Calling All Servants

Romans 12:8; I Corinthians 12:28

May 13, 1990 | Ray Pritchard

The name Lee Roberson is perhaps only vaguely familiar to most of you. But if you lived in the Chattanooga area, you would certainly recognize the name. In 1942 he came to the Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga as its new pastor. At the time the church was small, struggling, and virtually unknown. When he left 42 years later, it had become one of the largest churches in America. At the height of his ministry, the church had over 60,000 members, 75 branch churches, and 10,000 in attendance each Sunday.


It stands as one of the most remarkable records of the twentieth century. And by all accounts, it happened because of one man, Lee Roberson. It was his vision, his determination, his zeal, his commitment, that built Highland Park Baptist Church. I am greatly indebted to Dr. Roberson for two things: First, I received my college education at the school he founded, Tennessee Temple University. Second, I met my wife while I was a student there.

Dr. Roberson is 79 years old now and spends most of his time speaking in churches across the country. Now that his work is mostly done, he is remembered by those who knew him for one statement, repeated over and over again. It is a sentence which sums up the secret of his tremendous achievements. That statement is this: “Everything rises or falls on leadership.”

You could read a thousand books on management and not find a statement more important than that. In some ways, it is the story of every human endeavor. Every success and every failure can usually be traced back to one ultimate source—leadership. It matters not whether you are talking about the corner grocery store or a multinational corporation. Leadership makes the difference. It applies just as much to a seven year old boys’ soccer team as it does to the U.S. ice hockey team. Leadership makes the difference.

Leadership Makes The Difference

Leadership is the reason some schools excel while others flounder for years. Leadership is the reason some companies boom while others go bust. Leadership is the reason some men are elected to office year after year, while men equally qualified can’t make it the first time. Leadership is the reason a man like Sam Walton can take a local chain of dime stores and turn it into Wal Mart and in the process become the richest man in America. That’s no fluke. That’s leadership.

It’s popular today to downplay the things I’ve just said. We’re all good at making excuses for non-performance. Things didn’t work out for us, or our luck ran out, the other guys cheated, we got caught with a big inventory, the home office cut our territory in half, our facilities needed upgrading, we had a cash flow problem, the factory couldn’t get the merchandise to us in time, the people down the line were incompetent. When we fail, we always have a thousand excuses.

The longer I live, the more I am convinced of the truth of Dr. Roberson’s statement: Everything rises or falls on leadership. Nothing is more important for a business, a school, a corporation, or a church, than that it have good leadership. That’s more important than any other single factor. Good leadership finds a way to overcome the obstacles. Without it, all the material advantages in the world won’t make much difference. That is the essence of my sermon this morning. Everything else I am going to say will simply be an expansion on that statement.

Needed: Leaders Who Aren’t Afraid To Lead

Now, what spiritual gift are we talking about this morning? If you said the gift of leadership, you are entirely correct. The Bible is filled with examples of men and women who were uniquely gifted by God to lead his people. In the Old Testament, you can think of Moses, Joshua, Deborah, David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Asa, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel. In the New Testament, you have Peter, James, John, Paul, Timothy, Titus and Barnabas. For that matter, you can think of those who should have been great leaders but who never fulfilled their promise: Samson, Saul, Ahab and Demas.

My thesis is this: God’s work depends upon men and women who will rise to the occasion and lead the people of God. In every church God has given some people the gift of leadership. It is the duty of the church to find those people, recognize their gift, and give them an opportunity to use it.

The New Testament contains two references to this gift. The first is found in Romans 12:8 which says, “If it (a person’s gift) is leading, let him govern diligently.” The Greek word is prohistemi, which literally means “one who stands before.” It is not a reference to an office of the church like pastor or elder or deacon. It refers to anyone who is in a position of superintending or leading others. That’s why it is sometimes translated “whoever has authority.” It is the gift of being able to stand in front of people, to preside over a group, to be responsible for the direction of an organization.

