Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Leaders Who Belong to the Order of the Towel Love

Leaders Who Belong to the Order of the Towel Love

What is servant leadership?  This concept confuses us because these two words don't seem to go together.  When most people hear the word leadership they think of things like power, position, influence, visibility, and platform -- all essential for leaders to be effective.  Yet true leadership has another side, a relational, intimate, and often confrontational side that ultimately makes or breaks every leader in the world.  This is the servant side of leadership.  Leaders can climb to great heights while lacking this dimension, but no leader will stay at great heights without it.  Eventually, all leaders collapse in a great Humpty-Dumpty fall without this relational and caring dimension of servant leadership.  As pastors we lead by serving or we don't lead at all.

Servant leadership demands character to go with our competence and maturity to go with the greatness of our mission.  People measure our character and maturity by how we relate more than by what we accomplish.  Relationships tell what we're made of.  As pastors, we must have the unique traits of appropriate intimacy combined with authority.  Our relationships have to be born out of a Christ-like commitment to lead those who follow us by serving them.  To gain intimacy and authority we must belong to the Order of the Towel, which Jesus instituted in John 13:1-17.  This Order consists of leaders, both men and women, who are vulnerable and humble through dependence on Christ so He can use them to sanctify others in the leadership development process.  We serve others when we lead them into a closeness with God they would never experience any other way, a closeness that results in their sancitification and releases them to minister with unparalleled power.

Sanctification is more essential for leadership than accomplishment.  As servant leaders, we must both be sanctified and the instruments of sanctification in our followers' lives.

We are effective servant leaders when our followers are increasingly holier under our leadership than they could have been without us.  In ourselves we cannot sanctify anyone, but Christ can use us to call others to holiness and cleansing, and this is our responsibility under Him.  We grow in sanctification as we enter into the difficult relationships that call us to be Christ's cleansing agents in the lives of resistant followers.  Such tense moments also force us to turn to Christ for our own cleansing and to depend on Him to confront others.  We grow as leaders through these difficult times, and this is what qualifies us to serve as servant leaders.

". . . Jesus knew the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father.  Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love" (John 13:1).  He loved His men to the uttermost of His being and His life.  Jesus had waited for this hour when He would face shame, suffering, and sorrowand be glorified.  He knew He would be arrested, scourged, condemned, and crucified, yet He loved -- utterly, totally, absolutely.  The Creator of the universe became the servant of His creatures because He loved them so greatly.  Everything that happens from this point on in the book happens because Jesus loved.  Even when He knew His men would deny and desert Him, He still loved them.

Leaders who belong to the Order of the Towel love in the same way because Christ loves through them.  Though none of us will face an hour comparable to Christ's, all of us know we have limited time, so we must focus on loving and leading as Christ does.  The ultimate measure of our ministry will be to love as Christ loved.  The Doug Johnsons (fictitious name) of our world challenge this ideal because their resistant attitudes, their power plays, and their efforts to take over raise massive challenges to our love.  After all, it's not only our careers that are at stake when a driven elder decides he can do a better job than we.  Our wives also are at stake, the health and stability of our families are at stake, all that we have dreamed of and worked to achieve could be gone if we allow the Doug Johnsons to have their way.  We are too threatened to love them because we don't feel safe with them.  Where can we find the security we need to love a Doug Johnson?

The answer to this question is that "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God" (13:3).  We find the security to love through confidence in God's sovereignty.

The main reason we fail to love is due to our lack of security:  we are afraid to express our opinion, assert our convictions, verbalize our vision, defend ourselves, and so love others.  When we face a resident Doug Johnson, we are often so insecure we cannot think objectively and assertively.  Certainly we do not think of love in that moment.  Too often we ask ourselves "How can I fire Doug Johnson?" not "How can I love Doug Johnson?"  Our chief aim is to remove Doug Johnson, not purify him.  It takes supernatural security to love the resister, especially when it means giving all we have for the resister's sake.

Think of the kind of men Jesus loved:  competitive, selfishly ambitious, insensitive, uncaring, spiritually deaf, and disloyal.  Does this sound like anyone you know?  Could it be the man in the mirror?  Or the men on our board or your staff or in your church:  self-confident, critical, certain they are right, and utterly overbearing about it.  They reach out to take over, and, unless we have the security to confront them and call them to cleansing, they will take over.  Jesus, the man, found His strength and security to serve through confidence in God's sovereignty.

Jesus knew His past, His future, and His present all came from God's hand, so no matter what He faced in His men or His life, He was totally secure because all things were under His power.  Whether viewed from the Upper Room or Caiaphas' house or Herod's throne or Pilate's palace, the assertion that all things were under His power was ridiculous.  To Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate, He was a nobody; powerless, and virtually condemned, soon to be an afterthought to these busy Roman rulers.  In less than twenty-four hours He would be dead, a corpse thrown on the junk heap of history, the victim of heedless, heartless Rome.  His followers would deny Him and flee in panic.  It was incomprehensible to say that the Father had put all things under His power.  But it was true.

