Evangelicals promote a vision of masculinity so bleak, no wonder men don't want to sign up for it.
A wider problem around the way servant leadership excludes mission is how the masculine part of the creation mandate - i.e. work and the exercising of dominion in the world - is woefully undervalued in the modern church. Work tends to be regarded as at best a means to various ends, such as the provision it provides for your family (assuming you have one), providing opportunities for evangelism or being "salt and light" amongst our colleagues. Though such ends are indeed worthwhile, the inherent goodness and value of work itself largely not celebrated. (Alastair Roberts has written well about this, in particular see https://theopolisinstitute.com/conversations/the-virtues-of-dominion/ .)
In contrast, the feminine-focused parts of the creation mandate - the raising of children in particular - is indeed valued in evangelical discourse (as it should be). In such a context it is not surprising that servant leadership is oriented inwards towards the home. But as Aaron touches on in his introduction, the fact that the problem of servant leadership is largely that of a too-narrow focus makes it hard to raise objections against, at least as a layman in day-to-day church conversations. For example, a young man raising such a question here may easily be seen as someone obsessing over a tertiary-issue rabbit-hole.
Relatedly, this is likely a large component of the complaints about "idolisation of the family". Single men in particular feel this imbalance of value towards family and perceive it to be "too high" in some sense, and thus cry "idolisation", missing the fact that the overvaluing here is relative (as compared against work) rather than absolute (as in what God calls us to).
All that said, I'm still not sure why the more direct evangelical sense of mission is absent from servant leadership. Perhaps this is because evangelism is largely expected to either be a corporate activity organised by local churches or conducted individually (usually in the form of inviting friends & family to said corporately-organised events). The thought of laymen taking their own initiative in mission as a more group-based or entrepeneurial style activity does not seem to enter the imagination.
I've been thinking about this post and the church would be well-served to reformulate this as "mission leadership." I am not talking about a rebranding -- like Frank Luntz telling Republicans to refer to the estate tax as the death tax. But a true reformulation.
Jesus was mission-focused. He came to do "the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38). And that will was to bring eternal life for mankind (John 6:39-40). Yes, it was a mission that required servanthood and selfless giving, but it wasn't mindless servanthood. The servanthood was in pursuit of a mission that was larger than himself. And every example given in the article was Jesus rebuking people who stood in the way of the mission, no matter well-intentioned they were.
Men generally, but especially young men, are not attracted to meek servanthood, but they are attracted to a mission that is larger than themselves. How does the military successfully recruit young men? By combining the idea of joining something larger than themselves with the idea that the process will make them the best version of themselves. "Be All You Can Be." The church needs to send a message to men: God has put you on several missions. He has given you missions on your job, within your family and within your community. You need to exercise and exert authority within those spaces to carry out the mission. And because this mission is larger than you, the mission is more important than your ego or the perks you can accumulate. True leadership requires that you never ask anyone to do something you are unwilling to do or to make sacrifices that you are unwilling to make.
We need to encourage, exhort and sometimes even rebuke men to develop their Christian character and discipline precisely because the mission requires it. My wife, my children, my church family, my boss and my community need the best version of me if I am going to carry out the missions that God has placed in my life. And I will sometimes have to make unpopular decisions to carry out this mission (like Tim Keller moving his family from a comfortable position in North Carolina to start a church in NYC, which was part of his mission as a minister). Men crave responsibility and the church should let men know that God has given them plenty of responsibilities.
It's really bad that some of our best theologians and pastors in the past decades present Jesus's example as one that inverts relationships of authority. It's true that Jesus didn't please himself, but it's frankly idolatrous to suggest that he pleased the church instead. He always served God, his father. The apostles always point the one in authority (fathers, husbands, masters) to the One in authority over them. "Remember you yourself have a master in heaven."
I enjoyed the post and thought it was spot on. I also concur with Rich as a retired Army officer; and didn't read much of Keller and think Piper is way too obtuse. A servant leader is one who puts the mission first and takes care of his troops. Applying this to being the head of a family is making decisions based on what's best for my family - not what pleases my wife. I know after 43 years of marriage, three children and seven grandchildren - and my family knows too - the angriest I have gotten is when I have given in just to get peace while knowing it was not the best decision. I think that's why most pastors don't really preach correctly on servant leadership because they want peace and know they will have a bunch of female congregants (mostly college-indoctrinated) complain to them.
I encourage young men to get married for several benefits. One is you are not alone. Two, regular sex with someone is great and gets better over time. Three, kids are fun. Not always, but they are great at all ages. When they are infants, toddlers, children, teenagers (yes, even then), and as adults - particularly when they have their own children.
Many say that you need to work on your marriage, but I argue that you need to have fun with your marriage. Although, God called work good, we tend to think of it as drudgery. Marriage and children are not drudgery - it is the ultimate source of fun. Of course, it is not that way all the time, but the vast majority of it is fun and even the bad times in retrospect have fun in them.
This ends the mini-sermon.
