For centuries, Christians have loved to imagine that each leader in their religion is really a servant leader. That may be true of some, but it’s certainly not true of them all. In Christianity, the worst abuses come from leaders who do not deserve to wield their power. And those people have learned how to look like good, trustworthy candidates for it. The servant leader trope may make Christians feel good, but it masks their utter inability to give power only to those who will use it well and safely—and prevents them from reliably detecting and expelling those who don’t.
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 4/20/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and both should be available by the time you see this. <3)
Christianese 101: Reversals as part of Christian mythology
In the New Testament, writers often play around with reversals. Here are just a few attributed to Jesus, courtesy of Knowing Jesus:
But many who are first will be last, and the last, first. (Mark 10:31)
He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. (Luke 1:52)
Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:25)
Even more than that, Jesus himself is a reversal in many ways: A divine god-man who arranged his own birth in an animal’s manger and to poor parents; the god of the entire universe who humbled himself to live as a human; humanity’s savior, but he was rejected by his own people and died a criminal’s ignominious death. He was a king, but this world was not his kingdom. Likewise, he promised his followers that they’d have difficult lives because of their worship of him. Sure, he’d give them literally anything they wanted if they asked for it in prayer (and really, really, rillyrillyrilly believed they’d get it). For all that, though, they sure wouldn’t be living life on easy mode.
When I was Christian, my church leaders taught us that at the time, Jesus’ Jewish followers were certain Jesus would lead them in victorious battle against their hated Roman occupiers and rulers. They were very disappointed when he didn’t and told them, instead, to pay their taxes to Rome and never respond to violence with violence.
The servant leader as another reversal
In Christianese, a servant leader is someone who technically leads a group but does so with great humility and gentleness. Instead of seeking to boss people around and increasing their own fame, a servant leader seeks only to enrich the group and lead its members to greater and greater heights of Jesus-ification. In every way, a servant leader serves only the group.
“Servant leadership is a way of life,” gushes Trinity Western University (TWU):
Jesus explained to his followers that their practice of leadership was to be distinctly different than the self-seeking, self-serving, and domineering style of leadership often found in the world: “Whoever would be first among you must be servant of all” (Mk 10:42-44; Mt 20: 25-28).
Good leadership motivates and mobilizes others to accomplish a task or to think with creativity, vision, integrity and skill for the benefit of all concerned. Servant-leadership serves others by investing in their development and well being for the benefit of the common good. Thus good Christian servant-leaders serve God through investing in others so that together they may accomplish a task for God’s glory
Now wait just a second, Cas, I hear you asking: Isn’t that what any good leader does? Isn’t this just the opposite of dysfunctional authoritarian leadership?
(Or maybe that’s just me. Who else is in here?!?)
How servant leadership differs from, well, just regular leadership
TWU goes on to describe a strawman version of secular leadership. First, they tell us—and you might not believe this, but it’s true!—that sometimes the leaders depicted in the Bible weren’t exactly obedient, mostly-sinless men. They go on to tell us that Jesus’ followers were completely accustomed to group leaders who were “self-seeking and domineering.” Then, they solemnly warn us that “servant-leadership is not a model for the weak or for losers.” (Oh, okay.) And then we get a long table outlining the differences between “self-serving leadership” and “servanthood leadership.”
As you might suspect, the “self-serving leadership” column contains a lot of sociopathic, authoritarian behavior. But with Jesus Power, which interested students can no doubt learn from TWU for a modest fee, Christians can lay hands on the bestest-ever kind of leadership instead!
We find similar strawman tactics on display in Wycliffe’s listicle of “6 Qualities of a Servant Leader” and Desiring God’s “Five Marks of a Servant Leader.” Similarly, we find similar remarks at The NIV Bible and What Christians Want to Know.
(At that last site, we also find the curious assertion that Romans valued slaves far more than servants, who could quit and work elsewhere at any time—and that slave owners in Ancient Rome trusted their slaves implicitly to keep their masters’ secrets and protect their masters’ interests at all times. [Citation needed] In truth, masters could abuse their slaves for betraying them. That’s not valuing them more than free(er) servants. It’s the dead opposite. Also, slaves could and did gossip plenty. But I suppose we now know a bit more about the source of that weird slavery apologetics trend that white evangelicals started in the early 2010s.)
So Christians, particularly evangelicals, have a fairly consistent body of beliefs regarding the concept of a servant leader: Someone who serves the group’s members and interests before any personal agendas, and a leadership style that is supposed to be worlds away and above any ickie heathen secular worldly styles.
And perhaps they should be fairly consistent. After all, this is a fairly new concept.
