The Biblical Model for Spiritual Leadership


The Strong Natural Leader

Competent leadership is a much sought-after commodity in almost every area of our contemporary society. The business community in particular demonstrates the priority it places on quality leaders by the price it’s willing to pay to secure or train them.

Perhaps the most desirable leaders are those whom some have called "strong natural leaders" (SNL)--men and women who share some common personality traits:

  • They are visionaries--always looking forward.
  • They are energetic and action oriented--always on the move. We would call them hyperactive if they were children.
  • They are courageous--never lacking the "guts" to say what they think.
  • They tend to be goal or task oriented rather than people oriented, viewing people as tools to accomplish their goals.
  • They tend to be paternalistic--the great protector/ teacher.
  • They are usually egocentric--sometimes admittedly; sometimes unknowingly.
  • They are intolerant of those who don’t measure up to their expectations.
  • They usually consider themselves indispensable.

Most SNL’s lead by precept and power. They super-motivate people verbally and sweep them along in the dramatics, energy, and action of what they are doing (John MacArthur Jr., Shepherdology, p. 114).

Such is the world’s standard of leadership. But God’s standard is quite different.

Paradoxical Style of Leadership

Jesus said,

  • "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not [to be the case] among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slaves of all" (Mark 10:42-44).
  • "Who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves" (Luke 22:27).

With those brief words, Jesus made a clear distinction between the self-centered leadership of His day and the others-centered leadership that was to characterize His disciples.

Jesus taught that true spiritual leaders are servants--first of God, then of His people. That’s a paradoxical and revolutionary concept because normally servants don’t lead and leaders don’t serve. But servant-leaders operate on a spiritual plane, not a natural plane. Therefore they must forsake the world’s model of leadership and embrace Christ’s, which places character above function, motives above activities, humility above promotions, faithfulness above success, and others above self.

The Example and Teachings of Christ

Jesus Was a Servant

Jesus was the supreme example of His own philosophy of ministry. In the incarnation, He voluntarily set aside the independent exercise of some of His divine prerogatives, took the form of a bond-servant, and humbled Himself through obedience--even to the point of dying on the cross (Phil. 2:7-9). His whole life was dedicated to fulfilling His Father’s will on behalf of others. That’s the heart and soul of a true spiritual leader.

Jesus repeatedly used the slave/master metaphor to teach servant-leadership to His disciples. In John 13:12-17 He dramatizes humility, which is its primary characteristic:

When [Jesus] had washed [the disciples’] feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at the table again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."

In Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus condemns the prideful and self-seeking Jewish religious leaders, then uses the opportunity to stress the nature of true leadership:

  • The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. . . . They do all their deeds to be noticed by men. . . .
  • They love the place of honor . . . and being called by men, Rabbi. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.

But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

William Hendriksen gives this helpful commentary on that passage:

  • Over against the vice of pomposity, so characteristic of many a Pharisee or scribe, Jesus commends the virtue of humility [and condemns] the yearning for rank, for special recognition above one’s fellow members. . . . The warning was necessary. Many a Jew must have envied the man who was called "rabbi" (loosely translated, "teacher"); or, if a member of the Sanhedrin was addressed as "father" (Acts 7:2)
  • . . . . So Jesus is saying that the attention of his followers must not be fixed on human titles and distinctions but on God in Christ, worthy of all reverence, praise, and honor. . . . To yearn for distinctions and honors above one’s fellowmen, and unrelated to the glory that is due to Christ . . . is (what) Jesus condemns (New Testament Commentary, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 824).

Jesus also confronted His own disciples for their sinful ambitions. In fact, much of his teaching on servant-leadership was prompted by their disputes over which of them would be greatest in God’s Kingdom.

Their attitude:

  • The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to [Jesus] with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him. And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left." . . . And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers (Matt. 20:20-21, 24).

Christ’s response:

  • Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:26-28; see also Mark 10:43-45).

Their attitude:

  • The disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matt. 18:1).

Christ’s response:

  • Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3-4).

Their attitude:

  • [Jesus and the disciples] came to Capernaum; and when [Jesus] was in the house, He began to question them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34).

Christ’s response:

  • If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all (Mark 9:35).

Their attitude:

  • An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which of them might be the greatest. . . . There arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest (Luke 9:46; 22:24).

Christ’s response:

  • He who is least among you, this is the one who is great (Luke 9:48).

