One of the realities that I love writing about is how Jesus turns things we’re so sure about on their heads. The poor will inherit the Kingdom. Blessed are you when people revile you. The greatest among you are those who become like little children.
The one that we have to keep coming back to over and over again as we talk about ministry in the New Testament is that the greatest in the Kingdom are those who serve. Because Jesus is a King who became Lord by laying down His life, He invites us to greatness through the laying down of our own lives.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that one of the roles described in the New Testament that function in the church is the servant. You haven’t heard of it? Let me explain.
If you’re reading this blog, you most likely speak English. Our English translations suffer from a problem known as transliteration. Transliteration is a phenomenon where a translator copies a word from one language to another (in this case, Greek to English) without translating the word. A great example is baptism. Baptism comes from the Greek work “baptizo,” which literally translated means “to immerse or dunk under water.” Translators chose to render the word “baptize” instead of “immerse under water” because it wasn’t politically smart to call into question a king’s sprinkle baptism.
In much the same way, the church has handled the role of “servant*.” You’re probably more familiar with the transliterated word we use more often: “deacon.” But in many places throughout the New Testament, you could essentially switch the word servant out with deacon and be talking about the same thing.
Why is this important? Well, there are two reasons: 1) In some traditions, deacons hold positions of power and authority. They are the ones calling the shots in the body of Christ. But according to their actual name, they aren’t designed to be in control. They are designed to serve. 2) In at least one church I was part of (and a number of others I’m aware of) the deacons were more of a sanctified volunteer team. They were patterned after the seven described in Acts 6 and did no more than help with physical needs that cropped up at the church. While this is a form of service, servants are called to more than just ministering to random needs that pop up.
Probably the best way to describe a Servant is to show some prominent examples of them from throughout the New Testament.
Paul- (Colossians 1:23, but see also 1 Corinthians 3:5, 1 Corinthians 4:1, 2 Corinthians 6:4, 2 Corinthians 11:23, Ephesians 3:7.) My point in bringing up Paul’s multiple uses of this word to refer to himself is not to say that he wasn’t an apostle–clearly he was! But that maybe, just maybe, Paul considered his apostolic calling a function of his place in the body as a Servant. Is it possible that we shrunk down the role of Servants within the body? Is it possible that they are truly greater in the Kingdom like Jesus said, instead of just ministers in training that tend to physical (and in our minds, less important) needs? Also, we’ll find as we go that it’s difficult to find a Servant stuck in one place for very long.
Phoebe– (Romans 16:1) Depending on which translation you read, this verse may or may not be translated as “deacon.” (NLT does, for example.) Regardless, Phoebe was a Servant of the church who was likely entrusted to deliver the book of Romans to the church in Rome. We don’t get much insight into how, but Paul describes her as someone who helped the church at large, but especially him. It was common to have itinerants who brought letters such as Romans from one place to another who also encouraged believers as they went. What’s rare here is that Phoebe is a woman. Interestingly, where Paul gives instructions for Servants in 1 Timothy 3, there is a section devoted to Servant’s “wives,” but that word can also be translated “women.”
Stephen-(Acts 6:1-5) I’m sure many of you have been waiting for me to get to Acts 6. I don’t like starting here because this is where we draw all our images from. Stephen and six other men were entrusted with the “diakonia” or the “service of the food.” Much of our current theology for Servants comes from this passage. But look where Stephen goes from here: Quickly he becomes a bright light in the church, preaching the Gospel and performing amazing signs and wonders among the people. He was such a threat to the religious establishment, he became the first martyr after Jesus. My point in showcasing Stephen is that he transcends what we think of when we think of Servants.
Phillip- (Acts 6:1-5, Acts 8:4-40, Acts 21:8) Again, Phillip is never called a Servant in scripture, but he was one of the seven that was trusted early on with the “diakonia” or service of distributing the food. After the stoning of Stephen, Phillip became a raving evangelist, breaking open territory for the Gospel among the Samaritans and the Ethiopians. We know that he won many people to Jesus because he’s the only man in the New Testament that is called an evangelist. Again, even though he started serving as part of the food program, he did much more than that. We’re tempted to think it was a promotion. In reality every part of his ministry was a function of him taking on the role of a Servant.
What am I trying to say by pointing out what the New Testament says about Servants? A few things:
1) Our assumptions about this role are usually wrong. This isn’t a position of power or privilege, nor is it a junior ministry position. Rather, it’s willingly laying down our lives to serve Christ and His body.
2) There is enough evidence in the New Testament that this role had women operating in it that we should probably be comfortable with both genders operating in it.
3) Paul the apostle, Stephen the first martyr, and Phillip the Evangelist were all Servants. Whatever our thoughts about “deacons” or Servants are, we need to be careful not to minimize the place of becoming a recognized Servant. I believe in the age to come, it won’t be the titles of apostle or prophet or teacher that will be appeal to us. It will be the title of Servant.
If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better if we adopt that title now?
*In training our house churches on this subject, I’ve chosen never to use the word deacon. That’s a personal choice, but Deacon comes with so much baggage, it’s easier for me to use a totally new word that says exactly what it means.
How we build the church is based on how we view the New Testament. Nowhere is this clearer than the realm of elders. Some emphasize Paul’s epistles and get a seasoned, often stationary church. Others emphasize the book of Acts and it’s emphasis on minimalist structure and get a church that disappears quickly under pressure. The truth is neither of these views is correct apart from the other. But often we chose one perspective over the other, instead of seeing how both work together to accomplish what God wants.
Let’s look at some thoughts about elders from the book of Acts:
- Paul would plant churches and leave without appointing elders, but would often times do that later (see Acts 14:23). This is interesting to me, because many today stress the fact that a church without a pastor or elders is not a church at all. But Paul started a number of churches where he either didn’t appoint them on purpose or he got chased out of town before he could. My personal opinion is Paul often wanted to let new believers mature before appointing them as examples for the church to follow. But make no mistake–churches existed where elders didn’t.
- Elders were shepherds (Acts 20:28). Whoever eventually became an elder had the task of feeding and caring for the church the way a shepherd feeds and cares for a flock of sheep. This verse and another like it in 1 Peter 5 are the primary reasons I believe the gifting of shepherds and the role of elders overlap considerably. Often these are the people ingrained in the believing community and caring for those in their relational sphere.
- Elders were given the task of overseeing (Acts 20:28). Paul tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has appointed them as “overseers.” An overseer is not a leader, a public speaker, or a visionary person. An overseer literally watches over what is going on in any given circumstance. Note that the overseer is never told to give orders, tell everyone what to do, or to monopolize the teaching or instruction of the church. Their task is to watch over what is being done. One of the great needs of the church in this hour is more overseers who can provide a safe place for new believers to grow and test out their spiritual muscles that are beginning to develop.
Now, let’s look at some thoughts from Paul to Timothy and Titus:
- It’s a noble thing to aspire to be an overseer (1 Timothy 3:1).
Part of the reason for this is that these were the believers first threatened with death when persecution came. This wasn’t a position of privilege that you needed to die to yourself before you decided to take. It could be a death sentence. And while some (especially in the house church movement) believe that it’s not good to be a leader, Paul encourages believers who desire to be godly overseers.
- There is a list of character requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:2-7, Titus 1:6-9).
Character was the primary qualifying factor for elders of the New Testament. They couldn’t be a new believer and they had to be able to teach, but the overwhelming majority of qualifications were centered on how much Christ had transformed their character. Central to the idea of elders was that they were a mature follower of Jesus that new believers could look to and pattern their lives after.* **
- Elders were appointed (Titus 1:6). Paul makes it clear these guys were appointed and we saw that both in Acts and in these apostolic instruction manuals for Timothy and Titus. It was an apostolic function to appoint elders. Often they weren’t appointed until after an apostle left, but the church knew who they were because of this appointment. This is different, however, than a hierarchy where believers lord position over other believers.
