Whether the most junior leader or a four-star flag officer, leaders come to their assignments with choices to be made in opportunities to serve.
Will we seek to burnish our own reputation, or serve selflessly in reflection of Christ’s virtues and practices? Will our service be one of self-focused and utilitarian response to the world’s demands, or an act of love for the Chief Shepherd and for those He’s entrusted to our care? Consider the contrast of Jesus’ servant-leader approach with what is practiced and rewarded by today’s leadership culture.
In the first five verses of John’s account of Jesus’ oft-cited washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-16), the author takes pains to describe the mind and heart of Christ before the act takes place. While the deed itself is a profound example of a great leader humbly serving His followers, it’s the mindset of Christ in His service, as expressed in verse 3, that gives His act its context, purpose, and power: “Jesus knowing …”
1. Jesus knew that His death was imminent (vv. 1-2). Yet Jesus’ boundless love for His disciples propelled Him past daunting challenges that included Judas’ betrayal, the abandonment of his closest disciples, and even Peter’s misunderstanding the significance of the Incarnate God’s washing of their feet. True servant leaders are attuned to and seek the best for those they lead. A sterling NCO’s professional development needs may be vastly different from those of the struggling soldier, but both equally warrant the servant leader’s personal attention.
Photo by SGT Tracy Myers, USA
Taking extra time to encourage those under their charge is one way military leaders can use their God-given gifts of training, education, experience, and influence to serve others as Christlike servant leaders.
2. Jesus knew His incredible stature, infinite authority, and eternal position in the heavenly realm (v. 3). He served from those strengths. Christ-following leaders also possess an identity, origin, and heavenly calling that enable service with strength beyond our natural limits. “Chosen from the foundation of the world,” “more than conquerors,” “I am with you always,” “Feed My sheep,” and “You shall be My witnesses” are just a few biblical statements of our identity and describe the power available in that.
Military leaders bring gifts of training, education, experience, and influence within their areas of responsibility for use to accomplish the mission—and to serve those under their charge. Scheduling events while considering subordinates’ family needs, interceding when red tape frustrates a junior airman’s legitimate personnel requests, and taking the extra time to encourage and coach a new young leader are ways to use those giftings God has provided. As we consider the Spirit’s further enabling of believers walking in their calling, we see that we come to the table of service empowered with resources well beyond what is humanly visible. Our prayers for God’s wisdom and power, witness of Christ’s character, and encouragement of His promises are for the Christ-following leaders’ use every day.
3. Jesus knew that action was necessary (vv. 4-5). The need for washing feet was two-fold. After a full day of walking dusty paths shared by people and animals alike, the disciples’ feet were filthy. But beyond clean feet, Jesus’ followers most needed a heart transformation. For three years they had been shown how to serve, and now this final lesson was meant to be etched deeply inside every disciple.
Christ’s directive in verse 15, “For I have given you an example, that you should do just as I have done to you,” foretold the effect His service was to have on their future mission—soon sent out as Jesus’ own hands and feet to the world. He was serving them for both that day’s need and their long-term ones. Because today’s military leaders rarely have the same subordinates for more than two or three years, selfless commanders have short-term and long-term views of how to serve them. Such leaders will consider paying the cost of subordinates’ short-term availability if it also benefits their long-term development.
4. Jesus knew that even simple acts of service can foster the redemptive work of the gospel profoundly in others. That work may seem purely physical or emotional, but such work reflects God’s gospel heart manifest in His compassion and care for His people. In Peter’s case, it opened a momentous dialog that turned his view of leadership upside down after first objecting to the Master’s humble service. Works of service can elicit probing questions, open despairing hearts to hope, and lead to an opportunity to share truth “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
5. Jesus knew that service may require releasing impediments to serve effectively. As Lord of all, Jesus didn’t “count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). Neither did He clench the trappings of His rabbinical office. Never relinquishing His authority, Jesus rid Himself of the garments signifying His rabbinical stature, dressed as a servant, and washed the feet of the disciples He created.
Military leaders don symbols of their position, authority, and responsibility. Insignia of rank, gestures of military courtesy, staff to assist, and deferential treatment by subordinates are some of the necessary elements to provide for order, discipline, and effectiveness within the profession of arms. They are not meant to be barriers to the mutual respect, care, consideration, and service God calls military leaders to manifest, especially Christ-followers.
Jesus knew His love for the disciples. He knew His service was to meet their needs and He knew the lofty resources He brought to meet those needs. He knew action was required, and He shed the symbols of His office to serve in powerful humility.
Impotent or powerful? Service in the world’s pattern, or service with the mind of Christ? Jesus’ servant leadership resonates through His disciples of that day and those of us centuries later. Will we serve in Jesus’ mode?
Tom, a West Point graduate, served 25 years before retiring in 1995. After their faith came alive through a chapel-sponsored Bible study in Germany, Tom and his wife, Jean, served Christ by participating in Army chapels and OCF ministries at all subsequent assignments. More than 50 weekly small group Bible studies, and discipleship and leadership training, among other efforts, were under their guidance as the OCF Field Staff couple at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Tom now serves on OCF home office staff as Director of Field Operations, the staff strategic planner, and implements the Leader Development plan.