Do You Even Serve, Bro?!

Has anyone ever asked you what your “ministry” is? I was just asked this the other day. If you’re like me, a natural nail biter, this question causes you to tense up. My mind starts spinning and grasping for something interesting or meaningful or powerful to say. I say something like, “Well, I went to Bible college for a little bit, and then did some seminary, and run a blog” and then I immediately feel kind of disgusted. I really do. I wonder why I have to try to find some sort of official sounding description of myself. But, at the same time, it’s probably the appropriate answer for that question. I think we all know what the question is really getting at. The questioner is looking for something official sounding. It’s like the answer you’ve probably heard a million times to the question, “What church do you go to?” The answer that usually follows is, “Well, we ARE the church.” Of course we are. But we know what the person is really asking – “Which building do you fellowship with other believers in?” And the person asking, “What’s your ministry?” really means, “What’s the especially Christian thing you do?” The question itself comes out of a confused presupposition. 

I’m reminded of a friend of mine that had gone to a church years ago and left with many justified criticisms. It just so happens that I knew someone else that was not only a part of the church, but played a big role behind the scenes there. I mentioned my friend’s disappointment with the church. What I received in return was not a response dealing with the criticisms. Rather, the response was, “Yah, I know that dude. He never served.” In other words, my friend’s opinion would not even be considered because his level of service didn’t meet this other person’s standard. By the way, this is a logical fallacy known as an ad hominem argument, or an attempt to discredit an argument by pointing at the person’s character rather than the argument itself. It really was no surprise because this church, like too many, was heavy on service to the church and pastor as the litmus test for a fully realized and robust faith.

Two-tier Christianity is rampant in the visible church. Let me explain. Too many people view professing Christians who have professional or volunteer roles via the church building as being more Christian than those who don’t. The idea is that if you aren’t a pastor, deacon, employee at a church, missionary, worship leader, building churches, feeding homeless, running a blog, in a Christian band, volunteering to clean the church or set up the church, or something churchy, then you aren’t doing anything of too much relevance for the kingdom. And so, there is a two-tier Christianity created – the top tier consisting of pastors, deacons, church employees, missionaries, etc. and the lower tier consisting of people who say they believe the gospel, but only show up on Sundays, maybe not even consistently, and are always there for family events and free food. They are always ready to reap the benefits, but not help out. This attitude was certainly in my mind years ago when I was volunteering all the time. I’d think, “You know. These people don’t volunteer to set up or break down. Some of them don’t even bring food. But they are ALWAYS here to just take advantage of it all.” Maybe this thought has gone through your mind too.

Needless to say, this sort of whiny, gossiping, judgment is the sort of thinking that we are thrust against in Scripture. Paul writes to the Romans:

21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?
Romans 2:21-23

In other words, we quickly point the sins of others out with the idea that we aren’t guilty of doing the same. In my case, I pointed out what I perceived to be a self-serving and selfish attitude that others had. And the truth is, that might have been the very reason people weren’t helping out. But, I certainly didn’t know for sure and spoke as though I did. I spoke as though it wasn’t true of me. I spoke as though I had volunteered consistently. And I hadn’t. And even if I did, the thing I was ultimately blaming them for (selfishness) was and is what each and every one of us constantly feed everyday. If we are talking about using the law as a checklist in that way, then it levels everyone. I saw them as not being “devoted” Christians because their service, in my mind, was horrible. After all, I was confused as to how anyone could read the Scriptures and not want to be busy all the time in service. How could people be so selfish? God is a holy God who demands obedience, and here people are stomping all over him with their selfish living. They only care about themselves. They are MAYBE there on Sunday, never there for Bible study and NEVER there on Wednesday. Aside from that, they never talk about Jesus on their Facebook pages. They, I thought, were more than likely not even saved. The evidence just wasn’t there. And there I was, always listening to sermons whenever I could, reading the Bible, laboring over the church site and bulletins, always talking about Jesus with my friends, volunteering at the church, feeding homeless people, and even going to the mall and talking to people there.

I was busy. And my attitude about it was a glaring witness to what I thought about God. I was judging my love for God and the love of others for God by their service through the visible church. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do if we understand that it will always land on the same conclusion – that our love for God looks a lot more like rebellion and disobedience. Consequently, and perhaps this is true of you, it caused me to look at some church goers as less than or more than the others. Some just cared about Christianity more than others, and therefore were “doing more for God.” The others who didn’t seem to care as much about Christianity, in my mind, were wasting their time and lives and weren’t doing as much. As far as I was concerned, Christ’s kingdom wasn’t advancing or being helped much by them.

