Jesus the Servant Leader

The Christological Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 is used by the apostle Paul to encourage his Philippian readers to maintain unity within the church. In 2:1-4 Paul appeals to them to act to avoid division and divisiveness within the community. It seems that in the face of external persecution (1:27-30) internal dissension was occurring within the church. The apostle recognizes that the church can only survive external pressure when its members are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). He therefore urges them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in one accord and of one mind” (2:2). Practically, this means that each member should “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3). Barth (1962) comments that “each is to climb down from the throne on which he sits, and to mind and seek after the one end, which is then also that of the others and in which all must find their way to unity” (p. 50). Unity is produced through practicing mutuality. Paul refers to such behavior as “humility” which regards “others as better than yourselves” (2:3). The supreme example of such behavior is Jesus Christ who is the subject of 2:5-11. 

Paul’s argument has a three part structure. In verses 1-4 he appeals for attitudes and behavior which produce harmony and unity. Verse 5 is a link between this exhortation and the example that follows in verses 6-11. This example provides the most compelling argument for the desired attitudes and behavior. It is then followed by a further exhortation in verses 12-18 (Fee, 1995; Witherington, 1994). Witherington (1994) states that “verses 1-18 as a whole must be seen as an exhortation to unity that involves inculcating the proper attitude and humble mutual service, with the example of Christ appealed to as a model” (p. 60). The Christological Hymn itself has two parts. Verses 6-8 refer to behavior by Jesus Christ that believers are called to imitate. Verses 9-11 describe the elevation given to Jesus Christ by God the Father. 

Christ’s behavior is described in three progressive stages: (1) though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited; (2) he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness; and (3) being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. This description of Christ’s descent contains five important words. The first of these words is morphē (form or essence) which Fee (1995) suggests means “that which truly characterizes a given reality” (p. 204). It indicates that the apostle Paul is maintaining the essential and continuing divinity of Jesus. The second word is harpagmos (exploited) which only occurs here in the Bible and which means “robbery” or “the act of snatching” (Thurston & Ryan, 2005, p. 81). It indicates that Jesus did not take advantage of or exploit the position that was his. Witherington (1994) states that “Christ becomes the ultimate example of one who did not pursue his own interests or selfishly take advantage of rights, privileges, or status that were properly his, but rather “emptied himself”” (p. 66). The third word is ekenōsen (emptied) which is used to indicate the choice of Jesus to function within humans limitations. Thurston & Ryan (2005) observe that “the comparison being made is that of the highest form of being (God) to the lowest form of being (slave)” (p. 82). It is a shocking contrast. The fourth word is homoiōma (likeness or appearance). Paul’s use of homoiōma indicates that the human appearance might not be all that there is to Jesus. The fifth word is schēma (appearance) which Thurston and Ryan (2005) note is the opposite of morphē. It means something like demeanor, or what can be outwardly known, and implies what is changeable and external Witherington (1994) notes that schēma “always suggests the way in which a thing or person appears to our senses” (p. 65). Taken together these words allow us to understand the true extent of the descent of Jesus while not suggesting that he gave up his divinity. 

The theological issue implicit in Paul’s description of the descent of Jesus is the question of what exactly Christ emptied himself of. The text does not provide an explicit answer. Fee (1995) states that the need to have emptied himself of “something” is not in keeping with Pauline usage and that “this is metaphor, pure and simple” (p. 210). Paul’s real concern is the divine selflessness demonstrated in the actions of Jesus. Witherington (1994) suggests that “Christ set aside his rightful divine prerogatives or status” and that “this does not mean that he set aside his divine nature, but it does indicate some sort of self-limitation, some setting aside of divine rights or privileges” (p. 66). Theologically, it is likely that Paul thinks that Christ did not draw upon his ability to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and instead accepted human limitations of time, space, and knowledge. He lived among us as one of us and, therefore, his example has real moral and persuasive power. Witherington (1994) states, “Paul does not think it is ridiculous idealism to appeal to the example of Christ as a moral pattern for believers. Rather, he believes that by God’s Spirit and grace believers too can be obedient even unto death” (p. 67). Christ has shown us his true nature and what it means to be equal with God. It means taking the role of a servant for the sake of others. 

While verses 6-8 emphasize the great depths to which Jesus willingly descended, verses 9-11 indicate the elevation given to him by God the Father. In these verses, God the Father is the subject and Jesus is the object. “Therefore” (dio) at the beginning of verse 9 indicates that God’s action is the result of Jesus’ obedience. God highly exalted Jesus and placed his name above all others. The verb huperupsōsen (highly exalted) means to raise exceedingly high and was used “metaphorically of assigning a person to a high status so that that person received honor, obedience, praise, and submission from other people of lower status” (Witherington, 1994, p. 69). The name of Jesus commands obeisance. Thurston and Ryan (2005) suggest that “the overall image is that of an enthronement; Jesus is exalted, and his “subjects” kneel before him” (p. 84). His reign extends over the three-tiered world of Greek cosmology. Nothing in creation is outside of Jesus’ rule. Paul likely has in view the eschaton when all of creation acknowledges the lordship of Jesus. Every individual person and every people group are destined to confess the lordship of Jesus. 

