ON OXYMORONS

FROM THE SERVANT GENERAL

ON SERVANT LEADERSHIP

(Part 86)

ON OXYMORONS

August 25-26, 2015

Today’s readings:  1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; 9-13

The term “servant leadership” is an oxymoron, that is, the two words are seemingly contradictory to each other. A leader is someone who is up there while a servant is someone who is down there. A leader has power, position and authority while a servant has none of those. A leader is the first while a servant is the last. This is the challenge to those who serve as leaders. They do need to be leaders, for that is what they have been tasked to do, but they do so with the hearts of servants.

So how does it work? Paul talked about his own ministry among the Thessalonians. We pick up other oxymorons (oxymora) as well.

First, Paul says, “although we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ. Rather, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.” (v.7). Imposing but gentle? Yes, a servant leader is authoritative but not authoritarian. He is decisive in saying and teaching what is right and true but not overbearing. He stands on the reality that he is commissioned by Christ but handles his task as lovingly as a mother who is commissioned to care for her children, who are God’s children.

Second, Paul also says he was “exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” (v.12). Encouraging but insisting? Yes, this time “as a father treats his children” (v.11b). Just like the vivid picture of a mother, now we have the vivid picture of a father. The servant leader insists on what is right and true, and teaches clearly and guides those under his care accordingly, but he does so with love, with care, with compassion, with understanding. He encourages them and is aware of Paul’s admonition: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up with the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4).

In this passage, Paul speaks a lot more about servant leadership. What is a true servant leader?

  • He (or she) is confident in his calling. “But as we were judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the gospel, that is how we speak” (v.4a). God entrusts His designated servant leader with His work. He simply responds to the call.
  • He has no personal agenda, and certainly is not out for personal gain. He does not seek to ingratiate himself in order to win favors. “Nor, indeed, did we ever appear with flattering speech, as you know, or with a pretext for greed” (v.5).
  • He speaks the truth and proclaims the purity of the gospel. He does not maneuver to get his way. He does not lie or deceive. “Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives, nor did it work through deception.” (v.3).
  • He strives to be blameless, as he speaks and acts with dedication, devotion and justice. “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers.” (v.10).
  • He looks on his work not just as a task to be accomplished, noble as such task is. Rather, by the grace of God, he sincerely loves those under his care. He serves them with his all. “With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” (v.8).
  • He realizes that to serve others as leaders is not an easy task, but will actually entail suffering and struggle. “Rather, after we had suffered and been insolently treated, as you know, in Philippi, we drew courage through our God to speak to you the gospel of God with much struggle.” (v.2). Keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus, he continues to be encouraged to endure and persevere.
  • He works hard 24/7. “You recall, brothers, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day ….” (v.9a). He holds his people in his heart not only during the times they are together, but at all times.
  • He knows he stands in the place of God and gives all the glory to God. As Paul says, “nor did we seek praise from human beings, either from you or from others.” (v.6). He does not look to human acclaim. Paul says they act “not as trying to please human beings, but rather God” (v.4b). At times the servant leader may end up displeasing people, because he speaks the truth of God’s ways.
  • While the appreciation of those he serves is heart-warming, he just is looking to God for affirmation and not necessarily to those whom he is serving. So Paul is confident in saying things like, “we were judged worthy by God” (v.4a), we please “God, who judges our hearts” (v.4c), “God is witness” (v.5b), “You are witnesses, and so is God” (v.10a). He seeks to please no one but God.
  • He is eternally grateful to God for the privilege given to him to stand in His place in caring for His flock. “And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly” (v.13a).

What is the wonderful result of authentic servant leadership? People’s lives change for the better, because those we serve and lead see Christ in us, and they know that we speak and act on God’s behalf. Thus, “in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” (v.13b).

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