Servants of God, his People, and his Word

A study of the three dimensions of leading and giving pastoral care

C.S. Lewis once observed that the word “my” has a range of meanings as we apply it to various terms. “My God” is not mine in the same way as “my country.
 â€œMy wife” or “my husband” does not belong to me in the same way I pos­sess “my shoes.”

Another simple word, “servant,” also changes meaning as we link it with different terms. Serving the guests is not the same as serving the food. Being the servant of the master of the house is different from serving the members of his family.

Scripture says that pastoral leaders [as well as Christian teachers, pastoral workers, parents, and others serving in Christian leadership position] are servants of God’s people and servants of his word and servants of the Lord himself. In order to serve God according to his intentions we must understand the distinctions between these kinds of service. Being a servant is central to being a pastoral leader – confusion about how we are to serve will send all our pastoral ef­forts off the track. Let us examine some aspects of what it means that we are servants of God’s people, his word, and himself.

Whose directions?

We might picture our service to God’s people as that of servants at the messianic banquet. The Lord Jesus Christ, our master, is seated at the head of the table. We are waiting on his guests, his people. We can say to them what Paul said to the Corinthians: “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Unfortunately, many of us have become cloudy about whose direc­tions we follow as we serve God’s people. The Lord says we are ser­vants – well then, we think, since we are here to serve these people, they must be the ones who give us direc­tions. If one person says he needs something, and another person tells us she thinks we ought to be a certain kind of pastoral leader, we think we should follow their in­structions.

But that is not the biblical approach. That is not how Moses and Paul, for example, led God’s people. Moses received his directions from the Lord rather than the people. He served them by consis­tently and faithfully conveying the Lord’s directions to them, even though they often wanted some­thing else.

Paul did not simply put himself at the disposal of the people he served. He labored on their behalf according to the commission en­trusted to him; he “did not shrink from declaring” to them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20, 27). Paul was not a man with ex­perience in community develop­ment who made his expertise available to the Corinthians so they could have the kind of community they thought they needed. He was an apostle, not a facilitator.

The Lord wants pastoral leaders to serve his people according to his instructions. Sometimes his guid­ance comes to us as we find out what people feel they need. Sometimes we discover his directions through insights of the people we are caring for. The Lord’s instruc­tions may become clear to us through a variety of means. But we must understand that it is to the Lord that we look for direction.

Whose approval?

Servants of God’s people ought to look to God not only for his direc­tion but also for his approval. We are tempted to look elsewhere. We want the people we are serving to be pleased with our care for them. We may desire warm, emotional expressions of their approval.

There is something legitimate about that. The men and women we are serving ought to experience our leadership as love and support. They ought to know that we are on their side as they grow in the Chris­tian life, that our desire is to help them become all the Lord wants them to be. People should see our pastoral care as a real service.

But they may not always want to be served the way the Lord wants to serve them. In particular, men and women who are immature in the Christian life will have views of how we should care for then that differ substantially from how the Lord wants us to do it. 

The Lord holds us responsible to serve them according to his word, not to seek their approval by tailor­ing our pastoral care to immature conceptions of Christian charac­ter, relationships, or service. We will never bring people to where the Lord wants them to be if we are seeking their approval; we will end up helping them stay where they are, or go where they should not go.

The antidote to seeking people’s approval is looking for the Lord’s approval. If people in our care are complaining because we have set forth what the Lord said to set forth, the solution is not for us to find something more acceptable. We ought to look to the Lord and consider how he sees the situation. If the master at the table nods and says, “That’s what I want them to eat; bread and water is the fare for the day,” we should not scurry to the kitchen to find something dif­ferent. If we have the Lord’s ap­proval, that should be enough. We should look no further.

Whose word?

Throughout the New Testament we encounter phrases such as “servant of the new covenant,” “the ministry (or service) of God’s word,” “servants of righteous­ness.” For instance, Paul says, “Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be minis­ters of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:5-6). Luke refers to those follow­ers of Jesus who handed on the gospel as “eye witness and servants of the word” (1:1).

