Married life always begins on a very high and unrealistic note. Each partner enters into the relationship with lofty ideals about marriage, especially about the other partner. Keith Miller, in his book
The Taste of New Wine,2 says that his wife’s vision of a husband was a “perfectly balanced blend of Big John Wayne, Jack Parr, and Father Flanagan.” On the other hand, his was “a combination of St. Theresa, Elizabeth Taylor, and Betty Crocker.”
All of us who are married may laugh at this, but only because we know that it is true. Marriages are either built or broken at the point of disillusionment, when we become distressingly aware that “the honeymoon is over.” By the commitment and contribution of both partners, a marriage can grow much closer to the high standards that have been set for it in the Word of God.
Church life is much like marriage in this regard. Many enter into church membership with a very ethereal view of what the nature of that relationship should be. It is usually not long, however, before the rosy-eyed Christian becomes sadly aware of the fact that life in the local church is not what he or she might have expected. Most often we are initially distressed because the church has failed to meet our ideals and expectations for it. While this is undoubtedly true of any church, it is also a fact that we have probably not considered seriously enough our responsibilities in the relationship. It is only by the commitment and contribution of all the members that a church can grow in its intimacy with her Lord and with one another.
The purpose of this series, “The Work of the Ministry,” is to expound and explore the commitment and contribution of each Christian to the local church, and more particularly, to one another. It is only as we practice these teachings of the Word of God that we will experience the blessings of living together in the local church.
This past week the media has given considerable attention to the visit of Pope John II to the United States. From what little I know of him, I would imagine that he is a great man, a man with compassion and lofty goals. Without any personal knowledge of his spiritual life, I would hope that he has come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.
Watching the television coverage of the visit of Pope John Paul II, I was reminded anew of the Roman Catholic concept of ministry. If I were to try to distinguish the Catholic view of ministry from that of our local church, I would say that Catholicism still practices an Old Testament ministry, while (hopefully) we engage in New Testament ministry. Catholicism continues to perpetuate a clerical priesthood that is almost entirely responsible for what is called “the ministry.”
Probably few Catholics or Protestants would disagree with this analysis. But what most Protestant evangelicals fail to realize is that much of the Roman Catholic conception of ministry is perpetuated in Protestantism with only the labels changed.
The fact is that the Reformation did not go far enough in relation to the doctrines of the church. It dealt primarily with two avenues of truth. First, this area of reform involved the doctrine of salvation. Catholicism taught that salvation was the result of faith and works. The Reformers, on the basis of the Scriptures, maintained it was all of grace, without any works on man’s part.
Second, this part of the Reformation dealt with the area of authority. Roman Catholicism held that spiritual authority resided in the Scriptures, but only as interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers insisted that the Word of God alone was divinely inspired and fully authoritative.
While these matters were of great magnitude, many other traditions and errors of Catholicism remained virtually unchallenged. Even in instances where Catholic principles were corrected (such as the Protestant doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”), Catholic practices persisted in Protestantism.
This is especially true in the area of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. Protestantism’s practices in the area of ministry are a strange blend of the Old Testament priesthood, which distinguished the laity and clergy, and between the sacred and the profane. In order to rightly practice New Testament ministry, we must see how it differs from that of the Old Testament.
Many Christians have begun to come to grips with the truth contained in Ephesians 4:11-12, that the work of Christian leaders, such as pastor-teachers, is that of equipping, while that of the church at large is to “minister” or to “serve.” The problem is that they don’t understand what is meant by this term, ministry. This is the purpose of our study.
Ministry in the Old Testament was often depicted by two Hebrew words, Sharath (and its most common Greek counterpart, leitourgein and Abad (commonly rendered latreuein in Greek). Significantly, the Greek term for ministry in Ephesians 4:12 (diakonia) is found only in the Book of Esther. This indicates a crucial change in the concept of ministry from the Old Testament to the New.
Neither leitourgein nor latreuein was an appropriate term to convey the New Testament concept of ministry. Leitourgein was a “reversed collar” term, which referred to the service and ministry of a select priestly class.
And they must be on Aaron and his sons when they go in to the tent of meeting, or when they approach the altar to minister (leitourgein) in the holy place, so that they bear no iniquity and die. It is to be a perpetual ordinance for him and for his descendants after him (Exodus 28:43; cf. Numbers 3:6, 31).3
In the New Testament, leitourgein was used to describe the work of the Jewish priesthood (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 9:21) and that of Christ (Hebrews 8:6).4 But this term is no longer employed strictly for the priestly service of the few in this dispensation, for we are all priests.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Philippians 2:17; Revelation 1:6).
Latreuein was not a fitting term for New Testament ministry either. Because of its Old Testament associations, it is a “stained glass” term. It was used for the religious service of either the entire congregation or of an individual.
And God said, “Surely I will be with you; and this will be the sign to you that I have sent you: When you bring the people out of Egypt, you will serve [latreuein] God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12; cf. 4:23)
While this term did not restrict ministry to the clergy, it did confine religious service to a rather narrow spectrum of form and function. Such a narrow term could never convey the broad scope of ministry that we find in the New Testament.
The predominant word for ministry in the New Testament is diakoneo (the noun form of which is diakonia). From this root, the term, deacon, (in Greek, diakonos) is derived. One of many possible expressions, it most accurately conveys the New Testament function of ministry. Our Lord and the apostles employed diakoneo to invest ministry with a meaning to both the Jews, and the Greeks.
To the Greeks, there was no dignity in service. In the words of the Greek sophist:
“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”5
The only service deemed to be of high value was that rendered in behalf of the state.6
How different was our Lord’s concept of the ministry:
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served (passive form of diakoneo) but to serve (active form of diakoneo), and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus taught His followers that serving was a vital part of discipleship:
If anyone wants to serve (diakoneo) me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant (diakonos) will be too. If anyone serves (diakoneo) me, the Father will honor him (John 12:26).
In the teaching of Jesus, greatness was to be measured in terms of service:
42 Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 43 But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant (diakonos), 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).
All of this invested New Testament ministry with a dignity unimagined by the Greeks of that day.
In contrast to the Greek’s disdain for service to others, the Jews believed it had great dignity.7 The religious leaders of Israel began to think of ministry in terms of status, rather than service. Jesus repudiated such thinking and placed all ministry on the same level of importance:
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-12).
We can see from the teaching of our Lord that His concept of ministry differed greatly from that of the Greeks, as well as that of the Jewish religious leaders, and even that of His disciples.
By far, the most accurate and complete description of New Testament ministry is to be found by a study of the various uses of the term diakonia in the New Testament. As we consider its occurrences, we find these general characteristics of ministry:
1. New Testament ministry is humble service. The term diakonia in classical Greek clearly implied menial service.8 Originally, a diakonos was one who rendered service as a table waiter. Our Lord’s own ministry and teaching highlight the humility fundamental to Christian service.
2. New Testament ministry is very broad in scope. It is noteworthy to observe that serving tables (diakonia) in Acts 6:1 (diakonein verse 2) and ministry (diakonia) of the Word (verse 4) are both described by the same term. Ministry is not only that which involves speaking, but also that of service:
Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves (diakoneo), let him do so as by the strength which God supplies(1 Peter 4:11).
While the contemporary concept of ministry focuses upon verbal or spoken ministry, Peter defines service so as to include the vast amount of ministry that is not proclamation, but practical service.
The clearest demonstration of the breadth of New Testament ministry is achieved by a survey of the multitude of services that are denoted by the New Testament term diakonia (or its verbal counterpart). Here are some of the instances of the word groups related to Christian ministry.
