As a young preacher, I was thrilled to be invited to join an older pastor on a weekend preaching engagement at one of our denomination’s larger churches. I was even given an opportunity to preach Saturday afternoon, and I enjoyed the pastoral chatter about church, theology, books, and ministry.
On the flight back to Texas, I asked my older minister friend for one piece of advice. Thinking he would give me some sermon tips or recommend a reading program, I was surprised when he replied, “Brian, you need to learn how to wash feet.”
Second only to the cross, Jesus’ supreme example of humble, servant leadership was when He washed His disciples’ feet. Washing feet was the most demeaning task, fit for the lowliest household slave, yet this was the leadership model Christ gave to the church.
Jesus had already taught His disciples, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Christian leaders must be humble because relationships require humility, and the Christian leader lives in relationship with God and people. Without humility, these relationships will not thrive or survive.
A pastor is an under-shepherd of Christ, a steward of the mysteries of God, a servant of the gospel, and a herald of the Word. The common denominator in these ministry metaphors is their subservience to the exalted Christ. Christ is the King whose message we herald, the Master whom we serve, and the Chief Shepherd whose sheep we tend. Since God opposes the proud (James 4:6), we can only rightly relate to God when we are humble.
Our relationships with people require humility as well. Humility is the oxygen that personal relationships breathe; pride is a noxious fume that poisons the air and suffocates them. If one is a proud leader, he will drive the sheep like cattle, bringing division and discord. Only the humble leader, the shepherd who faithfully and sacrificially feeds and leads the sheep, will secure the response of obedience and submission from the people of God.
The Apostle Paul is a helpful model and teacher on servanthood. Ten times Paul calls himself a servant of Christ (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 3:5; 4:1; 9:19; 2 Cor. 4:5; 6:4; 11:23; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:1).
Especially vivid is Paul’s self-description: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Why does Paul use this image? Why does he call himself a jar of clay, a clay pot?
John MacArthur notes that “clay pots were a common feature in Paul’s day. They served many functions. Every kind of household vessel was made of clay, from tableware to washbasins and garbage containers. Baked clay was cheap, breakable, replaceable, and unattractive. . . .”
Humble, ordinary, cheap, breakable, unattractive, expendable—that pretty much describes us. Our only value is found in the treasure we hold—the saving message of God’s glory revealed in the face of Christ.
How do we cultivate humility? How do we become servant leaders? John Owen said, "Two things need to humble us. First, let us consider God in His greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authority. Then, let us consider ourselves in our mean, abject, and sinful condition."
Humility, then, is the result of seeing two things: the greatness of God and the depth of our own sin; and generally, the two go together. In Scripture we often see examples of men who saw God in His greatness and glory, leading to the reflex response of humility.
Consider Isaiah, who saw a vision of the thrice holy God high and exalted in His temple. His immediate response was, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). When Job finally heard God’s voice, he exclaimed, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). When Simon Peter witnessed Jesus’ supernatural power, he cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
Beneath the Cross
Paul reminds us that Jesus, in His sin-bearing death on the cross, is the supreme example of humility: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).
If you would be a humble leader, never lose sight of Calvary. Servant leaders are always cross-centered leaders, for the cross is where these two pillars of humility—God’s glory and man’s sin—find their meeting place.
Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
 John MacArthur, The Book on Leadership (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004) 111-112.
 Quoted in Gary Thomas, Seeking the Face of God (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994) 117.
 “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” by Elizabeth C. Clephane, 1868.