Amazingly, though, this concept is not actually Christian in origin!
People generally credit Robert Greenleaf with inventing the term itself. Starting in the 1950s, he began developing the concepts of servant leadership. In 1970, his essay “The Servant as Leader” formally debuted the idea. And by the 1990s, all sorts of secular management researchers were swarming over it.
Yes, I said “secular” back there. Greenleaf himself was a corporate manager. After retiring from AT&T, he became a consultant. He taught his radical new management style to all kinds of big-name businesses and institutions like MIT, AT&T, and Lilly Endowment.
And in groups that practice real accountability, it probably works pretty well. I’m talking about cooperative and functional authoritarian groups, like some military organizations or call centers or something.
Of course, it didn’t take long for Christians to appropriate this new management philosophy. I’m sure it sprung Jesus boners all the way from Honolulu, Hawaii to Eastport, Maine. When they heard it, Christians forgot all about Jesus praising people who wasted money on worshiping him, or him telling a parable about a banquet host who tells his servant to “compel” unwilling guests to attend.
(His recruitment of the first disciples doesn’t sound particularly servant-leader-y to me, either. Nor does that surreal, out-of-place Road to Emmaus story where he tricks his mourning disciples twice. I don’t know if we’ll ever learn exactly what wild-eyed revolutionary Jewish preacher inspired the character of Jesus. But I suspect he was the polar opposite of a loving, caring, ultimate-good-guy.)
How Christians appropriated the idea of the servant leader
In 1993, N.D. Akuchie wrote “The servants and the superstars: An examination of servant leadership in light of Matthew 20:20-28.” (Sen Sendjaya and James Sarros would follow it up in 2008 with “Defining and Measuring Servant Leadership Behaviour in Organizations.”) They all sounded peeved that Jesus Christ wasn’t given credit for innovating the idea in the 1st century CE.
By now, the idea of a servant leader is so entwined with Christianity, and specifically with evangelicalism, that it was a genuine surprise to me to learn that its early history is entirely secular and that Greenleaf taught his method and philosophy not to Christian leaders, but to secular businesspeople. In his 1970 essay, he mentions the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (on p. 15 of the PDF). But he also mentions a swarm of secular leaders, artists, and philosophers. I guess he didn’t hit these Christian critics’ target JPS (Jesuses Per Sentence).
That’s how one writer could assert in 2014 that “The most fundamental source of the servant leadership concept comes from the Bible.” It’s also how critics (like this guy) commonly mention how difficult it is for non-Christians to relate to or embrace such a Christian-centric idea. Even if some researchers don’t push servant leadership as an exclusively Christian idea, they still propose (as we see here; also here and, uh, here too) that Christian-ish beliefs and devotions are “a causal factor” in allowing someone to develop as a servant leader.
What makes a servant leader fail, then, is obvious, isn’t it?
As we’ve seen, most Christians tend to take for granted that a servant leader must, first and foremost, be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Michael Mial, who bills himself as an “✟✟✟ ULTRA MAGA ✟✟✟ PHILOSOPHER and FOLLOWER of CHRIST,” tells us why he thinks “Servant Leadership is Failing.” You will all be shocked to learn that it is because of incorrect and insufficient Jesus-ing:
Many Christian organizations and churches have abandoned the old sound doctrine of the faith and have strayed from God to the world and its emphasis on popularity, money, and success.
We’ve seen this implication already in the bigger-name and far more authoritative Christian sources I’ve already presented. But I like this one. This guy is as homegrown Low Christian as it comes, and he’s just rewording those better sources in his own unique way.
Mial tells us that any conflict that leaders and followers have is “the result of unwarranted and unfilled desire. [. . .] It is at the heart of all conflict.” Then, he tells us that far too many Christians “redefine Christianity” to make Jesus’ demands easier and more palatable. Not the ULTRA-MAGA dude himself, of course. But many others.
In their redefinitions, Mial warns us, Christians become worldly. And that makes it impossible for any of them to be a real servant leader:
Modern America and the world teach to only worry about one’s self and to be as comfortable as possible, but it is clear that Jesus teaches the complete opposite of this and how important it is to love others as self and esteem them higher than one’s self. This cannot adequately happen though, if the person is not dying to themselves daily to live for and to honor God and His will, instead of their own. Only then, will the leader possess God’s unselfish love and righteousness to be able to truly love and put others above themselves and their own selfish desires.
Take that, Buddhists. Checkmate, atheists!
Fake it till you make it, again
“Service-first leadership is a mindset, a belief system, and a way of life; it cannot be forged,” declares one secular business-consultation service.
