In a previous post I put forth the question, “Is Leadership A Healthy Christian Aim?“ I argued that “serve” not “lead” is the overwhelming Biblical ideal for the believer. Yet “serve” is trampled in the Christian marketplace by the ever-pervasive call and challenge to become, to shape, or to produce “leaders.” “Well, Steven,” one might contend, “of course we mean, ‘servant leaders‘.”
Then why not just call them servants?
Words are important. With them, we codify thought, shape perception, and engender action. Professor Richard F. Taflinger explains:
Each word has two definitions, the denotative and the connotative. The denotative meaning is basically the dictionary meaning, the one that almost anyone can understand who speaks or desires to speak the language. However, of greater importance, particularly in advertising, is the connotative definition, the definition each individual conjures up in their mind in response to hearing or reading the word . . . Why is this difference between the denotative and connotative definitions of words of such importance? It is because the greatest impact of words comes from using the connotative meanings to affect the audience’s emotional response.
When the call to lead or to produce leaders is heralded, are we conscious of the connotative definition in the minds of our hearers . . . even when we nuance “leader” with “servant” as in “servant-leadership?” Are we OK with the following connotations?
- ‘Lead’ connotes a superior position rather than a servant posture
- ‘Lead’ connotes ‘conquest’ rather than ‘submission’
- ‘Lead’ connotes success as ‘number of followers’ or ‘size of influence’ rather than success as ‘faithfulness’
- ‘Lead’ focuses on ‘what you have’ (to offer) rather than on ‘Who’ or ‘what’ has you
- ‘Lead’ connotes ‘be’ or ‘do’ some great thing rather than ‘belong to’ or ‘participate’ in God’s great thing
- ‘Lead’ lends itself more to an “it’s about me” paradigm than “it’s about you” thinking
What are we teaching our people, especially the young, when we call them to be leaders?
Tim Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods:
Modern society . . . puts great pressure on individuals to prove their worth through personal achievement. It is not enough to be a good citizen or family member. You must win, be on top, to show you are the best . . . David Brooks’ book On Paradise Drive describes what he calls ‘the professionalization of childhood.’ From the earliest of years, an alliance of parents and schools creates a pressure cooker of competition, designed to produce students who excel in everything . . . the family has become the nursery where the craving for success is first cultivated. (p. 79)
Are we unintentionally but no less responsibly contributing to the idol of success? Why not just call ourselves servants? The apostles seemed quite content with that:
- Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (Ro. 1.1)
- For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor. 4.5)
- Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1.1)
- Just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant (Col. 1.7)
- If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 4:6)
- Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant (Heb. 3.5)
- James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (Jas. 1.1)
Oh God. Captivate us with You that we may be small and rejoice that we know you and are honored just to be in the service of the King.