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Newsletter #81: The Problem With Servant Leadership
Evangelicals promote a vision of masculinity so bleak, no wonder men don't want to sign up for it.
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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?
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.
The quotes in the previous section also lean in this direction.
In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton describe the beliefs of teenagers as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” in which “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”
This sounds remarkably like how the evangelical idea of the servant leader works in practice.
Evangelicals have an incredibly bleak view of what it means to be a married man. The basically teach that his job is to be his wife’s manservant. And this isn’t even all of the negatives when it comes to complementarianism. They literally theologically teach that everything that happens is the man’s fault, for example.
Going back to my WSJ op-ed, I contrast this vision of masculinity with that on offer from online men’s influencers:
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.
Justifying This Type of Servant Leadership
Of course, if the Bible says something, we have to do it even if we don’t like it. So let’s take a look at that.
Where do they get this idea of service? One common illustration for why husbands are called to be servant leaders of this type is the foot washing episode in the upper room. Again from the Kellers’ Meaning of Marriage:
In John 13:1-17, Jesus, on the night before his death, famously washed his disciples feet, both showing and teaching them how he was defining authority and headship. He said:
Do you understand what I have done for you?….You call me “Teacher” and “Lord” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master.
The master has just made himself into a servant who has washed his disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way that authority and leadership mean that you become the servant, you die to self in order to love and serve the Other.
John Piper also refers to this, writing, “Leaders are to be servants in sacrificially caring for the souls of the people. But this does not make them less than leaders, as we see in the words obey and submit. Jesus was no less leader of the disciples when He was on His knees washing their feet than when He was giving them the Great Commission.”
Yet in this very passage, Peter initially refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet, saying “Never shall you wash my feet!”. It was only when he was told that if he did not allow Jesus to wash his feet then “you have no part with me” that he relented.
We learn two things from that. First, Jesus did not always allow other people to determine the manner in which he served them. He made that decision. Secondly, some people don’t want to allow Jesus to serve them the way he choses to, and by doing so they are in rebellion against him.
We see this with Peter again in another passage. The context of Christ saying he came to serve was specifically regarding his crucification. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). But when Jesus told his disciples he was going to be killed, what did Peter say? “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Matt 16:22). To which Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
Again, we see the Jesus’s followers don’t get to define how he serves them, and that they can be in rebellion against him by arguing against the service he wants to provide. I don’t see these parallels being made with regards to marriage.
There are many other things Jesus also said. He told people to keep his commandments (John 14:15). Jesus frequently issued commands. He allows Peter’s mother-in-law to serve him after healing her (Matthew 8:15). He also said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38). This provides another lens to see Jesus’ role on earth, namely mission. And of course, if the Father was in authority over the Son dwelling in flesh with us, then the fact that the Father sent him to die horribly on our behalf is yet another lens on authority. Indeed, we see that even today fathers send their sons to die in battle in defense of the nation, something hard to square with the evangelical servant leader idea. Jesus also sent out his disciples two by two to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick. This also shows his authority being used for the sake of mission.
There seem to be a vast array of Biblical examples that fall outside of what evangelicals teach about husbands and servant leadership.
I always say that I’m not a theologian or Bible teacher. Maybe there’s a good response to all of these points. They key is - they are never addressed. The vision of service, leadership, and authority they draw from the Bible is highly curated and limited in scope when it comes to men.
Servant Leadership Extends to Mission
A second way their servant leadership concept fails is in the way it excludes mission.
Complementarianism was developed in response to the feminist movement during the 1980s. And it was clearly influenced by that environment. We see this in the fact that its teachings are primarily restricted in scope to two matters: men as head of the home and a male-only pastorate. While leading architect John Piper himself takes a more expansive view of gender complementarity, most of the complementarian works, including by him, are restricted to these two matters. Additionally, even these two matters are treated as essentially arbitrary decisions by God. They deny that men are by nature better suited than women to be the head of the home, for example.
I’m not going to provide detailed support for these points today, but just as one example, John Piper once wrote, “The roles of leadership and submission in the marriage are not based on competence. God never said that the man is appointed to be head because he is more competent or that the woman is appointed to submission because she is less competent.”
While saying that men and women are different, complementarians are typically vague and unspecific about what they mean by that (unless it involves making a negative statement about male qualities or a positive statement about female ones).