And this is the sort of thing that sails out from pulpits all over the place. Pastors guilt congregants by telling them that work for the kingdom of God needs to be done and that it should be done in the church. Don’t get me wrong. Work through the church is great. But it can lead to the dangerous thinking I had about it – that it was the worthiest action I could take and those who didn’t do it weren’t doing much. And though I’ve heard plenty of pastors preach this way for years, the two-tier standard I had was one that developed naturally in my mind, and not as a result of a pastor drilling it in my brain. It only seemed reasonable. But as reasonable as it seemed, it just wasn’t biblical. And this unbiblical standard, unfortunately, is used to grieve many people. It fills them with shame. They know they weren’t there on Saturday to clean up the church. They know they don’t show up to help, but are always there for the food or games. They know that they always walk in late, and leave before anyone else. They know that they aren’t meeting the standard that so many hold them to. And they more than likely feel the weight of it. When you attend a place with that sort of thinking, you can’t help but feel ashamed. Even in all of my splendrous  volunteering, the times I would miss would cause personal grief. But then I’d remind myself that I’m there a lot as it is, and can afford to miss every once in a while. After all, who would point a finger? The guy that does nothing? Please. I had him on busyness. I could put him in his place. Those who didn’t do much around the church, reflecting on their lack of obedience, could only throw themselves on the fact that they hadn’t done much.

And so, my remedy in order to sooth the guilt I had over the break in my obedience was not to look to Christ and remind myself that He lived a perfectly obedient life in the place of my disobedient life. No. My remedy was to look back at my track record and decide that I could afford to break the obedience because I had done enough obeying in the past. Maybe this is true of you. Absolutely pointless. I was trying to work with a standard that doesn’t even exist. I was attributing this standard to God, but it wasn’t His. The standard I was using came out of the Bible, but it wasn’t His. I don’t just mean that the list of do’s and do not’s wasn’t His, but that even the way this list is approached and handled was the evidence that it wasn’t His standard. It was mine. It was, as I like to say, a fig newton of my imagination. God’s standard isn’t a doable standard that allows us to get by on trying our best. It isn’t a standard that we can break, but cover up our tracks with past obedience. It is a standard that never changes. It is a standard that day and night demands from humanity. It is a standard that scrutinizes everything we do and always belittles it. It is a standard that doesn’t compare us to others. It is a standard that compares us to God. When we realize that, the comparison to others seems absolutely pointless.

Christ fulfilled the law for believers so that we are not bound by it. He fulfilled it because we can’t do it and can’t justify ourselves by it whatsoever. We can’t say, “Well, I’m trying.” We can’t say, “I’m getting there.” We can’t say, “Well, who could point a finger at me because I’ve done enough.” If we are honest, we know exactly who could point a finger at us. Our consciences point fingers at us daily. The law of God points the finger at us. The devil points his finger at us. This is precisely why Paul tells the church the great news that “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:1-2) Without that good news that the only righteousness or perfection we could ever have needs to be given to us by Christ, we are hopeless. Christ has freed us from the law of sin and death. And now that we are free, we are free to do good works. There is no longer a need for doing in order to attract God or assure ourselves. We don’t do in order to have His favor or curb His attitude toward us today. Christ did that for us as believers. We are now free to serve our neighbors. We are free to do the law. We now serve them without the fear of being on probation before God. We serve them knowing that there is no condemnation for those in Christ. Holding ourselves and others to standards and treating them as though they aren’t doing enough falls apart at the gospel. 

And knowing that we have been freed in Christ to do good works, know this too – God outlines many good works. Christian, you haven’t read your Bible enough. You don’t pray enough. You probably don’t go to church enough. What’s your ministry? You probably don’t even get enough time to do many things. And there will be people to shame you for it. But you know what? Scriptures tell us that leading a quiet life, working with your hands, and attending to your own business is a good work. Providing for your family. You may be guilted to think that you are too busy with children. But they are the neighbor that God has called you and freed you to serve too. They depend on you to wipe away their tears, change them, bathe them, hold them, kiss them, help them with their homework, feed them, and not abandon them. Those are good works too. Your spouse is also the neighbor that God has freed you to serve. Do you ignore them in order to do what you believe is a more noble work? I did for a long time. Even now you may be thinking that you are guilty of being lazy at work or not doing enough for your children and spouse. We all are. We aren’t consistent. When it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves we all fail. We are sinful. don’t look back at the times you didn’t fail in order to soothe your conscience. Look to Christ. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; (1 John 2:1)