A. The ministry of those women who cared for the material needs of our Lord (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:3).
B. The ministry of feeding the widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:2-3).
C. The ministry of preaching the Word (Acts 6:4).
D. The work of the Old Testament prophets (1 Peter 1:12).
E. Personal ministry to the apostle Paul (Acts 19:22; 2 Timothy 1:16-18; 4:11; Philemon 13).
F. Ministry to the financial needs of others (Acts 11:29; 12:25; Romans 15:25f; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 8:19-20; 9:1).
G. The ministry, in general, to the saints (Hebrews 6:10).
H. The ministry of an apostle of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:17; 20:24).
I. The ministry of reconciling men to God (2 Corinthians 5:18).
J. A particular short-term task of service (Acts 12:25).
3. Individual ministry is both general and specific. We have just demonstrated that New Testament ministry includes a broad spectrum of services. Having shown this, we must go on to point out that every Christian has two spheres of ministry. We have a broad or general ministry which encompasses the whole spectrum of ministry. We are all obligated to give (2 Corinthians 9:7), to teach (Matthew 28:19-20; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 6:4; Titus 2:5; Proverbs 31:16), to encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14; Hebrews 10:25), and to pray for one another (James 5:16). While these ministries should be motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they do not require a special spiritual gift.
But each Christian does possess at least one spiritual gift, or perhaps a combination of gifts, which equips him or her for a specific ministry. This ministry is divinely appointed. The results of this ministry are ordained by God.
4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
The New Testament thus speaks of ministry in a specific sense as well as in a broad sense. Every Christian is responsible to minister to others in a wide range of services. But in addition, each Christian has a very special and specific ministry for which the Spirit of God has uniquely equipped him and to which the Lord directs him. A more restricted kind of ministry can be seen in the following passages.
A. In 1 Peter 4:10, Peter identifies a person’s ministry with the exercise of their particular spiritual gift.
B. In Romans 12:7, Paul informs us that there is a specific gift of service, possessed by some Christians.
C. In Philippians 1:11 and 1 Timothy 3:8, the word diakonos sometimes refers to the office of deacon.
D. In numerous passages, “ministry” is used of the specific calling of an individual.
And say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it” (Colossians 4:17; cf. Also Acts 21:19; Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:5).
4. New Testament ministry is practical and beneficial. Old Testament ministry was often ceremonial and liturgical. As I mentioned before, it had a “stained glass” connotation. Ministry in the New Testament is much broader, as we have seen, and it is that which benefits others.
Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve (diakoneo) one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God (1 Peter 4:10).
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry (diakonia), that is, to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Formerly, ministry was thought of primarily in terms of service directed toward God. Now we are to serve God by ministering to others. We minister to God through people. New Testament ministry is people serving people. As we look over the passages that employ the terms for ministry, we see that the services described are directed toward people. While it may be accurate to say that our ministry toward the unbelieving is largely evangelistic (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19), and our service toward the saints is intended to edify and encourage (Ephesians 4:12), this is not totally the case:
So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith (Galatians 6:10).
The ministry is characterized by grace as well as empowered by it (Matthew 10:8; Romans 12:6;
1 Peter 4:10, 11). We are to minister to men without a consideration of what they might do in response. Because of Christian ministry, some may come to faith, while others may not. Regardless of this, our service will bring glory to God (cf. 1 Peter 2:12). The point we are trying to highlight here is that one of the essential characteristics of New Testament service is that it is beneficial to those who are its recipients.9
5. New Testament ministry is spiritual service. While it is important to recognize that Christian ministry is intensely practical, we should not overlook the fact that it is also spiritual. This is true in at least two senses.
First, New Testament ministry is spiritual in that it is motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
7 But if the ministry that produced death, carved in letters on stone tablets, came with glory so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory that was fading away), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? (2 Corinthians 3:7-8)
The Holy Spirit energizes New Testament ministry. It is the Holy Spirit Who gives spiritual gifts to men which empower their special areas of service to the entire body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1ff., especially verses 4, 7, 8, 9, and 11; 1 Peter 4:10). It is the Holy Spirit Who prompts any genuine spiritual ministry, even that which is not in the area of our gift.
Second, New Testament ministry is spiritual in that it seeks to produce spiritual results. This is the point of Ephesians 4:12-16. As we minister to others, the body of Christ is edified, and our service results in the growth and maturity of the saints.
Now this is a vital point. Many have endeavored to distinguish between a spiritual gift and a natural talent. While a natural ability may not produce spiritual results, it surely can do so if God chooses to empower its use. Musical talent is only one example. A song sung skillfully can be used of God to encourage the saints or to convict the lost. This natural talent can be divinely used to produce spiritual results. Spiritual gifts may not be identical with natural talents, but they can be closely related, I believe.
Some of you know that I have a certain facility with things of a mechanical nature. This ability is no doubt a natural talent. There have been a number of times that this ability has been used to repair cars, stereos, washing machines, etc., of those who were unable physically and financially to fix these things themselves. Now a Sears repairman could have done the same task, but in that case, it would not have been done as a ministry to the saints. The ones who have benefited from ministry through a secular talent can give thanks to God for His infinite care as expressed through one of the members of the body of Christ.
We cannot judge the “spirituality” of a ministry by the form it takes as much as by the results it produces. When I go to the hospital, I sometimes carry my big, black, “preaching” Bible. There I am wearing (usually, at least) rather formal clothing, and I look as though I am about “spiritual work.” Hopefully that is true. But I may be engaged in ministry that is just as spiritual when I am laying under a car, up to my elbows in grease and broken parts. This will be so if the needs of men are met, if they accept my service as from God, and if they are brought closer to Him by my service.
There is nothing particularly “spiritual” about the writing of a check or the exchange of funds, and yet this service, when initiated by the Holy Spirit and carried out in Christian love, has brought great spiritual results:
12 Because the service of this ministry is not only providing for the needs of the saints but is also overflowing with many thanks to God. 13 Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone. 14 And in their prayers on your behalf they long for you because of the extraordinary grace God has shown to you. 15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift (2 Corinthians 9:12-15).
Christian ministry is at one and the same time, both practical and spiritual. Christians should never be accused of being “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” The New Testament concept of ministry forbids such a thing.
New Testament ministry should achieve several purposes. First, our ministry should serve to continue, in one sense, the ministry commenced by our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 1:1-2). We are His body, expressing His life to men today (cf. Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.).
Second, the purpose of ministry is to bring glory to God.
Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone (2 Corinthians 9:13).
Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11).
Third, ministry is an expression of love and gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 12:26; 15:10-11; 21:15-19).
Fourth, ministry builds up the church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). In the words of Paul, it supplies “ the needs of the saints” (2 Corinthians 9:12).
Finally, ministry gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Each of us has a unique role to play for which no one else can serve as a substitute (Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:14-27).
I hope that this study has considerably broadened your concept of ministry. I hope you have come to perceive of the ministry as the work of all the saints, rather than of the few. I pray that you will begin to think of ministry as encompassing the whole spectrum of service to others, rather than just those activities that outwardly appear to be spiritual.
New Testament ministry is Christian service motivated by a love for our Lord Jesus Christ – which publicly displays the love and concern of Christ in us for those about us – by serving those whose needs we are able to supply.
In the past, I have spent considerable time describing the structure and organization of the New Testament church. I fully realize many Christians feel that New Testament forms may be out of date for our times. But I must maintain that no structure more encourages and enhances New Testament function than the forms (organization and practices) of the New Testament church. I understand that while New Testament forms do not guarantee New Testament functions, they do make New Testament ministry easier to practice. I also realize that there are some churches that endeavor to practice New Testament living without the structure of the New Testament church. More power to them. As for our church, I would pray that we might have both New Testament forms and New Testament function (ministry) to the glory of God, and for the growth and maturity of every member of our church.
As we begin this series on the work of the ministry, I would encourage you to pray, asking God to give you the wisdom and insight to deal accurately with the Scriptures as they instruct us concerning ministry. I would ask you to open your hearts to the responsibilities that we all have as Christians, and to seek to fulfill the ministry that God has ordained for you. In that service, you will find great satisfaction.
1 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on October 7, 1979. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 1979 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.
2 Keith Miller, The Taste of New Wine, Waco: Word Books, 1965), p. 41
3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
4 In these passages, it is the noun form, leitourgeia, which is used.
5 Plat. Gorg. 491e, as quoted by Herman W. Beyer, “Diakoneo, Diakonia, Diakonos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, ed., trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), II, p. 82.
7 “Judaism showed a much deeper understanding of the meaning of service. Eastern thinking finds nothing unworthy in serving. The relation of a servant to his master is accepted, especially when he serves a great master. This is supremely true of the relation of man to God.” Ibid, p. 83.
8 R.A. Bodey, “Ministry” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), IV, p. 233. Bodey’s article is excellent and well worth reading.
9 “In the NT, however, where the root idea is supplying beneficial service, diakonein is dignified by the highest associations and employed with a wide range of application.” R. A. Bodey, “Ministry,” ZPED, IV, p. 233
Through the years, I have been greatly disturbed by the self-abasement of many of my Christian friends who were not in so-called “full-time Christian service.” They consistently have thought of themselves as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Often they view their occupations as being spiritually fruitless and frustrating. I cannot emphasize too strongly that such thinking is deplorable because it is unbiblical. There are several reasons why I feel so strongly concerning this mentality, which is common among Christians today.
The first is this: If (in your mind) your job is solely for the purpose of “putting bread on the table,” you are, in a sense, prostituting your labor. Consider these words from the Book of Proverbs:
For on account of a prostitute one is brought down to a loaf of bread,
but the wife of another man preys on your precious life (Proverbs 6:26).
To the harlot, her work is only a “loaf of bread,” or in today’s language, a “meal ticket.” The intimate, physical relationship between a man and his wife should be a beautiful thing. The prostitute, however, does not regard her “work” in this light; it is simply a way of “putting bread on the table.”
Realizing that I am not taking this verse completely within its context, is it not a tragic thing for Christians to regard their work merely as “putting bread on the table?” Is there not more to one’s work than this? Does one spend a great portion of his waking hours in vain? If there were no relationship between one’s work and one’s ministry, a secular occupation would be an anathema to one’s spiritual life and ministry. Thank God, this is not the case, as we shall soon discover.
A second reason people often consider secular occupations spiritually insignificant is because they have a distorted and unrealistic concept of “full-time ministry.” Unfortunately, much of this is the result of the propaganda generated by those in the allegedly elite category of professional ministry. Let me whet your appetite for the message that follows by stating that much of the current conception of the “full-time ministry” is categorically untrue. I will be more specific shortly.
Third, and most important of all, the distinctions often made between “full-time Christian ministry” and secular employment are unbiblical.
With these observations in mind, let us pursue the question: “What is the relationship between one’s ministry and one’s occupation?” As we begin, I would ask you to stop for a moment and ask the Spirit of God to open your heart to the truths of Scripture concerning this issue of the relationship of ministry to vocation. Pray that the Holy Spirit will expose errors and misconceptions that may have been sanctified by years of tradition. Pray also that you will be able to rightly discern the truth or error of what is about to be taught.
Before we press on to our study, we must review the highlights of our last lesson. There are several principles that encapsulate the New Testament concept of ministry:
1. New Testament ministry is vastly different from that found in the Old Testament.
2. New Testament ministry is exceedingly broad.
a. In the Old Testament, ministry was largely the responsibility of the few, the priesthood. In the New Testament, all true Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5; Revelation 1:6) and thus the ministry is the work of all the saints (Ephesians 4:11-12).
b. While ministry was very narrowly defined in the Old Testament, it is very broadly interpreted in the New Testament. It encompasses the ministry of the Word as well as the ministry of feeding widows (Acts 6:1-2,4).
A New Testament ministry is any service rendered by a Christian that is motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit that benefits men (saved or unsaved) and brings glory to God.
3. Ministry is both general and particular. There are certain ministries that are required of all Christians (giving, for example). For these tasks, we are prompted and empowered by the Holy Spirit, regardless of our spiritual gifts.
In addition to general duties, each Christian is given a particular ministry to fulfill (1 Corinthians 12:5; Colossians 4:17). This ministry is the outworking of a particular spiritual gift or gifts (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 1 Peter 4:10-11).
4. New Testament ministry is both practical and spiritual. Often in the New Testament, diakoneo refers to a service to God that is expressed by ministering to people. It is service that benefits others (1 Peter 4:10). In addition, it is a spiritual ministry; spiritual in that it is of the Spirit, and that it results in spiritual edification and growth (Ephesians 4:12-16). While the activity may not appear particularly spiritual, the outcome is what reveals true ministry (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:12-15).11
5. Finally, we could probably best compress the meaning of New Testament ministry into one term, servanthood.
A great deal of the dilemma concerning the Christian who earns a living by means of “secular” work is the result of a false conception of work. Let me suggest just a sampling of some popular misconceptions of employment.
1. There is a great deal of confusion regarding the relationship of a Christian’s priorities to the expenditure of his or her time. Most Christians believe that their priorities should fall in this order: God, family, church, and – last of all – employment. If employment is one’s lowest priority and yet consumes most of a person’s waking energies, is this not unspiritual? No wonder the many hours one spends in secular employment is often viewed as wasted time. This idea is by no means a recent one.
Eusebius revealed this attitude as early as the fourth century when he wrote:
Two ways of life were given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living… . Wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone … . Such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits men to … have minds for farming, and trade, and the other more secular interest as well as for religion. And a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them (Demonstratio Evangelica).12
2. Closely related to this is the arbitrary division of life’s activities into that which is sacred and the rest, which is secular. Here is the continuation of the Old Testament distinction of secular and sacred. It is found not only in Roman Catholicism, but is also woven into the fabric of Protestantism.
3. Secular work is, in reality, a curse. Perhaps men do not base their thinking on Genesis 3, but the result is that working for a living is a kind of life sentence.
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
4. Secular work is competitive and antithetical to spiritual ministry. One who engages in secular work cannot be truly spiritual, cannot be involved in any significant ministry, and must simply settle for second best. If one is to have a meaningful ministry, he or she must leave the secular world to do so.
Such are the mistaken thoughts of many Christians today.
Many Christians who are a part of the “secular” work force in our country are discontent with their role because of a greatly distorted mental picture of the nature of full-time Christian service. Among these “myths” are the following:
1. Full-time “spiritual” ministry is more significant than mere “secular” work.
2. Full-time ministry is the “better way” for any Christian. Those who are in “Christian service” are more spiritual, more fulfilled in their work, and do not face the same degree of testing and temptation. In short, the rewards are greater, and the liabilities fewer.