When we look at the New Testament, there is a distinct pattern that emerges. Churches were spreading rapidly in the book of Acts through the ministry of men like Paul. Young churches would spring up and these churches wouldn’t have mature elders in place initially. Elders weren’t crucial to a church being established, you could have churches without elders.
But elders were necessary for the long term good of the churches that were established. These individuals were examples to the flock through their godly lifestyles but did not control every aspect of church life. They simply oversaw the life of the church and were helpful in the discerning of complicated issues that would arise. As overseers, they were to warn and admonish the body when particularly dangerous individuals were troubling the church.
I see elders as essential to the movement of the Gospel. I consider them localized replicators of the DNA God inserts into his church. Our failure to have them will eventually impair the movement of the Gospel God is raising up. But the elevation of elders to the supreme place of importance, over and above the rest of the saints as the only leaders impairs the movement of the Gospel as well. But when elders can be raised up that function as spiritual parents, allowing their children to grow and mature beyond them, beautiful movments of the Gospel can take place.
And that, my friends, is what we’re hungering for….
* 1 Peter 5:3 emphasizes the role of elders being a godly example. We haven’t looked at 1 Peter 5, but more and more, it is becoming my central text when understanding eldership in organic churches. More on that soon.
** The New Testament has a distinct pattern of calling believers to pattern their lives after other believers who live godly lives, not just Jesus. More on this in another post.
…defines how we structure the churches we’re part of today.
What do I mean by that? If you see a church in the New Testament as a missionary movement that planted simple house churches that reproduced themselves, you’ll build the church differently than if your picture of the church in the New Testament is more like a Methodist or even Pentecostal church service you can visit down the street. This forces us to ask the question, what am I reading into the New Testament?
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the area of elders*. I once read a blog by a leader within the body of Christ who had planted a church and assumed the role of an elder there. He was writing about elders and it was clear that much of what he was writing on was founded on a fairly traditional church view and based on his understanding of 1 Timothy and Titus. I (slightly) disagreed with this writer’s take on the subject and part of the reason was I’ve spent so much time trying to understand the church from the perspective of the book of Acts. I sat down to write a comment and in the midst of writing, I had an “ah ha” moment.
This may not seem like such a big deal to you, but think about it for a moment. Acts was written to show the missionary movement of the Gospel which largely involves Paul. And when we read it, we see very little structure and we see an expanding, multiplying church brought forth by the power of the Holy Spirit. Flip over a few pages to the book of First Timothy or Titus and you see established churches that Paul is asking Timothy and Titus to structure and raise up leaders within.
The problem that we have as believers is we often believe these are two different stories and the church remains divided along those lines. Many of our traditional churches have built structures and latch on to certain verses in 1 Timothy and Titus for their support. My house church friends think we have made things too complicated. We’ve slowed the spread of the Gospel down by our need for so much structure. These friends cling to the book of Acts in their reasoning. But friends, these are not two different stories. They are the same story.
There are profound implications to that thought. The ever expanding, simple, multiplying church movement we see birthed in the book of Acts needed the structural strengthening instructions that Paul laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus for the movement to continue. And the instructions and structure that Paul gave in 1 Timothy and Titus have to be interpreted in the light of the movement of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit that we see in the book of Acts. We cannot understand one without the other.
I say all of this to make this point: The church can again become the simple, multiplying movement of the New Testament once again, but it will need to learn from the wisdom of Paul. Paul knew from experience what it would take to sustain such a movement and some of his later writings were his attempt to strengthen the multiplying church movement he birthed. This included roles within each locality of elders and servants.
But if we can hold these two different examples that God gives us (Acts and the “Pastoral Epistles”) together and try to see the church in the light of them both informing each other, we’ll get a much closer idea of how God sustains the Gospel going forth through the ministry of elders and servants.
We’ll get into those details tomorrow…
*I keep promising to get into the discussion about elders. It’s coming. This post is part of a larger exploration on that topic that flows out of our larger discussions about pastors, shepherds, and the place of titles in the body of Christ.
