What is more important: the visit of a minister to a sick brother or sister in the congregation, or a sister doing some shopping for this same sick member? What has greater significance, the visit of a minister or that of an elder or deacon? I do believe that as such there is no difference; no difference in importance. In the mentioned examples, all are busy with their task in God's kingdom. True, then the one task differs from the other, but that does not make the one task more important than the other.
In his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul writes, 12:4-6,
There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.
With these words the apostle Paul opposes the spirit of competition which was prevalent in the congregation at Corinth. People were looking down at each other considering themselves more important than others. But Paul says, there might be diversity of gifts,
But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.1 Corinthians 12:11
As regards the service of each individual member within the body of Christ Scripture uses one and the same word, a collective noun, viz., the word 'diakonia'. The word 'deacon' has been derived from this Greek noun. Deacon – a word we are all familiar with. Yet in the day of the apostle Paul the word 'diakonia' was a very unfamiliar word. It referred to the work of the most unimportant servant, namely that of a person who had to wait at a table, more generally who had to care for something undignified. Summarising, a person upon whom in most instances people would look down upon. Yet when God started to speak about service within the congregation of Christ He used this word 'diakonia', teaching that the task we have to fulfil in His kingdom should be carried out not in haughtiness but in humbleness, without any pretension. That's how I have to use my talents for the benefit and well-being of the other members, and this to the glory of Christ. If this would indeed be our mutual aim, we would no longer become angry or jealous with a fellow brother or sister who also works towards this same aim, be it with a different gift. But then we rejoice in it. Yes, then we are thankful and happy with every gift which is used for the edification of the body of Christ, whether I do it or someone else. For we do it together: I in my place and my fellow brother or sister in his or her place. The minister, elder and deacon in the special office, the others in the office of all believers, whereby the one is not more important than the other. It's all diakonia, whereby the one cannot lord it over the other either. For one is our Teacher and Master and we are all brothers and sisters.1
Since around this time of the year in a number of congregations new office bearers will be (or have been) ordained, in this article I would like to write something about the relation between the special office and the office of all believers. I will do this by focusing on Matthew 20:25-28, where the Lord Jesus teaches His disciples what true diakonia is all about.
From these verses we learn that in the church things go different than in the world. In the world, generally speaking, the greatest ones always play the first fiddle. In the world people lord it over each other. However, even those who seem to be great are in turn responsible to others who exercise authority over them. All this often leads to lust of power, ambition, and jealousy. Yet that's not how it ought to be in the church.
The Lord Jesus says, whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.
In other words in the church what counts is not to be served but to serve. No lording but serving.
What now does this mean in more practical terms? After all, office bearers in the church must also give leadership; yet in a serving attitude, viz., by addressing the congregation with the Word of God, i.e. the Word of their heavenly Sender, and by acknowledging and demonstrating the authority of the Word of God, first of all by their own life style, thus giving the congregation an example of godliness. In other words, they should never lord it over the congregation.
A worldly government can make all kind of laws considering them to be for the well-being of the country. We are to obey these laws as long as they do not bring us in conflict with the Word of God. But that's not how it is in the church. In Art 32 BC the church confesses, "we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way." Of course, there should be a certain order also in the church. But what the office bearers continuously have to keep in mind is, first of all that they are called to serve, whereby also the one office is not more important than the other. A minister is not more important than an elder, nor is an elder more important than a deacon. In the beginning of this article I already quoted the apostle Paul who writes in 1 Corinthians 12,
There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord.2
The Lord Jesus gives the rule, "whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant; and whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave." What do these words mean? Does the Lord Jesus say as much as pride will have a fall and therefore be warned! You better be humble. No, not like that! But what then? Does the Lord with these words perhaps give a recipe how one can become great in the kingdom of God? Something like: that's how you have to do it!
After all, who doesn't want to become great? Who doesn't like to be the first? How much strive does this desire often not give, even already among children. It often also causes much jealousy and friction. Yet in God's kingdom this is different. There it should never be our desire to be the greatest. For in God's kingdom things do not circle around me, but around Him whom I am allowed to serve. That's what we should always keep in mind, be that in the special office or in the office of all believers. In God's kingdom we must always be willing to be the least. That's how the office bearers have to serve the congregation and that's how also the members of the congregation must serve one another. Not looking for honour, not thinking of own position either, but in total self denial we must be willing to serve.
It is good to keep this in mind, especially now around this time of the year, in most congregations new office bearers will be (or have been) ordained. Quite often people think, these brothers have to do the work, and so they leave it to the elders or deacons. It's their job. Though it might also be that there are different thoughts. Something like, "Why should that elder be able to do this better than me?" It is because of comments like these that in this article I ask the attention for the relation
between the special office and the office of all believers, and this from the viewpoint that we are all called to serve in humility as the Lord Jesus teaches in the verses mentioned above.
It is the Lord Jesus Himself who instituted the offices. By them He will govern His church according to the Spiritual order which He has taught us in His Word. Christ thus rules the church by the service of men. But these men are not there first of all to assume authority, but to give an example of godliness and in this way to incite the members of the congregation to act and speak likewise. They are called to serve. A service to which, they do not have the sole right. For service in God's kingdom is something which as consistory and congregation we do together. A consistory can do its work properly, only when also the congregation knows itself part of the work the consistory is doing. We do it together, whereby no one can leave it to the other.
If I may make this clear with one example, then I think of the exercise of church discipline. This starts in the congregation when mutual discipline is exercised. We are responsible for one another, and if on this level it happens that a brother or sister listens, the consistory will not even become involved.
In case a matter does come to the table of the consistory and a consistory sadly has to decided to continue with discipline, again it will be announced from the pulpit so that the congregation can pray for the brother or sister concerned and in a later stage also may visit him or her. See there how together we are called to serve, are called to use our gifts readily and cheerfully for the well-being of one another. That's what true diakonia is all about, whereby all of us should be willing to be the least. No one in the church should put himself on a pedestal. The desire to domineer is disastrous for the church. Well, the opposite of domineering is diakonia. True diakonia makes a church flourish, domineering ruins a church.
As regards the latter we should not look first of all in the direction of other churches where things went wrong because of this, but we do better first to dive in our own heart. As I stated before, how easily sometimes isn't it said also among us: that's a matter for the office bearers. On the other hand at times it also happens that an elder sighs under the weight of his office because he thinks that he has to care for each and everyone. It might well be that such an elder – with all good intentions – has drawn too much work to himself. After all, good leadership in the church means that we also know how to involve the other members. True, the office bearers are called to keep watch over the souls of the members entrusted into their care. But this does not take anything away from the fact that in the church we are all responsible for each other and we will also be held accountable for it by God. Among us it should never be said, like Cain did, "Am I my brother's keeper?" For we are!
It sometimes happens that we know about sinful situations in the congregation, but we keep our mouth shut since we don't want to be the odd one out. When an elder is visiting a certain address and says that such a life style is not in accordance with God's Word and is displeasing the Lord, the comment is made, but what then about him or her. Implicitly such a comment means: why does the consistory do nothing about it, meanwhile ignoring that we also have a task ourselves. If I know that something is wrong with a brother or sister in the congregation it is my duty to go there. I don't have to wait till the office bearers take action. I'm first responsible myself. That's true diakonia.
I'm sometimes afraid that this true diakonia is not always found among us. How can we overcome this? By asking ourselves one simple question: "Do I really love the Lord?" For true love towards the Lord will bear its fruit also in love towards the brother. In this context Matthew 20:28 points to the example of Christ.
As the Son of Man, Christ would inherit dominion and glory and a kingdom, according to the prophecy of Daniel 7, yet He had come as a servant to give His life as a ransom for many. Christ's aim in life was not to be served, but to serve. 'To serve' – that was the rule which characterised His life. Christ came to serve, not because He had to, but willingly. He did not think of Himself first of all, but of others whom through service He wanted to redeem. An explicit example of what this service is all about, Christ gave when He washed the feet of His disciples, John 13. What no one of the disciples was willing to do, Christ did. He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands and that He came from God and was going to God.3But it was just because of this that He rose from supper, laid His garments aside, took a towel and girded Himself, poured out the water into a basin and started to wash the disciples' feet. He thus did the work which belonged to the least of all slaves.
Well, that's how the Lord Jesus finally also gave His life as a ransom for many. The word 'ransom' refers to a price to deliver someone from slavery or imprisonment. The price of freedom from sin and condemnation is Jesus' life given for us. Since the elect are ransomed from the wrath of God, the ransom was offered to God Himself. Jesus drinks the cup of God's wrath, not for His own sins, but as the means of ransoming many.
This word of Christ's ransom is a word full of comfort for all who believe in Him. Christ paid the price for our sins. But at the same time we should not overlook the context in which Christ spoke this word, namely that Christ's willingness to give His life as a ransom functions as an example to serve. As an example to serve, not only for the office bearers, but also for every member of the congregation.
When we take this to heart both in the special office as well as in the office of all believers, I'm convinced that spiritual life in the congregations will improve. And don't look now straight away at others, but let us start to examine ourselves first. Yes, where can I in the place where God had set me use my talents more and better for the salvation of my fellow brother and sister in the church. Yes, it should indeed be the desire of all of us in humility to care for one another, looking out not only for our own interests, but also for the interest of others. Thus in showing true genuine love towards each other, the other in us caring for him should recognise the love of Christ. Yes, the strength of the church is that this love dwells in its members.