The readers of Philippians belonged to first century Mediterranean culture which includes Jewish culture and Greco-Roman culture. It is likely that the apostle Paul issues an ideological challenge to the Greco-Roman understanding of humility in his portrayal of Jesus. Thurston and Ryan (2005) point out that humility “would have been a startling word in the ears of the original audience because it was a slave virtue, not a quality touted for proud citizens of a Roman city” (p. 74). Humility was the subservient attitude of a lower-class person and involved distasteful self-abasement. The apostle Paul provides a new and positive meaning to the word as it describes the chosen behavior of those seeking to exemplify Jesus Christ. Humility becomes “the virtue describing lowly service chosen and executed by a noble person” (Thurston & Ryan, 2005, p. 74). The nature of such humility is exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ. 

In the form of God Jesus emptied himself and as a human he humbled himself. In his human existence he chose to take the lowest place. By adopting the slave virtue of humility Jesus emptied himself of all privilege and position. The aorist verb “implies one definite action in the past” with continuing effects (Thurston & Ryan, 2005, p. 83). The definite action that Paul is alluding to is Jesus’ choice of the cross. Crucifixion was the punishment reserved for heinous criminals and only non-Roman citizens could be put to death in this way. It emphasizes the depths of the humiliation that Jesus endured and challenges Greco-Roman notions of status. 

Paul uses the life of Jesus Christ as the model for Christian behavior and community. As Thurston and Ryan (2005) point out, “our wholeness and unity as a community come through renunciation of the natural, selfish state and the appropriation of Jesus’ self-giving, to which God responded positively” (p. 90). Paul apparently felt that the Philippians were engaging in behavior that was selfish and ambitious. Such behavior has no place in the Christian community. Thurston and Ryan (2005) suggest that “it is only through chosen acts of self-emptying, only through looking to others’ welfare as well as our own (2:4) that we are brought into the sphere of Jesus, his life and his power” (p. 91). Witherington (1994) suggests that “Christ becomes the ultimate example of one who did not pursue his own interests or selfishly take advantage of rights, privileges, or status that were properly his, but rather “emptied himself”” (p. 66). To live as a follower of Jesus is to act in status-rejecting ways and to be prepared to suffer for others. 

Witherington (1994) points out that Paul’s advice to the Philippians has social implications because it cuts across “the distinction usually made between those of greater and lesser status” (p. 63). Such social hierarchies are undermined by everyone serving and considering the interests of others. All human thoughts of the exaltation of self are critiqued by Jesus Christ. Leaders become “at most exemplary or head servants” (Witherington, 1994, p. 65). When one has as a model a servant leader one willingly takes on a much lower status and undertakes servile roles. Fee (1995) points out that Christ’s actions reveal the character of God: “Here is the epitome of God-likeness: the pre-existent Christ was not a “grasping, selfish” being, but one whose love for others found its consummate expression in “pouring himself out,” in taking the role of a slave, in humbling himself to the point of death on behalf of those so loved” (p. 197). God is not an acquisitive being, but self-giving for the sake of others. To follow Christ is therefore to engage in servant-hood and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. 

The theory of servant leadership focuses on the ethical and motivational attributes of the leader. The concept can be identified in the example of Jesus who practices selfless and self-sacrificial leadership which is focused on the needs of others (Miller, 2002). Greenleaf (1977) describes the servant leader as one who facilitates the achievement of a shared vision via the personal development and empowerment of followers. Servant leadership theory posits that service to followers is the primary responsibility of leaders and the essence of ethical leadership (Yukl, 2006). Servant leadership “assumes that the role of the leader is to serve the organization and the individuals within it” (Kezar, 2001, p. 88). Service includes nurturing, defending, and empowering followers. A servant leader is concerned for the needs of his followers and seeks their well being along with the well being of the organization. A servant leader empowers followers rather than dominating them. Greenleaf believes that followers of servant leaders are inspired to become servant leaders themselves. The results of servant leadership include higher ethical standards within organizations and greater value placed on human worth. 

Laub (1999) suggests that servant leadership promotes the development of people through: (1) the sharing of power; (2) community building; (3) the practice of authenticity in leadership; and (4) the provision of leadership for the good of followers. Washington, Sutton and Field (2006) posit the values of empathy, integrity, and competence as being necessary to foster the interpersonal trust between leader and followers which is an essential ingredient of servant leadership. They also suggest a relationship between servant leadership and the personality trait of agreeableness. They find that leaders are only able to demonstrate servant leadership when they: (1) exhibit “genuine concern for the needs and interests of others” (p. 710); (2) “inspire confidence in others because they can be trusted to do what they say they are going to do” (p. 711); (3) “elicit the trust of followers by forging followers’ confidence in the leaders’ knowledge, skills, and abilities” (p. 711); and (4) “demonstrate agreeableness through altruism and sympathetic and generous behaviors” (p. 711). 

Jesus epitomizes the servant leader and Paul presents him as an example for the Philippians. Jesus set aside his own rights for the sake of others to the point of laying down his life (c.f. John 15:13). Peter, reflecting later on the example of Jesus, writes “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Paul uses the example of Jesus in the same way as Peter in an effort to inspire his readers to become servant leaders themselves. 

Christian leaders should integrate the insights into leadership that are provided in Scripture with contemporary theories of leadership. The most fundamental of these scriptural insights is the example of Jesus Christ. As portrayed in the Christological Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of a leader who uses his status and power solely for the good of others. He does not pursue his own interests or take advantage of his rights and privileges. He “empties” himself for the benefit of others. To lead in imitation of the example of Jesus Christ is to act in status-rejecting ways and to be prepared to suffer for others.


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Bel Litchfield