Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Leaders Who Belong to the Order of the Towel Model True Leadership

Leaders Who Belong to the Order of the Towel Model True Leadership

As pastors, we follow Christ's example and minister as He did.  Of course, it is He who does the ministry through us as we abide in Him (John 15:1).  In John 13:12, Jesus does three things as He commands and motivates us to lead as He led.

First, He affirms His identity and establishes His authority (13:12-13).  He begins with a question.  "Do you know what I have done to you?"  He raises this question in order to make them think as He makes His point.  You recognize My authority over you by calling Me Teacher and Lord, and you do well because that's Who I am.  I am your Teacher and your Lord; I do have true authority over you.

We struggle to understand the nature of our authority as servant leaders.  Often pastors are afraid to assume authority lest they become arrogant or presumptuous, yet godly servant leaders in the Bible do not have this fear.  Jesus had no struggle here. He declared His authority without doubt or hesitation.  Paul expressed no doubts about his apostolic authority when in 2 Corinthians he asserted it with great energy and emotion.  The same is true in Galatians where he dealt with the essence of the gospel and asserted his authority to define the truth.  Paul also directed Timothy to exercise authority in the Pastoral Epistles when he told him to tell women how to dress (1 Timothy 2:9) and the rich how to manage their money (1 Timothy 6:17).  Servant leaders have authority, but their authority does not come from themselves.  We find it in Christ, not from our position, but through our submission to Him.  Our authority results from our Christ-likeness, and we gain authority as we become like Him.  If we fail to earn and exercise servant authority, we face accountability from our Teacher and Lord who has commanded us to minister His way, and He ministered with authority.

Second, He affirms Himself as our example and tells us to wash one another's feet as He washed ours.  His words are simple and clear.  "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:14). This command describes a debt, an ethical obligation that we must fulfill. [1] We are certainly no better than Christ; if He washed feet, can we expect to do any less?  This is the heart of servant leadership.

Finally, Jesus gave a special blessing to those who obey this command (13:17).  All commands are given to be obeyed, but this command brings with it a special blessing.  What is more difficult than humbling ourselves to our peers and serving them in ways we want to be served?  We have thoughts like, "I should be doing this rather than helping him do it.  I'm better than he is at this anyway."  Or, "How did he get where he is?  I was a better student than he was in seminary."  Competitive thoughts cloud our thinking, lock our knees, and paralyze our hands.  We don't want to wash each other's feet.  We leave the basin empty, the towel hanging on the wall.  "We would gladly wash the feet of our Divine Lord; but He disconcertingly insists on washing ours, and bids us wash our neighbor's feet." [2] Yet there is a blessing in this; it is the blessing of obeying Jesus, of growing more like Him, of gaining freedom from our pride and fear, the blessing of making a difference in the lives of those whom we serve.

How do we gain this blessing?  What has Jesus done that we must do?  Has He humbled Himself?  Absolutely.  He left His throne, His power, and His glory to become the humblest of the humble (Philippians 2:5).  What more could He do to humble Himself?  He was found in the form of a slave, subject to His Father even at the cost of His life (Matthew 26:36).  How much more enslaved could He be?  How can we follow His example?  By humbling ourselves and enslaving ourselves to one another for Christ's sake?  Absolutely (Philippians 2:1). What does this mean?  It means involvement with others at the deepest level of their needs, the level of cleansing their soul, whether for salvation or sanctification.  Servant leadership means we serve others by becoming involved in the messes they make of their lives in order to bring about their deliverence from sin so they can participate in Christ’s purpose for them. Otherwise, like Peter, they have no part with Christ. This is vital to our identity as pastors.

Servant leaders are not passive.  They don't stand by and let untrained and untrusting elders make decisions that destroy the church.  They don't let sinning, quarreling, petty people bring down a ministry through dissension and disharmony.  They join the Order of the Towel and stoop down to wash their followers' feet and tell them they have no part with Christ unless they submit to the cleansing of their souls.  In other words, servant leaders confront prideful and controlling saints whenever this is necessary.  There is nothing easy about this; there is everything supernatural about it.