3. He who ministers best does so full-time: “If I only had more time to serve the Lord, I would do a better job.”
4. God wants as many Christians as possible in full-time ministry and only our lack of faith and failure to “step out in faith” keeps us from this blessed place of service.
These four misconceptions may have a ring of familiarity, but they are not true. Clinging to them may keep you from being content with your present situation and could encourage you to attempt a kind of ministry to which you have not been called. In response to these misconceptions of work and ministry, let us consider some pertinent biblical principles.
1. God does not distinguish between secular and spiritual, but only between that which is of the flesh and that which is of the Spirit (Romans 8). The Old Testament distinctions have been eliminated by the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This includes the distinctions between clean and unclean (Acts 10), clergy and laity (1 Peter 2:9), holy and unholy (Colossians 2:8-19), circumcision or uncircumcision, and bond or free (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; cf. also Colossians 3:11). Whatever we do is to be done as to the Lord:
And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The point is this: Fundamentally, it is not a question of whether your work is in the realm of the secular or the spiritual, but whether the work you do is done in the power of the Spirit or in the power of the flesh. God desires to be glorified by His saints, whether it is in the assembly line or in the pulpit. First and foremost, we are called to be saints (cf. Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2). One will manifest the character of God and bring glory to Him as a missionary; another will glorify God as a mechanic. Both are needed and will bring glory to God as they serve Him through the strength He provides.
2. God does not measure the significance of ministry as men do. Man has a built-in tendency to stratify the worthwhileness of any activity. The disciples of our Lord (as well as the religious leaders of Israel) were greatly preoccupied with the status of their service (cf. Matthew 23:1-12; Mark 9:33ff.; 10:35ff.; Luke 22:24ff.; John 13).
The Christian cannot take pride in the magnitude of his spiritual abilities, for they are a gift of God (Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 12:4) through the Holy Spirit. No one can take credit for their ministry because that ministry is given by the Lord (1 Corinthians 12:5). And none can boast over their successes, for their effectiveness is also of God (1 Corinthians 12:6).
We tend to measure the significance of our activities by the degree to which it appears spiritual. “People look on the outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7). If there is a religious hue to our activities, they must impress God, we suppose. And yet, the religious leaders received our Lord’s most severe criticism (cf. Matthew 23).
We often engage in the numbers game, counting attendance or conversions. God is not impressed with the results of a ministry. Often they are deceiving, and even when they are accurate they only reveal the power of God (1 Corinthians 12:6). The basis for the measure of a ministry cannot be the judgment of men or the tallying of numbers.
The measure of a ministry is God’s business, not ours. God does not compare our ministry with that of others, nor should we (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:11). We are judged according to the abilities and faith which He has given to us (Matthew 25:14-30; Romans 12:3,6; James 3:1). Strangely, it is those with lesser abilities who often neglect their responsibilities, and this is sometimes due to slothfulness (cf. Matthew 25:26).
But even beyond this, God judges us according to our motives:
7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Don’t be impressed by his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. God does not view things the way men do. People look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
1 People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord.
5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
What we do must be done as unto the Lord, and not unto man:
23 Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, 24 because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ. 25 For the one who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there are no exceptions (Colossians 3:23-25; cf. also 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17).
God has not required the Christian to be fruitful, but to be faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). Let us be careful about measuring the effectiveness and significance of our service to God; that is God’s business, not ours.
For it is not the person who commends himself who is approved, but the person the Lord commends.
I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord (2 Corinthians 10:18).
Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ! (Galatians 1:10)
3. The Christian’s vocation is not a matter of consecration, but a matter of calling. Here is a fundamental principle. How often we speak of a Christian being “called” to a full-time ministry. Seldom, if ever, do we refer to secular work as a “calling,” but it is every bit as much a “calling.” Look at these words of the Apostle Paul:
17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each person, so let him live. I give this sort of direction in all the churches. 18 Was anyone called after he had been circumcised? He should not try to hide the fact. Was anyone called who is uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping God’s commandments is what counts. 20 Let each one remain in that situation in life in which he was called. 21 Were you called as a slave? Do not worry about it. But if indeed you are able to be free, make the most of the opportunity. 22 For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. In the same way, the one who was called as a free person is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men. 24 In whatever situation someone was called, brothers and sisters, let him remain in it with God (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).
Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were disturbed about their circumstances after being saved. They felt it must make a difference whether or not one was circumcised, or whether one was a slave or a freedman. Paul encouraged slaves who could obtain their freedom to do so if possible, but if one could not, he was not to worry about it (verse 21).
While this passage may not speak directly to the relationship between one’s occupation and one’s ministry, the principle he teaches here does apply. The Corinthians were inclined to think that it was not possible to be a Christian slave. Paul taught that Christians need not feel compelled to change their occupation or status just because they had become believers.13 A wife who has accepted Christ may glorify God by remaining married to her unbelieving husband. A slave may glorify God by his faithful service. A man may continue to work in a factory and glorify God.
Each of us has been called to a particular occupation as well as to a specific ministry. A few may find their ministry also to be their vocation. As far as the Word of God is concerned, a Christian in a “secular” job is no less “called” than the missionary or the preacher.
Most important, we must not confuse “calling” with consecration or dedication. I do not believe that Peter was any more spiritual than the other disciples were, even though our Lord designated him as a leader among leaders (Matthew 16:18-19; Luke 22:31-32). Peter, James, and John were privileged to enjoy a more intimate relationship with Christ, yet we dare not assume any greater spirituality on their part.14 As I have sometimes said, if apostleship were to be based upon one’s devotion to the Savior, I suspect that there would have been a good number of women apostles.
The tragedy for many men who are in the professional or full-time ministry is that people expect them to be more spiritual. As a result, they are reluctant to share their failures and shortcomings. They do not feel free to ask others to pray for them, and they bear their burdens alone. Some “ministers” preach as though they have no problems, as though they are sharing only out of their vast resource of victories and triumphs. I want you to know that I and the other elders of our church do not always live our lives on the mountaintops. Our wives and families can verify this.
4. Our calling is not set in cement. We should all be familiar with these words of Paul:
For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).
Some Christians seem to take this as the final word on their vocational calling. They suppose that one’s vocational calling needs be settled only once. This is not the case.
There are various “callings” in the Bible.15 The “calling” of which Paul speaks here in Romans 11:29 is not the call to Christian service. Paul is assuring the Jews that while this is the time of Gentile salvation and (by and large) of Jewish unbelief, God’s eternal purpose of the Jews (their “calling”) is sure, and will come to pass.
Our vocational calling, therefore, is not forever fixed by this verse in Romans. In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul made it clear that while one may have been called as a slave, the slave may change his or her status. Paul was called to be an apostle (Romans 1:1). While his calling never changed, it took years before that calling was fully realized. In Acts 6, Stephen and Philip, among others, were appointed (in my opinion) as deacons, or at least they were a kind of prototype of deacons,5 and yet it is clear that Stephen had an even more significant calling as indicated in the verses that follow his appointment in chapter 6. Philip had a ministry of evangelism, as evidenced in Acts 8.
Beyond this, Christians seem to equate a call to certain types of ministry with full-time service. If you are called to preach, they think, surely you must do so full-time. The Bible clearly teaches that some should devote all their available time to their ministry (1 Corinthians 9; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; 2 Timothy 2:6). This may especially be true of certain ministries, such as preaching and teaching (cf. Galatians 6:6). The life of the Apostle Paul makes this position hard to justify. Paul spent much of his time working with his own hands, supporting himself and others.