I’m sure whoever wrote that genuinely believes it. But Christians have long ago figured out how to fake their servant leadership street cred well enough to trick their leaders and church committees.
The people handing these fakers power have no clue in the world how to evaluate the truth of an applicant’s fervor and purity. It’s incredibly easy to fool people about religious faith—learn a few basic body-language details and get fluent in Christianese, and anyone could easily blend in at any evangelical church. Nowadays, you don’t even have to cover up tattoos or memorize Bible verses or famous songs, though it would help.
That’s how, in the 2011 documentary “Miracles for Sale,” Derren Brown hired a normie to impersonate a successful faith healer with an overseas following. Brown had to do a little fancy footwork, but overall it wasn’t that hard to trick church leaders into accepting “James Collins” as exactly what he claimed to be:
(If you just want to watch the part where he creates his faith-healer character, here it is.)
But the servant leader model breaks down with dysfunctional authoritarians
There’s a reason why it’s so easy for wolves to trick Christians into letting them into their sheepfold.
The more a Christian group leans toward dysfunctional authoritarianism, the easier it is to fake fervor with them. Of necessity, such a group’s members cannot become too intimate with each other. Nobody can trust anyone else. These groups are marked by backbiting, nursed grudges, secret-keeping and secret-leaking, and intense politicking.
Intimacy requires the people involved to show their true selves to each other and trust that the other won’t betray them with that information. But dysfunctional authoritarians know very well that such intimacy would only become ammunition at some point. Any show of weakness or failure to toe the party line can and will be used against them.
Their betrayers use that ammunition to gain favor with others—especially with leaders at all levels above themselves. The leaders in these groups are well aware of how precarious their position will become without plenty of underlings to prop it up.
Accountability, just without any actual accountability
In a number of Christian sources I’ve cited today, accountability comes up as an all-important way to ensure that a servant leader stays on track. Cru stresses this point several times in their own writeup. However, they don’t actually show readers what accountability looks like.
For their own part, TWU talks constantly about accountability (relink). They’re a bit more specific:
Servant-leadership does not negate accountability or responsibility. The servant-leaders role may at times require recommending correction or appropriate discipline, always taking into account the interests and heart of the offender and others and the good of all members.
In their comparison of “self-serving leadership” and “servanthood leadership,” the former is “accountable only to superiors and shuns personal evaluations as interference.” The latter, by contrast, is “accountable to God and others and welcomes personal evaluations as a means to improve performance.”
In dysfunctional authoritarian groups, though, we find servant leaders who act exactly like “self-serving leadership.” They run their churches like kingdoms. They demand tribute and pageantry. If things aren’t done just-so, they throw a fit. Nobody can rein them in.
The poison of undeserved power: Electric Boogaloo
And that’s how these leaders like it. After all, they went to great trouble to craft (or find) groups that were dysfunctional enough to allow schmoozers and predators into their leadership. These groups strip power from members, only to hand it to those leaders. The only real way to survive, then, is to claw one’s way up the ranks. In other words, to gain power.
The further toward the top of the leadership ladder someone is, the more power they have. That means that they can order more people around and make demands of them. In turn, fewer people can order them around or make demands of them. The person at the very top of that ladder is beholden to nobody, but can order everyone around and make demands of them.
In these groups, gaining power means being given it by someone more powerful. Often, the group’s members network together to recommend each other for new or expanded roles within the group. Gradually, members get assignments and committee positions that rank them up the ladder.
By the time group members finally become trusted members of a dysfunctional authoritarian leader’s inner circle, they’ve passed any number of critical loyalty tests. They’ve shown themselves unflinchingly loyal to that leader and that leader’s goals. No matter what, they’ll protect that leader’s interests and keep anything secret. (Mostly, anyway. The Duggars couldn’t stop their fellow church members from gossiping a little. By the time Josh Duggar’s scandal became national news, it was an open secret in the Duggar’s hometown. Secrets are prized currency in dysfunctional authoritarian circles.)
When loyalty and the ability to keep terrible secrets matters more than the group’s stated goals, abuse and hypocrisy are the only results anyone should expect. Anyone too pure to be pink gets drummed out in short order—as one SBC pastor discovered in 2021 after criticizing his group’s cult veneration idol.
Servant leaders themselves perpetuate this rot
Of course, becoming the lieutenant to a dysfunctional authoritarian leader is hugely stressful and unpleasant. It requires underlings to hide their leader’s wrongdoing and lie through their teeth—as, indeed, we saw when the Ravi Zacharias scandal broke a few years ago. As it turns out, that oh-so-Jesus-y servant leader was a sexual predator. After his death, his victims found the courage to reveal what he’d done to them. And his underlings at RZIM (his ministry group) made that predation possible.
