What does the servant do when confronted with injustice and oppression? Is she supposed to submit to corrupt authority and show deference to despots?
What does it mean to be a “servant” of Christ? This language is ubiquitous in writings on the topic of discipleship, itself used to describe the process of maturing or growing as a Christian. Books and sermons about discipleship are replete with themes of servanthood and urge Christians to serve one another, to “deny oneself,” and “take up your cross.”
On the surface, this may sound harmless, encouraging people to be humble, hospitable, and generous. However, these teachings may conceal something far more dangerous. What does the servant do when confronted with injustice and oppression? Is she supposed to submit to corrupt authority and show deference to despots?
When Black women did not see their lived experience fully reflected in either Black or feminist theology, a new category of discourse emerged: womanist theology. Acclaimed author and activist Alice Walker first coined the term “womanist” in her 1983 collection, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. The term comes from a colloquialism—“womanish”— typically used by a Black mother to her female children to describe behavior that is mature and willful. Katie G. Canon launched the term into the scholarly discourse in her 1988 book, Black Womanist Ethics. Since then, womanist theologians have developed profound critiques of the intertwined oppression of racism, sexism, and classism.
The Problem of Servanthood
Jesus famously said that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The apostle Paul doubled down on this notion, saying, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” This tradition of self-sacrificial discipleship can be heard some 1,500 years later, when the Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
The womanist’s contention isn’t with Jesus or Paul, however, but with the twisting of these verses to preserve systems of inequity. In the lived experience of the oppressed, being told to serve and obey is hardly liberative.
Womanist theologian and biblical scholar Raquel A. St. Clair explains that “by extolling the ‘goodness’ of being a servant we make it ‘bad’ to move beyond menial work positions.” What the powerful call service, the servant calls exploitation. We risk sanctifying people’s suffering, telling them it is somehow honorable and good.
“Given the legacy of African-American women as servants who have experienced coerced and/or voluntary surrogacy, servanthood language maintains and supports these roles…degenerat[ing] into spiritually sanctioned suffering,” St. Clair writes. With this particular history in mind, we can see the serious need to shift discipleship language away from teachings that encourage people to acquiesce to life-limiting circumstances, or worse, teachings that ordain suffering as God’s will.
Humility as a Virtue, not a System
One might contend, however, that humility and service to others are virtues worth pursuing. The contention here is not against virtues but rather against systems and ideas that subdue resistance to oppression. To preach about humility to the exploited risks creating permission structures that moralize exploitation.
[Read: “The Paradox of Being Holy.”]
Still, doesn’t Jesus encourage his followers to serve one another? If you look closely at the context of his teachings on humility and service, you will notice that they come in moments when his disciples are selfishly seeking power. It’s only when they’re arguing about “who is the greatest” that Jesus gives them the corrective to be servants to one another. Remember that his vision of the Kingdom of God is an inverted one, where “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Following, not Serving
Womanist theologians present an alternative to servanthood discipleship that describes following Jesus by continuing in his life-giving and liberating ministry. Jesus gives the imperative “follow me” 17 times across the four gospels. Never does he say “worship me”—in fact, the only figure who demands to be worshiped is Satan when tempting Jesus in the desert. It is clear that Jesus’s priority was to inspire followers—people who would continue and expand upon his work of healing, teaching, and liberating—not servants.
Servanthood discipleship risks coercing the exploited to remain in positions of subjugation by cloaking classism in virtues of humility, unselfishness, or obedience. Instead, modern Christians can be inspired by and participate in Jesus’s ministerial vision to liberate. As womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant so forcefully writes, “The church does not need servants, as oppressively conceived of and experienced by many; the church needs followers of Christ—disciples.”
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