The practical implication of this is that their definition of gender gets limited solely to relationships with the opposite sex. John Piper defines “biblical masculinity” this way in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:
AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
“AT THE HEART OF….”
This phrase signals that the definitions are not exhaustive. There is more to masculinity and femininity, but there is not less. We believe this is at the heart of what true manhood means, even if there is a mystery to our complementary existence that we will never exhaust. [caps in original]
While acknowledging there’s more to manhood, this defines masculinity exclusively in terms of relationship to women, dramatically restricting the scope of masculine vocation.
In light of this definition, it becomes clear why they implicitly define servant leadership as catering to the desires of a man’s wife and children. Their conception of manhood is limited only to this domain.
This leads to the false dichotomy pattern I’ve written about elsewhere. The Meaning of Marriage says:
The husband’s authority (like the Son’s over us) is never used to please himself but only to serve the interests of his wife. Headship does not mean a husband simply “makes all the decisions,” nor does it mean he gets his way in every disagreement. Why? Jesus never did anything to please himself (Romans 15:2-3). A servant-leader must sacrifice his wants and needs to please and build up his partner (Ephesians 5:21ff). [emphasis in original]
We see here a false choice presented between “pleasing himself” and “serving the interests of his wife.” Again, Russell Moore spoke similarly, saying, “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.” There’s again this false choice between naked selfishness and sacrificing for wife and children.
There are actually many possible other choices available. I’ve asked before, but when Tim Keller made the choice to go to New York and start Redeemer Presbyterian Church, was he pleasing himself or serving the interests of his wife? Obviously, neither. He did it for the sake of mission, and despite his wife’s belief that moving to New York was a bad idea. In fact, they used this story in the book as their example of what headship should look like.
The objects of service in the Bible are clearly not always limited to man’s wife and children. Peter brought his wife along with him in the support of his apostolic mission, for example.
The evangelical definition of manhood, by equating a man’s mission with serving his wife and kids, orients the household inwardly and denies outward mission. There’s something wrong with this.
I don’t think they really believe this. We can see that from the way the Kellers use the decision to start Redeemer Pres as an example. But when they are giving instructions about men, manhood, and marriage, this is what they tend to teach. I’m not sure why they do it, but their pre-commitment to a de facto form of modern gender sameness almost mandates this outcome. Unlike influencers such as Jordan Peterson or Jack Donovan, they are, with rare exceptions, unwilling to strongly articulate substantive gender complementarity. Thus, the only thing that distinguishes a man qua man is the way he relates to his wife.
In these evangelical teachings, a man has no legitimate claims of his own he can assert, no legitimate desires or aspirations he can hold, no mission in the world to undertake. A black man might be able to raise a valid claim for justice in their world, but only because he’s black not because he’s a man. Masculinity is reduced to self-sacrifice and service, primarily to his wife and children.
This isn’t right. It seems to be derived from a highly circumscribed reading of the Bible under the influence of second wave feminism (creating a system renowned sociologist James Davison Hunter once called “doublespeak”). I’ve also never seen a convincing historic pedigree for this kind of thought and practice. The people who teach this bad form of servant leadership don’t even live it out themselves. Most of them appear to be very ambitious, very professionally successful, and very much focused on mission outside the home, not service to their wife and kids. Men are right to turn away from this.
We definitely need servant leadership. But the way they define it isn’t right.
I consider correcting these faulty teachings on gender to be one of the most important to do’s in getting the church ready for the negative world. It’s critical to our own community strength, the well-being of our families - and mission to reach all those men (and women) turning to online influencers.
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Related: See newsletter #28:
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There is a venerable literary tradition that identified masculinity with the act of artistic creation, the process that forges beauty from an unyielding raw material. Among those following this view, a definition of masculinity is bound up with purposive construction. Manhood is seen as the conjoining of disparate element into an ordered whole, the imposition of form upon chaos - a kind of aesthetic confabulation obviously the counterpoint to motherhood. In the emphasis on effective ends, there is a certain inescapable resemblance here between the masculinity of the thinker, who adds beauty or knowledge to soceity, and the masculinity of the worker or peasant, measured in cruder material enterprise. No one has said it better than the nineteenth-century British essayist and aesthete Walter Pater. Masculinity in art, according to Pater, has to do with “tenacity of intuition and consequent purpose, the spirit of construction as opposed to what is literally incoherent or ready to fall to pieces.”
- David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making
Cover image credit: Wikimedia Commons/zoetnet - CC BY-SA 2.0