The qualification is this: If this is your gift, use it with diligence. The word itself means “with zeal, earnestness, vigor, haste.” It’s a warning to take your work as a leader seriously. It’s a warning against lazy, half-hearted leaders who don’t try very hard. That’s why, when the time comes to pick leaders for any ministry, you should never pick someone you have to beg to serve. If you have to beg them, you’ve got the wrong person.

(By the same token, it’s foolish to see someone who isn’t active and ask them to take leadership because “you want to help them get involved.” That strategy backfires about 99% of the time. You don’t find leaders by looking at the people who aren’t doing anything. Instead, you find leaders by looking for people who are already leading on one level and then you challenge them to move up to a higher level.)

There’s a second reference to this gift in I Corinthians 12:28, “those with gifts of administration.” The Greek word is used only here in the New Testament. It’s a nautical term referring to the helmsman of a ship. He is the one who pilots the ship through the dangerous shoals and brings it safely to port. The person with this gift is qualified to steer the ship. He—or she—is able to guide, manage and direct the work of others.

Men Of Issachar

There is a verse in the Old Testament that seems to sum up the importance of leaders in the work of God. It’s tucked away in a very unlikely place. I Chronicles 12 is a list of the soldiers in David’s army. These were the men who left Saul to join David in Hebron. They are listed by tribes—Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Ephraim, and so on. When the writer gets to the tribe of Issachar, he stops to make a comment. He calls them “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Those two phrases tell us what leaders do.

1. They Understand The Times.

Men and women with the gift of leadership have insight into the purposes of God. They are able to look into the future and see what God wants done. They see the forest when everyone else sees the trees. They see the opportunities when everyone else sees the problems.

This is perhaps our greatest need today—for leaders with insight who understand the times in which we live. Such leaders not only know what is happening; they also know why. In I Chronicles, that meant they could sense that the pendulum of leadership was swinging from Saul to David. They understood that God was raising up David for the throne of Israel. How we need that same kind of leadership today.

2. They Know What The People Of God Should Do.

This is wisdom. It goes a step beyond insight. In this case, it meant the men of Issachar took the bold step of going over to David’s side. The rest of the nation didn’t know that David was God’s man to be king, but the men of Issachar did. And they acted on what they knew. That’s what leadership does.

You remember those lines of Shakespeare. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, when grasped leads on to victory.” Sensing the tide is like insight; grasping it is like wisdom. We need men and women who are not stuck in the past, looking back, always wishing for the good old days, but men and women who are not afraid to step boldly into the future.

The Other Side Of Leadership

Everything I have said so far is true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is another side to leadership that must be mentioned. It is the side Jesus talked about in Luke 22. The scene is the Upper Room. It is the night before Jesus is crucified. In other places in Jerusalem, men are plotting his death. Within hours he will be betrayed, arrested, tried and sentenced to die. With the shadow of the cross looming over him, Jesus shares the Last Supper with the twelve men he had chosen. And in that solemn moment, a strange, unbelievable thing happens.

Let Luke tell the story: “A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest.” (22:24) This wasn’t the first time. They had argued before, just a few days earlier as they made their way to Jerusalem for the last time. But now? Here? When the Master had just told them, “This is my body, this is my blood?” Surely not in the Upper Room. But that is indeed what happened.

It is a revelation of the nature of mankind. We are born to compete, to fight for the top spot, to look out for number one. Winning and losing is what it’s all about. Whether we admit it or not, getting ahead of our friends is a major motivation in everything we do. Before we condemn the disciples, we ought to take a good look in the mirror.

Jesus didn’t condemn them. He used their bickering as an occasion to teach them how his followers are to exercise spiritual authority. He told them two things they would never forget.