Yesterday I had a brother write in with questions about offices, ordination, and titles because of my article about how we embraced shepherds as a house church network. And it deserves a better response than I can give today.
The problem when we start talking about any kind of ministry is our heads have been clouded with hundreds of years of historical context that tell us a ministry is a position of privilege. Ministers are the known, the great, the ones with clout in our eyes.
But Jesus has a much different definition of ministry than we do. In fact, in the Greek that the New Testament was written in, a ministry was a position of service. Some uses of the word minister refer to someone who serves at a cost to themselves.
Nowhere is this more evident for me than in Jesus’ lesson to the disciples in the upper room in John 13. Jesus gives the disciples and us an example to follow by getting down on the floor and washing the filthy feet of those in the room. This was a job reserved for a lowly servant. And then he says this:
After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message.
Have you ever washed someones feet? It’s not a glorious process, even today, where at least in the West our streets are much cleaner. It’s humbling, both to wash feet and to have your feet washed. And if Jesus calls us to any kind of ministry (re: service) it’s this. To humble ourselves and get lower than others and do what no one else would be willing to do.
Hundreds of years of church history has taught us that ministry is being the smartest man in the room, having the most honor, or being paid to be spiritual. But at it’s core, ministry is service, humbling service, in the same style that our Master modeled for us. Until we get that idea right in our heads, our hearts, and our spirits, all ministry will be wrong, whether it is titled or not.
Step 1- Surrender your life to Jesus and ask Him to fill you with His Spirit.
Step 2- Acquire a holy discontent that will not let you rest until your life reflects the life of Jesus.
Step 3- Practice regular time alone with Jesus and His word.
Step 4- Join a local, Bible-believing church with messed up people who are pursuing Jesus with all their heart, just like you.
Step 5*- If you are called to marriage (note an implied step 3.1 that you’ve asked the question “Am I called to marriage” as a subset of questions 1, 2, & 3), pick a spouse that practices steps 1, 2, & 3.
Step 5.1- Pursue a healthy marriage. Sacrifice for one another. Make time for one another. Learn to trust one another and communicate openly. Practice biblical marriage roles.
Step 5.2- If you somehow find yourself in the awkward spot of having completed steps 1-4 but have married an individual who is not described in Step 5 or your marriage doesn’t reflect the realities of Step 5.1, stop everything and work on these issues. A wise Christian counselor may be necessary. Fixing the issue is crucial. A broken marriage is a landmine that will destroy your family, not to mention your ministry.
Working on these issues means working on you. Pray for your spouse. Work to communicate and trust. Sacrifice. Nothing will change with this situation until you change you.
Step 6- Assuming you have them, give appropriate time to your family and specifically your kids. You literally have the choice of letting your ministry steal you from your children or you giving them the appropriate amount of attention and them wanting to follow in your example. Don’t give them the opportunity to make the wrong choice. Raise arrows that will go farther than you.
Step 7- Listen to the Holy Spirit. When He speaks, obey.
Step 8- Serve people (especially by sharing the Gospel with them and helping them share it with others, whether they are already believers or not). Also, never forget the poor or those on the margins.
My guess is some of you who read all the way to the bottom you were hoping for something more “practical.” This is as practical as it gets. Ministry is service. Your platform is your life, nothing more, nothing less.
The word translated ministry throughout much of the New Testament means “to serve.” The problem with how we talk about “ministry platforms” today is that we usually are speaking about how to get more eyeballs looking at us or the things we say/write/sing/produce. Instead, we should be talking about how to surrender more to Jesus, encounter Him, be more whole and healthy human beings, and lay down our lives for others. This may not be the “how to” list you were looking for, but it may be the most important one you’ve ever read.
*(Steps 5 & 6 may come other places in this list, depending on if you’re married or not. Regardless, they are important to keep in the forefront of your mind.)
My wife and I were talking before bed a few nights ago. We were reminiscing about the day and she told me about one of the neighborhood kids that had come to our house. Now, it’s not unusual for a neighborhood kid to have made their way into our house. But today, there were several. So, we have a rule at our house: we read before we get any screen time. And because we treat the kids that come over the same as our kids, they were reading with her too.
