The New Testament uses the common term diaconia to express the concept of ministry. This term describes the service that constitutes the function of the diaconos or minister. In our context, it indicates service within the Christian church. Ministry, then, is service: service to God first, and to God’s people as He directs us. This concept of service is best illustrated and exemplified by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Although fully God, He came as a servant, faithful to His mission as determined since before creation. His example of love is the basis of any concept of service or ministry in the body of Christ. Therefore, it is on that example that we should base our theology of ministry.
First of all, we must remember that the Lord has instructed us to love one another just as He has loved us.1 As exemplified by Him, this love is a giving of oneself for the benefit of the beloved. As such, it also requires a servant’s heart and disposition. It is only through the heart of a servant in fact, that anyone would be willing to actually give of oneself freely.
Jesus also called us to continue and amplify His work in the world, that is, His ministry.2 So, we are called to continue the work of the Father that He started, guided by the Holy Spirit rather than by our own ambition. As we share the gospel and make disciples of all nations, we also exemplify His ministry. We express His love, which the Spirit pours out in our hearts, as He shares with us His divine nature.3 This is our mandate and the very core of ministry. It is not our own work, but God’s work in and through us.
A Theology of Ministry Must Focus on Service
The very concept of service, then, is of primary importance. We could concentrate, as some have done, on the concepts of leadership, influencing others, managing, and so on. However, the bottom line of our calling to minister is not to increase production or profit. Rather, it is to serve God and His people according to His will. Serving, rather than being served, is Jesus’ paradigm.4 Servant leadership, therefore, is not just a model of how we do business in the church, but it should reflect the way we relate to Jesus Christ Himself. He is the greatest servant of all, who gave His utmost for us.
Scripture reminds us that we are all servants of something or someone. This is true regardless of whether we attempt to convince ourselves that we don’t serve anyone. In reality, we either serve God, ourselves, or worse — Satan and his materialistic world. In our self-centeredness we want others, and at times even God, to serve us. We hide ourselves behind titles, roles and offices, but deep inside we do so to serve ourselves. Christian ministry takes all this and turns it upside down. Jesus taught us (and modeled for us) that we should be servants of one another, not seek to be served.5
We should be willing to walk in His footsteps as we surrender to the Father, and serve Him according to His will and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The priority of ministry, then, is not ourselves. Instead, it is those whom we are called to serve: God first, and His people.
Ministry is Surrender
In His ministry, Jesus consistently modeled a perfect submission to the Father. This highlights our need for faithfulness to the Father as we continue Jesus’ work and fulfill His mission. True Christian ministry does not consist of our work, but is God’s work in and through us. This means that as faithful servants we should not live by our own ambition, seeking to establish and reach our own goals, often at the expense of His. Rather, we should continuously and prayerfully seek His guidance in all things.
We find this guidance in His revelation as well as in His wisdom as the Holy Spirit imparts it to the church. In the Bible we find His moral guidance, and in His promised wisdom6 we find His practical guidance. We receive all this in an attitude of surrender to and acceptance of His sovereign will. Our surrender, the application of godly wisdom, and our continuous study of His word will maintain us faithful to our calling to minister to one another.
Through our learning we can continuously improve the way we understand and apply God’s revelation. Through the appropriate fellowship of the church we can benefit from the gifts and the wisdom which God lavishes on His body. In our own growth and spiritual formation we can find assurance that our personal motives are in line with God, and that we continue in a state of humble surrender and service.
Ministry Is Love
We have already touched on this earlier, but there is much more to ponder about the vital importance of love. This love, the act of giving of oneself for the benefit of others, is exemplified in the life and ministry of our Lord and the Father.7 It is an expression of the bond of oneness shared since eternity’s past in the unity of our triune God. We are blessed beyond measure to be able to share His love as we serve Him.
This love, His own love in us, is the great motive that should underline all that we do in ministry. Love toward God in ministry assumes the shape of a profound gratitude. It moves us to say, “although I am not worthy of it, here I am, Lord, send me.” Love toward the people that we serve takes on the shape of understanding, compassion and care, expressed in seeking their ultimate and highest good.
In every aspect of the Lord’s ministry and teaching, however, this love is also self-sacrificial. It is often in sacrifice, in fact, that we are to give of ourselves, motivated by a great joy that transcends our understanding. It is a joy that manifests itself especially when serving becomes particularly hard. Under the guidance of God and by His grace, love makes us able to love the unlikable, and even the enemy. Far from being a sign of weakness, this love stems from a sincere faith that leaves any judgment up to God. It gives us the ability to see another human being, however unlikable, as someone God created in His image and likeness. It means loving God as reflected in that image, and loving them with he same zeal as we love ourselves.
Ministry is Participation
As we have seen, the work we are called to contribute to is not our own. The ministry we are called to be engaged in is actually the Lord’s. For this reason, we must be willing to crucify our ministry in order to participate in His. This participation in His work, this sharing in His oneness, is an amazing blessing and privilege.
We are fully aware that we are not the actual shepherds of God’s flock: the Lord is.8 We are not the leaders or captains: the Lord is.9 We are not the ones that people should follow: He is.10 We are just servants, helpers, blessed and privileged to be able to participate in the work of the Master, the one true Shepherd and Leader.
The fact that we participate in His work means that our job is not to secure a following for ourselves, but for Him. As Scripture states, they will know His voice, and will follow Him.
Ministry Stems from Need
In every example found in Scripture, ministry always stems from the need of the people. Likewise, our service should also be guided by the needs of those we serve and by the way the Lord equips us to meet them. Our communities of faith are not isolated from the world. We live in the world even though we are not of the world. The hearts of most people around us are hardened, and often serving is difficult and seems to be unrewarding. Instead of judging them, we should remember that we were just like them. Our Lord sat at the table with sinners and publicans, unconcerned about His image among the religious leaders, but concerned about the needs of those people. We should do the same, not to participate in their sinful ways, but to lead them to Christ.
By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit has endowed us with gifts according to His will. We need to acknowledge that and adapt, respecting the way God is shaping the church. Rather than asking who we want next to us in ministry, we should look at who the Holy Spirit has equipped to meet the need at hand. There should be no jealousy, no envy, no competition, for the work at hand is His work after all.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. […] Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.11