1. They Are Not To Lead Like The Leaders Of The World.

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over t hem call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.” (Luke 22:25-26) We all understand that, don’t we? In this world, having authority means the power to tell somebody what to do. And all too often it means putting people in their place. We’ve all known bosses who were on a power trip. It’s my way or the highway. It’s get in line or get out. And don’t let the door hit you in the rear end. It’s domination, control and intimidation. Jesus, “You are not to be like that.” The whole world is that way, but not the followers of Christ.

2. They Are To Lead Like The Lord Himself.

“Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table?” Then he added words which are astounding, “But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27)

What word would you use to sum up the life of Christ? Master, Savior, Teacher, Lord, King, Messiah? Here’s the word that fits. Servant. “I am among you as one who serves.”

I puzzled over that statement, wondering what it really meant. Then at last it hit me. The key to the last part is the first part. What does it mean—”as one who serves?” The answer is—”I am among you.” I am right here with you, right in the midst of your pain and tears and difficulty. That’s what it means to be a servant-leader. The real leader is not the one who separates himself from his people. The real leader is the one who is right there when they need him.

Cell 39

Some of you may have read the story of Victor Herman who was imprisoned in a Russian prison camp for 45 years. He wrote an autobiography called Coming Out of the Ice. In it he tells the story of his first imprisonment. It was in Cell 39, a space five-and-a-half feet wide and ten feet long with a boarded up window at the end. Along each wall were two benches on which 16 men sat. Closest to the door was a vat called a Parasha, a latrine that was emptied every ten days.

The stench from the Parasha was choking. The men were forbidden to talk or move. From dawn till dusk they were forced to sit silent and motionless, staring at a hole in the cell door. At night they lay on the cold stone floor like eggs in a carton. Every inch of space was occupied; the slightest movement meant bumping another man.

After only 24 hours, Victor Herman was on the verge of madness. He would have gone mad had he not sensed that one of the cellmates was looking out for the others. The cellmate was simply called “the Elder” and he sat closest to the Parasha, where the stench was strongest, and nearest to the door, which exposed him to the senseless blows of the guards.

The Elder did two things each day. He counted out 16 bowls of soup as they came through the feeding hole in the cell door to insure that no one received less than his share. He also allowed no one to begin eating until all had been served. At night, he woke up the men twice so they could change positions. This prevented unbearable cramping in the morning. Victor Herman knew nothing more about the Elder, but his role in Cell 39 restrained 16 men and kept them from turning into animals. (Illustration taken from an article by James R. Edwards in the February 5, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.)

Perhaps we wonder if servant leadership really works. The answer is yes. But it means sitting closest to the Parasha, and taking on the senseless blows of the guards. Only the person willing to do that can claim the authority to lead others.

Dying Like A Servant

That night in the Upper Room Jesus took a towel and a basin of water and began washing dirty feet. The next day he went out to die. That’s what it means to be a leader. “I am among you as one who serves.”

Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, as to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) In that statement is the whole gospel. He gave his life—It was a voluntary sacrifice. He gave His life—It was a complete sacrifice. He gave his life as a ransom—It was a penal sacrifice. He gave his life as a ransom for many—It was a substitutionary sacrifice.

He died like a servant is supposed to die—giving all he had for the sake of others. And now by virtue of his death on the cross, those who put their trust in him are set free from their sins forever. The Servant has done his work well; all we have to do is believe on him.

He’s Not The Bigshot At The Head Table

I come now to the end of what I have to say. I still believe what Dr. Roberson said is true: Everything rises or falls on leadership. I still believe that leadership makes the difference. I still believe that God gives certain men and women the gift of leadership. I still believe that we need men and women who understand the times and know what the people of God should do. But it looks different now, doesn’t it?

That’s because true leadership is not a matter of having a title, or a position, or an overwhelming personality. Leadership is first and foremost a matter of the heart. Who is the leader we need? The one who is a servant. Find the servant, and you’ve found your leader. He’s not the bigshot sitting at the head table. He’s the one out in the kitchen serving the meal.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?