While the teacher may have the right to be supported as he ministers (1 Corinthians 9:5-14), it is not necessarily right to do so (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:15ff.). Paul refrained from being supported full-time when it would hinder his effectiveness as a minister. Some would have felt that Paul was no different from all the other “traveling holy men,” that he was simply in it for the money. By supporting himself, Paul gave his ministry great credibility.
In other instances, Christians were lazy and idle. They had ceased working perhaps on the pretext that they were waiting for the Lord’s return. Paul worked with his own hands among them, showing them that the Christian is to contribute to the needs of others, rather than expecting others to meet their needs (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Very often, laziness is cloaked in the spiritual jargon of spirituality and “waiting on the Lord.”
Full-time service is not a life-long decision, made once and for all. Neither can it be determined solely on the basis of what one’s ministry is. It is a matter of conscience, of conviction, and of calling.
I must go on to say that Paul had the right as an apostle to be supported full-time. Being an apostle was a full-time job. As I see it, those in full-time Christian service must be careful about laying claim to this “right.” Paul possessed the right to be supported because he was an apostle. It is the obligation of those who are the recipients of ministry to reciprocate in return (Galatians 6:6). While this is true, I am of the conviction that no one should insist upon being paid for his ministry, as though it were a right. Instead, I would encourage a man to minister as to the Lord, and let God convict men of their obligation to reciprocate financially.
This would seem to me to be an ideal way of discerning whether or not the Lord wanted me in full-time ministry. If God provides sufficiently (and there is no reason to refuse this support), then I would assume that is God’s will. If God does not provide, I would find some other employment that is sufficient to meet my needs and those of my family.
I have the impression that some go into full-time ministry expecting to be supported. When their needs are not met, they often blame those to whom they have ministered as being irresponsible or insensitive (as they sometimes are). Sometimes, however, they are simply reflecting their evaluation of the ministry they have received.
5. Full-time ministry is not necessarily more effective ministry. We have already said that God calls some to serve Him in a secular occupation, while others are called into “full-time Christian service.” While this may be given mental assent, there often remains the idea that full-time service will be more effective and fruitful.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul wrote that he refrained from serving full-time because it would hamper his ministry. This is often the case. Full-time ministry often creates a wall, an invisible shield between the “minister” and those whom he wishes to serve.
When my family and I moved into our present house, the people of the church planned a surprise housewarming party for us one Sunday evening after the meeting. Eventually cars were parked along both sides of our street for nearly a block in each direction. One of the couples, arriving a bit late, had to park some distance from our house. They did not know our street number and had expected to determine the house number by the house with the most cars in front of it. Unable to determine this, they decided to go up to one of the houses (some distance away) to ask where we lived.
“Do you know where the Deffinbaughs live?” they asked. “Who?” “The Deffinbaughs.” “No, I have never heard of them.” “Well, he is a preacher at our church, and they just moved in somewhere around here.” “Oh, you mean the preacher. Well, he lives right up there in that house.” That person did not yet know me personally, but the word had already spread that I was a preacher. That, my friends, is a barrier to my ministry. Many of our neighborhood friendships have begun over the fender of a car in my driveway. Being a “professional” Christian can create barriers to ministry.
Let me give another illustration. A couple of years ago, I met a lovely Christian family in the Northwest. The husband was an agricultural expert and was sent to India to initiate the “green revolution,” a program to introduce superior strains of wheat, which would resist insects and diseases and produce greater yields. After several years, he was sent to a Muslim country. In both places where he had worked, Christian missionaries were either refused entrance to the country or were greatly hindered and harassed. This Christian was free to have Christian gatherings in his home and to share his faith without interference. You see, he was too valuable, too much of an asset to that foreign nation, to be hindered in any way. That man’s occupation was not “full-time ministry,” but his ministry was greatly enhanced by his secular job. Full-time ministry is by no means an assurance of the effectiveness of one’s service.
6. Full-time ministry is hard work, and all work falls under the curse. I have been saving this for the last. I could hardly wait to get to this because so many myths begin here. Countless Christians believe that if they could only become full-time servants of Christ their frustrations with their secular occupations, their failures in their work, would be eliminated. This is wishful thinking, and shallow thinking at that.
A few times I have been irked when someone has innocently remarked, “Bob, why don’t you take care of that; I have to work today.” I would like to respond, “What do you think I do all day?” I really believe some people look at preaching as a kind of paid vacation. I get to do what I enjoy best, and I get paid for it as well. Observe how Paul refers to Christian ministry:
I urge you also to submit to people like this, and to everyone who cooperates in the work and labors hard (1 Corinthians 15b-16).
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world 16 by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain (Philippians 2:14-16, emphasis mine).
28 We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. 29 Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me (Colossians 1:28-29, emphasis mine).
Paul describes his work in the ministry by using the Greek term kopiano, a word used to denote exertion and exhaustion through labor.16 Whoever believes the work of the ministry is an easy life has not carefully studied the life of the Apostle Paul (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23ff.).
We must see that the ministry is no less “work” than “secular” employment. As such, it comes under the curse:
17 But to Adam he said,
“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19).
Are you frustrated by your work? To a great extent, this is a result of man’s fall. But if you think that entering the full-time ministry will exchange your frustration for fulfillment, you are greatly deceived, my friend. I want you to know that I face frustration every week in my preaching. I am frustrated because I can’t find time to study uninterrupted. I am frustrated because I cannot find a handle on the passage on which I am attempting to preach. I am often frustrated and discouraged with the results of my preaching. (Having already delivered this message, I can honestly say I was frustrated with the way I handled it.) You see, I can never blame a bad message on a poor text.
Are you bored with your job? That is a part of the consequences of the fall, and I face the same problem. I must disillusion you by telling you that I sometimes fall asleep reading the commentaries. Worse yet, I have to read my own material. Every job has its routines, which few find enjoyable. I know that my wife does not find housekeeping a highly stimulating and exhilarating task. There is no great pleasure in dirty dishes and dirty diapers. All I can say is, “Welcome to the club.” Our work, as well as our world, is affected by the curse.
Are you under pressure in your work? Welcome aboard. If you stop to think about it, you will have to agree that the full-time ministry is the only occupation where a man is pressured by the belief that the “minister” should neglect his wife and family on the pretext that this is the test of his spiritual dedication.
Sometimes Christians feel that while Christian ministry may not be without its drawbacks, at least you would be doing a work that will keep you in the Word, that you will be stronger and more able to resist temptation. Many Christians have had to leave the full-time ministry because it overtaxed and dried up their spiritual lives. For them, the Bible ceased to be a guidebook and a love letter and became a textbook and a sermon manual. This brings me to my last principle.
7. Any honorable work is worthwhile when God is in it. The main factor essential to satisfaction in your vocation is that you are doing what God has called you to do, and therefore, that God is in it.
The Book of Ecclesiastes gives great insight into this matter of one’s work. Solomon tells us that work which is for selfish gain, that which attempts to gain pleasure and build a monument to oneself, is vain (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). Work that leaves God out will not bring about enduring results. That for which you labored a lifetime may become the property of a fool (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23).
To find pleasure and fulfillment in our work, we must recognize work as a good gift from the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). Work is in one sense a curse, but it is also a blessing (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19). If God is at work in us, in our work, then our work will endure (Ecclesiastes 3:14; Psalm 90:17).
I am not certain that Scripture can substantiate everything I say here, so beware! I would ask that you at least consider these suggestions:
1. On the one hand, be careful not to equate your work and your ministry. For those in full-time ministry, this can lead to a devastating kind of professionalism. I suppose this is one reason why I like to minister to others as a mechanic, as well as by preaching.
