Happenings, News

Leadership or servanthood?



homepage4-Dec 2004

PREACHING at the morning worship of the General Con-ference of The Methodist Church in Singapore on Oct 21, Bishop Dr Hwa Yung of The Methodist Church in Malaysia drew attention to the tensions between leadership and servanthood in the Christian context.

He said the need for the very best in leadership is increasingly recognised everywhere, while many churchmen rightly speak of, and emphasise the importance of leadership in the church.

However, the language used, the concepts with which it is worked and the underlying motivations are often borrowed from secular leadership studies. If the church follows this path uncritically, Christians may be misguided, he cautioned.

The emphasis in Biblical teaching is first, and foremost, servanthood and not “leadership”. If this is not clearly taught and internalised into Christian lives, any talk of leadership will tend to encourage self-seeking ambition.

He pointed out that Bishop Stephen Neill once said “that ambition in any or-dinary sense of the term is nearly always sinful in ordinary men. I am certain that in the Christian it is always sinful, and that it is most inexcusable of all in the ordained minister”. (Quoted in Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, 1994, p.15). “The one ambition that the Bible encourages us to seek after is to be a servant, rather than striving to lead.”

Bishop Dr Hwa Yung, who was elected the Malaysian Methodist Bishop about 10 weeks ago on Sept 22, referred first to the Lord’s reply to the ambitious brothers, James and John, whose mother had asked for them to be seated in places of honour: “ … the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. (Mk 10:45).

This is further illustrated by the (Greek) vocabulary used in the New Testament, particularly “leadership” in the way the world uses it.

One of the words, archo (rule over), is clearly used negatively to mean “lord-ing it over others”. In contrast, the two pairs of words used to describe the ministry, diakoneo (waiting at tables), diakonos (household servant used for “deacons”); and douleuo (serving) and doulos (slave) are used more than 40 times in the New Testament and sum up its teaching on Christian ministry as servanthood.

Bishop Dr Hwa Yung drew lessons from Paul’s sermon to the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:17-35) citing humil-ity, which underlines the importance of willingness to do lowly and needful tasks, rebutting our natural instinct to seek that which enhances our public importance.

A person’s life and priorities show how much he understands about being a servant. Humility is also shown in appreciating the contributions of others, he said.

Phil 2:3 tells us to regard others as “better than yourselves”, an important reminder against the unconscious desire to think of our giftings and magnifying our sense of self-importance. Related to this is the appreciation of the value of the ministry of others, especially those with whom we have disagree-ments, and to know the value of self-effacement – to be a Barnabas.

Related to humility is compas-sion (v.19), he said. It is easy to have passion in ministry; it is much more difficult to have compassion, which together with empathy, are always very precious in Christian ministry. It is easy to scold, rebuke and criticise the sinner, but how often have we wept for those who have not repented?

A third characteristic is faithfulness (v.19b). Despite severe testing by the enemies of the Gospel, Paul was deter-mined to preach the total demands of Gospel – “the whole will of God”. There is a danger of preaching a partial Gospel for the sake of popularity or wanting to be a “nice guy”.

A fourth is the absence of self-seek-ing ambition (v.32-35). Although Paul speaks of the absence of covetousness for money, the same principle applies to other types of ambition, like sex or power, and applies equally to pastors and lay leaders alike.

Finally, sacrifice. In obedience to the leading of the Spirit (v.22-24), Paul speaks of the willingness to pay the cost, whatever it is. It is unfortunate that this is not much understood in the present day, especially among the younger generation who have grown up with so much.

Bishop Dr Hwa Yung concluded by emphasising that the church needs lead-ers, but is often cluttered with the wrong kind. Again quoting Bishop Stephen Neill: “If we set out to produce a race of leaders, what we shall succeed in doing is probably to produce a race of restless, ambitious and discontented intellectuals.

“To tell a man he is called to be a leader is the best way of ensuring his spiritual ruin, since in the Christian world, ambition is more deadly than any other sin, and, if yielded to, makes a man unprofitable in the ministry. The most important thing today is the spiritual, rather than the intellectual quality of those indigenous Christians who are called to bear responsibility in the younger churches.” (Quoted in Sanders,
Spiritual Leadership, 1994:148).

“We should aim at training godly men and women who are willing to be servants, and if God adds to such the gift of leadership, then we can all rejoice together.”