God’s sovereignty gave Jesus a threefold security. First, He knew who possessed true power, no matter what Rome proclaimed. Rome could drive its chariots, fly its flags, try its accused, crack its whips, and even hammer its nails, but Jesus had power over Pilate, no matter what Pilate thought. [1] Jesus knew He had power from God, and He drew strength from this knowledge to stoop and serve those who were too weak to serve another. His security in God’s sovereignty enabled Him to love one of the biggest collections of Doug Johnsons in history.

Jesus drew more strength from God’s sovereignty; He drew purpose from His origin. He knew He came from the Father. He was no biological accident, no mere blip on the screen of history, no matter how Caiaphas, Pilate, or Herod regarded Him. God had sent Him for a specific purpose, and He was about to fulfill that purpose. There is something empowering and defining about knowing where we come from, something that gives us a sense of heritage and purpose.

We also have come from the Father – not in the same way as Jesus, yet for the same purpose. Our past, our future, and our present come from God, just as Jesus did, and this is true no matter who resists us. The Son of God came to reach the lost, and, in Him, we complete His sufferings (Col. 1:24) and carry out that same purpose. We can have the same confidence as He had. The confidence of an eternal purpose from God that lifts us above the smallness and the meanness of the many to the glory of the one true God.  As pastors we can be bigger in spirit and heart and humility than the Doug Johnsons of our ministries.  We cannot be hampered by the invisible shackles of insecurity because we come from the Father even as Jesus did.  As pastors we must never lose sight of our origin because, as soon as we do, we lose the security we need to be God's instruments in transforming the Doug Johnsons of our lives into Peters on the Day of Pentecost.

Further, Jesus knew His destination:  He was going back to the Father, not in humiliation, shame, and defeat, but in triumph, power, and glory.  What a reunion that was when the Son was restored to the glory He had before the world was and the Father received Him with open arms.  Jesus' long self-humiliation was over.

We, too, are going to the Father and we, too, will be exalted in Christ.  Only this exaltation matters.  We cannot seek our own exaltation or measure ourselves by the number of people who hear us preach or read our books or recognize our names.  Why do we strive for such puny and passing exaltations when our only hope of glory is to be exalted in God's presence by Christ (Col. 1:27), escorted there by the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant?"  We'll never hear those words unless we express our love by serving.

Imagine what it was like to see the sovereign Lord stripped to His waist, on His knees washing His disciples’ feet. Stunned, silent, shamed, confused, all they could do was submit to His service, that is until He came to Simon Peter. Peter always did things no other disciple would, and he was not a disappointment on this night.  Now Doug Johnson (factious name) showed up.  Peter interrupted the shocked, deadly silence with a word of strong protest.  "YOU -- wash my feet?  No way!"  Jesus responded with a patient explanation.  "You can't understand what I'm doing now, but you will later."  Peter protests again.  "NEVER will You wash my feet!" (Jn. 13:6-8).

What does the Servant Leader do now?  Does Jesus do what Peter wants?  Is that serving Peter?  Is He serving only -- or even primarily -- Peter?  No.  And we are not serving only the Doug Johnsons of our churches.  We are serving the Lord Christ and we must serve others the way He served Peter.  Jesus, the Servant Leader, told Peter exactly what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear.  "Either I wash your feet or you have no part in what I am doing because you are useless to Me.  I cannot have an uncleansed man leading My cause.  My atoning death is the only thing that will cleanse you.  Accept it, or you have nothing to do with Me.  Others will participate with Me, but you will not.  The choice is yours" (13:8 expanded).  Until now we have seen that the servant leader serves or he doesn't lead at all.

Now we learn another truth about servant leadership:  the servant leader serves by leading or he doesn't serve at all.  Next Peter responded by going to the opposite extreme.  He went from never to now, from nothing to everything.  "Not just my feet, but all of me."  Though it sounds humble, Peter is still reaching for power.  Once again the Servant Leader must respond to his resistant follower, since doing more than the Leader wants is no better than doing less.  The issue is obedience, nothing more, nothing less. The Servant Leader asserted His authority by telling Peter he was already clean all over; his only problem was his feet (13:10). In other words, salvation totally cleanses believers, but our feet become contaminated by our daily walk through the streets of sin, and they need to be cleansed.

At that, Jesus washed Peter's feet.  The Servant Leader served Peter by doing what He planned to do all along.  He listened to Peter's protests, responded patiently to his resistance, answered only what Peter could understand, and did exactly as He determined He would from the beginning.  The Servant Leader serves by leading, and by leading with authority and direction.

The only reason we humble ourselves and serve proud, angry, controlling, demanding people is because we love God with all we are and our neighbor as ourselves.  Servant leadership is relational (people, not things), humble (self-giving while expecting nothing in return), and loving (seeking only what is best for those it serves).  This means that servant leadership, while being gentle and compassionate, is firm, strong, determined, directive, and demanding.  When we meet that standard we become models for others to follow, exactly what we are to be as servant leaders.

[1] A study of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 18-19 shows this to be true even though Pilate had the power to condemn Jesus to death.

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 15, 2012