Servant-leadership, as commonly understood in evangelical circles, has taken quite beating in recent years, and rightfully so. I have already addressed this issue in other places, but the problems should be spelled out more fully, especially for marriage.There are many Christian husbands who believe they are Jesus-like "servant leaders" when in reality they are abdicating their position as ruler of their households. There are many Christian wives who think they are submissive, when really their hearts are in rebellion against God's ordained authority structure and disrespectful towards the place Scripture assigns their husbands.
Obviously, the servant-leadership model is biblical because it derives from Jesus: he said the first shall be last; he is the Son of Man ( = New Adam), possessing authority, but he came among us to serve; he said the greatest of all is the one who becomes slave of all; he was exalted because he humbled himself and promises the same pattern to us; he stooped to wash the disciples feet even though he was Lord over them all.
But the servant leadership model is all too easily twisted, and this has become the Achilles' heel of complementarianism. The real problem is that complementarianism has produced a lot of beta "nice guys" who think the way to get what they want is by giving others what they want. It's what Robert Glover calls a covert contract. You see it in the Al Mohler quote Aaron Renn has called attention to when describing a man's sexual relationship with his wife: Mohler suggests the man qualifies himself for sex and will (presumably) get the sex he desires by becoming what he thinks his wife wants. But I have done enough marriage counseling to know it does not work that way. A man who makes himself subservient is not going to faithfully execute the office of husband, and he is not going to win the respect of his wife over the long haul. At the deepest level of her soul, a wife does not need or want her husband to be a “Yes man” to her. She needs him to lead her.
Mary Kassian provides another example of the servant leadership dynamic neutering the man and negating his actual rulership. Kassian claims to be to be speaking for complementarianism as a whole, and she probably is. While she is certainly right that men and women are designed to complement one another, she fails to develop what this actually means or how this is supposed to work in a marriage relationship. She writes,
Men have a responsibility to exercise headship in their homes and church family, and Christ revolutionized the definition of what that means. Authority is not the right to rule—-it’s the responsibility to serve. We rejected the term “hierarchicalism” because people associate it with an inherent, self-proclaimed right to rule.
She pays lip-service to the man's headship but what she gives in one sentence she takes away in the next. For Kassian, headship does not entail authority. It is not the right to rule. Rather it is the responsibility to serve. But who would ever be dumb enough to take on a position with responsibility if it did not come with corresponding authority? This is what Kassian is asking of men: To be responsible for their households, while possessing no authority over their households. She expects husbands to serve their households, provide for their households, and protect their households, but to not have any rule over their households. No wonder so many young men today see marriage as a bad deal and decide to stay away. If being a husband simply means "the right to serve" and any claim to authority or headship is going to be dismissed as oppressive "hierarchicalism," then any man would be a fool to marry.
The problem with Kassian's view should be obvious. If the man's headship is to be patterned after that of Jesus -- as Paul clearly indicates in Ephesians 5:21ff -- then the man has both authority over his wife and responsibility towards his wife. In the older, more biblical patriarchal model of servant-leadership, responsibility and authority were held together. In the complementarian version of servant-leadership, men are still responsible, but without the authority. When one man tells another to "Man up!" in a patriarchal order, he means, "Exercise your authority in a way that fulfills your responsibilities and serves the good of your family." When a man (or as might be the case more often, a woman) tells a man to "Man up!" in a complementarian context, the meaning is "Do what your wife wants you to do." Kassian says she and the other architects of complementarianism rejected the term "patriarchy" because of oppressive connotations. But actually they were jettisoning more than the mere term. They were jettisoning the heart of male headship, a system that reined in men by placing heavy burdens on them, but also set men free by giving them the authority to fulfill their duties. Again, in complementarianism, the duties largely remain for the men, but the authority needed to actually fulfill them has been taken away. Where has that authority been relocated? Covertly, it now belongs to the wife, who is to be served by her husband. She is the one who will determine what shape that service takes and whether or not he is doing his job well. In the complementarian model, the wife gets to decide her husband's job description and then she is the one who gets to evaluate his performance.
The interesting thing is, we would never define servant-leadership the way Kassian does in any other area of life -- only in marriage. We would never say that an executive at work has authority -- and then define that authority as the responsibility to serve as opposed to the right to rule. No, business executives really do rule those under them in the corporate structure. Yes, they should serve those employees -- but they serve them best by ruling them in wisdom. We see this in the military. Higher ranking officers have greater responsibilities and they have greater authority; responsibilities and authority are coordinated. It is the same with elders in the church. Yes, elders are to be servant-leaders to the congregation. But they really do rule the congregation -- and this rule is precisely how they serve. They have the responsibility to shepherd the sheep, but they also have authority to tell the sheep what to do (within biblical limits, of course).
