Paul uses the word slave (doulos) or servant (diakonos) in every one of his letters. He calls himself Christ's slave a number of times and a "slave to all" once. Mostly he's tapping into the idea of being a bond servant - someone who is deeply beholden to someone else.
The cornerstone of Paul’s teaching on servanthood really comes in his letter to the church at Philippi, where he says that our mindset ought to be like the mindset that Jesus had when he set aside his God-ship and took on the essence of a slave, humbling himself to the sort of execution endured by Spartacus and the other slaves who revolted. (Phil. 2:6-8). This "slave" mentality is not so much about debasing ourselves as it is about exalting others. Paul tells the Philippians not to act out of selfish ambition but to, “regard others as better than yourselves,” not in a morally superior sense, but in the sense of seeking your neighbor’s well-being above your own. He admits that we are to look after our own interests … just not exclusively, nor primarily.
Without destroying our sense of self, or ignoring the need for healthy boundaries, we need to look at those around us as those in Asian society view their elders, or as a good host views a guest – with preferential esteem.
Education is the killer here for me. At some deep place within me – deeper than my conscious self – I don't regard people with little education as better than me. I know it sounds awful, but it's the dreaded truth. The funny thing is that I'm not that well educated. I graduated high school with a 2.6 GPA for goodness sake and failed my first college math course!
Of course I am kind and attentive to people who don't have much education, hanging out with and listening to them. I can even wax eloquent about the difference between wisdom and education, lifting up those who have no formal education but great life experience and plenty of wisdom to offer. But to take a friend with a learning disability to the store in the mindset of a servant caring for a revered benefactor, that is something I have not mastered. There is a lurking paternalism which prevents me from adopting the mind of Christ when I help people who, say, can’t read, or don’t know where China is on a map. Nothing at all like the "same attitude of Christ" as described in Phil. 2.
When I talk with the mentally ill or the developmentally disabled, offering to pray with them, it is often with a subtle feeling that I am praying for somebody who is needier and less complete than me. I have no problem "regarding as better" my family members, or the elders in my church, or my colleagues at work. But when I serve somebody who can't put a coherent sentence together, I unconsciously feel I've performed some noble act of condescension.
This blasted intellectual elitism is an insidious obstacle, getting in the way of becoming like Christ. I have been called to the carpet by mentally ill friends before. “Why is it that you offer to pray for me? Is it that you feel you're better than me?” they have asked. “Why don’t you seek me out to pray for you?” It’s as if they can hear in my offer to pray, a faint note of superiority.
I suppose there is a certain amount of esteem involved in giving someone my time, attention, prayer, or physical strength. But if I am honest - to really “regard others as better than yourself,” in my heart, mind and soul - this is an area of deep struggle and profound failure.