“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.” I Peter 5:1-6
Is there a distinctive mark of Christian leadership, whether exercised in the church or in the world in general? Several virtues could be named, all of them essential, but if I had to choose only one I would opt for humility.
Please do not misunderstand; this is not the modern parody of real humility which C S Lewis described as “a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.” Rather it is the strong and powerfully attractive humility that Jesus himself embodied when for us he became one of us. There is no more beautiful passage in all of literature than Paul’s description of this and his call for us to do likewise:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Likewise, there is no clearer call for us to embody that same humility than Jesus own words to his disciples:
You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the son of man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”(Matthew 20:25-28)
It is no wonder, then, that Peter makes the exact same call to those to whom he writes: “not as domineering (lording it over)” but “clothe yourselves, all of you, in humility toward one another”. However, what is particularly beautiful and evocative about Peter’s call is that it is so clearly tied to his own memory of Jesus’ humility and service. The word Peter uses which we translate “clothe yourselves” specifically calls to mind the tying on of a servants apron and Peter could not help but have in mind that moment at the last supper when his Lord tied on such an apron, knelt down, and washed his feet. And his Lord’s words, as well as his actions, must have been forever sealed in his heart:
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:13-15)
This is the model of the humility that is meant to be the mark of Christian leadership: Jesus. We are to be like Jesus. We are to lead not by grasping and climbing but by stooping and serving. The humility we live is not found in thinking less of ourselves but, again as C. S. Lewis says, thinking of ourselves less.
Oddly, this is not, as many fear, the way to lose greatness, but the way to find it. Listen to Peter again:
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.”
What we must not grasp, God will gladly give. Remember Jesus again:
“And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11)
No less humble, he now sits at the right hand of God. No less humble, we shall be exalted.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.