I’m working through some of the questions that were submitted to the WSC Missional AND Reformed Conference.
1. If the laity ought to “be served” is there a way in which they can serve the church or is that reserved for church officers?
2. …You emphasized that we are served by God rather than serving God. How does this relate to the biblical commands to “serve the Lord” (e.g. Rom 12:11) and references to men as “servants of the Lord”?
These questions refer to Mike Horton’s reminder, in his conference lecture, that God first comes to serve us, as it were, in the gospel. Christ girded himself for us. God comes to us, he justifies the unjust, he communicates himself to the alien. The good news is about God’s “doing” for us, of course, not our “doing” for him.
It’s funny how we react to the sentence “God serves us.” We shrink back — and not from holiness or fear of God but because we think that religion and worship are things we do for God. We’re still refusing to let Christ wash our feet! The gospel is still a scandal. We think of worship as that which we do for God. We think of the “divine service” first of all as a stage to which we invite God to join us as we perform for him. We’re still Israelites “playing” at the foot of Sinai rather than sinners who need their feet washed before they can “do” or “say” or “perform” anything. We’re still assuming that which cannot be taken for granted: the gospel.
Christ must serve us first. God will not have it any other way. Remember that there is a prologue to the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out….” That is Christ’s service. He has gone through the Red Sea for us and we have been baptized into his Red-Sea death and we, sola gratia, sola fide are united to him in his resurrection.
It is only once we have been brought out that we can begin contemplating responding to his grace. Yes, we are called to serve him, but we are servants serving the THE SERVANT SAVIOR. We aren’t “doing” for him in some way to make him approve of us. We serve as those who were first served. We serve reciprocally. We serve by grace alone. We serve in faith alone. We serve as those who’ve been united to Christ the Servant.
Who can serve? Well, in some sense, all Christians. All God’s people were brough out of Egypt to “serve” (worship) him at the foot of Sinai. We are at the foot of the heavenly Mt Zion and we serve the ascended Christ there. It is helpful, however, and biblical to distinguish between official and unofficial service or between service narrowly and broadly defined. In the narrow, official sense, only ordained people are called to “serve” as pastors, elders, and deacons. Pastors alone are called to preach the gospel, administer sacraments and elders are called to administer discipline, and deacons are called to administer mercy to the congregation.
This does not mean that laity do not serve God and neighbor. They do and must! When your neighbor has a need you serve God by serving your neighbor. It’s often said that Luther said something to the effect that “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” I can’t find that in Luther (I’m not saying he didn’t say it, only that I haven’t found it) but it’s true nonetheless. When your neighbor is grieving or reaches out, you should love him. If the opportunity presents itself, you should give witness to the faith (the objective facts of the faith) and to your faith (your personal commitment to those truths). If your neighbor has material needs, you ought to serve him by meeting those as you can.
You can serve the church in a variety of ways (prayer, worship, giving, loving your brothers and sisters), but the church is not a collection of programs and an endless variety of “ministries.” I know what the church growth gurus say and they are wrong. Yes, it may be “effective” to “incorporate” visitors into the church quickly by getting them “involved” in some activity but the church isn’t just some “corporation” or a place for gimmicks. It’s Christ’s church. He instituted it for his ends (that’s what “mission” ought to mean) and he can do with it as he will. I don’t care what Barna says. People have predicted the obsolescence of the institutional church before and they’ve been wrong. They cannot be right. Whatever George says Jesus says to the institutional church: “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”