These phrases are to be understood according to the model of serving the food at table. To be a servant of God’s word does not exactly mean that the word of God is our master; it means that what we are serving to God’s people is the word of God. The Lord wants us to provide his people with what he has given us to provide; he wants us to be servants of the relation­ship, the new covenant, that he of­fers them.

I have experienced a tremen­dous readjustment as the Lord has taught me about this. The change required has been greater than I thought it would be at first.

I used to think, “In my position of responsibility I will serve people with what I have. When we need to move forward, I will tell them what I think we should do. When we need to handle a problem, I will explain the solution I think is best. When we plan evangelism, when we evaluate worship, when we consider family life, I will offer what I have.”

Sometimes we may have to take that approach, but I do not think it is the ideal the Lord gives us. His ideal is that we give the people the food he has provided for them, his word, his life.

That means, for instance, that when we preach or teach we must give people God’s word, not our own. Perhaps we might sometimes offer our word, and label it as such. But primarily the Lord wants us to be servants of his word.

Before we can do that we must learn to submit our minds to his word, so that we can simply pass on what the Lord has given us. We have to come to the Lord for his word, so that our minds are shaped by it.

His spokesmen

That runs contrary to the inclinations that our society has trained into us. The educational system, for example, in the United States and many other countries, encourages us to strive for creativity and independence. We are applauded for devising new approaches to things, for giving people some­thing original.

This ideal is at work in many pas­toral leaders. In the back of our minds is the notion that our calling is to make the original contribution that will change the course of people’s lives. We are always look­ing for the creative angle.

Now, certainly we need flexibil­ity regarding methods – we must be able to envision new responses to changing circumstances. Some­times by stepping back and looking afresh at our goals and methods we receive new insights into our ser­vice. That kind of creativity can be an instrument of the Lord’s guid­ance.

In pastoral work, however, creativity is a subordinate value. Our ability to be creative must be kept at the service of God’s word. The uppermost consideration is what will bring God’s word to his people? What is his will?

We must put aside fascination with our own projects and become simply God’s spokesman, God’s mouthpiece. In a certain sense we must stand out of the way so that the Lord’s word can come through us. Being servants of God’s word, not being original, must be our ideal.

His personal servants

Our master is the Lord – from him we take our directions. He is the one we seek to please, the one whose word we serve. Our service to him must be marked by obedience, readiness to do exactly what he wants us to do, the way he wants us to do it.

Many of us have a managerial orientation to serving the Lord. We treat him as a superior manager – he gives us an area of responsibility and defines the goals, he sets the specifications – and we take it from there. There is something in­dependent in our attitude. We are trained men and women; we have held positions in secular society, we know how to carry out orders. But suppose the Lord’s instruc­tions were that we should be someone’s personal servant. When he got up in the morning, we would be there –

we would polish his shoes and serve his meals. We would wear a uniform, and when anyone asked us what we did, we would say, “I am that person’s servant. I live in his house and do whatever he tells me. That’s all I do.”

Most of us would feel this was some sort of punishment, because we have a deeply ingrained dislike for personal service. We can un­derstand the need for subordina­tion, so that work goes forward in an orderly way; but we are repelled by the thought of being someone’s personal servant. We react against the loss of personal identity. To be there simple so that another person can live better or can be more ef­fective – something inside us says, “Whatever I do, I am going to avoid that. That’s degrading. That’s dishonorable.”

But that is precisely the relationship we are supposed to have with the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not called to be his subordinate managers. We are called to be his personal servants.

Available to him

Of course, the image of subordinate manager highlights one aspect of our relationship to the Lord: like managers, we identify ourselves with the work entrusted to us, we have a sense of personal re­sponsibility for it. The work is not merely someone else’s; we do not simply forget it every day at quit­ting time.

But the essence of being ser­vants of God is in being his per­sonal servants. The men who fol­lowed Jesus as his disciples pre­pared his meals, rowed for him, fetched people when he wanted to see them, delivered his tax pay­ment. The women who accom­panied him attended to his needs.

At the heart of our life is sup­posed to be loyalty to the Lord. If what the Lord needs, so to speak, is that we stand and are ready to open a door for him, then that is what we should want to do. If he needs us to pour him a cup of coffee, we should be ready with pot in hand. In our whole ministry we should be known simply as Jesus’ servants, without having any glory for our­selves: “This is how one should re­gard us, as servants of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1).

