A short description of what we’re up to can be found here. Comments are welcome but may be moderated for content and tone.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

So You Want to Serve God …

Dear Daniel:

I’ve been watching you for a while now. I see that you are an earnest kind of person, spiritually speaking. You are enjoying your studies, but finding them a challenge sometimes too, I know. And it’s not easy to handle a young marriage at the same time. Good for you for keeping it all in balance. That wife of yours is a saint; but then again, so are you — I mean the real definition of “saint”, not just some putatively-exemplary dead person in a cathedral window, but a person who has been genuinely sanctified by the salvation in Christ Jesus and has taken his place among all those who love God.

Well, saints have a calling. We all do. But some of us, only perhaps a few of us, have your level of enthusiasm for Lord’s people and your level of knowledge of the word of God. You’ve been serving well among us, being a blessing to all of us, and everybody talks about the gifting God has given you.

I hope my saying so won’t go to your head. I don’t mean to make you proud. Many young men have been destroyed by the pride that comes from being promoted and appreciated when they were too young or too new a Christian. But I think I know where your heart is leading you at the moment: you want to serve God. You don’t care about money. You have a supportive wife. And so far, you are a person of great reputation, and one whose spiritual gifts lean in the directions of evangelism and teaching. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re asking yourself if you shouldn’t be giving more of your time to spiritual work, and less to that part-time job you’re holding down.

I think I can safely say this: the Lord has plans for you. It may be in being a Christian in the secular world, or it may be in focusing more on the church, or it’s possible it would be in full-time commitment to spiritual work. Whatever the case, you’re already called with the call that comes to all Christians: that wherever we are and work, we are to be conformed to the image of the Son of God. That’s our mission, that’s our ministry, and that’s our destiny, whatever we do.

There are no “uncalled” Christians. We’re all in full-time work for the Lord. Only the where and how remain to be settled. But for you, the question seems more urgent at the moment. For I sense you want to know if God is intending you to go beyond the ordinary round of service, and to dedicate yourself full-time to his work.

Could I talk with you a little about this? I don’t want to tell you what to do. I just want to offer what I can by way of biblical knowledge, so that maybe it can help you direct your thinking as you wait for clarity.

As a Start

I think you have already decided (very wisely) that nothing in life is so important as the Lord. And what if you have a concern to see him worshiped, to love his people and to feed his sheep as he commanded? What if, moreover, you find that other Christians express to you that your teaching and leading are helpful to them, and that you seem to be really gifted for a particular work? Finally, what if, in your quiet times with the Lord every day you find yourself increasingly convicted that you should be serving the Lord with more of your time, as a teacher, preacher, evangelist, missionary, or something like that? And what if you want to be obedient to what you genuinely believe to be the urging of the Spirit?

What should you do? Should you quit your job? Should you head off to seminary? Should you begin to ask your local congregation to consider you for a pastorate? Should you begin seeking out missions organizations to get them to help you find the career track? What’s the right next move?

Finding a Pattern

I can’t really tell you what “obedience” means in your particular situation. Every life is a special thing: each of us has some challenges in it that we face alone. Sure, some things are common to us all; but others are not. At the end of the day, you stand or fall to the Master, not to me. I wouldn’t even dream of telling you what to do. But I can tell you what the scriptures say, and about what people like the apostle Paul did.

Paul’s our best pattern for how going out into the Lord’s work should work. There are others who seem to have done likewise, like Barnabas, perhaps Timothy, maybe John Mark … but we don’t really know the details. The lone example we have of the mechanics of release into the Lord’s work is furnished by Paul, particularly in Acts 13-15. Beyond that, if there’s a way for someone to become a full-time missionary, evangelist, teacher or preacher, we don’t know what it is. And traditionally, we conservative Protestants have tended to get squeamish about going very far from scriptural patterns.

What to Call It?

Now people today use different words to describe this procedure. Some call it “getting a call”, or “full-time ministry”, or maybe even “taking a pastorate”. These terms are really denominational rather than biblical.

One biblical word people sometimes prefer is “commendation”. However, there’s a huge problem with this word too. The King James translators made a hash of it. For no good reason they chose to translate five completely different words (plus some different tenses of these four) into a single English word. So very different Greek verbs, meaning variously “to present”, “to praise”, “to recommend”, “to entrust” and “to hand over” are all translated as the one verb “to commend”. And this has led to much unnecessary confusion, as in their various attempts to understand what “commending” someone meant, people have tied passages together which are not at all concerned with the same subject. Often this has made a mish-mash of their doctrine on the subject.

But “commendation” is not entirely a wrong translation of the idea. It has the notion that a person is going to be cut out of the herd and set aside for the explicit purpose of serving the Lord in ways, or to a degree, that would not otherwise be possible, given the existing obligations of ordinary life. And it seems to me that the desire for this sort of life commitment to God is very admirable, whether or not the person desiring it turns out to be right about it also being the Lord’s will. It doesn’t seem to me that the flesh or the Enemy are ever going to promote any such longing. The longing for prestige, yes. The longing for security, sure. The longing for self-righteousness, you bet. But not the desire to serve God in the way the Bible spells out “commendation”. You’ll soon see what I mean.

Paul in Action

Anyway, Paul’s our chief example here. And we know that he felt drawn to serve the Lord from the very minute of his conversion onward, and probably increasingly as the day of his eventual calling was approaching. So he was in a situation such as I was describing above: of feeling the desire to serve God more fully, but not yet having the opportunity to do so. So let’s see how he handled that.

