Bear with the Failings of the Weak: Servant Leadership and the Way of the Cross
"We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, 'The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.'" (Romans 15:1-3 ESV)
God seems to like teaching me lessons about my walk with Him while I am hiking in the Colorado mountains. I have no idea why He chooses these times, but it is always a great joy to draw near to Him in the midst of His majestic creation and learn from the One who is "gentle and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29). Recently, while hiking the Flatirons near Boulder, Colorado the Lord taught me something about Christ-like leadership. This was, in some ways, a painful lesson for me. But once I released some self-centered hurt and anger over the experience, I caught a glimpse of a genuine and significant truth of spiritual leadership that I now want to pass on to you.
This was very diﬀerent from most of my hikes because I wasn't alone - I was with a large group of Christian brothers and sisters, thirty or more in all. The brothers leading our group had explained the idea of the hike as an opportunity to spend time together as a family in Christ and to have fellowship with one another - while getting some exercise, of course! It sounded great. But almost as soon as our group set out something began to happen. There were some strong hikers among us who made their way to the front of the group and set a very fast pace. I am not a strong hiker; I prefer to hike slowly so I can enjoy nature and talk to God, and I'm not used to racing up the side of a mountain. Soon I found myself with a few people at the back of the group struggling to keep up. After about ten minutes I looked up and most of the group was gone, disappearing up the mountain ahead of us. There were a few people with me, and some who had fallen even farther behind. We struggled our way forward by ourselves, while those who were behind us eventually gave up and turned back.
Some of the people I was with started to become angry at being left behind. I wasn't feeling too good about it myself - I mean, wasn't this hike supposed to be a time of fellowship? Our little group was pretty much left out of the fellowship, weren't we? Did the rest of the group even care whether we were with them or not? What about the people who got so discouraged they just turned around and went home? I was feeling hurt, angry, rejected, and sorry for myself as I pushed my way up the trail. A little further along we ran into a few more people who had been left behind by the main group; they had taken the wrong trail and almost gotten lost. Now they were backtracking, and we all had to figure out which way to go. By the time we made it to the top I was so exhausted and irritated by the experience that I didn't even much enjoy the amazing view of Boulder. Of course, when I arrived everyone else was ready to start back down, so in a few minutes I was left alone again.
On my way back down I tried to sort through my feelings about the experience. I knew some of it was just self-pity and anger, so I prayed through that for a while, but something was still bothering me. The point our leaders had made about the hike being a family activity kept coming back to me. What sort of family goes on a hike, then allows the older brothers and sisters to just leave the younger, weaker ones behind to fend for themselves if they can't keep up? The more I thought about this and why it bothered me, the more I realized there was an important lesson to be learned here about spiritual leadership - a lesson about allowing the strongest to set the pace.
If God has called you to any form of spiritual leadership, you very likely have areas of spiritual strength that are recognized by those around you. This, of course, does not mean that you are more important than anyone else, or that others do not have gifts that you lack. By strength I simply mean that you have a degree of spiritual maturity, understanding of Scripture, and experience walking with the Lord day by day that is greater than many of those you lead - that is why others follow you. Along with this strength, however, God has given leaders a very clear responsibility that is spelled out in our opening verse: "We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves" (Rom. 15:1; cf. 1 Thess. 5:14; Phil. 2:3-11).
The world operates on the principle of survival of the fittest. The strongest, brightest, and most talented rise to the top; they become the focus of everyone's attention, to be celebrated and rewarded, while those who seem weaker and less successful are ignored by society. In prison this dynamic is taken to another level. The strong and violent become shot-callers, feared and respected, while the weak and gentle are used and preyed upon. The kingdom of God turns all this upside down: "But Jesus called them to him and said, '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'" (Matt. 20:25-28; cf. Luke 22:25-27). Jesus, the strongest spiritual leader of all, came as a servant of weak and sinful human beings like you and me. Now He calls us to serve the weaker brothers and sisters around us.
If you are anything like me, however, even when you are serving the Lord in ministry you may have a tendency to fall back into a worldly mindset toward weaker brothers and sisters. Have you ever led a group in a study, or tried to teach a challenging biblical truth, or perhaps worked one-on-one with several brothers or sisters seeking to encourage them in their spiritual growth? Do you sometimes find that in the group there are one or two (or more) who learn much more slowly, whose faith is often wavering, who seem to have little motivation to grow in holiness and their relationship with the Lord? When this happens to me I have a tendency to quickly become frustrated, and I think, "What is wrong with this guy? He's holding the whole group back from making progress!" I am tempted to just move ahead with the rest of the group and let him keep up if he can - to let the strongest set the spiritual pace.
The Lord, however, tells us that as servant leaders we have a special responsibility - not to keep up with the pace of the strong, but to "admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all" (1 Thess. 5:14). "Patience is needed when dealing with people's many weaknesses and failures. We must have patience to bear with those who are slow to learn, resistant to change, weak in faith, quick to complain, forgetful of their responsibilities, emotionally unstable, fearful, or wayward" (Strauch 2006, 42).
As spiritual leaders we are not shot-callers - we are shepherds (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). "Lack of patience is a serious deficiency in a Christian leader. Our work with people is primarily a spiritual work, so it must be done God's way, with great patience and care. An impatient leader is as destructive to people as an impatient father is to his children or as an impatient shepherd is to his sheep" (Strauch 2006, 42). In Ezekiel 34:1-10, God condemned the shepherds of Israel for failing to care for the weaker sheep: "The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts" (Ezek. 34:4-5). If we let the strong set the pace and leave the weak, sick, and injured sheep behind to fend for themselves, they will become prey for the enemy, wander from the trail and become lost, or turn back in despair (see Matt. 9:36). I sadly remember a brother who quit coming to a Bible study I was leading because I failed to gently and patiently guide him through a point of weakness.
When we demonstrate patience toward the weaker brother or sister, not pleasing ourselves but seeking to sacrificially serve and shepherd them, we become more like Christ, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8, cf. vs. 3-11; Rom. 15:3). The way of Christ-like leadership is the way of the cross - of laying down all our gifts, all our strengths, all our goals and our desires, in service to others for His sake. It is dying to self so that those we serve might live through Him (2 Cor. 4:11-12; 13:9).
In the end, I think what bothered me about that hike up the Flatirons was the spirit which allowed the strongest to set the pace and was willing to leave the weak behind to make it on their own, get lost, or give up. As we seek to shepherd those the Lord has entrusted to our ministries, walking in the footsteps of the chief Shepherd, may we not give in to the temptation to let the strongest set the spiritual pace. Rather, let us strive in the strength our God supplies to bear patiently with the failings of the weak and lay down our lives in service to them. I pray the Lord would grant that, at the end of our lives and ministries, we might be able to say with Christ, "I kept them in your name...I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost..." (John 17:12; cf. John 6:39). After all, the goal is not to be the fastest to the top of the mountain, but that we all eventually get there - together.
Strauch, Alexander. 2006. A Christian Leader's Guide to Leading with Love. Littleton: Lewis & Roth Publishers.