If, to continue the image, the Lord will be more honored on a par­ticular occasion by having ten per­fectly useless servants standing around looking ornamental, we should want to get into our un­iforms and take our places. If he sends us off as his messengers to another country to announce the coming of his kingdom, that is fine. If he assigns us to polish his shoes, that is fine also.

Our whole life should be given over to the Lord so that he can receive the glory and honor that is due him, so that his personal will can be carried out. We should be available to him, for whatever pleases him.

Sharing his fate

Finally, a servant is identified with his master’s fate. What happens to the master, happens to his servant. Jesus’ disciples understood that. That is the background to the incident in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, in which Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is.

Peter, as is well-known, answers, “You are the Christ.” Undoubtedly Peter was thinking, “You are the great king, and you are about to overthrow the Roman empire, es­tablish a new kingdom with its seat in Jerusalem, and reign over the world on God’s behalf. And here am I, your loyal lieutenant.” Peter is glad to acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, because he is Jesus’ servant. He knows that he will share in his master’s glory.

In other discussions, Peter and the other disciples put such thought into words: Is now the time you will restore the kingdom? Who will sit at your right hand when you do?

Then Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed.”

“And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.”

Peter is saying, “Now wait a minute. I’m your servant, and I’m not going to let you do that. If you’re disgraced, we’re disgraced. If you’re put to death, that will be the end of our expectations of glory. We won’t let you go to Jerusalem and be crucified while we stand and watch, with everyone knowing we’re your number one men” (see Mark 8:27-33).

Losing our lives

At this period there were several messianic uprisings. One can imagine that Jesus and the disciples are having their discussion as they walk along a road lined with men who had been crucified for insurrection.

That was the normal punish­ment. The cross was not a romantic symbol in those days. People were familiar with crucifixion, a painful death, full of agony and disgrace. It was understood as degrading, and it was experienced as degrading.

To people who have just signed up for glory, Jesus is saying, “If you want to follow me, you might as well start now by picking up your cross, because we are on our way to the place where I am going to be crucified. If you are associating yourself with me, you have to put aside your life, you say no to your own life, you turn from the way you are going; you say yes to my life and go where I am going. Where I am going is to Jerusalem.”

If we serve Jesus, we are deciding to have our life, our reputation, everything about us associated with his life, his reputation. Our lives are swallowed up in his. Whatever glory comes, it ought to be his glory; our desire is simply that he be honored.

Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever losses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (see Mark 8:34-38 and John 12:25-26).

When the Lord appears in glory, we will appear with him. If we have truly been his servants, the Father will honor us. Before the court of heaven God will make it known: “This was a good servant of my son.” All our service will have been worthwhile.

But on the road to that glory, we must be associated with Jesus and whatever happens to his cause. We are simply his servants; we cannot expect better treatment than he received. “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).We will experience many things the Lord himself experienced. Out of loyalty, we should want to be where he is, associated with what is happening to him. As loyal servants, we should want to take what comes his way, sustained by his greater loyalty to us. Then we can look forward to the day when the Lord will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

This article, “Servants of God, His People, And His Word,” © by Steve Clark, was first published in Pastoral Renewal,Volume 3, No. 8, 1979, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

2 thoughts on “Servants of God, his People, and his Word”

  1. Thanks Steve for your service writing articles like this I am following you since I met you in 1982 In Ann arbor i was one of the guys from Jesed visiting the brotherhood at that time i find my self very fortunate to met the brotherhood at that time where you live with many brothers (11) from California, Costa Rica, Nicaragua Mexico and Now I am living in Texas and as John Keating prophecy on me, that time is now acting on me I am in the Catholic renewal board and serving my God here at Diocese of Brownsville with my bishop Daniel Flores former aux. bishop of Detroit and also as a Member of the SOS I am the Major coordinator of the Family of God community , Thanks for your blessing life and for be a blessing to me and my family

  2. Still very powerful teaching on servanthood, a classic tho hard teaching with human frailty in mind. Thank you to our faithful prophet and servant, Steve Clark. May he be blest with protection and provision. Vic and I send grateful greetings.

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