The Problem with Servant Leadership

The Problem with Servant Leadership

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Many influencers offer teenage boys an aspirational vision of manhood. Some, like Mr. Peterson, say men are important for the sake of others, but present it as part of a heroic vision of masculinity in which men flourish as well. “You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world,” he writes in “12 Rules for Life,” his 2018 bestseller. “You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself.” Traditional authorities, especially in Protestant churches, talk about men being “servant leaders” but reduce that primarily to self-sacrifice and serving others. Pastors preach sermons wondering why men have so much energy left at the end of the day, or saying men shouldn’t have time for hobbies. No wonder young men tune them out.

The name of the violent radical left group Antifa stands for “antifascist action.” On twitter you will sometimes see people say to those criticizing Antifa, “Antifa stands for anti-fascist. So if you don’t like Antifa, you must support fascism.”

The term “servant leadership” functions similarly in evangelical circles. They embue the phrase with particular, specific meanings that transform it from a self-evidently good concept into an evangelical term of art. If you criticize those meanings, you might be accused supporting selfish leadership.

Servant leadership properly understood is an almost self-evident virtue. Of course we want leaders who lead in the genuine service of others and of the institutions they direct.

But there are problems with the way evangelicals talk about servant leadership, particularly when it comes to married men. It’s part of why men turn to online influencers instead of the church. As I noted in my WSJ op-ed on that topic, online influencers provide an aspirational vision of manhood. Traditional authorities like the church provide a “servant leader” vision that is extremely unappealing, and, more importantly, wrong in important ways.

The Call to Servant Leadership

Conservative evangelicals, ones who hold to the so-called complementarian gender theology, affirm that husbands are the head of the home. This is heavily qualified, however, and one such qualification is that headship means service rather than authority. Or at least to the extent that such authority exists, it can only be used for service.

The term “servant leader” was present early in the complementarian movement, though was not especially stressed. John Piper, in his opening chapter from the complementarian ur-text Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “The call to leadership is a call to humble oneself and take the responsibility to be a servant-leader in ways that are appropriate to every differing relationship to women.” But the world servant leader only occurs a handful of times in this long book. (I haven’t come across Wayne Grudem, the other principal architect of complementarianism, using it).

Women’s studies professor Mary Kassian, who was among the originators of complementarianism, echoed Piper when she wrote, “Men have a responsibility to exercise headship in their homes and church family, and Christ revolutionized the definition of what that means. Authority is not the right to rule—-it’s the responsibility to serve.”

British evangelical John Stott, shaped in a different tradition but who was a sort of soft complementarian, uses similar language to deny that headship means authority but does mean responsibility. He wrote, “Headship implies some degree of leadership, which, however, is expressed not in terms of ‘authority’ but of ‘responsibility.’” (From Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today).

The main popularizer of the term “servant leader” as applied to husbands today may well be Tim Keller. In their book very popular book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write:

But an even bigger leap was required to understand that it took an equal degree of submission for for men to submit to their gender roles. They are called to be “servant leaders.” In our world, we are accustomed to seeing the perks and privileges accrue to those who have higher status…..But in the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the other…Jesus redefined all authority as servant-authority. Any exercise of power can only be done in service to the Other, not to please oneself.

Nancy Pearcey’s new book The Toxic War on Masculinity has an entire chapter that expands on this topic. She’s gotten a lot of flack over it. While I think it’s fair to say she probably draws from some egalitarian (Christian feminist) leaning material, she’s basically only summing up what conservative evangelicals actually do teach. Here’s just one short passage:

For example, a man attending a nondenominational church said, “Being the head doesn’t mean that you’re a ruler or something. It’s more of a responsibility.” A middle-aged Charismatic man said, “I have learned that being the head, as you say, is really being a servant because you got to swallow hard and put somebody else first.” A Presbyterian woman said a biblical concept of headship “actually makes his burden even heavier, because he is also supposed to be the kind of man that can hear his wife’s needs, that can be there for his wife, that can respect his wife . . . and that’s a big responsibility.”

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, explains that when a man gets married, he stops living for his own ambitions and instead channels his energies into supporting his family: “He discovers a sense of pride—yes, masculine pride— because he is needed by his wife and family.” Needed not only for protection and financial provision, but also for love and affection.

Because Jesus said that he came not to be served, but to serve, these people would all seem to be on solid ground. But there are some problems with the way they talk about this. I will address two of them today.

What Service Should Be Provided?

The matter of servant leadership immediately prompts certain questions:

  • What is the service to be provided?
  • To whom?
  • Who makes those decisions?
  • Who decides whether or not the man is doing a good job at serving?

These are pretty fundamental. But evangelicals tend not to address them explicitly. This is the first problem. Their patterns of rhetoric, however, imply that that servant leadership essentially means catering to the desires of your wife and children. And if that’s the case, they also implicitly get to be the judge of whether you are doing a good job.

Kathy Keller said in a Family Life Today interview that, “A head’s job is to use their authority to please, meet needs, and serve.  A head does not get all the perks, all the privileges—you know, choose control of the remote—all this—pick the color of the car you buy, etc.  Your headship is expressed in servant-hood, primarily.” There’s a similar line in The Meaning of Marriage. “He does not use his headship selfishly, to get his own way about the color of the car they buy, who gets to hold the remote control, and whether he has a ‘night out with the boys’ or stays home to help with the kids when his wife asks him.”

We see here that clearly the correct answer is for him to say home and help with the kids when his wife asks him. This is an example of the patterns of rhetoric used to suggests servant leadership means catering to your wife’s desires. “Please, meet needs, and serves” sounds like what a restaurant waiter does.

They are even more direct later in the book, writing, “Jesus never did anything to please himself. A servant-leader must sacrifice his wants and needs to please and build up his partner.” Note that the husband must not only sacrifice his wants but his actual needs as well to “please” his partner. Following Jesus, he’s never to do anything to please himself.

Mark Driscoll operates similarly. In newsletter #77 I quoted him saying:

There are, however, moments in the marriage where the husband and wife don’t agree. And we’re not talking here about a lesser, secondary issue. It’s date night and he wants steak and she wants fish and they can’t agree on where to go. Those are easy. Just give her what she wants. Those are easy. Just love her, just serve her, do what she wants.

Most of the time, husbands are simply to give their wives whatever they want, even if the wife is behaving selfishly.

Russell Moore said similarly in his book The Storm-Tossed Family:

A husband’s leadership is about a special accountability for sabotaging his own wants and appetites with a forward-looking plan for the best interest of his wife and children. Headship is not about having one’s laundry washed or one’s meals cooked or one’s sexual drives met, but rather about constantly evaluating how to step up first to lay one’s life down for one’s family.

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