2. On the other hand, be sure to regard any honorable occupation as a ministry that is an opportunity to serve men and to glorify God.
3. The full-time worker should regard his ministry as his job. That is, work hard at it, and be diligent. But also be willing and able to leave your study and go home and be a husband and a father. Be able to leave your job behind.
4. As much as possible, let your “secular” occupation serve to enhance your ministry. You can surely manifest godliness on the job. You can undoubtedly find times to share your faith and minister to the needs you encounter on the job. You can view your job as a means of enabling you to minister to others financially (Acts 20:34-35; Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-10). Look at your job as an opportunity to relate to others in the real world, where their problems (and sins) are evident. (There is no stained glass in a factory.) If possible, seek to develop and improve the use of your spiritual gift(s) on the job. Some will find that the nature of their task may facilitate Bible study, Scripture memorization, or meditation.
5. Finally, while you are working, plan and prepare for a new and different (or expanded) ministry during your retirement years. Perhaps your occupational skills will be useful in ministry after you retire. In these years, you will normally have greater maturity and biblical knowledge, as well as greater financial freedom and mobility. Plan ahead. This can be the greatest time of your life.
Let me conclude by raising several areas of application for you to consider.
Do you find your work frustrating and less than fulfilling? Do you have good reason to think it should be otherwise? How are you dealing with these frustrations? Have you come to learn contentment in circumstances that are less than ideal? Have you experienced the intensity of suffering that slaves experienced under cruel, unbelieving masters (cf. 1 Peter 2:18ff.)? Have you considered the possibility that it is you who needs to change, rather than your environment?
I do not say that you should never change jobs. But I do say that if you are a good part of the problem, a new job won’t solve your dilemma. We must learn to live with frustration and failure in our occupations. Full-time ministry seldom solves occupational problems, and it often compounds them.
Have you been thinking of going to work for a Christian organization or institution to improve your work situation? You will probably discover that backbiting, backstabbing, and arrogance will be there as well. If you are thinking of working for a religiously-oriented organization, you will often discover that lower wages are excused because your work is (in your employer’s mind at least) a ministry.
Over the years, Christians have desired to establish a Christian business. I am not always sure what people mean when they speak of a “Christian business.” Does it mean that you will be known for being good at what you do, or for being (by reputation) a Christian? Why do you want, or expect, people to patronize your business? Do you plan to employ only Christians? Is that legal? Is that wise? Will you expect every employee, saved or unsaved, to have the same ethical standards? Will you be willing to pay a comparable salary and give the same benefits as any other business? Can there be such a thing as a Christian business?
Finally, why do we as Christians choose to patronize Christians over others? Is it just because they are believers? Would you rather have surgery performed on you by a highly-skilled pagan doctor, or by a sincere, but inept (God forbid) Christian doctor? Does a non-Christian surgeon shorten God’s hand?
I do not have the answers to all of these questions, but they hinge upon your understanding of what has been distinguished as the spiritual versus the secular. I am not as concerned about where you may land on these questions as I am afraid that some of us have not even thought about it.
May God help us to glorify Him in our work and to be content where He has called us to serve Him.
10 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on October 21, 1979.
11 A beautiful illustration of this interweaving of the spiritual and the practical can be found in the ministry of a friend. My friend and his wife have always had a compassion for seminary students. They felt it would be nice to do something special for the seminary wives, who sacrifice so much for their husband’s theological education. They could have given each wife a new Bible, or better yet, a set of commentaries. That would seem very spiritual. Instead, my friend had his wife take every seminary wife from his church out and buy her a new dress. The result was the meeting of a very practical need, but also the spiritual results of realizing God’s bountiful provision for those who trust in Him for their needs.
12 Leland Ryken, “Puritan Work Ethic: The Dignity of Life’s Labors,” Christianity Today, October 19, 1975, p. 15.
13 You will, of course, understand that there are limits to this. The immoral woman was told by Jesus to go and sin no more (John 8:11). A vocation or lifestyle that is not honorable must be left behind (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 4:28).
14 You will recall that James and John were the two who asked for the two highest positions in our Lord’s service (John 10:35ff.).
15 In the Old Testament, the predominant use of calling is with reference to the corporate call of Israel as the people on whom and through whom God would pour out His blessings. In the New Testament, the most common use pertains to the call of the Father that results in salvation (Romans 8:30; 1 Corinthians 1:9, etc.). In addition, the term “calling” is used of the call to special service (Acts 13:2; 16:10; Romans 1:1) and to a particular occupation (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:20). C. H. Horn, CF. “Calling, Call,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), I, p. 694.
16 “Kopiao is used in the general sense of to labour or toil in everyday work (cf. Matthew 6:28; Luke 5:5; Romans 16:6; 1 Corinthians 3:8 Kapos). … It also denotes weariness through the exertions of a world, John 4:6 speaks of weariness through the exertions of a journey… . Paul uses work in his own particular sense of work in the Lord. Kopos and Kopiao describe his own manual labour (1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9). He practiced this in the context of his missionary calling, to make himself financially independent of the churches … .” W. Mundle, “Burden, Heavy, Labour, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), I, p. 263.
For a number of years, I have helped supervise theological students in our church who have participated in our seminary intern program. Invariably, these and other seminarians ask me, “How can I have a ministry in our church?” In a traditional church, the answer is not very complicated. The church simply outlines a number of job descriptions, and the seminarian chooses one. I do not wish to criticize this method, for many have been greatly blessed by the contribution of men in churches that take a more traditional approach to ministry.
The problem I have with this is that no church can give anyone a ministry; neither can it bestow upon the Christian a particular spiritual gift nor determine the effectiveness of a ministry. This is a divine prerogative.
4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
As I understand this passage in the context of New Testament teaching, it is the Holy Spirit Who sovereignly bestows gifts on men; it is the Lord Who directs men to their ministry; it is God Who determines the success of a ministry.
I would like to believe that every Christian who is a part of the church of our Lord desires to be used effectively in the work of the ministry. For this reason, we will endeavor in this message to give a biblical word of counsel on the subject, “How to Have a Ministry.”
There are two reasons (for some, they are merely excuses) generally given for not having a ministry:
1. “That’s not my spiritual gift.”
2. “I don’t know my spiritual gift.”
Each of these statements reflects a misconception of the relationship between one’s spiritual gift and one’s ministry as a Christian. We must begin by defining several terms.
Spiritual Gift: A supernatural endowment of the Holy Spirit whereby every Christian is empowered to perform a certain function which edifies the church and glorifies God. In short, it is the supernatural ability to serve God by a particular activity (cf. 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12:3-8).
General Ministry: The obligations to minister to others which are common to any and every Christian, regardless of one’s spiritual gift or calling (cf. Romans 12:9-15; Galatians 6:2,6,10).
Specific Ministry: That unique ministry for which each Christian is gifted and to which he or she is individually called (cf. Romans 12:6-8; Colossians 4:17; 2 Timothy 4:5).
Having defined our terms, we must go on to clarify the relationship of these three aspects of Christian service to each other. This can best be done by understanding several biblical principles regarding ministry.
1. General ministry is every Christian’s duty, regardless of their spiritual gift.
Many Christians excuse themselves from a certain Christian ministry because they tell us it is not their gift. That doesn’t really make much difference. Our obligation is to obey the commands of Scripture. Biblical imperatives must be followed, regardless of our spiritual gift. Our spiritual gift equips us for a particular ministry, but it does not excuse us from every other ministry.
