No, Atlantic, Servant Leadership Doesn’t Mean Abandoning Your Moral Compass for Donald Trump

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On Tuesday, The Atlantic dropped a bombshell, revealing that Mike Pence, when he was Donald Trump’s running mate, considered replacing Trump at the top of the ticket after the Access Hollywood scandal. This important scoop was buried in an article about Pence’s theology, however — an article that suggested Pence used the biblical principle of servant leadership to justify selling his soul to serve an ungodly man.

The Atlantic‘s McKay Coppins recorded that when Pence and his wife Karen heard about Trump’s infamous “grab ’em by the p**sy comments,” they were disgusted and furious, and Pence even offered to replace Trump as the presidential candidate. After the storm died down, Pence remained on the ticket, somehow satisfying his conscience.

Trump reportedly wooed Pence by attempting to show himself as a godly man of faith, but Coppins suggested this was a fraud. Trump has reportedly mocked Pence’s faith, only using it politically to boost his credibility among evangelicals. (After all, this twice-divorced candidate said he never apologized to God, called Jesus an egomaniac, and made bravado his trademark.)

How could Pence serve such a man? Coppins noted that the vice president has been “accused of having sold his soul.” The writer suggested Pence justified doing so using the principle of servant leadership.

Marc Short, a longtime adviser to Pence and a fellow Christian, told me that the vice president believes strongly in a scriptural concept evangelicals call “servant leadership.” The idea is rooted in the Gospels, where Jesus models humility by washing his disciples’ feet and teaches, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

But whose slave, and for what reasons? Coppins suggested an answer (Emphasis added):

When Pence was in Congress, he instructed his aides to have a “servant’s attitude” when dealing with constituents. Later, as the chairman of the House Republican Conference, he saw his job as being a servant to his fellow GOP lawmakers. And when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination, he believed he was committing to humbly submit to the will of Donald Trump. “Servant leadership is biblical,” Short told me. “That’s at the heart of it for Mike, and it comes across in his relationship with the president.”

Another close friend of Pence’s explained it to me this way: “His faith teaches that you’re under authority at all times. Christ is under God’s authority, man is under Christ’s authority, children are under the parents’ authority, employees are under the employer’s authority.”

“Mike,” he added, “always knows who’s in charge.”

In this way, Coppins suggested that the evangelical concept justifies immoral behavior when done in the service of someone in authority. But that idea isn’t servant leadership, it’s slavery to human authority.

Indeed, Coppins noted that after Pence’s crisis of conscience, he stood behind Trump on Election Day, “silently, obediently, servant-leaderly.”

But Jesus never suggested servant leadership entails utter devotion to people in positions of power. If Pence did sell his soul for Trump, the Bible would not support doing so.

The phrase “servant leadership” is itself a bit misleading. It comes from the idea that Christians in positions of power should not lord it over those whom they rule, but use the power to serve those who are “under” them. This idea represents a sea-change in the basic human approach to power.

Ironically, Pence arguably could not use “servant leadership” in his relationship with Trump because Trump is above him. When Pence follows Trump’s lead, he is being a servant, not a servant leader.

Even so, “servant leadership” is a useful evangelical buzzword for a principle taught by Jesus Christ Himself. When His disciples bickered about who was the greatest, Jesus shot them down, teaching humility.

In discussing servant leadership, Coppins rightly quoted Jesus’ words in Matthew, but he left out some important context. Here is what Jesus says about leadership (Matthew 20:25-28):

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones 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 to give his life as a ransom for many.

Notice how Jesus couches the teaching — Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, but Christians are not supposed to do this. Christians are supposed to have a humble attitude of service to those beneath them in authority. This is why the disciples’ bickering was wrong.

More importantly, notice that Jesus gives an example of what it is like to be a servant in this manner. Jesus’ example of servant leadership is Himself, and He did not kowtow to human authority. Instead, He flatly contradicted the teaching of religious leaders, performing miracles on the Sabbath, knocking over money tables in the Temple, and denouncing the leaders as “hypocrites.” He even told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).

Whatever servant leadership means, it does not mean selling out to human authority.

Furthermore, when Jesus teaches this principle in Mark 9, He goes from saying, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” to taking up a child in His arms and telling His disciples to receive children in His name (Mark 9:35-37).

Jesus used the analogy of a slave to emphasize a humble attitude — that of embracing a low social status — rather than to suggest that Christians should unthinkingly follow the orders of men. In fact, many translations render the Greek word doulos as “bondservant,” not slave. Given the context, Jesus is not calling for a slavish obedience, but a servant’s heart in doing good for others.

Jesus wasn’t obedient to men, He was obedient to God. He submitted Himself to a humiliating, excruciating death for one reason: love (John 3:16).

Servant leadership does not mean Mike Pence must “humbly submit to the will of Donald Trump,” even when Trump is wrong. It also does not encourage among Christians a hyperconsciousness of “who’s in charge.” Rather, it means doing good to those around us, with a humble attitude toward God and toward others.

When asked the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment, and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 8:35-38).

“Servant leadership” is just Christianese for the basic principle that even those in authority should be humble and do good to those around them. It is another way of expressing Jesus’ second commandment, which is a summary of the latter half of the Ten Commandments.

In no way does “servant leadership” ever excuse breaking the “great and first commandment.”  Jesus’ call for His disciples to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

None of us can know the state of Mike Pence’s soul, and whether or not he compromised his faith in standing by Donald Trump. But if — as Coppins suggested — he did so, he was not engaging in “servant leadership.”