In a previous post, we looked at three characteristics of servant leadership as seen in the example of Jesus in the first five verses of John 13. This post is a follow-up that covers five more characteristics of servant leadership. These are drawn from John 13:6-17.
If you want a refresher on the first three characteristics of servant leadership, click on this link— 8 Characteristics of Servant Leadership.
4– Authority with Purpose (verses 6-9)
Authority is one of the most misunderstood and abused elements of leading others, regardless of circumstance—work, home, church, business, even within the military.
Webster’s definition—speaks of—power to influence or command—but also—freedom granted by one in authority.
When it comes to the role of authority as a servant leader within the Kingdom of God, Jesus is our prime example.
He received His authority from His Father. Those of us called to be leaders within God’s kingdom receive our authority from Jesus and Him alone. Not a government, nor a board, nor any ecclesiastical (church) authority.
Authority—as seen in the life and ministry of Jesus—is both a responsibility and a privilege.
It is a privilege extended to us by the Lord for His purposes and it carries a double responsibility. We are directly responsible to the Lord whenever exercising any authority within His kingdom, which includes any and all local churches. We are responsible for those Jesus gives us charge over.
Abuse of authority happens when a leader loses sight of this double-sided responsibility.
This is what we see of Jesus through His example in washing the disciples’ feet. Sometimes our authority over others needs to be set aside, just as we see Jesus setting aside His outer clothing to strip down to the level of a servant (verse 4).
At times, the Lord’s authority must be exercised for a purpose beyond the immediate situation. This is seen in Jesus’ dialog with Peter in verses 6-9. Jesus was washing the disciples' feet as an example but Peter didn’t understand this. So, Jesus exercised His authority as Messiah to make it clear Peter needed to allow Jesus to wash his feet.
Whatever authority the Lord extends to anyone is a gift because it has value and purpose beyond the person who bears it. It’s not ours to wield in whatever way we want. Its purpose is to bless and strengthen others. Authority in the role as a servant leader is not a position held or a role to play but leadership that guides others with a gentle strength.
Authority given by our Lord Jesus is both a responsibility and a privilege
5– Discernment and Restraint (verses 10-11)
When the Holy Spirit reveals things to us about others, we don’t have to reveal it to them. We need to use discretion. Discernment is too often lacking or neglected by many leaders, as well as learning to wait on the Lord. Patience isn’t just a virtue it’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us as believers (Gal 5:22).
In other words, discretion on our part as leaders means we need to exercise restraint. We don’t need to confront, defend, or warn someone unless the Holy Spirit directs us to do that after prayer and intercession. Otherwise, we may interfere with what the Lord wants to do in someone’s life.
Have you ever wondered why the Lord didn’t warn Judas about betraying Him and the consequences that would follow? In my younger years, I would have jumped into action. Actually, I did too often. I needed to learn the hard lesson that I don’t always know all there is to know (Pro 18:17).
So, why didn’t Jesus warn Judas? It was more than fulfillment of prophecy (John 13:18). Jesus knew the nature and character of His disciples. He knew Judas would betray Him sooner or later.
Discernment and restraint are essential for good leadership
6– Instruction by Example (verses 12-13)
Teaching is not all there is to instruction. Instruction must go beyond words. People need to see the truth illustrated by our leadership. Our life example is always louder than any preaching we do.
This is the basic responsibility of leadership and always has been. Instruction by example is the point of this short story only found in John’s gospel. It’s an unmistakable illustration of servant leadership.
When Jesus stripped down to the role of a servant, He knew it would not be understood (vss 4-5, 7).
When He finishes washing all the feet of the disciples, Jesus returns to the formal role of teacher and asks them, “Do you understand what I have done…?” He then reminds them who they say He is and confirms it. Was the lesson learned and passed on?
Peter, a recipient of Jesus’ physical example of servant leadership, makes it clear in his teaching to fellow leaders that we are to be examples to the people of God (1 Pet 5:1-4). In both of Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus, Paul puts great emphasis on the importance of life example.
Do we really understand what Jesus demonstrated by washing the disciples’ feet? Or has it only become an illustration or turned into a ceremony? Our responsibility is to give clear, simple instruction that people understand and visibly see at work in our lives.
Do we really understand what Jesus taught by His example of servant leadership?
7– Exhortation by Example (verses 14-15)
A well-known, obvious, and important element of good leaders—servant leaders—is to lead by example. This means we are to be a model of what is expected of those who follow our lead. On one hand, this is obvious. But as obvious as it may seem, it doesn’t always register with those we lead.
I remember one Sunday checking on the set up for a morning service—checking the thermostat, straightening chairs—with a young believer tagging along with a myriad of questions.
At one point he grabbed my arm and said, “Pastor, I’m trying to discuss important spiritual things with you!” I turned and responded, “Maybe if you help me with the set up I’ll have more time to talk.” But sadly, he walked away in frustration.
Jesus knew the disciples often discussed who was the most important among themselves and He knew His time with them was short. So, when Jesus finished washing the disciples' feet, He again took on His role as Rabbi-Teacher and told them what He expected of them.
It’s okay to have reasonable expectations of those we lead. Actually, it’s our responsibility as leaders.
People have expectations of their leaders, as they should. They expect us to lead! But we need to show them what we expect, then remind them of what we expect and make it clear how to do so. This is especially true when delegating responsibility and tasks, but also in any form of discipleship.
The apostle Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Servant leaders need to be able to confidently say, “Do as I do. Follow my example, as I follow Jesus.” This echoes what Jesus said to the disciples as He sat down to instruct and explain to them why He washed their feet.
Can you confidently say—"Do as I do”—Follow my example as I follow Jesus?
8– Exhortation to Action (verses 16-17)
Most people do not want the responsibility of leadership. They are, as Jesus saw them, “sheep without a shepherd.” They need leadership and the obvious responsibility of leaders is to lead.
Just as Jesus does with the disciples in this story, we need to challenge people to put truth into action. This is not optional.
Yet, too often people are exhorted to make application of truth without understanding why. So, we as leaders need to follow the Lord’s example of explaining why a certain truth needs to be applied in life.
We cannot expect people to have integrity in their daily lives if they don’t have integrity in their spiritual life. Likewise, they need their leaders’ lives to exhibit what we expect of them. They need to see how our life matches what we teach and preach when we exhort them to follow our example.
It’s great to have biblical knowledge and a spiritual mindset and heart, but if it doesn’t translate into real life then it’s suspect. Real discipleship should result in actions that bring a changed life.
This is underscored by the Lord here in John 13 and also at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:24-27). Apostles John and James (the Lord’s brother) also confirm this (1 John 3:18; Jam 1:22). Whatever truth we hold to internally needs to be translated into action externally.
Leaders need to challenge God’s people to put the truth into life action as they follow our example