Recently I heard about a man who had to step aside from leading a ministry because he could not confront those who needed to be cleansed.  When a senior pastor can't confront, it is inevitable that there will be dissension, division, and unfairness on the staff.  Some will work hard, while others do not.  The pastor will not hold the lazy accountable for their irresponsibility.  Others will have to make up for what the few are not doing.

When this occurs there is a breakdown in servant leadership.  The leader refuses to serve by cleansing the dirt off his followers' feet, so they track it all over the ministry, usually right after someone else has just cleaned the floor.  The one who cleaned the floor screams at the one who tracks dirt over the spanking clean ministry.  The one who tracks dirt screams back at the one who has cleaned the floor, accusing him of being uptight or telling him to mind his own business and not be such a busybody.  Anger and resentment get out of hand, and the unity of the ministry is destroyed.  Jesus did not allow this to happen among His disciples, and the leader who does, while presenting himself as a servant leader, is in fact a passive coward.  He does not have the courage to confront.  The heart of servant leadership is dependent courage, the courage to rely on Christ to be His instrument in cleansing others.  Servant leaders confront to cleanse.  This is what Jesus is teaching us to do, because this is what Jesus did, and we are to do what He did through Him.

One of the greatest needs in the church today is for true servant leadership born of love, established through sovereign security, and done according to our ultimate Example.  Servant leaders do what Jesus did -- they wash feet.  But He didn't only wash feet; He cleansed souls.  We become servant leaders when Jesus cleanses souls through us by making our hands His hands.  This occurs as we get involved in the messes other men and women make of their lives; this is why gently but firmly confronting others is the essence of servant leadership. 

Some of you may be objecting to all of this saying , "But I am not Jesus."  That is true.  We certainly are not Jesus.  Yet, the infinite difference between Jesus and us does not excuse us from doing what He said.  He told us to do what He did.  "That's fine," you may say," I will do what He did.  I will do the humble task.  I will vacuum the church, make the coffee, or cover the nursery in an emergency during mother's day out.  I will do the small, humble things no one else wants to do.  But I'm not Jesus and I cannot cleanse souls."  These are all good things, but doing them is not the only way to be servant leaders.  We are not Jesus and we cannot cleanse souls, but He can through us, and this is exactly what servant leadership is.

If we refuse to correct others with gentleness, patience, and firmness as Jesus did Peter, we will fail as pastors.  We are legitimately afraid because we know we are not worthy of the task.  We are illegitimately afraid because we fear the way others will respond when we face them.  Nevertheless, Christ has called us to this task.  This calls for us to have humble hearts and loose shoe laces because we must always be ready to have our feet washed.  Today's church cries out for this to be done.  God's Word cries out for this to be done.  Every Scripture that calls for spiritual restoration cries out for this to be done (Galatians 6:1).  Every Scripture that calls for church discipline cries out for this to be done (Matthew 18:15; 1 Corinthians 5:1).  Every Scripture that calls for the correction of false teachers cries out for this to be done (1 Timothy 1:3). For us to refuse to do this is for us to cower in the fears of the flesh, more concerned about our careers and our images than about Christ's command to be His cleansing agents.  Certainly we don't do the cleansing; but we are His instruments, and He acts only when we act.  This is the awfulness of our responsibility for those whom God bought with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

C.K. Barrett, in commenting on John 13:1-17 declares, "The apostles, the disciples and servants of Jesus who is the teacher and lord, must follow His example:  they must show the same humility, must, in fact, take up the cross and follow Jesus.  So far as they do so, they share His authority. ... the church is the responsible envoy of Christ, sharing His dignity and obliged to copy His humility and service." [3]

Leon Morris observes that ... if what was happening was only a lesson in humility, then Jesus' conversation with Peter misses the whole point.  Jesus does not speak of being proud and humble, but of cleansing, that cleansing that He would effect, and of belonging to Him.  We must see this story first and foremost as a way of setting out in actions the truth that Christ brings cleansing and that no one else does. [4]

This passage is parallel to Matthew 18:18-20, where the church sits with legal authority to decide whether or not sin has occurred.  Ray Stedman summarizes John 13:13-15 well when he states, "The second action [that] Jesus' example encourages us to undertake is a ministry of helping each other in the church keep our 'spiritual feet' clean." [5] Nothing can be more humbling, nothing can be more demanding, and nothing can be more frightening than this overwhelming task.  Yet nothing can be more devastating than when leaders refuse to trust their Lord and do as He has commanded by bringing the gift and service of cleansing to each other.  We refuse to do this more because of fear of what others will say about us than because of true humility.