Why do working wives seem to have no objections to submitting to a boss, recognizing that their boss has a real authority over them as it pertains to the job? But those same women often chafe at having to submit to a husband, and rebel against acknowledging that he has a real authority over them in the home. These women do not expect their bosses to be their servant-leaders in the same way they expect servant-leadership to work in their marriages; they would never negate their boss's authority the way they do their husband's, they would never redefine and qualify rule in the workplace the way they do at home. The office of husband been uniquely disparaged and undermined in our feminized culture, even in the evangelical subculture. If husbands were supposed to be servant-leaders to their wives in the way that Kassian suggests, there would be no need for the New Testament writers to give multiple commands for women to submit to their husbands. No one needs to be told to submit to a head who has no right to rule, only a responsibility to serve.
This is the real issue with "servant leadership" in marriage. Under this model, anytime a husband does not let the wife have her way, he can be accused of failing to serve her. And so practically, the marriage becomes no different from an egalitarian or feminist marriage where the woman runs the show. The man is only "allowed" to use his authority in ways that have his wife's permission, whether explicit or implicit. He is only "allowed" to use his authority in ways his wife approves of which means he has no real authority at all. Instead, her emotions and felt needs come to rule the marriage. If the husband and wife disagree, the only way forward is for him to give in because otherwise he would become a tyrannical patriarch, forcing his own will on her rather than serving her. Jesus would (presumably) give the wife what she wants, so the husband should too. If Jesus died for his bride, how can any husband refuse to give his wife what she desires? How can he say "No, honey, we're not going to do that," when he is supposed to serve her? Thus, servant leadership morphs into subservience; the head becomes the helper and the helper the head. This is Satanic role reversal accomplished in the name of Scripture. It is overthrowing the marriage’s built-in authority structure, which leads to chaos and confusion. In this way the servant-leader model can actually dilute a husband's rule even more than the so-called "tie breaker" model (popularized by Tim Keller) that only invokes a husband's authority in the case of intractable disagreement. The servant-leadership model, as commonly understood, is all service and no leadership, all responsibility and no authority.
Feminists will never give in to their husbands because to do so is to allow herself to be controlled by him and that's the one thing she cannot allow; thus she will continue to defy her husband, argue with him, etc., in order to prove she is a real feminist. If she gives in to her husband, it just shows she has internalized misogyny/self-hatred and has not fully escaped the vestiges of patriarchy. But the complementarian wife can get the same result as the feminist wife by telling her husband, "You're not serving me like Jesus. How can I follow you as my leader unless you serve me?" And thus the beat of the gynocentric order goes on. Basically the "servant leader" model becomes a way for a wife to exercise control over her husband since he can be accused of tyranny or being self-serving any time he does not go along with her wishes. The "servant leader" model all too easily allows her to exercise veto power over anything he wants to do because she can shame him for not being the servant she's been led to expect and thinks she deserves. She can play the "Jesus card" anytime she wants to trump her husband.
The problem, of course, is this is NOT how Jesus serves his church and so it is NOT what “servant-leadership” should be taken to mean. When Jesus died for his bride, he was not responding to a felt need. He was certainly not letting the bride determine the shape of his mission. In the gospels, Jesus always leads the way and the disciples follow behind; they do not always even know or understand where he is taking them, but he keeps leading (cf. Mark 9-10). Or consider the picture in Revelation 19, with Jesus out in front, his disciples following in his train as he rides into battle. While Jesus serves his bride, and does allow her to give counsel (prayer), he never asks her permission to do anything and she always has to submit to him even when he does something contrary to her wishes. In other words, he serves her by ruling her. In the complementarian view, the man leads by serving -- which means he does not really lead at all; in the gospel (patriarchal) view, the man serves by leading -- his leadership is actually a form of service. The complementarian husband all too easily becomes a figure head rather than a functioning head, and in that way he actually fails to be like Jesus. The patriarchal husband is a true head, exercising authority over his household and also taking full responsibility for his household.
Here's the rub: this model of "servant leadership" is so popular precisely because it allows men to be lazy cowards who do not really have to take charge of anything; they can continually defer to their wives in the name of serving them. So this model actually allows men and women both to go along with their worst fleshly/fallen tendencies, but under the guise of godliness: She does not have to submit, and gets to control him; and he does not have to actually lead or rule or maintain frame, but can abdicate. Of course, this makes them both miserable in the long run, as she is not going to be satisfied with or attracted to a man she can control, and he is going to feel emasculated for letting her pull the strings. But this dynamic is all too common in Christian marriages today.
The root of the problem is that so many modern men, perhaps especially in the church, are functionally castrated. We have recreated Jesus into our own effeminate image, and men have followed suit. But if men are going to truly pattern their household leadership after the true Jesus -- as they should -- they will rule in wisdom and love. They will serve their families by leading them. They will exercise authority over their households even as they take responsibility for their households. This is true servant-leadership.