Leaders like that cannot allow any underlings to advance if their loyalty might waver upon encountering rampant, entrenched, shocking hypocrisy. In Zacharias’ case, anyone who did waver got driven out of the group. Overall, though, he could count on his underlings to protect him. And they protected him even after his death. After Zacharias’ victims spoke out, one of the higher-up sub-leaders at RZIM apparently even suggested hiring a “rough around the edges” ex-cop to discredit them.
Sure, a bunch of evangelical apologists decided that RZIM’s remaining leaders were no longer fit for ministry. But what about all the rest of the underlings who have protected their Dear Leaders’ reputations? James MacDonald’s underlings sure didn’t talk about his disturbing antics until it was perfectly safe. It’s still not safe to talk about Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) ex-leader Paige Patterson, who really loves the concept of servant leadership. As far as I know, nobody’s declared the Willow Creek, SBC, or Harvest Chapel leaders unfit for ministry anywhere else.
The biggest problem facing Christians who want a servant leader
Any Christian could hear what I have to say today and sniff at it. They could wave it all away. They could say Oh, those just aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™. No TRUE CHRISTIAN™ could mistreat people like that. A TRUE CHRISTIAN™ servant leader, by definition, is not a hypocrite or someone who hurts followers. They’re accountable!
Maybe. Perhaps there simply aren’t enough TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to test that theory.
But the more pressing problem is that Christians themselves, particularly the dysfunctional authoritarian ones who like to think of themselves as the only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ on Earth, can’t tell the difference between fakers and the real deal. As I said, they are easily fooled. They look only at the surface presentation they’re given. Because they can’t form really intimate relationships with anybody, they don’t know how to evaluate people on any level but the most superficial, surface-level ones.
This is something that gave me a lot of trouble after deconverting. For years, I trusted people I really shouldn’t have. I got into so much trouble! Eventually, I learned how to gauge people’s trustworthiness, and how to figure out if people’s presentation of themselves matched their actual behavior.
But those aren’t skills that come naturally to evangelicals.
Until a church member comes face-to-face with the reality of their servant leader, they likely won’t suspect a thing. And if they’re in a dysfunctional authoritarian group, chances are good that their programming will kick in before they get an attack of the morals-and-ethics and snitch on their leader. These folks are trained to put their group’s reputation above all other considerations.
Learning to spot groups that are trouble
Earlier, I mentioned that after I deconverted, I had trouble figuring out who I could safely trust. That goes double for groups. It really sucks to join a group that seems like it’s going to be great, only to find out that it’s a swamp of gossip, backbiting, and cliquey favoritism. Nobody decent wants to be part of those sorts of groups.
Most of my education in this department came from online gaming. Back in the 1990s, there were literally thousands of MUDs, or Multi-User Domains/Dungeons. Almost all of them were free to play, so they had volunteers staffing all administrative roles.
Usually, coders start a MUD. In turn, they often hire whoever expresses a desire to do at least a little work. Sometimes, that approach kinda works. But more often, it doesn’t. Most MUDs seem like hives of infighting and disarray, with scandals and accusations flying every day on their forums.
I learned to avoid any game that suffers from a lot of gossip, especially if it involves grievances against staff. Yes, those can be false accusations. But they often indicate something very rotten in the group’s makeup. They indicate powerless players, if nothing else, and that’s not a good sign for games or churches. If those grievances just hang in the air—unresolved, unfixed—be doubly wary. If they involve favoritism or rulebreaking on the part of admins, run fast and far away.
Fast turnover in sub-leaders is another big red flag. It means people are either leaving or being driven out after making an initial investment in seeking leadership roles.
See? No gods required. These are just people skills. If Jesus isn’t telling Christians who is and isn’t a real servant leader, then they can still learn to gauge an applicant’s real character. But that’d involve diving deeper than the surface, and as we’ve seen that’s kinda the problem with dysfunctional authoritarians.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter email@example.com (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!
The one MUD that I know has good, solid, functional leadership has a coder with actual managerial experience. He chose admins very carefully, vetting them, getting to know them personally, and giving them increasing responsibilities to gauge their performance. And his MUD is still going almost 20 years after I stopped MUDding. When I dropped by to say hi a few years ago, most of the admins I’d known were still there—and still active. One was a player I’d recommended for promotion. And another had annoyed me a lot, but she’d always had a good heart. She thanked me for trying to be fair with her.
And in honor of 4/20, please enjoy “High in Church,” one of my favorite Trevor Moore songs: