Two Kinds of Leadership

by Aug 8, 2023Christian Ethics, Ecclesiology0 comments

In a blog on theology in the Gospel of Mark, renowned Greek professor and Pauline scholar David Allen Black wrote about a memory that still haunts him: 

“As a 10-year-old boy growing up in Hawaii, I clearly remember the day our pastor was fired. He was a gentle, elderly saint — an exceptional shepherd and a good Bible expositor. And then he suffered a stroke. His willingness to persevere in the midst of his weaknesses and debilities left me gasping. What an example of power-in-weakness, I thought to myself, .… Suddenly, he was gone. The adults kept saying, “It’s too hard listening to him talk,” or “He was ready for retirement anyway,” or “We were losing our youth because of him.” “Merciful heavens!” I cried out. “Is this how the church is to treat its pastors?”  

Black explains his point in telling the story, 

“Jesus faced a similar struggle with His new disciples. From the experts in the Jewish law, they had learned a distorted view of leadership. Knowing this, Jesus redefined their concepts of power and spiritual leadership. That redefinition was so profound that we are still talking about it 2,000 years later.” [1]  

In Mark 10:42, Jesus contrasted two ways of using power, like a servant or like the Gentile rulers. Let’s consider each in turn as paradigms of leadership. I hope to describe the tenets of each type so a picture emerges. Before we begin, I would like to remind the more cynical among us that one or even three points does not make someone pure evil or even disqualified from ministry. It is unhealthy and sinful to make roast the pastor into an Olympic event. The descriptions are for the purpose of shaping our moral vision of good and bad leaders.

Picture of Power Leadership

Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate are examples of what I call power leadership. It is a mindset that clings to power and seeks to keep it at all cost. Power leadership is elitist. It does not identify with the “different” but feels special exactly because they can’t relate. They are above the situation, for they believe they can come up with the right answers to almost every problem.

They appear unapproachable as they speak of love and gospel, truth and Bible. They use their power selectively, almost cunningly, always in ways that minimize risk. They never want to chance losing the influence they have acquired. They preach care and even motivate others to care but never give much time to enter the pain of others and sit in the discomfort of broken hopes.

They are too important to really be involved. So they create invisible walls dividing the insiders from the outsiders, those with favor from those without. Power leadership withholds praise, except in generalities. So everyone feels a slight twinge of uncertainty and the abiding doubt over If they measure up. This keeps people striving towards unrealistic expectations and competing with each other while keeping quiet about the uncertainties and doubts. The carrot is always just out of reach. Hope is weaponized and the leader’s control is converted into hero worship. 

Such leaders love power. So they use people but never love them. Surrounding themselves with those seeking to earn their approval. All the while speaking of community and mission as those all around them toil in the loneliness of never measuring up. 

The sad reality in evangelicalism is that some Christian institutions are ethically inverted. Those at the bottom of the ministry pyramid are most like Christ and those at the top are least like Him. So, many end up with Christ like character not because the ministry is great at discipleship but because oppression forges Christian character. Such Institutions are marked by leaders operating free of accountability structures in a culture where everyone serves the man of God.

Power leadership is never curious for they assume to know how to size people up. They never approach someone with curiosity. They know how things work and who fits. The unassuming are unflattering,  weak, and lowly; only good as greeters or part of the clean up crew. No exploration is engaged in nor space made for the development of gifts God may have given them. Such leaders see things with the world’s eyes.

They make snap judgments about a person, their ability, or what God could do with them. They never take a risk on such a person for a fault would result in them looking bad. It is odd but true that this is how the world sees it. When those who appear to ‘have it all together’ fail, it can be excused as unforeseen and surprising, thus no one’s fault. Even extravagant failures can be dismissed as a one-off. Yet the same uncritical scruples are not extended to the unassuming. When the weak and unassuming fail, the leader should have known better. The leader takes the hit, so why help someone who will fail. Even if the weak come through in the clutch moment, it will be dismissed since “everyone” knows, “the weak are inconsistent and ministry is just too important to chance it.” The church culture this creates is one that inhibits leadership development for all but those who know how to hide their flaws. Eventually,  leading to a crisis in leadership with too many salesmen, or CEOs, and not enough servants.  

This is the way the world thinks. But it ought not be this way in the church, especially in its leadership. Whatever power a Christian has, we should seek to give that power away and not hoard it. We seek to share the platform and spread the privilege around.