Excellent article, Aaron - I couldn’t agree more. I can only suggest one potential antidote/ treatment I have found in the teaching of John Eldredge - author of “Wild at Heart” and several other great books aimed mainly at Christian men. If (by some remote chance...) you’re not familiar with is work you should check it out. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that I very well could have walked away from The Faith without the truths that I learned from his work over the last few years. He would make a great guest on your podcast!
Incidentally, I don’t see this as an exclusively Evangelical concern. My good friends who are Catholic believers share similar stories based on what their priesthood is called to - chiefly a life of celibacy. That is endorsed as a de-facto ideal leaving the layman who is not called to the priesthood with nowhere to stand...
The false dilemma (selfish decision, or decision to serve others) can be refuted with the verse you quoted, John 14:15, in which we are told to keep Jesus' commandments. When Jesus gives a commandment, is it because he is seeking his own selfish interests? Or is it to serve us?
Or is it the third possibility, to accomplish his mission? Accomplishing his mission will, of course, benefit us in the long run. But the giving of commandments serves primarily to guide us to our place in the God-ordained order of His creation.
That leads to a question: Is there a God-ordained order in this world that includes roles for men and women, husbands and wives? Without that natural law perspective, God's commands for men and women seem arbitrary, as noted in the article.
An excellent article from 2018 on this anti-natural-law complementarian view is here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/troublerofisrael/2018/06/rules-without-reasons/
It took me some time to get to the point where I wasn't concerned about the direction the argument was going, but eventually followed it and thinik that the overall point is very sound.
I am often very thankful that I spent 21 years in the Marine Cortps because, if I had not, I might not have had any antibodies to models of leadership that come out of the Evangelical world.
There are 14 leadership traits in the Marine Corps and one of them is unselfishness. It is not necessarily the most important but ti does get at some of the differentiation between that idea that one treats others as servants or how to properly serve others.
One of the things instilled in you early as a Marine Officer is that you eat last. You make sure that all the troops eat and then the Staff NCO's and the last to eat are the Officers. It's so instilled in me that at a recent luncheon, I reminded a bunch of retured Marines to get in line because there are "...no Lance Corporals here" and to grab some food.
I'm not trying to conflate all military leadership to the kinds of things that happen in the Church. I'm simply noting that there are some "light of nature" concepts that resonate with the spirit of the kind of leadership that focuses upon a definitive mission but also has a place for how it treats the people who are under the leader's charge. I had to let someone go from my company the other day and I was almost in tears when he praised me for bieng one of the best people he's ever worked for. The idea that you treat people with diginity and kindness and watch out for them is not in competition with the idea that you set the pace and the direction for them.
In fact, what I often see as an error among many is the idea that being "nice" in spritiual leadreship is the principle virtue of being a servant. The fact is that the two most abusive kinds of places to work are either the leader who is a jerk and serves his own interests or the leader who is nice but never really watches out fo his people and protects them. I've worked for both. I've also worked for leaders who were personally "prickly" but took care of you. You may not have wanted to hug them but you also kew that you were going to be treated fairly and well.
Sorry if I'm waxing long. It just makes me think about the fact that the vision for what it means to be a man or a leader is profoundly short sigthed by many. If the Pastor is going to simply repeat these tropes or not have a vision for manhood or leadership other than a thinly defined idea that can fit on a postcard then men will have to go elsehwere to learn about what it means to be a man and (as you've indicated) the places they land may not be healthy (and I'm not talking about the Air Force).
One other point that reveals this inconsistency is the way evangelicals speak of pastor's wives. They are expected to at least some degree to sacrifice their family's happiness for the good of the church's mission. Though this is often phrased only in a positive sense, commending them for making such a sacrifice, not commanding them to do so when they might not be willing.
I think the typical take on servant leadership is basically a negative appeal to not abuse your authority. Similarly, the 'I am a helpless sinner' meme, which I take to be a call to not be proud and self-willed.
The problem is the culture has moved on, and there is nothing coherent left to correct or shape. What is needed in the post-Christian world is positive models ('do X'), not negative ones ('while doing whatever you do, don't do Y').
What does it mean to be a leader and use authority and power? Per Genesis 1 to take responsibility and act to rule the world and develop it; as those who will judge angels to judge men and systems and correct them?
Another problem with the servant leadership model you allude to here is the false image of the woman/wife who 'complements' the servant leader man. As you suggest, in this view a wife can be selfish to a disturbing degree before any sin-alarm bells ring over at Servant Leader Central. It almost seems as if the husband becomes responsible for bearing his wife's sin, which is a very dangerous distortion indeed, not only in the unbiblical and unhealthy burden it places on the husband, but also in the way it undermines the wife's humanity, i.e. denying or obscuring her sinful nature and subverting her need to repent and follow Jesus herself.
What Christ did in washing his disciples’ feet was not servant leadership, but rather servant lordship. He wasn’t just some inspiring figure motivating a team to excel—He was Master, King, and God. Conceiving of a husband’s role as a servant lord avoids the problems of modern evangelicalism that you outline. But the fact that it’s impossible to imagine most evangelical pastors referring to husbands as “servant lords” tells you all you need to know.