The relationship between our responsibility toward general ministry and the exercise of our spiritual gift can be illustrated by my college education. In college, I majored in Political Science. I took many courses in this field, but not all of my courses were in my major field. The school I attended prescribed a course of study which included a considerable number of “general requirement” courses, such as English history, sociology, etc. Many Christians want to minister only in the area of their gift, but God has general requirements as well. These requirements I have labeled “general ministry.”
2. General ministry is the key to discovering your spiritual gift(s) and particular ministry.
Many have erroneously concluded that the Christian cannot have a ministry until he or she has determined their spiritual gift. I fear that this idea has been the result of much emphasis on “discovering and developing your spiritual gift,” a theme that has been very popular among Bible teachers in recent years. Christians are waiting to discover their gifts before they begin to minister. They have succeeded in reversing God’s order.
We have already stated that general ministry is your Christian duty, regardless of your spiritual gift(s). Do you know what your gift is? That is no excuse for failing to minister in a general way. Do you not yet know your gift? That should in no way keep you from ministering generally either.
But more than this, being obedient and faithful in general ministry will enable you to determine your spiritual gift(s) and specific ministry. This is so obvious it has been overlooked by many Christians.
How could I possibly know if I had any musical abilities if I never tried to sing or to play an instrument? If I avoided any sports until I knew I had athletic abilities, I would never do anything in this area. Yet this is precisely what Christians are doing. They are waiting to minister until they are assured of their abilities to serve.
The Spirit of God is at work in the life and (general) ministry of every Christian. God is at work in us, “… both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). It is only as we engage in ministry to one another that we will discover the God-given potential we have for ministry. Christians are going to seminars, reading books, and trying all kinds of formulas when the key to Christian living is to simply trust and obey. I don’t mean to suggest that all this is wrong, but it should never replace simple obedience to what we know we are commanded to do.
God’s Word tells us that every Christian has a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:7, 11; 1 Peter 4:10). If you are a born-again Christian, then you have at least one gift. In this regard you must trust God and believe His Word.
Among the many commands to minister, God’s Word instructs every Christian to admonish (Romans 15:14), to encourage or exhort (Hebrews 10:25), to witness (Colossians 4:5-6; 1 Peter 3:15), and to help (1 Thessalonians 5:14) one another. We must either obey these instructions (and others like them) or become disobedient children.
What I want you to see is this. It is not without great significance that every permanent spiritual gift18 mentioned in the New Testament is paralleled by a corollary function that is the duty (the general ministry) of every Christian (see chart at end). While I cannot say with certainty that the New Testament identifies every spiritual gift, I am convinced that any other gifts not specified would have corresponding universal imperatives.
The implications of this are exciting. Every function of ministry in the body of Christ is the obligation, to some degree, of every Christian. For every vital function of the church, there are some who are specially gifted to perform this function. The way for any Christian to discover his or her gift is to obey the Scriptures, carry out these functions to the best of their ability, and then to determine that ministry which God most blesses. How then does one discover their spiritual gift? The answer: By obeying the imperatives of the Bible related to general ministry.
3. Determine your spiritual gift on the basis of your specific ministry, and not that of other Christians.
I have suggested that, as a result of fulfilling your general ministry, your spiritual gifts will become evident. Let me explore this further with a word of warning as well. If you are faithful to respond to the opportunities for ministry before you, it will soon be evident that you do not do all things equally well. This is no reason to excuse yourself from every form of ministry, but it certainly tells you the areas of service upon which you should concentrate. Out of your general ministry, a more particular ministry will most likely emerge. It will probably be a ministry that is unique and that others do not seem to be burdened to carry on. Not only will your ministry become evident, but you should be more able to identify the spiritual gift which equips you for your ministry. I am convinced that it is by ministering to others that we find “our ministry” and also come to recognize the spiritual gift(s) with which the Spirit of God has empowered us.
Let us be careful about attempting to discern our gifts by comparing our ministry with those of others.
Very often, we define spiritual gifts in terms of the ministry of well-known servants of God. Billy Graham obviously has the gift of evangelism. When we think of the gift of faith, a man like George Mueller comes to our minds. Teaching is the gift of John MacArthur.
Now these may well be the gifts of these great men, but we need to recognize that there are additional factors to consider. Each Christian possesses a spiritual gift, but also they have a specific ministry and a particular degree of effectiveness. We might conclude that we do not have the gift of evangelism simply because we do not preach to large audiences from a stadium and have thousands respond. We may be wrongly comparing our ministry and effectiveness with some of the giants of the Christian faith (see 2 Corinthians 10:12). No wonder most of us have concluded we must not have any gift!
In 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul tells us that there are not only diversities of gifts (verse 4) but also of ministries (verse 5) and of levels of success (verse 6). Out of 100 men who are gifted as evangelists, only 10 may have a public ministry, and only 1 may have a ministry of national or international prominence. It is wrong for the 99 to conclude that they do not possess the gift of evangelism because another believer has a prominent public ministry in which many come to Christ. Let us be very careful to define spiritual gifts from Scripture and not from the experiences of others.
I would suggest that you begin by defining each spiritual gift in the broadest terms. For example, “the gift of teaching is the supernatural ability to communicate the truth of the Word of God.” Recognize that this gift will be evidenced in a wide variety of ministries. One may teach from the pulpit of a church, another like Bill Gothard, from a large coliseum. One may teach Hebrew in a seminary; another may teach a group of inmates in a prison or in a small home Bible study, or informally on the job, during lunch hour discussions.
We should also seek to define the various spiritual gifts in terms of results, rather than merely in terms of methods. The gift of teaching is not only to be defined in terms of the act of teaching (which has many forms), but in terms of the fruit. The gift of teaching is most evident when people are enriched in their understanding of the Word of God. Some of the most gifted people I know don’t necessarily do the things I would associate with their gift, but the fruit of their ministry is obvious. Don’t think in terms of the forms of ministry as much as in terms of the fruits of ministry.
Only a few others in my church may possess my particular spiritual gift.19 Among those who possess the same gift, each will have a unique ministry. My gift will be expressed in a certain environment, deployed through my personality and individuality. Even those whose gifts are identical with mine, and whose ministry is similar, will have differing degrees of effectiveness.
My point is this. You cannot determine your gift(s) merely by studying this subject in the Bible. You must find your gift(s) and specific ministry by ministering, by obeying the commands of Scripture to serve one another. You cannot identify your gift(s) by comparing yourself with others because the ministry of every Christian is unique. While some may have the same gift, their ministries and relative successes will differ.
4. Determine your priorities on the basis of your spiritual gift(s) and particular ministry.
There comes a time in the Christian’s life when there are simply too many needs, too many demands, for him or her to meet. This is the conclusion which the apostles arrived at in Acts 6:
3 “But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4).
Some have said that it is not necessary for you to know your spiritual gift. I disagree. I have previously said that it is unnecessary to know your gift(s) in order to minister to others. I have also said that as you minister in this way you will discover your gift(s). But I also understand that we are stewards of the gift(s) which have been given to us:
Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God (1 Peter 4:10).
Peter tells us that every Christian has received a spiritual gift and that we are stewards of this “grace” of God. I cannot imagine how one can be a steward of his or her spiritual gift without knowing what that gift is. It is like being in charge of a man’s investments without knowing what he has in the bank. We must know the gift which God has bestowed upon us to be a faithful steward. We discover what that gift is by ministering to one another.
