“Leader or Servant?”
(Why Character Matters)
September 23, 2018*
By Pastor John Partridge
Proverbs 31:10-31 Mark 9:30-37 James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Have you ever seen someone use authority well?
Sometime around 1995 I was working in research and development on a new type of control system for residential forced-air heating systems. We had developed the technology in the laboratory and were ready to install several systems, in various parts of the country, run them in the homes of real people, and collect data on their operation. One of the homes in which our system would be installed belonged to an executive in major furnace manufacturer which was one of our industry partners. Everything was proceeding on schedule and under budget until we were within a week or two of the installation. We had our plane tickets in hand. The equipment was already on site. But everything got jammed up when our company lawyers couldn’t agree with their company lawyers over who was liable for what. As engineers, it was completely out of our hands. All we could do was watch as faxes and emails went back and forth between us and our partner.
Until our Vice President, who oversaw the entire research department, stepped in. One day, in the middle of this impasse, he stopped in to ask why nothing was happening. So, we told him. By the next day, the contracts were completed, signed, and the project was back on track. When I asked my manager what happened, he said that our VP had simply called their VP, they both called their respective lawyers, told them that they wanted it done, and POOF! It got done.
I’ve always remembered that story because it reminds me that a key responsibility of leaders is to work for, to serve, their subordinates. Our VP rarely involved himself in the daily affairs of engineers, but he reminded us that when we really needed his authority, he worked for us. By virtue of his position, title, and power, he could get things done that we couldn’t hope to do. We had no ability to argue with our legal team or to overcome their objections and concerns, but all he needed to do was to tell them to get it done… and it was done.
In each of our scriptures today we see different types of godly leadership that we can apply to our lives in church, at home, and in our schools and workplaces. We begin at home, in Proverbs 31:10-31, which is the one chapter of the Bible that is known to be written by a woman. Proverbs 31:1 says that these words are:
31:1 The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.
And so, even though King Lemuel put the words on paper, he made sure that everyone knew that these were his mother’s words. We continue reading in verse ten where it says:
10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
This passage is sometimes criticized as a description of the expectations placed upon women, but I don’t see it that way. Instead, I find that this describes a woman of strong character who is, as much as possible in the culture in which she lives, a full and dedicated partner, with her spouse, in the life of their family and in building a life together. She is, without question, a leader in her community who dedicates her time and effort to lifting up her family, her household, the poor, and her entire community. She and her husband act as a team. Their efforts, together, build the respect in the community for both of them and although he must have some sort of employment, she seems to earn just as much for her family and provides for them in ways that he cannot. Neither of the members of this partnership would do as well without the other. She is able to do what she does because of him, and he is able to do what he does because of her and each would be severely handicapped without the other. Because of her hard work, her leadership, and her compassion for others, she is honored and praised by her family, and by the leaders of her community.
But what is it about this woman that makes her good and honorable?
Is it just because she works hard? And what can we learn from this and apply to our own lives?
In James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a, we hear this explanation:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
James simply says that character matters. If you are wise and understanding… prove it. If you are smart, then your life will show the world that you are smart. The way that you live, the deeds that you do, the friends that you keep, the actions that you take, the humility that you show in your interactions with others, is the proof that the world will witness. At the same time, bitter envy and selfish ambition is proof that you are earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic because envy and selfish ambition are not the proof of wisdom, but the hallmarks of disorder and evil.
In contrast, the wisdom that comes from God is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, merciful, impartial, sincere, and full of good fruit. It is the peacemakers, James says, who produce great harvests of righteousness in the lives of others. Fights and quarrels are the result of conflicting human desires. Our desires, greed, and covetousness drive us toward evil, violence, and death. We claim that God doesn’t hear our prayers, but the James says that the real reason our prayers go unanswered is that we ask with the wrong motives. We ask God to give us stuff so that we can spend what he gives us for our own pleasure and not for the things of God and for God’s kingdom.
James’ recipe for success, is to submit to God. Men and women must both submit to God. We must resist the devil, resist evil, come to God, and only then will God come close to us. We must purify ourselves, our motive must be pure, so that we are not double-minded. We cannot want what God wants and want what we want. We cannot pray that God would bless his ministry and grow his church and use his blessings for our own pleasures.
I admit that this is difficult stuff. James is ruthless and his teaching pierces the hearts of the best among us. But his message is clear. A pure heart is a heart that is dedicated to God… alone.
And so, what does any of that have to do with leadership? How does a heart dedicated to God look to the outside world, or to our church, or to our family?
And for that, we turn to Mark 9:30-37 where we hear the answer from Jesus.
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus says that the hallmark of true, humble, peace-loving, pure, godly leadership is servanthood. Leaders are called to be servants first and tyrants last. These are the things that reveal our character. David fell when he considered his desires ahead of Uriah’s, but also ahead of the needs of Bathsheba, the needs of his nation, or the will of God. The illustration and visual aid that Jesus uses is the welcoming of little children. With few words, this speaks volumes about leadership. Jesus says that leaders do good, even for those who can do nothing for you in return. This is as far from “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” as you can possibly get. This says, “I’ll scratch your back, even if you don’t have any arms.” This says that leaders help others, not because they expect something in return, but simply because they can. The Vice President of Research had little (something but not much) to gain by helping us break the logjam on our project, but with one phone call, he did what several engineers and two or three managers couldn’t get done in weeks. He wasn’t a particularly godly man, as far as I know, but I have always remembered this example of leadership.
This is why character matters. Real leaders are not just leaders. Real leaders, godly leaders, must be servants at heart.
As leaders, our personal desires must take a back seat to the needs of those whom we lead and serve.
Our priority must always be the mission, but also the care of those under our authority, whether or not they like us, whether or not we like them, and whether or not they can do something for us in return.
And don’t think that you are off the hook because you aren’t a leader. All of us, in one way or another, are leaders or, at the very least, are training for leadership. All of us, at one time or another, find ourselves responsible for others. We teach Sunday school, we parent children, we babysit, and so on. Many of us are what the military refers to as unofficial leaders, or back-channel leaders. We are people who others look up to, and respect, simply because we are older, or have done our jobs longer, or because we are known to be honest, or diligent, in our work. Leadership doesn’t have to come with an official title.
All of us are leaders.
All of us must lead with a servant’s heart.
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