Biblical Examples of Servant Leadership

Written by: Megan Ryan
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As disciples of Jesus, we are called to emulate the servant leadership he modeled during his earthly ministry, and Scripture is filled with many amazing examples of what leading with humility and selflessness looks like.

Here are four servant leaders found in Scripture and what we can learn from each of them.

Moses: Trusting Willingness

Moses’ story is a fascinating one. He is known as one of the most important figures in all of Scripture, and yet his rise to leadership was not a quick or smooth journey. Moses struggled with something that many modern-day leaders also struggle with – fear of inadequacy.

However, Moses also demonstrated a key character trait that servant leaders strive to embody if they desire God to use them beyond their own understanding or perceived capabilities: trusting willingness—even in the face of fear or uncertainty.

Born during the time of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, Moses miraculously escaped death as an infant and ended up being raised as royalty in Pharaoh’s household—the same man who decreed the killing of all Hebrew male infants. At some point, however, Moses faced the reality of his Hebrew blood and was enraged to the point of murder upon witnessing an Egyptian abusing an Israelite slave. Fleeing to Midian, Moses lived in exile for years—even getting married and having children—while the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt.

One day, while Moses was supervising the flock of his father-in-law in the wilderness, he witnessed an angel of the Lord, which “…appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.” (Exodus 3:2) As he approached the bush, God called to him from it and told Moses that He had seen the suffering of his people in Egypt and had a plan to rescue the Israelites from their slavery and bring them to the Promised Land.

And what was God’s plan? Moses would go to Pharaoh and demand the freedom of God’s people.

After some back-and-forth, Moses eventually told God that he thought he had the wrong guy—citing a speech impediment—and eventually begs God to send someone else (Exodus 4:13). At this, God more intensely tells Moses that he will not be alone because Moses will have his brother Aaron by his side as well as God guiding him the entire way. At this, Moses leaves and makes plans to journey to Egypt.

Anyone even remotely familiar with this story knows what comes next – the plagues, the release of the slaves, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and so on. And as exciting as this narrative is, this was only the beginning of Moses’ incredibly long and significant leadership role to the people of Israel.

Moses is a powerful example of how the first step to becoming a servant leader often involves trust and the willingness to let God use us, even when we don’t feel skilled or prepared or believe someone else might be better for the job.

Like Moses, may we demonstrate a trusting willingness to serve and lead God’s people when he calls us.

RUTH: Resilient Faithfulness

Ruth might not be the kind of “leader” normally highlighted in our world, but throughout her story, her incredible servant leadership becomes evident in the way that she cared for those God placed in her path. Ruth demonstrated a key component of what it means to be a true servant leader—resilient faithfulness—even when it requires great personal sacrifices.

“Ruth the Moabitess” (native to the city of Moab and not Jewish by blood) married into a Hebrew family who had traveled to her homeland because of a famine. Through her husband’s family, she learned about their God and his ways.

Sadly, after some time, her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all died, and she was left with her sister-in-law, Orpah, and elderly mother-in-law, Naomi, in a time and place not easy for women to provide for themselves. With the famine in Naomi’s hometown now over and nothing more for her in Moab, Naomi decided to return to Judah, and her daughters-in-law came with her.

Naomi, realizing the two women were still young enough to get remarried and have children, encouraged them to return to Moab, where they would have a much higher chance of remarrying. Naomi lamented that she couldn’t provide for them in her elderly state, and after some back-and-forth, Orpah bid farewell to Ruth and Naomi and went back to Moab.

Ruth, however, was stubbornly loyal to Naomi and responded with these powerful words:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. (Ruth 1:16-18).

Ruth decided (and promised) that she would be faithful to Naomi and Naomi’s God, even if it cost her.

