Book review: Leadership or Servanthood? Walking in the Steps of Jesus

Reviewed by Walter McConnell
Editor, Mission Round Table

Mission Round Table 17.1 (Jan-Apr 2022): 36

Leadership or Servanthood? Walking in the Steps of Jesus
Hwa Yung. Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2021. ISBN: 978-1-83973-576-9. 166pp.

 

We live in a world that is awash with books promoting Christian perspectives on leadership and may sometimes feel we are swimming in offers to sit under a famous leadership guru and take another course on how to be a better Christian leader. And while these books and courses may offer insights into developing our leadership style or potential or focus, on closer examination many of the promised “leadership laws,” “gospel principles,” and “biblical directions” share more in common with secular business theories than scriptural teaching. Don’t get me wrong—good ideas are not intrinsically bad simply because they are “secular”. We should embrace good leadership advice given by the likes of Henry Ford, Akio Morita, Steven Jobs, and others and acknowledge their source. The problem I have with some “Christian” leadership material is that it isn’t Christian enough. Despite claims that the principles articulated are Bible-based, a rigorous study of the texts cited often reveals that the purported ideas could not have originated with the biblical authors. Indeed, they may have more in common with Drucker, Covey, and Sun Tze than with Moses, Daniel, and Paul. Again, the issue isn’t that Christians shouldn’t learn from the business world. Rather, it’s that we shouldn’t try to re-clothe modern business concepts to make them appear to have been comfortable to Jews wearing tunics and sandals long before they were developed by Wall Street bankers wearing suits, ties, and lizard skin oxfords.

The contrast between many books on leadership and Hwa Yung’s Leadership or Servanthood? couldn’t be more obvious. From the start, he informs us that, despite the appearance of the word in the title, the book says little about leadership as such. Rather, “The central emphasis … is that the call to discipleship and ministry is first and foremost a call to be a servant of Christ and the church, and not to leadership.” While recognizing that the church needs leaders, Hwa Yung believes true spiritual leadership only comes when we, like Jesus, “have learned genuine servanthood and submission” to the Father (xiii). He then develops a number of ways the Bible declares the need for Christians to learn and practice submission.

Chapter 1 identifies “The Call to Servanthood” as a primary Christian calling. This is exemplified by Jesus, his apostles, and the regular use of the NT terms diakonos/diakoneō (servant/to wait on tables) and doulos/douleuō (slave/to serve) for ministry in the church. Chapter 2, “Servanthood and the Contemporary Church,” discusses some contemporary leadership models, rejects the model of pastor as CEO, and urges us to seek opportunities for humble service rather than promotion to higher offices.

“Whence Spiritual Authority?” is the question that drives chapter 3. Do we pursue the hard power of international politics, cling onto institutional authority sourced in an organization or denomination, or exude the spiritual authority modeled by Jesus as he submitted to his Father and was empowered by the Holy Spirit? Chapter 4 reminds us to seek “Submission as the Path to Authority.” This paradoxical concept echoes through the Bible as submission and servanthood are united as the only grounds for true authority.

Chapters 5 and 6, “You are My Beloved Child” and “Living in the Security of Our Father’s Love,” turn us to the Father of Jesus, who becomes our Father when we are born again, experience adoption, and cry out “Abba, Father.” As we focus on him and his love, our desire for preeminence is put in its place along with our brokenness, insecurity, and inner wounds. The core of chapter 7 outlines some thoughts from Paul’s departing words to the Ephesian church elders (Acts 20:18–35) that contrast with many modern leadership goals. We should (1) serve the Lord with humility, (2) be compassionate, (3) be faithful in ministry, (4) live a life of sacrifice, and (5) reject self-seeking ambition.

Chapter 8 traces “The Father’s Transforming Process” through the lives of four biblical characters—Jacob, Moses, Peter, and Paul—to show how we need him to do the same for us. The final chapter brings us back to a discussion on “Servants and Leaders,” again insisting that “the call to ministry is first and foremost to be servants of Christ in his church” (127). Questions about leadership should be subsumed under this head with a reminder that the bottom line is spiritual authority gained by submitting to the Father.

This book bears close examination by anyone in church leadership or training toward that end, as it gives biblical directions that are missing from much modern teaching on leadership. Everyone involved in leadership training should be required to read it, seriously reflect upon its message, and consider how its focus should impact their philosophy and practice of leadership training.

Though I highly recommend the book, I do not find everything convincing. For instance, while I agree that Christians should strive to be servants more than leaders, I find it overly optimistic to say that “By living and ministering as servants, our loving and humble service will impact those around us as great leadership” (14). While that may be true for some people in some situations, many of us will never be recognized as leaders no matter what we do. While we may receive eternal honor from God, we may be ignored or forgotten by those around us. Similarly, the casual rejection of the “servant-leader” model may overlook the fact that several different servant-leader models exist, some of which may be more commendable than others.

A final insight from this book that all Christian leaders should regularly repeat comes in “The Servant’s Prayer,” adapted from the Wesleyan Watch Night “Covenant Service” (xvii). May we all, in the words of this prayer, find our role as leader or not by submitting ourselves to the will of God.

A Servant’s Prayer

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
Put me to doing, put me to suffering;
Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
Exalted for you, or brought low for you;
Let me be full,
Let me be empty,
Let me have all things,
Let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
To your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And may the covenant now made on earth, be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Many thanks to Langham Literature for the complimentary copy.

Picture of Written by Walter McConnell
Written by Walter McConnell

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