Servant leaders do more than act as Christ's cleansing servants in the lives of the sheep He entrusts to us.  We preach God's truth, we hear the hurt of the broken hearted, we develop organizational structures so the church grows together as a body, and we serve people by helping them develop their gifts.  What an amazing trust it is to be a difference maker in human lives, used by God as His instruments to bring others into conformity to Christ's image.  No privilege could be greater than this.

We join with Jesus in a two-fold effort to build believers.  We seek to develop competence, that is, to focus on the believers' doing.  In the process of developing competent servant leaders in our ministries, we must face the flawed foundations of their characters.  Jesus did exactly this with Peter.  Only if we are willing to rebuild a flawed foundation can we see ultimate effectiveness in the Doug Johnsons we develop.  This is why we focus on the character of those who follow us, as well as develop their competencies.  Once we develop competence and stabilize character, the maturing believer is ready for Christ's commission, the commission to lead others by serving them, just as Jesus did.  This is what we are about as pastors:  developing character and competence so those we serve can carry out Christ's commission. We must remember one thing above all else when we think about servant leadership:  servant leaders serve God, not man.  Jesus did not serve Peter according to his terms, but according to his needs.  In other words Jesus met Peter's needs according to God's interests, not Peter's.  Much of our struggle with servant leadership turns on this point.  We are confused over the servant concept because we don't understand who it is we are serving.  We are not serving those who follow us in the primary sense.  Of course we do serve them, but according to their needs as Christ defines them, not according to their interests, desires, or wants.  As undershepherds we are responsible to Christ for the sheep He has entrusted to us.  Servant leaders serve God, not man.  Our primary task is to serve God and His interests in those who follow us.

On the central quad of the campus of Dallas Theological Seminary, we have a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus washing Peter's feet.  Few things have influenced me more than this sculpture.  I have been so deeply affected by it I have often taken my classes to study it by asking them what they see to help them better understand what servant leadership is.  When I examine this sculpture, I see two real men.  Peter is a hulk of a man, big boned and exuding strength, with veins bulging and incredulous eyes, amazed that Jesus would wash his feet.  Everything about him says he can't believe what Jesus is doing.  If he could, Peter would stop Him at once.  Jesus is stripped to His waist with a towel around His middle, down on His knees, left hand firmly holding Peter's right ankle, right hand holding the end of the towel with Peter's foot in the basin.  His back muscles ripple with strength and determination -- He is going to wash Peter's feet.  Jesus is serving God -- and Peter -- by doing God's will and going against Peter's initial will.  This is servant leadership:  doing what God wants at all costs, even the cost of resistance and confrontation from those whom we serve by leading.  Only those who belong to the Order of the Towel are true servant leaders.  The rest are either dominators or avoiders.  Which are you?

[1] Fritz Rienecker and Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., editor.  A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 250.

[2] Morris. Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John, 471.

[3] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, Second Edition (Westminister: Philadelphia, 1978), 437.

[4] Morris, Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John, p.471.

[5] Ray C. Stedman, Exploring the Gospel of John: God’s Loving Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1993), 363. Stedman also shows the parallel passages of Mt. 18:18-20, Gal. 6:1, and James 5:16.

Bill Lawrence is the president of Leader Formation International (LFI) as well as Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Bill began LFI in 2002 to minister to leaders around the world who are impacting the nations for Christ. Having watched God form his own life as a leader-mentor over 37 years in ministry (including 12 years as a founding pastor, 12 years as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership, and over 23 years as a seminary faculty member), Bill helps other leaders recognize the reality that their success as a leader depends upon God's formative work in their heart. Bill has been privileged to personally serve leaders in Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He has also produced a six-part video/workbook series, Forming Davids for the 21st Century, which is a perfect resource to help groups of individual leaders engage with each other in the leader formation journey.

Publication date: March 16, 2012