Paul’s Picture of Servant Leadership

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Adam Hamilton has probably forgotten a conversation we had while standing in the sun beside our cars after a meeting, but I haven’t. For thirty minutes he kept asking me questions about my life and the church I serve.

I learned nothing about Adam Hamilton on that day other than the fact that he is an excellent listener who is genuinely interested in people. Ever since then, I have been a big fan of the pastor of the largest Methodist church in the country.

Jeff Adams is the pastor of one of the largest churches in Kansas City, Graceway. I was with him at a meeting where more folding chairs were needed. He was one of the first to carry a couple of chairs in each hand and help set them up.

That small act of service, and many others that I have witnessed by Jeff, has caused me to have deep respect for him and his ministry.

Where did these two well-known and respected pastors learn how to be servants? Possibly, they developed a servant’s heart sitting at the feet of Paul.

Servants and Stewards

Paul wrote this to the church he founded in Corinth. “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4.1-2).

My experience with Adam Hamilton, Jeff Adams and other servant leaders is that they serve Jesus and others just as Paul did. We all can learn servant leadership from the Master of it, Jesus.

On one occasion, Jesus contrasted the attitudes and actions of Pharisees with true servanthood.

He said this about Pharisees.

Matthew 23.5They do all their deeds to be seen by others.

Matthew 23.6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues.

Matthew 23.7[They love] to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

Jesus made clear his standard for leaders. He said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23.11).

“Steward” is another word that Paul applied to the way he conducted himself. A steward manages another person’s business and is responsible to the owner for what transpires with business.

The steward is required to be faithful, and to make sure that the interests of the owner are fulfilled.

Leadership by Example

When Jeff Adams started setting up additional folding chairs at the meeting, it wasn’t hard to get other pastors to join in. Jeff was leading by his example.

Paul wanted the church in Corinth to follow his example and that of Apollos, who were both servant leaders.

Paul had to emphasize this aspect of ministry, because the culture of Corinth was quite different from the way he lived his life.

For example, each morning people would go to the homes of the influential and powerful people of Corinth. They would stand outside their homes and “sing” the praises of the mighty persons of their city.

The “big shots” of Corinth would eventually appear and throw their admiring followers a few small coins or scraps of food. That kind of behavior was viewed as normal by the citizens of Corinth and took place every day.

With that image in mind, listen to Paul’s words: “I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters . . . so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.

“For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4.6-7).

The issue for the church was whether they would be “puffed up” in pride or as servants they would “build up” the body of Christ.

Paul used his example and that of Apollos to challenge them to live as servants and stewards of Jesus Christ, rather than the “great ones” of their city.

Sarcasm as an Argument

Paul was not opposed to using sarcasm to remove the blindness of the people he served.

Once again, a little cultural background will help us understand his words. A philosopher or public speaker who performed labor would be shamed by the public.

The belief was, “no speaker who is any good should have to work with his hands. They should have patrons who pay for their services.”

Paul worked as a tent-maker. It is quite possible that he taught learners at the same time, while he stitched the fabric of tents. This was counter cultural in the extreme.

To deflate the “puffed up” but immature members of the Corinthian church he wrote with obvious sarcasm. His desire was to defend the way he served by paying his own way in ministry through the labor of his hands.

He wrote, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!” (1 Corinthians 4.8).

The next sentences should have shamed the proud and brought them back to reality.

“For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals.

“We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.

“To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless,

“And we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;

“When slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Corinthians 4.9-13).

At the end, Paul entreated the church: “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4.16).

Why Servant Leadership Matters

Why is servant leadership a way of life that matters so much? Here are a few answers to that question.

(1) Jesus told his followers, “But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22.27).

These were his words spoken right after he had washed his disciple’s feet. Jesus was willing to serve in the most humble manner and he expects his followers to do the same thing.

(2) Servant leadership overcomes division.

The church in Corinth was divided, because their arrogance prevented them accepting the other side’s viewpoints.

Name a place in American life, whether it is the church, politics, business, or any other organizational structure. Imagine the power that the organization would possess if all of the members acted as a unified force.

The wisdom of the cross is that Jesus’ people serve one another out of self-giving love. The attitudes and actions that arise from self-giving love will overcome division and promote an optimum service to our Lord.

(3) Arrogance creates an environment for sin.

We will read Paul’s words about being “puffed up” with pride in chapter 5.

There he writes, “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (1 Corinthians 5.6).

Not only does religious pride create divisions in the church, but it allows the church to be vulnerable to sin.

Servant leadership that has self-giving love at its core will model humility that accepts Jesus’ rule over the individual. When we affirm to ourselves that Jesus is always right, we will be protected from temptations to sin and rebellion.

Who are Servant Leaders?

If you have someone who follows your advice and example, you are a leader. This includes parents, older siblings, co-workers, and anyone else who has a following.

Paul’s counsel to all of us is, “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4.16).

About This Blog

We are currently alternating between the message of the prophets and Paul’s letters. Tomorrow’s article will feature the message of Hosea to the Northern Kingdom (Israel).

If you have a prayer request, please email me at or private message me on Facebook. Maywood Baptist’s prayer team is honored to pray for you.


  1. As I read today, it seems this attitude must start in families. Most anger, rage, discontent is rooted in selfish desires. Living selflessly would go a long way to giving ourselves a basis of patience, love and acceptance as we step outside our doors – into church, politics, business or other structures.

    It seems much like removing the log to see the speck.

    Thank you for speaking truth today.

    Liked by 1 person

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