Christians leaders are called to be servants. We understand that. After all, Jesus made it pretty clear that he wanted leaders who would follow his example as one who touched lepers, washed feet, and bore the burdens of a broken world.
But what if being a servant isn’t always a good thing? Or, said a little differently, what if there are various ways to be a servant, and some of them aren’t quite what Jesus had in mind?
A while back I asked a group of teenagers to discuss which of Marvel’s Avengers best exemplified the biblical idea of a servant. And quite a few of them went with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). After all, he dedicates a considerable portion of his wealth to helping humanity, and he routinely puts his own life on the line to save random strangers. And to top it all off, at the end of Avengers (spoiler alert!), he sacrifices his own life to save the world. You can’t get much more Jesus-like than that! (Granted, he didn’t actually succeed in sacrificing his life, but he gets points for trying.)
For many of my students, then, Tony Stark exemplifies servanthood. But here’s the problem: Stark only exemplifies a particularly dangerous and toxic form of servanthood, but it’s the one that we often find the most attractive.
Service vs. Servanthood
In Stark’s version of servanthood, we serve from a position of power. Stark is the one with all the money, fame, and influence. Sure he spends a lot of time helping the little people, and that’s a great thing. At the end of the day, though, he’s like the wealthy homeowner who occasionally takes some dishes to the kitchen. He feels good about himself for his kind act of service, but he’s still the master.
Stark exemplifies service without servanthood. And that’s a tempting model for Christian leaders. Service lets us help out and feel good about ourselves; servanthood requires a complete transformation of our identity. One leader may help set up chairs for the banquet, but he’ll do it with a sense that he’s doing everyone a favor. He’s actually above such things, but he doesn’t mind helping out. That’s service. Another leader may set up the same chairs because it needs to get done and he’s available. That’s servanthood.
Condescension vs. Humility
In a similar way, John Henry Newman draws an important distinction between condescension and true humility.
“This is true humility, to feel and to behave as if we were low; not, to cherish a notion of our importance, while we affect a low position….It is an abdication, as far as their own thoughts are concerned, of those prerogatives or privileges to which others deem them entitled….As the world uses the word, ‘condescension’ is a stooping indeed of the person, but a bending forward, unattended with any the slightest effort to leave by a single inch the seat in which it is so firmly established. It is the act of a superior, who protests to himself, while he commits it, that he is superior still, and that he is doing nothing else but an act of grace towards those on whose level, in theory, he is placing himself.” (The Idea of a University, p. 143)
Combining these ideas, then, we can say that Tony Stark exemplifies condescending service. He lends a hand without leaving his seat. He still sees himself as superior, but he’s gracious enough to help out anyway.
That is a form of service, yes. But it is far short of what Jesus calls us to. When the disciples argued about which of them was the greatest, Jesus told them to be like children (Mk. 9:33-37). Whatever else that might mean, children have no status, power, or authority. They are clearly not among the “greatest” as the world defines the concept. They don’t “stoop”; they just serve.
And that’s exactly what Jesus himself modeled. He didn’t lean down from heaven, offering a hand to those in need. He took “the very nature of a servant” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death” (Phil 2:7-8). That’s not condescending service, that’s humble servanthood.
Time to Stop Stooping
The difficulty is that there’s a fine line between the two, and it’s tough to spot the difference. The same two leaders setting up the same chairs before the same banquet. Condescending service and humble servanthood in the same action. The difference lies in the identities and attitudes of the leaders involved, and we are quite adept at disguising our identities and attitudes, even from ourselves.
The question to ask: Am I stooping? When I serve, do I see myself as stooping below my position and doing others a favor? If I asked the people around me, would they describe me as a humble servant, or would they see me just as someone who serves? (Or worse, someone who doesn’t serve at all!)
What kind of leaders are we and what kind of leaders will we strive to be? Will we be masters who stoop or humble servants? I don’t know about you, but I need to stop stooping.