Served By God, Serving Man
Pro Ecclesia: For the Church
My dad hasn’t been to seminary. He has no formal theological training. Nobody pays him and Mom for their endless hours serving the church. But they could write an article on sacrificial service to the church. They’ve lived it.
Pop is a dentist in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He and Mom moved to town in the late seventies after dental school and a couple years practicing on marines. They didn’t know anyone when they arrived. They visited churches, soon found one, and have been there for over three decades now.
I remember Pop giving all day Saturday to referee church basketball and getting up before five to get things ready for the men’s breakfast. Mom gave herself to the ladies of the church and helped launch the prayer room. I remember Pop putting the final touches on his Sunday school lesson and driving straight from work to an evening search committee or deacons’ meeting.
The kids didn’t suffer from our parents’ church service. We only benefited. Parents who served the church became more and more sacrificial at home.
I guess my folks are old school — and biblical. They didn’t join First Baptist for the entertaining music or youth ministry or cool preacher. They found a church where they could be blessed by God and be a blessing to others.
So many of us think about it the other way around. We think of church in terms of our serving God and receiving from others. But this is backwards.
Sacrificial service in the church doesn’t start with serving. It starts with being served by God. Then as we are satisfied in Him and who He’s revealed Himself to be in His crucified Son, we gladly overflow in service of others.
The Bible actually warns us against serving God. There is a clear sense in which we must not serve Him. Jesus’ spokesman Paul says that God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
We humans can’t give God anything that He hasn’t already given to us. Jesus’ ancestor David prayed, “All things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chron. 29:14). Nowhere is this seen clearer than in Jesus Himself, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Beware serving the God who became man not to be served!
But there’s another sense in which Christians do serve. We serve others. And we do so “by the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11). God is the giver. Our posture toward Him is one of receiving, even in our service.
As we turn from facing God to face our fellow Christians, there should be a reorientation of the posture of our souls from receiving to giving. What amazing communities our churches are when we gather both with the expectation of receiving from God and with the expectation of giving to others.
It’s easy to miss the gospel way either by attempting to give to God or by presuming to receive from others. Take, for instance, many from my dad’s generation. Born to World War II veterans who knew duty and the valor of service, they get the idea of serving others but transpose this to their relationship with God: “Grit your teeth. Do your duty. Serve God and man. Sacrifice for God whether you like it or not.”
This isn’t gospel. Dutiful sacrifice doesn’t honor God as much as it honors our stone-like will. And thus it undercuts the very source of strength that enables us to serve others.
On the other hand, I’ve seen some from my generation expect to receive from God, but accompanying this good expectation is a tragic, culture-capitulating, self-centered posture of feeling entitled to receive from others.
Neither of these errors is “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Believing the gospel reorients our posture toward God. Jesus did not come to be served by us, but to serve us by giving His life. He is the giver. We are the recipients of His grace.
And believing the gospel also reorients our posture toward others. We no longer expect to receive from them. Our default stance becomes one of giving. As Jesus has infinitely blessed us, so we want to bless others — finite as that blessing will be. And in serving them, we point them to Jesus who blesses infinitely.
The church that seeks to give to God and receive from others will suffocate faith and smother love. But if Jesus’ gospel takes root, we will gladly come to God to feast and drink. Then with our hands full and our thirst being quenched, we will most gladly do good to others, especially the church — those who are of the household of faith (2 Cor. 12:15; Gal. 6:10).
O, how we need pastors and laymen like Pop and Mom! With every healthy vocational minister should be a crew of church-serving lay people who will receive from God and then give themselves to meet the needs of their church. I saw it in my parents and a pack of other selfless leaders as I grew up in Spartanburg, and I see it at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where I am now.
May God raise up a generation of men and women who are so satisfied in Jesus that we are resolved to sacrificially pour ourselves out for the joy of His church.
David Mathis is executive pastoral assistant to Pastor John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Desiring God in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Each month, the editors of Tabletalk select an influential pastor or scholar to address issues pertinent to the life and ministry of the church in Pro Ecclesia.