Jesus on Leadership

In this day and age, there are hundreds of books published every year on the topic of leadership. There are also a multitude of conferences each year on the topic of leadership. The modern idea of leadership is someone who holds a form of authority and is seem as a teacher. Being a Christian leader is often promoted or conveyed as something privileged or something to aspire to, but what did Jesus have to say on the topic of leadership?

But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders [or translated teacher, master, instructor] ; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. – Matthew 23: 5-12

When I noticed this verse for the first time I was rather shocked and taken aback. I realized that what Jesus had said was totally contrary to my understanding of the role of leaders/teachers. Jesus explicitly states that we should not take on the title of leader or teacher. The context of the verse is that Jesus is speaking to the crowds and disciples about the scribes and pharisees. The scribes and pharisees were the religious elite of the day. They liked to be acknowledged as leaders and teachers, and by doing so, they set themselves above the rest.

They created a distinction or class that is not found in God’s family. Every person in God’s family is either a brother or sister. Consequently, if what Jesus said is true, why do we still call people leaders or teachers? And why is there such a heavy focus on developing leadership in the Church? Jesus Himself said that there is only one leader and teacher – Christ Himself.

Jesus flipped the whole idea of leadership on it’s head. The greatest people in the eyes of Jesus are not those who call themselves leaders or teachers and demand respect or special attention, but those who take a lowly position of being a servant. The humble lowly servant is exalted by Christ. Leaders are those who seek to take a lowly position to lift up others, rather than taking a high position and seeking to be lifted up by others.

Later, at the last supper, just before Jesus was crucified, the disciples had a dispute about who was the greatest among them.

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves. – Luke 22: 24-27

Again, Jesus flips the disciples idea of greatness and leadership upside down. Jesus said that the gentiles Lord it over them, but it was not meant to be this way among the disciples. We should not demand authority or rule over others. He also said that the greatest must become like the youngest. Being young in this context means we serve those as if they are older and more important than ourselves. Jesus also explicitly states that the leaders must become like servants, with Himself being the chief example.

One such example is Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. Jesus, the one leader and greatest among His disciples, took the lowly position of washing the feet of His disciples. He served those who should have been serving Him. Jesus set the bar for leadership and greatness, but not in the way we would expect. He loved and served in a way that boggles the mind, and brings tears to the eyes.

May this great indwelling Christ, cause us to take this way of a servant through humility.

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Nathan Odell Nathan Odell is the author of Joined to Him. You can connect with him on

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  1. Why just today I received a reminder of a major, very popular annual ‘leadership conference.’ I attended this particular one for years, but to be honest it inspired for a while and then was forgotten. As you say, leadership (of the wrong kind) gets elevated to a position not taught in Scripture. These leadership conferences can even lead to feeling false guilt, because each person is so different and we try to squeeze ourselves into a another leader’s mould. They also tend to be very much results/performance-driven.

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this issue and thank you for your insightful comments, as usual.


    • Nathan Odell says:

      Thanks for the comment Erroll. The way modern leadership is portrayed causes people to feel like they need to fit some sort of mould or persona. It’s unnatural and not the way Christ intended. May we take the way of humility…

  2. Thank you. 🙂 I could have written this myself! 🙂 I’ve gotten in scads of trouble for using the same verses to say the same things. It’s nice to have a friend for when they come to burn us at the stake. 😉

    • Nathan Odell says:

      Thanks for the comment LA. It’s nice to hear that someone has come to a similar realization on this matter. There is plenty of material on this blog that could invoke a stake burning. In fact this very matter contributed to Jesus being nailed to a stake…

      • Great post brother.I too have struggled with this matter in the past. In fact I was a leader in church circles before. And to be honest my experience is that it’s not that great. Sometimes I think the leaders themselves are more trapped than the people they are leading. At least that was my experience. So much pressure, so much responsibility, so much weight to carry…I believe it was the wisdom of the Lord to make everyone the same. Any other way and all suffer, whether leader or lead…

  3. Paul Dames says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s funny how most of church society, and especially those called “leaders” cannot identify with or explain Jesus’ warnings about the Pharisees. Nor do they ever preach about these verses. One would assume these are simply insightful accounts for the sake of historical interest. Yet, they still haven’t figured out that He is talking about what most of the church leaders are doing still today. I remember the leader of a large church movement talking at a leadership conference a few years ago. He said, “We need more leaders.” Perhaps what he should have said is “we need more people who recognize the fact that Jesus is our leader”

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