The short version of this story is one of the kids that was over was the same age as one of our kids. As she read reading with him it became obvious he was significantly behind in his reading skills. SIGNIFICANTLY. Then she moved on to another great ministry opportunity that our daughter had as she walked one of the kids from our house back to theirs. It was obvious that the day was full of both need and ministry opportunities.
And that’s what got us talking. I stood their, almost in shock. I’ve told many friends about the ministry opportunities we see in our lower income, struggling neighborhood. They always seem blown away by how many opportunities we have to serve and love people. And yet, at the end of this day, I was blown away that people could be surprised either at the need or the amount of opportunities. Having lived in this neighborhood for almost a decade, both realities had finally sunk in.
I turned to my wife and said, “You know, if the Lord hadn’t called us to plant churches, I could easily spend the rest of my life going around recruiting believers and teaching them how to do ministry in an inner city context.” And we talked. We talked about how serving in our neighborhood is really easy. We just live life and love people along the way. We open our hearts and our homes. Needs naturally show up and we meet them where God gives us the ability.
We talked about the ministry that many try to do in our neighborhood. We talked about how Christians come to our neighborhood to serve and then leave. We’re thankful for their heart, but we know how they don’t really touch the true need here. How they don’t provide male role models for the boys that don’t have any. How they don’t teach the kids that don’t know how to read. How they don’t mentor the single mom who is stressed from working a job how to love and care for her kids. How they can’t show and sow the Gospel in a way that relates to the people, mostly because they can’t earn trust in such a short amount of time.
I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’ve had a ridiculously poor success rate at reaching people in my neighborhood. But I do see the need. And I’ve learned that I have more opportunities when I’m here more. The more I become part of this neighborhood, the more opportunities I have.
So I dreamed with my wife. I talked about going around to many of the other churches in my city and maybe even other cities to tell them about what I see: about the epidemic fatherlessness that is plaguing our inner cities; about the power that love and faithfulness can have on small children when they see it regularly and not once or twice or even 12 times a year; about how believers in Jesus can help. And then I would call them to come and live there. Notice I didn’t say do something. I would call them to come and live.
And as they live and experience life and pray about what they see, they would be able to respond to the Holy Spirit and meet needs where they could. They could become the guy that reads with a seven year old who should be farther along. They could work with the guy struggling to get off drugs or teach the 19-year-old who was never parented well how to drive her first car. And before they knew it, they would be sharing life and sowing the Gospel.
That’s when reality hit. As weird as it may sound, recruiting people to live in the inner city is not my calling. Planting house churches that embody apostolic Christianity is. So while I can do my part with those around me, spending my life recruiting others to live and serve the inner city would be stepping out of God’s will for my life. I can’t afford to do that.
But what I can do is say this: Some of you this will resonate with this. Some of you reading this will sense the Holy Spirit tapping you on the shoulder as I describe the need. Some of you already know that Jesus has been talking to you about this very subject. If that’s you, then my advice to you is to give in to Him. For most, that will mean selling your current house and moving to a needier neighborhood to do what I’ve described. I say “most” because the kind of ministry I’m describing is not a drive-by type of ministry. It’s not something you can do one Saturday afternoon a month. For most it will involve leaving one place and joining another. It’s a costly and time consuming process.
This is where many will start to argue with me. Having nodded your head through the entire post, you’ll immediately begin to defend your status quo. You could be right, God could be wanting you to be where you are to do ministry there. If so, let this spur you toward be awakened to the need around you. But be very clear that the Lord has called you in this direction. It’s always tempting to play it safe and call that decision “the Lord’s,” but my experience has been safety and the Lord’s calling rarely go hand in hand.
For those who have heard the Lord clearly enough to surrender the arguments, come join me, not in my city, but in the context of need that plagues our inner cities. God will meet us there.
I leave you with a quote from Theresa of Calcutta (better known as Mother Theresa):
Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right where you are…You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society – completely forgotten, completely left alone.