Ruth continued on with Naomi, and the rest of her story displays resilient faithfulness at every turn. She provided for Naomi by gleaning food for them in the fields and listened to Naomi’s instructions about how to get the attention of Boaz, the honorable kinsman-redeemer—a relative who was able to marry Ruth and provide for them both. At the end of the story, Ruth and Boaz had a son, Obed, who brought joy and blessing to Naomi in her old age.

Ruth’s story serves as a reminder that true servant leaders put others first and remain faithful even in the face of adversity. Servant leaders do not abandon those in their care when they face inconvenience or suffering. Instead, they stay open to what God might be doing, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

As was the case with Ruth, the resilient faithfulness of servant leaders often leads to great blessings in the end.

PAUL: Persistent Exhortation

Paul is widely known for his incredible conversion from being a persecutor of Christians to arguably the most famous follower of Jesus in known history. His encounter with the risen Christ changed the entire trajectory of his life, and he dedicated every moment afterward to building up the believers across all of Asia Minor and beyond. He is commonly credited with writing over half of the New Testament (mostly letters to specific churches in the greater Mediterranean area), giving instructions for how to best live as servants of the Lord Jesus.

In doing so, Paul demonstrated a powerful character trait of servant leadership: persistent exhortation.

Exhortation is sometimes defined as encouragement with an appeal, and that certainly is characteristic of Paul’s writings. In fact, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he reminded them, “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) He acknowledged their efforts but pressed them to continue to do so. He also urged those in the church of Corinth to “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith…let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

While Paul never shied away from correcting errors and false teaching when he encountered it, he was far from a harsh, cold leader. He positively and enthusiastically thanked God for his brothers and sisters in Christ and made sure they knew how important they were to him and how grateful he was for their friendship and support.

In both his epistles to the Philippians and Colossians, he began by writing about how he thanked God each time he thought about the believers in these churches because of their faith, love, and partnership in the gospel (Colossians 1:3-4; Philippians 1:3-5). He also mentions how he prays for them—that God would “Fill [them] with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9) and “That [their] love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,” (Philippians 1:9) among other rich theological supplications on their behalf.

In fact, Paul, eager to encourage and support these new churches, spent years of his life traveling to visit them, even across dangerous seas, facing sickness, and against the threat of persecution. Paul’s ultimate desire was to encourage and assist these churches in person, but when he was unable to do so, he consistently used his gift of written words to offer them exhortation from afar. (1 Timothy 14-15)

Paul’s life serves as a powerful example of how persistent exhortation positively impacts those we desire to minister to and is an effective tool of discipleship and spiritual growth.

JESUS: Intentional Humility

It would be a bit strange to talk about biblical examples of servant leadership without reflecting on the ultimate model of servant leadership ever known to man: Jesus Christ.

Scripture teaches that Jesus holds ultimate authority and power over all of creation, and yet, because of his love for humanity and willingness to sacrifice himself for others, Jesus put his authority aside and demonstrated the most crucial trait of any servant leader – radical, intentional humility.

While holding equality with the God who created the universe, the person of Jesus was brought into the world as a human in the most humble, lowly of ways: as a baby in a barn. He had the power to perform miracles, heal disease, control nature, and even raise people from the dead, and yet, he also chose to leave Earth in a more humiliating way than he entered it: death on a cross, next to criminals.

But again, this was Jesus’ choice. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2, while Jesus was “In very nature, God…” he “…did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)

As a result of Jesus’ profound humility—rooted in love for humanity—Scripture tells us that “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place…” (Philippians 2:9) giving him glory and honor as he was obedient to the Father’s will.

While it is fair to say that as long as we live in this fallen world, we will never be able to demonstrate the kind of perfect humility as Jesus did, it is important we still strive to emulate his example in this area. We, too, can practice intentional humility in our lives, ministries, and leadership roles. In fact, without humility, we cannot be the kind of servant leaders that God has called us to be.

But, when we humble ourselves before the Lord, we can have assurance that in the right time and circumstances, God will indeed lift us up and use us for His good purposes (1 Peter 5:6-7; James 4:10).