Agosto, Servant Leadership


Efrain Agosto, Servant Leadership: Jesus & Paul. Chalice Press, 2005.

Referenced in: Summary

This is a substantive theological work based on the author’s dissertation. Agosto considers the social situation surrounding Jesus and Paul, and how this influenced their interactions. He reflects liberation theology with its tenet of the early Christian communities’ preference for the poor. This may be too narrow a lens through which to see the whole of Christian leadership. Yet there are many useful observations even for those who do not share this orientation. Agosto does not use servant leadership according to the common usage of the term. It is rather an exegetical and theological perspective on the way Jesus and Paul led in the early Christian communities.

Agosto begins with a description of the social environments in which both Jesus and Paul led. He then looks at the leadership of Jesus in the Synoptics, which was exercised

in the midst of the domination system that was the Roman Empire. Rome carried out its imperial domination by extreme oppression of the poorest of the poor, including heavy tax burdens on the peasant population of Palestine. Rome did this in collusion with Israel’s elite leadership – both political and religious. (196)

This spawned resistance movements of “bandits,” “prophets,” and “messiahs” who resisted through “either through social banditry, religious renewal movements, or outright revolt.” (197) In this stepped John the Baptist, and “one of his followers, Jesus of Nazareth,” who “challenged the entrenched powers of his day because of their oppression of the masses in Palestine.” (197) In Jesus’ expression of leadership, he gathered a group of followers who were chosen not from “cream of the crop from among Israel’s constituencies,” but “included working-class fishermen, hated tax collectors, and women disciples in a society that undermined the leadership of women.” (198) He says that “in fact, the disciples, the future leaders of the movement, came from among the target audience for Jesus’ ministry, such as the peasants of the countryside and the overtaxed working class of the local fishing and building trades.” He created a “kingdom of nobodies.” (198)

From all of this, he concludes:

First and foremost, attention to the poor is the fundamental quality of gospel leadership. Second, candidates for gospel leadership include all groups, especially the poor and outcast. Third, the gospel record emphasizes the sacrifice and service involved in gospel leadership. (96)

He points out that even though the synoptics lay out high expectations for leaders, they do not hide the failures of the early leaders. He also sees a preference for mission-focused teams, and a non-hierarchical, egalitarian approach in the “early Jesus movement.” He believes the egalitarianism was gradually minimized with the “note of hierarchy and official designations…particularly the language of apostleship and the minimizing of female leadership (i.e. by speaking of the disciples as “the Twelve” and these twelve as men only).” (96)

Agosto then considers how this happens in the Pauline movement where the gospel shifts from Palestine in the 20s and 30s to the Greco-Roman, Hellenistic, and urban contexts of the 40s and 50s. It conveys the same as Jesus’ emphases, though encounters opposition such that Paul has to defend his integrity, wherein we find his articulation of leadership. From Paul, Agosto draws out three lessons for leadership in general:

  1. Religious leaders need to think through a careful strategy for carrying out their mission, depending on the crises and situations we face. This is similar to Paul’s strategy through urban centers.
  2. Leaders must surround themselves with those who have a track record of hard work and sacrifice on behalf of the gospel and the gospel community.
  3. Leaders must have firm conviction and a sense of mission. One central tenet of this is to “engage the ministry of reconciliation and bring healing to divided parties among us.” He says,
    We need more religious leaders who practice and promote the art of diplomacy and peacemaking rather than some kind of chauvinistic jingoism that divides rather than unites. …How we achieve reconciliation between divided parties in our communities and our world, not matter how complicated that may seem, and it is, must lie at the heart of our theology, proclamation, and religious leadership activity in general. (207)

From the Publisher

Servant Leadership addresses a fundamental concern of the contemporary church by asking pertinent questions of the New Testament: Who became a leader in the Jesus movement and in Pauline Christianity? What was the social status of these leaders in the outside world as compared to the importance of such social status within the faith community? What practices characterized their leadership within the communities they served?

The book explores models of leadership in the New Testament’s two prime exemplars, Jesus and Paul, and in their respective communities of faith. It studies both Paul’s statements and actions with regard to leadership issues with specific church communities, using Thessalonians, the Corinthians, the Galatians, and the Philippians correspondence as case studies in the practice of leadership. It concludes with a discussion of leadership challenges in the modern church and how a Pauline or Deutero-Pauline model can work for us today.

The author shows how understanding one’s followers, as well as the goals and purposes of the group one leads, is a fundamental function of leadership today, even in the corporate world. Similarly, although we expect Christian leadership to be confrontational and assertive at times, it must also be open to creating opportunities for others to exercise their gifts and, therefore, their leadership. Good leaders move others to respond to their own personal calls and commitments.

About the Author

Efrain Agosto is professor of New Testament and director of Programa de Ministerios Hispanos at Hartford Seminary and has directed the urban ministries program for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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