Called to be Servants

Ministers are by definition ‘servants’ – servants of Christ and servants for Christ’s sake of others – for the very word ‘minister’ comes from the Latin word for servant. The call to serve is at the very heart of Christian ministry.

Not surprisingly ‘servants’ is the first of five metaphors which Stephen Cottrell, the former Bishop of Chelmsford and soon to be Archbishop of York, uses in his latest book, On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards, to describe the work of Anglican ‘priests’. There, his key point is that although before Anglicans they are ‘priested’, they undergo a year of being ‘deacons’ (the English word deacon, of course, being derived from the Greek word, diakonos, servant), ‘priests’ never cease to be servants. To quote Cottrell:

You never stop being called to wash feet. You never put the towel down. The diaconate is the heart and the heartbeat of all ministry. Christ is one who serves – the one who serves us, who are his servants – and we best follow him and emulate him by serving others ourselves.

I appreciated Cottrell’s emphasis on the importance of service. When Jesus had returned to the table after having washed his disciples’ feet, he said “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13.15). The example, of course, relates not to the action per se, but to the underlying attitude. Jesus was not saying that his followers should literally wash one another’s feet. In today’s society such an action makes little sense. No, Jesus was concerned for the underlying principle, that his disciples should serve others. Christian ministry is always ‘ministry of the towel’.

In Luke’s Gospel the dispute that arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22.24) took place in the Upper Room. Jesus said to his disciples: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you, rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22.25-27). From this Richard Foster, for whom ‘service’ is one of the key spiritual disciples, rightly deduced: “Therefore the spiritual authority of which Jesus spoke was an authority not found in a position or a title but in a towel”. What’s more, as he went on to say, “When we choose to be a servant we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable” (Celebration of Discipline).

I find it interesting that although the Apostle Paul did not refer to the incident in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, as Phil 2.1-11 shows so clearly, he was very much aware of the model of humble service which Jesus set us all. Furthermore, he related this concept of service specifically to his understanding of church leadership: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves (douloi) for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4.5 NRSV). Strangely most other English versions (e.g. GNB, NIV, REB & RSV) tone down Paul’s language by translating the phrase as “your servants for Jesus’ sake”. But Paul did not use the Greek word diakonos, servant, but doulos, slave. Elsewhere he spoke of himself being a ‘slave’ of Christ (Rom 1.1; Gal 1.10; Phil 1.1; see Titus 1.1 ‘slave of God’), but here he spoke of being a ‘slave’ of the church! A slave by definition has no rights; slaves belong totally to their masters, to whom they owe absolute obedience. In the context here, for Paul to describe himself and his fellow-workers as ‘slaves’ means, in the words of Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament they are “unconditionally obligated to serve them”; or as Murray Harris. a New Zealand New Testament scholar, put it, Paul envisaged his relationship to his fellow Christians “as unquestioning service for the benefit of the other, as the result of unconditional but voluntary surrender of all personal rights”. Earlier in his letter, Paul had said: “We do not lord it (kuriomen) over your faith”, but instead are “workers with you” (2 Cor 1.24 NRSV). But here in 2 Cor 4.5 Paul went much further, and anticipated his declaration: “I will most gladly spend and be [utterly] spent for you” (2 Cor 12.15 NRSV), where Paul effectively said that he is happy to give all that he has and is to his fellow Christians at Corinth. This is amazingly extravagant language. As Ernest Best noted in his commentary: “It is relatively easy to say ‘I am God’s slave’, but something in us rebels when we have to say ‘I am their slave’”.

Although the metaphor of slavery may no longer be appropriate in today’s world, the metaphor of service still applies to those would lead God’s church: as Stephen Cottrell recognizes, they are to be “servant leaders”. Leadership, rightly understood, does not stand in opposition to service: rather it is undertaken for the sake of others and in the cause of Christ.

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