Week of March 27

Leading People from the Feet Up

Read: Joshua 18-20; 1 Corinthians 9
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:22b, ESV


“The servant-leader is servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” Robert Greenleaf’s approach and influence on leadership has become an international phenomenon both in culture and in the church (Servant Leadership). Ironically, his inspiration for the term and the method, by his own explanation, was not biblical, but intuitive. He had been inspired by a character in a novel. Paul, in contrast, lays out a careful description of a real servant leader in 1 Corinthians 9, and provides believers a critical understanding of what it means to serve and lead in every generation.

Understanding the Bible Context

Paul develops a very careful line of reasoning in chapter 9. He carries forward the theme of spiritual freedom and couples it with apostolic authority to build a strong case for both the “strong” and “weak” believers to live freely. This argument is not unusual among contemporary Christian leaders. Many are quite comfortable with the exercise of Christian liberty as indicated by Paul, but he offers a different perspective from which you and I may benefit and apply to our daily lives. I thought it to be a worthy area of focus in light of the abuses of freedoms among many Christians today.
Authority: the dreaded “A” word
There is a certain level of authority that came with having seen the Lord (cf. Acts 1:21-22; 9:3-9) and with the performance of signs and wonders (2 Corinthians 12:12). Both of these witnesses validated Paul’s right to exercise his freedom as he chose. Add to this the fact that they literally owed their spiritual lives to him, and we have before us a very powerful claim to freedom (9:1-2).

Paul, in contrast to the contemporary abuses of leadership liberties, was pressed by the Corinthians as to why he did not take full advantage of his apostolic benefits! I write all of this to hopefully awaken your “early-morning-Bible-devotional senses” to the similarities with current leadership in many of our churches. Herein lies the big ethical question: Since I am free to do something, does it mean that I should (ought) do it? Paul answers it in the balance of the chapter. He appeals to a moral principle that is superior to individual freedom; namely, sacrificial love.
The power of Christ-like love
Paul sets the bar fairly high when he says that he will lay aside his “moral rights” in order not to place any obstacle in the way of gospel advance (9:12). He uses a word that the military might employ to indicate that they placed some hindrance in a road to slow an enemy. This immediately suggests any type of attitude or action that we might lay claim to that hinders others from coming to know Christ.

Paul counsels us to be wary of hindering our gospel witness, whether it is some action that weakens the commitment of a new believer (chapter 8), or some entitlement that we lay hold of because of our position of leadership. Oh no! There goes the pastoral team’s travel allowance, and the church donut and coffee bar. No, no, no! I’m not fishing in a barrel here, so please trust me. Paul lays before us a principle that a gospel pastor, for example, should be able to receive support (9:14). He did not mention anything about our church coffee bars and donuts, so I will leave that topic to your own consciences.
The gospel is the point
Paul has taken a running start and he now leaps a very tall barrier in their minds when he says that he uses his freedom and authority to serve others so that they may know the gospel (9:19). This is one of those radical reversals in values that Christ’s words and actions cause believers to apply to their lives.

I can hear the gasp among the Corinthian “knowledge boasters.” You expect us to use our freedom to serve?! Yes, in a John 13, wrap-the-towel-around-the-waist sort of way. He voluntarily “enslaves” himself to all humankind in order that he may win some. “Winsome wins some,” in Ashlock speak! The “cross-moment” often occurs when people see through your willingness to let go of your rights in order to take hold of their hearts in love. This is what Jesus did on the cross.

Applying the Passage to Our Lives

Spring has arrived and it will not be long until the watercraft are motoring their way on the lake in our new home city. The idea of boats reminds me of something that Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Paul teaches Christians to long for eternity.

So, we serve so that people long for everlasting life. The moral volume that is loud enough to be heard, and the force that compels followers to change, occurs when they see evidence of a leader’s brokenness and willingness to sacrifice all to communicate the gospel. This model of leadership is totally upside down from anything that the world produces, but it yields eternal results.

Here are two thoughts to make this type of servant leadership possible. First, Paul demonstrates how to embody biblical servant leadership. We know that Paul was called directly by Christ to sacrificial service (Acts 9:16; 1 Corinthians 9:1) and given his role by the Lord to whom he was fully accountable (“apostle,” 9:1). Unlike Greenleaf’s “natural feelings” conception of servant leadership, Paul’s understanding encompassed his entire being (9:16, “woe is me if I do not preach gospel”)!

Secondly, Paul’s focus was not on his rights (liberties), but instead on spreading the gospel. He freely expended himself for both those who were under the law and those who were not under its demands (9:20a); for those who were impressionable (“weak”) and those who were brimming over with confidence in their newfound Christian liberty (9:22a); and, for any and all, so that some might be won to Christ (9:22b). In Ashlock-speak, he actively rejected the worldly leader’s top-down approach to lead from the dirty feet up (John 13:7-17). He fell lockstep into serving Christ’s way, and discovered the powerful effect that such leadership had on the lives of people. It begs the question, “How does this work today?”

Reflecting Upon and Discussing the Passage

1. Take time to determine what moral rights you consider to be non-negotiable. Do any of these moral rights interfere with higher goals in the Christian life? Paul lists one lofty aim in this passage—gospel advancement. Consider what gospel responsibility implications there are for your personal freedoms, then make changes accordingly.

2. Churches can become “entitlement zones” if they are not careful. Long-term members accrue certain unspoken rights to many things that may hinder or become obstacles in the path to hearing a clear gospel message. For example, long-time leaders often enjoy keys to the buildings, privileged usage of church furnishings and supplies, seating privileges, and “core traditions” that may have lost their meaning to contemporary members and to those who are yet to believe. Ask God if your privilege pushes others away from Christ. Make every effort to leave the way clear for people to come to Him.

3. For Families: This passage teaches us significant twin truths: 1) that we need to eliminate all obstacles in our lives that keep others from coming to Christ; and 2) that when we give up all “personal rights” to serve others instead, we please God. Our children can learn these too. This week, invite your children to have some fun outside, and to meet you on the driveway with their chalk.

Do your children know how to hopscotch? If so, have them (or help them) to draw their own hopscotch for jumping. Have them start with “Here I Am,” and end with “Life With Jesus.” Ask them to label several squares (horizontal and vertical) with words that describe how they can live their lives to please Christ. Then have them try it out. Does it work well? Now place a cardboard box or another obstacle in one of the middle squares and encourage their friend or another sibling try to jump their hopscotch. The barrier makes it much harder to jump over and to finish well.

Remind your children that this is how all of our lives are too. Instead of building barriers to keep our friends from moving directly to Jesus, Gospel Kids remove them, and serve their friends, helping them get to Jesus freely. Now, ask your children to take the obstacle away from their hopscotch, and watch each other jump quickly from where they are, to being with Jesus! Send us a video!

May your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock