth reading, with much which helped me come to grips with some of my own internal struggles with the status quo.

  6. 4-14-2009

    The servant is always concerned with serving others. When other people observe and follow his example of service, he becomes a leader – but all he ever wants to be is a servant – a slave.

    The ruler is always concerned with whether or not people are following.


  7. 4-15-2009

    Alan said, “The ruler is always concerned with whether or not people are following.” (I would add that the “ruler” constructs within me are also consumed with controlling things-outcomes, thinking, activities, etc.–but that is another issue.)

    This statement about rulers, meant to distinguish between them and servants, could be taken wrong.

    To say that rulers are concerned with followers is not to say that servants are not (and I’m not sure I can express the nuance here that seems slight but I think is huge).

    One who serves others, “hears” them. As God hears the cries of His people and is moved to respond, a servant also hears the cries of hearts. And while the servant is not concerned with gathering followers, they are consumed with the needs and hopes and fears of those around them. This is why they serve, and how they serve. Paul said he travailed as a woman in birth, he said that above all the physical suffering was the burden he felt to care for all the churches.

    I just don’t want to hear this become (yeah, probably my control anxieties), “a servant just goes about serving and is unconcerned with those around him/her.” It is because they are concerned, because they are tuned in to the cries of the hearts of others that they are moved to sacrifice and extend themselves in any way to alleviate and to help and to comfort and to admonish…

  8. 4-15-2009


    Yes. That’s what I was trying to say. Thanks.


  9. 9-19-2011

    Have been able to read “A Theology of Church Leadership” yet Alan, and if yes what do you think about it please?


  10. 9-19-2011


    I do remember reading parts of A Theology of Church Leadership, but I don’t remember much about it now. Sorry.


  11. 8-28-2012

    Right on brother. The Western mentality will struggle hard before its death in this area. The true leader will embrace death in this area, just like the “Perfect Servant” did. Thanks for the reminder Alan !

  12. 8-28-2012


    Thanks! Jesus is certainly the perfect servant.


  13. 8-28-2012

    A pastor is not a proprietor.
    A shepherd does not own the flock.
    A minister does not manipulate.
    An overseer is not an overlord.

    This is just my thoughts as to what I see for a pastor. More thoughts here:

    Since pastors are the more obvious leaders, I use them as an example. Some of what I wrote is based on what I and my family learned while under the headship of a leader who fit all the categories mentioned from the book you shared above – and then some. From learning what a pastor should not be, we took a harder look at what a pastor should be according to scripture.

    Excellent post – as always.

  14. 8-29-2012


    Thanks for the comment and the link