There’s Nothing Sexy About “Doulos”

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

~Philippians 2:5-8

“Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee”


As I’ve been preparing to start my new job as a pastor, I’ve been spending some time slowing down and reflecting on what it means to be in Christian leadership.  While perusing various Christian websites and publications, I found lots of suggestions for how to grow as a church leader.  Some start with identifying your spiritual gifts.  Others encourage you to find and develop your strengths in ministry.  Still others use “biblical” images of leadership to help you identify what type of leader you are.

In fact, one of the more popular ones making the rounds is Mark Driscoll’s  “Prophet, Priest, King” paradigm.  In introducing this paradigm, Mark says that it is drawn from the example of Jesus, who was Prophet, Priest, and King.  Because Jesus is our ultimate example of leadership, we should look to this threefold model for our own understanding of leadership and identify which of these three functions describes us.

Having used some of these paradigms myself, I want to make clear that I’m not opposed to identifying your strengths or finding out the ways in which you are gifted in ministry.  But the problem I have with many of these paradigms is that they start from a place of strength, using terms of power and authority to describe what it means to lead in the church.  Yet, when I look at the life of Christ the most compelling feature of his ministry was his weakness and humility.  Furthermore, of all the aspects of Christ’s life, it was his humble nature that the writers of Scripture most often point to as the example that Christians are to emulate.

In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul encourages us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (v.5).  He then goes on to state exactly what that mindset was:  “he made himself nothing by take the very nature of a servant” (v.7, emphasis mine).  That word, “servant”, is the Greek word doulos, which literally means “slave”.  Jesus attitude toward his own leadership was to act as a slave to others.  In fact, Paul goes on to highlight how it was because Jesus took on the nature of a slave that “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…” (vv.9-11).  Jesus’ authority flowed out of his humility.  Humility came first.  This is the identity that we are to have:  that of a slave.

Jesus also affirmed this during his own ministry.  On the night he was betrayed, Jesus “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…” (John 13:4-5).  After this incredible act of humility and servant-like behavior, Jesus tells his disciples, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  Very truly I tell you, no servant [doulos] is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:15-16).  The shocking implications of this scene are overwhelming.  Here we see Jesus with the men whom he expects to lead the church, telling them that, as leaders, they are to be first and foremost slaves to one another.

So, if this was the primary identity, the primary role, the primary mode of leadership that Jesus himself advocated, why is this not the starting point of the leadership paradigms that are presented to us?  In fact, in his very first video in the Leadership Coaching series, Mark Driscoll does not start with doulos, but with prophet, priest, and king.  Too many of our leadership models begin with images of power and authority, rather than with the primary image of slave-like service and humility.  And too often, we buy into these wholesale, pointing to them to justify our own will to power.  Very little attention is paid to doulos, to the call to slave-like service and servanthood.

Why?  Well, because doulos isn’t sexy.  After all, who wouldn’t want to be a prophet, priest or king?  Who wouldn’t want to be an apostle, evangelist, preacher or teacher to the masses?  But slave?!  Suffering servant?!  I fear that those who read this post will say, “Well of course we are supposed to be humble.  We can be servant prophets and servant kings…”  But if that is true, then why is so little time and energy dedicated to this virtue as opposed to others?  It is too easy to write it off and the failure to truly explore it and its implications can have disastrous consequences for our own lives and the lives of those that we lead.  Furthermore, if humility is such a given, why don’t we see it more in the lives of those who call themselves followers of Christ?

In his book Elusive, Brian Sanders of The Underground writes,

“The dangerous and insidious combination of our North American celebrity culture, along with our innate pride, intermingles to damage the souls of our leaders.  In some cases even destroy them.  Where is the shyness of Jesus in our leaders, as they telecast themselves into satellite services around the city or even the world?  This kind of breakdown in humility should shock and concern us, but it does not because we have conspired with our leaders to prefer their false self to the real one…Humility cannot survive the scrutiny of stage lights.  Humility has to be cultivated in private” (pg. 16).

Humility is the most challenging and most attractive quality of Jesus.  Yet, I have found very few examples of what it means to pursue humility.  And if I’m honest, when I look at my own life, I see too much of the desire for celebrity and too little of the passion to humbly serve.  We all have been infected by the will to power that can so quickly choke out this foundational paradigm of Christian leadership.

So what can be done?  I think the honest answer is that humility can only begin with an honest assessment of ourselves and an honest assessment of God.  When we take a deeper look at who we really are we begin to see the depth of our need for God.  As Paul writes in Romans, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me…What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:21 & 24).  The reality is that even when we think we are humble, we need only scratch the surface to see how truly self-serving and self-indulgent we are.  We find ourselves trapped in the cycle of desiring good, but continuing to self-protect and self-serve instead.

However, the answer to breaking this cycle comes in the very next verse:  “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).  Paul’s answer is worship.  Again, Brian Sanders summarizes this well:  “Awe is a kind of self-forgetting.  It is perfect awareness of another.  Humility begins with awe…I believe that this journey begins at the same place it ends, in the awe that comes from an encounter with the glory of God” (pgs. 24-25).   When we understand the Gospel, we come to see how we do not deserve the grace of God, but we also see how truly loving and generous God is, in that he gives it to us anyways.  Our humble estimation of ourselves begins with with glorious realization of the grace and beauty of Jesus Christ.

My hope, as I prepare for this new chapter in ministry, is to regain that sense of awe and passion for Jesus which once characterized my life as a young Christian.  My prayer is that, along with the community I serve, we would understand, in ever deeper ways, what it means to worship the God who is gracious and loving.  And my hope is that my leadership would be characterized more and more by the kind of humble service which Jesus so wonderfully models.  Doulos might not be sexy…but it is beautiful.

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