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Servant Leadership Lite


Linguists have debated the the six or seven words usually translated "servant" in the New Testament and have never settled the nuances that separate them. However, several recent translations reflect a marked difference between the two most used terms, "diakonos" and "doulos". In the past they were both translated "servant", thought broadly to be synonyms. Many of the modern translations interpret them more distinctly: "diakonos" remains "servant" in most usages, and "doulos" is rendered "bond-slave". Previously we would be quibblers to note the distinction. No longer.

With all the talk about servant-hood, servant leadership, and intersecting this world as servants of Christ the constrast between the two biblical terms may be profound. In usual broad strokes the "diakonos" is thought to refer to service at tables, perhaps an attendant, and is used several times in the context of ministering. It may describe an household administrator or manager, even at times someone paid to fulfill a role. "Doulos" is a stronger term, referring to someone who is actually owned by another, bought with a price or won as spoils of war. The "diakonos" is task centered while the "doulos" is focused on the master. One involves some level of choice and the pother is compelled by obedience. Symbols identify them both: the towel of service for the "diakonos", chains of servitude for the "doulos".

Slavery has never been popular in the world system, in the first century, the fifteenth century, or the twenty-first century. Shackles and chains present images and ideas that are repugnant to humans, especially those of us whose past is darkened by the horrors of human slavery. But, when we start talking about service, the servant leadership of Christ, and what it means to be a servant leader today, we cannot discard the bond-slave image just because it doesn't resonate with our cultural ideals. In describing Christ the Apostle Paul wrote, "Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a slave..." (Philippians 2:7). Over and over in the New Testament the term "doulos" was used to describe people who were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20, 7:23) and were thereby motivated to obey and please the Master who owned them.

We are often prone to select an easier path when choosing to apply the truth of his word. The towel of service certainly is more appealing than shackles and chaines. But, perhaps it's just such a point of clarity to explain why Christianity lite doesn't produce lasting fruit in a secular world. It's certainly sweet to serve at church, keep the nursery every month or so, stuff bulletins, or sit around the table at our accountability clusters. To embrace a homeless man or woman, touch an addict up close, give beyond the minimun, forgive the person who wronged you, encourage the neighbor who is bankrupt or moving, take a meal to the unemployed people down the street, and obey the Master diligently all require something more costly, a price the "doulos" both understands and accepts.

Being a servant leader is a warm, fuzzy ideal. Being a bond-slave to Christ ratchets things up a notch. Jesus knew it. John knew it. Peter knew it. Paul knew it. Epaphras knew it. Tychicus knew it. James knew it. Jude knew it. So did Moses, David, and Abraham (from the Septuagint). More than anything, Jesus knew it.

...and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. (Matthew 10:44).


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