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Blog / What Does Being a Servant Leader Really Mean?: An Interview with Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.

What Does Being a Servant Leader Really Mean?: An Interview with Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.What did Jesus really mean when he said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, the servant of all” (Mark 9:35)? How radical is the “all” in that statement?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr., author of, Servant of All: Reframing Greatness and Leadership through the Teachings of Jesus (Lexham Press, 2019).

How is the term greatness typically used? But how should it be defined?

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Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: Read Matthew chapters 16-18. Note the ways in which Jesus’ disciples thought and acted toward one another, toward the people they encountered, and toward their master. Is it not clear from the Gospel record that they were inclined to think of greatness in terms relative to rank, in comparison to one another? Any observer of culture and commerce would admit that’s how our world defines greatness as well. Jesus confronted that notion head on. He taught that greatness is about character, not comparison; about significance, not status.

People use the term “servant leadership” but what does it really mean?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: In essence, I understand it to mean that godly leadership operates according to an inverted pyramid. You’ve seen the typical organizational chart—for churches as well as for businesses. The leader is at the top. Everyone else is “below” in terms of status, authority, etc. Jesus turns that notion on its head. One who has been entrusted with leadership is at the bottom of the pyramid. Everyone else is “above” that person. The “higher” your leadership position, the heavier the burden of ensuring that the authority and status that accompany the position are consistently leveraged for the benefit of those you lead. Heavy indeed.

What do you mean when you write, “Far too little correlation is evident between the status of Christian leaders and their character”?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: I mean that far too many Christians in positions of prominence in church or society do not consistently exhibit attitudes, priorities, behavior, and values that correspond to their claims to be Christ-followers. There simply isn’t enough contrast between how they think and behave and how their cultural counterparts think and behave as leaders.

What is the context of Mark 9:35 (harmonizing the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the biblical text on which your book is based?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: Take a look a couple verses before Mark 9:35. Jesus’ declaration that people who aspire to greatness must embrace the upside-down posture of servanthood follows a question: What were you talking about back there on the road? (Mark 9:33). Jesus and the disciples had just returned to their headquarters in Capernaum following an extended trip. It’s most evident in Matthew’s account that a series of events beginning in Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16-17; see also Mark 8:27-9:32; and Luke 9:28-62) provoked jealousy and speculation among the disciples as to who would occupy positions of greatest prominence and power in the kingdom Jesus would establish. Jesus pretended not to notice and let the debate simmer until he surfaced the issue of their erroneous notions about greatness by means of his question.

When everything demands our attention, how do we discern and attend to that which is most important? Who decides what’s important?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: Go to your web browser and pull up any major news outlet; look over your favorite social media feed. Make a list of the headlines, the dominant conversations. Based on what’s being covered, what would you say is really important in the world? The latest round of political nastiness and celebrity wardrobe malfunctions appears right alongside the news of an earthquake, record high temperatures, military confrontations, and terrorist atrocities. Nowhere to be found in the fog of glamour and clamor is what matters to God: people are estranged from him and the world is suffering; staggering toward self-destruction.

Matthew 18:12-14—a Bible passage we need to interpret in the context of Jesus’ declaration that the one who would be great should be the least, and the servant of all (Mark 9:35)—tells us that those who embody the greatness of servanthood see the world the way God sees it and align their priorities with his. The voices of the world’s lost and lonely penetrate the noise. Instead of pursuing a life of serenity and security, they orient their prayers and priorities around those whose estrangement and suffering occupies the Father’s heart.

What does it mean to be servant of ALL vs. a servant of some and how is that achieved practically?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: A major tendency of leaders is to focus their attention and energy on people who can contribute something to their agenda, status, reputation, resources, or power. We burnish our reputations by name-dropping and influence peddling.

The first thing Jesus does as he begins to unpack the meaning of “servant of all” is to call a little child to him and stand him in front of the disciples (see Matthew 18:2-5). After instructing his followers that the dependent posture of a child is the correct posture for a leader, Jesus goes on to emphasize that, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). Children consume a lot of attention but can’t contribute much to our agenda. I take Jesus to mean here that servant leaders relate to people not on the basis of what they can do for us, but on the basis of what we can do for them.

How can Christians serve those who disagree with or hate them?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: In some ways this is what John spoke about to Jesus immediately following his statement about servant leadership: “Teacher … we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38). Jesus’ loving rebuke in vv. 39-41 (see also Luke 9:49-50) should caution us not to be quick to assume the role of judge and jury over those with whom we disagree.

Much of our tendency to denigrate those with whom we may disagree is born of envy. Jesus repeatedly advises his followers that there will be both healthy plants and weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) or, employing another metaphor, sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) who claim to be his followers. Jesus tells his disciples he’ll sort that out when he returns. Absent incontrovertible heresy, we do well not to be too quick to condemn. When it comes to enemies, Jesus’ instructions are even more radical: we’re to love them (see Matthew 5:43-45 and Luke 6:27-28). Both Paul and Peter echo this instruction in their New Testament letters to believers (see Romans 12:14-21; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; and 1 Peter 3:12). To love someone means to choose not to return their anger and injury to us but, instead, to consistently render what’s in their best interest.

Explain what you mean that a person “cannot conjure greatness. Merely trying harder will not produce it.”

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: The Bible makes it clear that cultivation of Christ’s character requires our cooperation, but it cannot be produced by our effort alone. In his last talk to the disciples before he went to the cross, Jesus told them, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5-6, emphasis added). True servant leadership is so radically opposite our inclinations and our culture’s image of greatness, only Christ himself, the quintessential servant leader (see Philippians 2:5-11), has the power to produce it in us as we depend on him.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: I have so many “favorites” but certainly among them is Psalm 23, “The Shepherd’s Psalm.” The primary biblical metaphors for leadership—servant, steward, shepherd—contrast greatly from the power-oriented imagery our culture loves. In Psalm 23, we observe how our covenant God “serves” his people by shepherding them, feeding, protecting, and prospering them in every circumstance. What a magnificent Shepherd we have!

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Dr. Ralph E. Enlow, Jr.: I use Bible Gateway every day for my regular Bible reading. It’s so easy to access; so rich and responsive to my desire to read and study Scripture. I can immediately read a Bible passage in more than a dozen translations or paraphrases, switching from one to another with a simple click. Free basic Bible study resources add depth to my reading and understanding. I’m grateful to say Bible Gateway is a constant companion in my commitment, like Ezra, to devote myself to the study and observance of God’s Word and to teaching it faithfully to God’s people (Ezra 7:10).

Bio: Ralph E. Enlow, Jr. is President of the Association for Biblical Higher Education ( Previously, Dr. Enlow served for 28 years as an educational leader at his alma mater, Columbia International University, culminating in a six-year stint as Senior Vice President and Provost. He is the author of Servant of All: Reframing Greatness and Leadership through the Teachings of Jesus and The Leader’s Palette: Seven Primary Colors. A founding member of Global Associates for Transformational Education (, he has been involved in international teaching and consulting in over a dozen countries.

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Filed under Books, Discipleship, Interviews, Leadership