Many times I have heard the statement, “God is not so much concerned with ability as He is availability.” I believe there is an element of truth here, but many church leaders have abused it. Often I have heard statements such as,
“Brother Bob, the Lord has told me that you are the man who should teach this Sunday school class.”
Church leaders, desperate for workers, frequently make their decisions almost exclusively on availability, rather than on ability or gift. As a result, willing and cooperative Christians are quickly swamped with ministries and commitments. It is at times like this that we must establish some priorities by which decisions can be made.
When your ministry gets to the point that there are more needs and opportunities than there is time to do them, establish priorities on the basis of your spiritual gift(s). If you are gifted as an administrator, don’t get overly involved in some other ministry which will be competitive. While it is wrong to excuse yourself from ministry because you don’t know your gift, it is just as wrong to allow a ministry to keep you from that for which you are specially gifted and to which you have been divinely called.
Now let’s return to the question at hand: How can I have a ministry in this church? First of all, you must know what ministry is. That is what I am trying to accomplish in this series. In the coming messages, I will explore some kinds of ministry which we all are commanded to perform.
Knowing what our duties are, we must go on to fulfill our obligation to our Lord and others by meeting the needs that are before us. As we meet the needs that we see, I am convinced we will find a particular ministry which is uniquely “ours,” and at the same time, gain insight into our spiritual gift(s).
As we serve, we should continually evaluate, as best we can, that ministry which has been of greatest benefit to others. (The counsel of others is particularly helpful here.) We should strive to improve and develop the abilities God has given us and give priority to what we do best.
As we conclude this message, let me urge you to take some specific action. First of all, I would encourage you to pray, asking God to make your ministry and your gift(s) evident. Then, as you study the Scriptures, note the commands of the Bible, and ask God to give you insight into specific ways you may put the imperatives of the Bible into practice. Look for needs about you, and consider how you may meet those needs.
For many of us, we will have to admit that our greatest problem is that we don’t know one another well enough to know their needs or for them to trust us enough to share them. Why not make this your starting point? You take the initiative to get to know others. Quit waiting for people to have you over, and begin now to seek ways of serving others. Before you end this day, consider a particular place that you are going to begin and do it.
Ministry and Ministry Groups. One of the primary reasons ministry groups were established at Community Bible Chapel was to facilitate and to encourage ministry. These groups are deliberately small enough so that those involved will get to know each other well. After a period of time, sufficient trust is established for individuals to open up and to share their trials and needs. Here is one place where ministry may begin.
Many of us feel lost in the crowd, and we are at a loss as to those to whom we can minister. The ministry group (or some small group, by another name) sharpens your focus on a particular group of people. When someone is in the hospital, there is no question as to who should respond. We do not in any way intend to badger you into ministry or to limit your service. It is just a point of beginning, just an incentive to service. We pray that you will see it in the same way.
Ministry as a Family. So often “ministry” has been that which has been destructive to family life. Husbands and wives often go their separate ways seeking personal fulfillment in “their ministry.” I find this difficult to square with one of God’s purposes in giving Eve to Adam. She was to be a helper to him. I would hope that this is what the wives would seek to become more and more – not to compete with their husbands for ministry, but to compliment them in ministry.
Some time ago, I determined that I would not let my ministry destroy my family. I do not want my children ever to resent the ministry which God has given me. I do not want them to feel that God has robbed them of a father, or of what they deserve as my children. (I must also say that the elders have encouraged me in my convictions.) I am convinced that none of the elders nor myself are encouraging you to minister at the sacrifice of your marriage or family. More than this, I believe that a biblical ministry is one that will have great blessings for you and your family.
In this regard, I was struck this week by Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he wrote:
Now, brothers and sisters, you know about the household of Stephanus, that as the first converts of Achaia, they devoted themselves to ministry for the saints (1 Corinthians 16:15).
It has taken me years to grasp the fact that Paul spoke not of the ministry of Stephanas in isolation, but that it was the ministry of his entire household, of his family! Now isn’t that a new thought? Have you considered your ministry as a family yet? Here is the kind of ministry your children can be a part of and not resent it.
From time to time I am asked to speak for a few days or longer. Most often when I receive these invitations it is implied or stated that they want me (not my family) to come. Now there have been and will be times when this may be necessary, but I make an effort to avoid such invitations. My children could begin to resent ministry as that which takes their father away.
Some who have asked me to speak elsewhere know that I most often refuse unless it is possible for my family to go along. I do not ask that my family be flown there, nor that we be put up in a fancy hotel. When possible, we take our children along, drive as a family, and stay in a home (in a basement or whatever it need be). We eat our meals in different homes while we are at that speaking engagement. I know others may think this extreme. When my children are grown, there will be sufficient opportunities to travel with my wife, but for now I must restrict myself to those opportunities which will be a blessing for my family and others.
I urge you to seriously discuss in your family the kind of ministry in which you can all be involved. I believe this is the ideal ministry for any family.
New Testament Gift
Command To All
The supernatural ability to teach and to individually apply the truths of the Scriptures.
“Let the word of Christ dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another…” Col. 3:16. Cf. Also Rom. 15:14; 2 Thess. 3:15; Eph. 5:25-27; 6:4.
1 Cor. 12:28
The supernatural ability to serve, to support and to sustain the physical needs of the body.
“In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this matter you must help the weak…” Acts 20:35. Cf. Also Gal. 5:13; 1 Thess. 5:14.
Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28
The supernatural ability to communicate the truths of the Word of God.
“Go ye therefore…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” Matt. 28:19-20. Cf. Also Col. 3:16; Eph. 6:4; Titus 2:5; Prov. 31:16.
The supernatural ability to encourage others. Cf. Acts 4:36-37; 9:27; 11:22; 15:36f.
“Not forsaking our own assembling…, but encouraging one another…” Heb. 10:25. Cf. also 3:13.
The supernatural ability to meet the physical (mainly financial) needs of others.
“Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Cor. 9:7.
The supernatural ability to show love and compassion to the unlovely.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matt. 5:7. Cf. also Matt. 25:40, Eph. 4:32; 1 Thess. 5:14; James 1:27.
1 Cor. 12:9
The supernatural ability to trust God.
“For we walk by faith…” 2 Cor. 5:7. Cf. also Eph. 6:16; James 1:6.
The supernatural ability to effectively communicate the gospel and win the lost to Christ.
“…and you shall be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8. Cf. also Matt. 28:19-20; Col. 4:5-6; 1 Pet. 3:15.
Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28
The supernatural ability to lead others.
“Let everything be done decently and in order.” 1 Cor. 14:40. Cf. also
Eph. 5:23f.; 1 Tim. 1,4,12.
1. Spiritual Gift: A supernatural endowment of the Holy Spirit whereby every Christian is empowered to perform a certain function which edifies the Church and glorifies God (cf. Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4ff.).
2. Specific New Testament Gift: That unique ministry for which each Christian has been gifted and to which he or she is called (cf. Romans 12:6-8; Colossians 4:17; 2 Timothy 4:5).
3. General Command to All: Obligations to serve for which all Christians are responsible, regardless of gift or calling (Romans 12:9-15; Galatians 6:2, 6, 10).
17 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on October 28, 1979.
18 I am not really seeking to create a debate over the so-called “temporary” spiritual gifts here. I am speaking here of that category of undisputed spiritual gifts – gifts on which most charismatics and non-charismatics agree.
19 My unique blend of gifts and talents is, in my opinion, to be found nowhere else in the church. Thus, if I fail to employ the gifts God has given me, the church will suffer for it, as will I (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).