We see that a servant-leader must shun pride and selfishness and embrace humility and self-sacrifice. Later we’ll see how those characteristics apply more specifically to his ministry.

Jesus Was a Shepherd

Jesus saw Himself as the shepherd of His people. In John 10 He says,

  • I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. . . . I know My own, and My own know Me. . . . I lay down My life for the sheep. . . . My sheep hear My voice . . . and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish (vv. 11, 14-15, 27-28).

Just prior to His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to His disciples, You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, "I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered" (Matt. 26:31).

Hebrews 13:20 says,

  • The God of peace . . . brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord.

Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, who purchased His flock with His own precious blood, then appointed undershepherds to protect and care for it (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Theirs is the sacred task of a caretaker, not an owner. And they are accountable to God Himself for faithfully carrying out that task (Heb. 13:17).

Some New Testament Terms for Leaders

The terms that New Testament writers used to describe their own ministries give us additional insights into the kind of leadership God wants for His church.

The Servant-Leader Is a Slave

The most common metaphor for spiritual leaders is "slave" or "servant," which translates three Greek words: doulos, huperetes, and diakonos. W.E. Vine writes:

  • Speaking broadly, doulos views a servant in relation to his master; huperetes, in relation to his superior; diakonos, in relation to his work (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 72).


Doulos is most commonly translated "bond-servant." Kenneth Wuest comments:

  • Paul calls Timothy and himself servants of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:1). There is no definite article in the Greek. They were servants by nature. The word is doulos, and refers to one bound to another. Paul was bound to Jesus Christ by the bands of a constraining love.
  • It refers to one born into slavery. Paul was born into slavery to sin by his first birth, and into the position of a loving bond-servant of the Lord Jesus by his new birth.
  • It refers to one who is in a relation to another which only death can break. Paul’s relation to Satan was broken by his identification with Christ in His death. He now is in a relation to Jesus Christ, which will last forever, since Christ can never die again, and Paul’s life is Christ.
  • It refers to one whose will is swallowed up in the will of another. Paul’s will was at one time swallowed up in the will of Satan. Now his will is swallowed up in the sweet will of God.
  • It refers to one who serves another even to the disregard of his own interests. Paul served Satan to the detriment of his own interests. Now he serves the Lord Jesus with a reckless abandon, not regarding his own interests (Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Vol. II, pp. 26-27).

A bond-servant wasn’t necessarily without dignity or authority. Jesus Himself became a bond-servant (Phil. 2:7), thereby granting supreme dignity to that position. Colin Brown comments:

  • In order to appreciate the nuances of meaning [of doulos] in the [New Testament], we must first see what its attitude is to the position of the slave in society. This can be found out principally from the parables of Jesus. Occasionally, slaves are put in a position of responsibility and command (Matt. 24:45). . . .
  • The [New Testament] resists the contemporary verdict on slaves as a contemptible lower class by, in the first place, the use of doulos in the parables of Jesus to describe the relation of all men to God (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3, p. 595).


The Greek word huperetes speaks of another characteristic of a servant-leader: his relation to his superior. This term is variously translated "servant," "minister," "attendant," and "helper." It has specific reference to:

John Mark’s ministry to Paul and Barnabas:

  • When [Paul and Barnabas] reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper (huperetes) (Acts 13:5).

Paul’s call by Jesus:

  • Arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister (huperetes) and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you (Acts 26:16).

The apostolic ministry:

  • Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants (huperetes) of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1).

W.E. Vine defines huperetes as:

  • An under rower (hupo, under, eretes, a rower), as distinguished from nautes, a seaman . . . hence [the word] came to denote any subordinate acting under another’s direction (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 72).

Rengstrof, writing in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 8, pp. 533), adds:

  • The special feature of huperetes . . . is that he willingly learns his task and goal from another who is over him. . . . though it is true that the huperetes has a superior when he acts as a rower, and has to follow his directions, it is not rowing as such which makes him a huperetes, but only the fact that he rows according to directions. In other words, the usage shows that it is the relationship of service which is basic to the description of a rowerhuperetes doesn’t dictate his own course of action but yield’s to another’s authority for the sake of accomplishing a specific task--as under rowers worked together at the command of a supervisor to move a mighty ship through the water.
  • To use another metaphor, it’s the individual members of the Body of Christ responding to the dictates of Christ, who is their Head. As a huperetes who is granted oversight of others, the servant-leader must faithfully obey Christ’s orders and convey those orders to those under his charge. He must obey and teach the whole counsel of God (Acts. 20:26-27).


