The worldly spirit invades the church to twist godly service into avenues of power and riches. It exalts one servant above another, distinguishes him by special titles, honors, or clothing, and invests in his position a perpetuation of power and the protection of privilege.
In one of Paul’s earliest letters, he outlines the nature of Christian service in his own example given among the Thessalonians. Let’s note the following truths from 1 Thessalonians 2.
Ministry Not a Job, but a Lifestyle
In a series of three figures, Paul likens his ministry among the Thessalonians to that of being “little children” (v. 6), a nursing mother (vv. 7-8), and a concerned father (vv. 11-12). Such language reminds them that there was no overbearing paternalism, no distanced hardness, no benign neglect.
“Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (vv. 7-8).
With such language (which is not unique, see 2 Corinthians 12:15), Paul distinguishes himself and his coworkers from itinerant teachers and orators who traveled in search of employment. Orators would take up any position or persuasion for pay. Their arguments depended on who paid for their services. They lent their talents to the first or highest contractor.
Paul, however, had shared with the Thessalonians not only the gospel, but their own lives as well. He preached not from self-interest, but from conviction and love for souls. Evangelism wasn’t dropping a tract from a gospel blimp, but the involved dedication to helping people see and practice the truth.
To listen, then, to both preachers and churches talk about preaching as a job and a church hiring a preacher is loathsome to the Lord. Ministry is not a position, but rather a devotion to the Lord’s mission and a love for the souls of people.
The Word at Work
For ministers and missionaries who feel stressed that so much depends on them, Paul reminds us that the power to change lives and to prepare people for service is in the word of God.
“And so we too constantly thank God that when you received God’s message that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human message, but as it truly is, God’s message, which is at work among you who believe” (v. 13).
As much as we may rightly emphasize the Bible as the pattern for faith and practice, it is equally the energizing power behind every effort in everyone’s service to God. God’s power is not mediated through any human being. Elders or preachers do not recruit workers as if they were volunteers, but merely recognize that the Father of lights is active in all his children.
If there is true faith (“you who believe”), God will be active in and through the Christian. That person will find his will and empowerment through the word of God.
Irreplaceable Physical Presence
A number of observers has expressed concern that some people might allow contact with others through the Internet to replace true fellowship, expressed necessarily in face-to-face encounters.
“But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person. For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us” (vv. 17-18).
Nothing can substitute for personal contact. As advantageous as media like the Internet, radio, and television may be, the weekly and daily interaction with other saints helps us to learn the give and take, the sharpening influence of a kind but honest brother, the acceptance and forgiveness needed in God’s family. On the Internet, one moves on to another so-called friend when the latest one ceases to satisfy. In a church with true fellowship, such quick and dispassionate dispatches are more difficult to happen.
Of course, there is always that congregation where people come together as strangers and leave in the same condition, but this too cancels the grace of God among them.
The Priority of Salvation
Paul heaped condemnation upon the disbelieving Jews of his day, not only because they rejected Christ, but because they prevented many Gentiles from being saved.
“They are displeasing to God and are opposed to all people, because they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they constantly fill up their measure of sins, but wrath has come upon them completely” (vv. 15-16).
Keeping others from salvation is the greatest evil, because redemption from sin is the greatest good. Paul’s greatest priority was saving others through the message of Christ. His priority reflected the mission of his Lord, who came to earth to seek and save the lost and to restore men to his Father.
The Beauty of Service
When service to God follows these examples and that of the Lord himself, it will be a pleasure and a joy, a beautiful thing in the eyes of him who knows the human heart and rewards according to each one’s works.