Christians live in an upside down kingdom. Where leaders act like servants. Where the path to greatness isn’t measured by the world’s metrics. I believe many Christians have little understanding of the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. Their hopes and ambitions are not conformed to the cruciform mission of Christ. They are oblivious to the real transformation of values required to fully participate in God’s redemptive purposes. 

In Mark 10:45, Jesus gives the example in the Son of Man. He wants them to consider how the Gentile rulers are ruling over them and contrast it with how the Son of Man uses his power and authority to serve them. In-between, Jesus gives a principle that redefines greatness with the extreme imagery of being a servant and a slave (v.43).

We are now at the heart of the radical new ethical system that Jesus introduces and demonstrates, and Paul describes (Phil 2:5–11). In stark contrast to this world’s value system (10:42), Jesus teaches that greatness in God’s kingdom involves not being master or lord over others but being a servant or slave (10:43–44).  Scholar Robert Stein comments: 

“Unfortunately, over the centuries the model for Christian leadership, which is Jesus’s own servanthood unto death (10:45), has been lost sight of and ignored, and the desire for honor, prestige, and power has dominated. In the present day, when the pattern often suggested for Christian leaders is that of a CEO ruling over a corporation, the model of Jesus as a servant leader cannot be emphasized enough. Those who aspire to greatness in the kingdom of God should have this example of Jesus for their model.”[2]

Leadership like Jesus: Servant Leadership 

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is shown to have the power above the political but did not use it to gain privilege or platform. He trusted God to raise Him up in God’s time. This is why in Mark’s gospel, Jesus told demons to zip it and stop being His publicist. 

Let’s look at the shape of Jesus’ leadership. First, we know Jesus was loved by the ordinary person. The crowds love Jesus for He identifies with their pain and suffering. He is approachable and loving – His power is used to heal, His influence to help. Jesus cared for them. He took the time to understand the pain and feel their discomfort. 

He never talks down to them. He never creates invisible walls with his mannerisms, creating unspoken categories of who is in and who is out, who has His favor and who does not. He loved too much to ever let someone make a home in the loneliness of feeling worthless, with nothing to contribute.  He is not the type who will let them steep in the bitter waters of feeling like a failure. Just to keep them under His control, He will not allow someone to think they don’t measure up to expectations. 

He never looks at someone without first being curious. Curious about their hopes, curious about their experience, curious about their personality. A curious person cannot be a judgmental person. The curious person will not make snap judgments about a person’s ability or capacity just because they are unassuming and weak in the world’s eyes.  

Servant leadership is not leadership that sacrifices every now and again. Servanthood is not a hobby. It is a mindset that reframes how we see the world work. Our leaders are not to be the kind of servant who cleans a bathroom one Wednesday, just to have an illustration for Sunday.  

Often when I talk about such ethical principles especially found in Mark, I am met with blank stares and unsure looks. It makes me wonder if many modern Christians who follow Jesus even know about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. Their hopes and ambitions are not conformed to the cruciform mission of Christ. Their values and way of relating to others do not mirror their heavenly citizenship. They are unaware of how many of these assumptions are rooted in this world.

So in Mark 10:43-45, when Jesus teaches his disciples, and us, to be servants and slaves, He’s using those images to show us how to follow Him. He is showing us we should lift up the vulnerable and serve others. The point is not a new way to achieve greatness. It is a call to renounce our striving for prestige and power all together. Jesus is not teaching an innocuous call to kindness. Servanthood spoken of here is not understood in action, but identity. It is not about what we do but who we are. Jesus is calling for a “who we are” kind-of-change in our thinking. Where leaders give away power to make everyone as powerful as possible. 

Jesus calls us to recognize the rhythms the world lives by and set your life by a whole different beat. It is following a different set of values. It is having relationships that are lived out through a completely different paradigm. It is a rejecting of the power systems of the world in favor of the freedom of service, empowered by the Spirit, for the good of others. I am reminded of the words of Thoreau: ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”[3]

Let us hear the distant rhythm of the kingdom and keep in step with it, even if it makes us a peculiar people.



[1] David A. Black, “Mark’s Theology of the Cross”, Personal Blog [Accessed May 9th 2023.]

[2] Robert H. Stein, Mark in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Eds. Robert Yarbrough and Robert Stein, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) 489

[3] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Life in the Woods), edt Laura Ross, (New York, Sterling Pub) p. 426.