The third Greek term for a slave is diakonos, from which we get "deacon." Its Greek root is dioko, which means "to hasten after or pursue." It’s used in the New Testament for:

  • Servants of others (Matt. 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43).
  • Servants of a master (Matt. 22:13).
  • Domestic servants or waiters (John 2:5, 9).
  • Servants of Christ (John 12:36; Eph. 6:21; Col. 1:7; 4:7).
  • A civil servant (Rom. 13:4).
  • Servants of the church (Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1).
  • The office of deacon in the church (1 Tim. 3:8, 12).

Jesus said,

  • If anyone serves (diakonos) Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant (diakonos) also be; if anyone serves (diakonos) Me, the Father will honor him (John 12:26).

All Christians serve Christ, but diakonos, as applied to spiritual leaders, emphasizes their service to others. Paul, Apollos, Epaphras, and Tychicus are examples:

  • What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants (diakonos) through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one (1 Cor. 3:5).
  • Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant (doulos), who is a faithful servant (diakonos) of Christ on our behalf (Col. 1:7).
  • That you also may know about my circumstances, how I am doing, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister (diakonos) in the Lord, will make everything known to you (Eph. 6:21).
  • As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant (diakonos) and fellow bond-servant (doulos) in the Lord, will bring you information (Col. 4:7).

A diakonos serves others by ministering the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:1-6), the gospel (Eph. 3:1-10; Col. 7:21-23), and God’s Word (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 4:6). Just as a table waiter must get the food from the kitchen to the table without spilling it, so a diakonos must dispense God’s revelation without adulterating it in any way. That task will dictate how he prioritizes his ministry and budgets his time (Acts 6:2-4).

From doulos, huperetes, and diakonos emerge a picture of the spiritual leader as a bond-servant whose highest goal is to fulfill God’s will for his life. Toward that end he submits to the Spirit’s control, saturates his mind with guidance and instruction from the Word, and actively pursues the ministry of the Word to others.

The Servant-Leader Is a Steward

Another metaphor for spiritual leaders is steward:

  • Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy (1 Cor. 4:1-2).
  • The overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward (Titus 1:7).

The Greek word translated "steward" in those passages is oikonomos, which is a compound word meaning "a house arranger" (oikos, "a house" and nemo, "to arrange"). It pictures one who oversees and dispenses the property and goods of another. He doesn’t own the goods but is entrusted with their care and charged to be faithful in his duties.

In Luke 12:42-48 Jesus emphasizes the importance of being a faithful steward:

  • Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, and give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
  • But if that slave says in his heart, "My master will be a long time in coming," and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.
  • And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

True spiritual leaders are stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). In Colossians 1:26 Paul defines a mystery as a theological truth that "was hidden from past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to [God’s] saints." He gives an example:

  • God willed to make known [to the saints] what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (v. 27, see also Rom. 16:25-26).

In a broad sense, every Christian is a steward of what God has entrusted to him or her: people, possessions, spiritual gifts, and so forth. But in a specific sense, spiritual leaders are to be faithful stewards of God’s Word (with particular emphasis on the New Testament, in which God has revealed his mysteries [cf. 1 Cor. 10:6]).

The Servant-Leader Is a Shepherd

Our last metaphor is a shepherd. Jesus gave gifted men to the church to serve as teaching-shepherds to equip the saints for the work of the ministry so the church might be matured in love and sound doctrine (Eph. 4:11-16). In Acts 20:28 Paul charged the Ephesian elders to,

  • Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Peter added that elders are undershepherds of the Chief Shepherd, Christ, who will reward then with an unfading crown of glory if they oversee the flock with humility and integrity (1 Pet. 5:1-4). They do that by feeding it (John 21:15-17; 2 Tim. 4:1-2), protecting it (Acts 20:28; 2 Tim. 4:2-3), and maturing it (Eph. 4:11-16).


Unlike the world’s self-reliant and self-seeking strong natural leaders, God’s leaders are servants, stewards, and shepherds. As they faithfully pursue their high calling, God commends His people to them:

Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:7, 17).

Someday their highest goal will be realized, when they hear from their Chief Shepherd:

  • Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master (Matt. 25:23).