How Rowan Williams missed the ball on encouraging servant leadership.


I really liked the challenge of Rowan Williams’ Thought for the Day on Radio 4s Today Programme yesterday, Maunday Thursday (The Daily Telegraph has a report on what was said).  Williams addressed the pressing issue of servant leadership, the true and proper exercise of power. He challenged MPs, bankers, chiefs of industry, media moguls and church leaders to set up a new law to make it mandatory for people in position in power to serve the needy.

The challenge was direct and pertinent in today’s culture but like a professional golfer, Rowan teed up his shot, addressed the ball, had a great back swing and then…he took an airshot, missed the ball!  Servant leadership is not motivated by the law but by the servant leadership of Christ who gave his life as a ransom for many before taking up his position as King of kings.

I used Rowan’s challenge in my Maunday Thursday meditation on John 13:3-8 and showed how Jesus didn’t use the law of God but another means to motivate servant leadership:

Meditation for Maunday Thursday Service (21/4/11) Reading John 13:3-8

It is the queen’s 85th birthday today and she is celebrating by going to a Maunday Thursday service and handing out Maunday Money.

In the distant past, our nation’s monarch would also have washed the feet of a few of his citizens as a reminder that his power was a power to serve and not to be served, to want what’s best for his people, not for himself. This symbolic act followed the example of Christ, who centuries before performed this most menial task, a task normally done only by servant girls for guests at their owner’s home. Christ did it to show that he was a servant as well as God’s appointed king and ruler of all.

This has great implications for anyone in a position of power today. God seeks rulers who will rule as Christ rules. Christ is exemplary in his exercise of power. On Radio 4s Thought for the Day this morning, Rowan Williams proposed a new law whereby the rulers of our own nation, members of parliament, heads of industry, city bankers, media moguls and even Archbishops should be made to serve school dinners in an inner-city school, or clean the toilets in a residential home or patrol with street pastors on a Friday night when our young people do great damage to themselves and others, week-in-week-out. These acts of service would remind the leaders of the needs at the grass roots. The law would require service without expecting anything in return and so the leaders would learn again the lesson of servanthood and their leadership would be kept humble and their power reigned in.

This proposal to make a new law of public service is good but fails communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ and so fails to motivate leaders to serve. Laws compel us but they generate a grudging adherence to them. Imagine how a city banker would react if told by law that he had to clean toilets for a day or face the penalty of the law. What would the penalty be for breaking this law?

Christ motivates us by the gospel and the law. As he washed his disciples feet, Jesus said to Peter “You don’t realise what I am doing, but later you will understand. Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (John 13:7-8). The point is clear. Unless Christ serves us, washes us, cleanses our sins away, those acts of breaking God’s law; unless we know that Christ served us with his life and that the Father has put all things under his power (John 13:3), so that Christ rules over us by his law, then we will never have the strength, courage or desire to serve others like Christ served us.

The disciples later understood that Christ died on the cross to take the penalty for our breaking of God’s laws of love. If we do not allow Christ to serve us in this way we will never be part of Christ and so cannot share his eternal life, the wonder of his resurrection.

Unless I let Christ serve me by dying for my sins, I will not see eternal life. The same is true for David Cameron or Stephen Hester.  Eternal life with Christ is conditional upon repentance and belief.  And this gospel is God’s way of motivating servant leadership. Those who believe in Christ will spontaneously seek to serve others as Christ first served them, in costly self sacrifice, even cleaning toilets in residential homes.

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