Paul didn’t head off to seminary. Well, he didn’t really have to: having already been taught in the theological school of Gamaliel, he had the formal training. Mind you, it was not that formal training that had made him a man of God; he was already theologically educated when he set out to be the chief persecutor of the young Church. And even after his Damascus Road conversion, Paul did not go full time into the Lord’s work. He was a tradesman, a tentmaker, doing the Lord’s work on the side, and even returning to that trade periodically in order to pay his own way. He went “full time” only when there was so much work to be done for the Lord that he just could not afford the time.

Speaking of paying his own way, Paul considered it a singular advantage for any servant of God to do that, and even when he a right to expect some support from others, he was grateful to be able to decline, so that no one could accuse him of wanting profit or of treating his service as a job.

So Paul didn’t look for a career path. But there would come a time when the Lord himself would reveal to Paul’s congregation at Antioch that there were more things for Paul to do than serve among them. For it was while the elders of that church were serving and fasting that it was revealed to them that, as the Lord put it, Paul and Barnabas should be set apart for a special role.

Paul’s Call

This revelation contained two commands from God, two actions that the believers at Antioch were to perform in respect to Paul and his companion: one was literally to “sever” them off from the congregation, and the other was to “send them away” to do the special work the Lord had in mind. Now, by “sever” we must understand to separate off for a purpose. They were not being told to oust or reject Paul, but since he was already actively serving in Antioch, and since others would necessarily have to begin to fill the roles formerly occupied by Paul’s serving, they would need to make sure that the departure of Paul did not leave any empty spaces. Needs he had filled would now need to be met another way. Then secondly, notice that the church at Antioch was not told to elevate Paul to special religious office, but rather to release him, and to send him away.

Now you can forgive them for perhaps wanting to ask why. After all, Paul was important, and a really gifted teacher. But the work the Lord had called Paul to was not among them, it was elsewhere. And it was “for the work to which God had called them that they were sent”, not for any work those in Antioch, or even Paul and Barnabas had conceived. They were going out not knowing where they were going or what that work was!

Not only that, but the verb tense in the very same verse tells us something else; that God had already been calling Paul and Barnabas. For some time, it seems, they had been sensing that God was calling them to go out. But nothing definite was apparent, so they just kept serving at Antioch. It was only when the leaders at Antioch suddenly concluded that God was calling them that Paul and Barnabas made any definite moves in that direction. There is no note that they campaigned for this to happen, nor that they even mentioned it to the elders and leaders beforehand. There was no need for Paul and Barnabas to arrange their own careers; at the right time, God himself would produce consensus among godly men to agree to their release and send them out carte blanche.

Working Without a Net

Now there’s a scary note. Can you imagine being sent out nowhere in particular, with no job description, no special status and no definite guarantee of funds? Add to that that there were, at that time, few churches, and they tended to be rather poor and persecuted, and very far between. A secure pastorate this was not! Few today would have the nerve to march off under those conditions. But that is precisely what Paul and Barnabas did. When God calls, and when his church agrees, you go. And you trust God for the provision of your needs.

Oh, and did I mention the other use of this word translated “commendation”? In Acts 15:26, it’s translated “risked” — or “hazarded”, if you prefer. It means to “hand over your very life into the hands of God”.

Of course, if God has called you, that’s never a risk. But it can sure feel like one.

You wouldn’t do it if you weren’t sure … and you wouldn’t do it for personal gain, which is why I said the mere desires for prestige, security or self-righteousness would never lead you to want to do it. Just think about throwing your whole future away if you’re not sure God wants you to do it!

The Bottom Line

So … what do we know about going into the Lord’s work?

Well, we know that you’ll be the first to know that God wants you to do it. But we also know that if you’re such a person then you won’t be the only one who knows — the godly leaders around you will begin to have the same conviction, and it will grow until it becomes a call that must be answered by all. We also know that it will come to someone who, like you, is already serving very actively, functioning effectively as a member of a local congregation. This person will need to be severed off from the local Body, and his roles taken up by others. Then he will be “handed over” (commended) to God, for any work that the Lord calls him to do … without restriction.

The one who is thus commended will operate quite independently. While he may return to the local congregation from which he went out to give reports, he will not be controlled by that congregation and, on the flipside, there will be no formal financial arrangement with the sending congregation. A commitment to interest, prayer and encouragement? Yes, of course. But no financial strings.

In fact, unlike you at the moment, this person may be someone with a well-established career, already tested and proved as able to make his way in the world. It would not be surprising if he were capable of “tentmaking”, to use the biblical metaphor: of earning a living, paying his own way and meeting his own needs. Such an individual might well even have the capability of generating extra income to meet the needs of others. This financial independence would give such him great liberty in speaking the truth without political fear, and greater opportunities for service; it would also be a point of personal satisfaction to have lived this way.

The love of money, the love of prestige, the love of security, a watertight job description, a pulpit to occupy, a captive audience to enthrall, creature comforts to enjoy and a single place to call your own, these are all the things about which a truly “commended” worker does not care. Here, he has no lasting city, but he lives for the City that is to come, and for the King of that city. Even now, he takes his orders from thence.

And Then …?

Well, Dan, now you have the whole picture as I know it from scripture. What you should do I cannot say, and I know you know that. But now you also know what is involved in following the apostle Paul as a model of full-time Christian service.

In regard to some things, you’ll note, it’s miles away from any other kind of job. On the other hand, in other ways it’s not so different from the responsibility of every Christian to live by faith and to employ himself for the good of the Kingdom, trusting in the Great Provider for our daily bread.

I won’t lie to you: the job comes with grief but also with special joys. It’s not a thing to be taken up lightly, and it’s definitely not a career move, humanly speaking. So now the key question:

Do you still want it?

2 comments :

  1. In the paragraph immediately following "Paul's Call" you have 2 typos. Actually, 1 typo repeated. You have "to" and it should be "two".
    Otherwise, this is an excellent post. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete