Who are Christian workers, how should they act and what should they do?
Tonight I want us at this Commissioning Service to address those questions as we think about Paul’s words to the Church of Corinth in 1 Corinthians chapter 4 and verses 1 and 2.
And after some words of introduction, my headings are that a Christian worker is first, A SERVANT OF CHRIST; secondly, A STEWARD OF GOD and thirdly, A TRUSTWORTHY STEWARD.
So briefly by way of introduction who are Christian workers? In one sense “everyone” who trusts in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. A classic passage in the New Testament on Christian ministry – Ephesians 4.11-12 - says that Christ has given the Church …
“… “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints [that is, other Christians] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4.11-12)
Therefore, everybody should be having “some work” of ministry. But this is helped and guided by those appointed for “equipping work”. And all that work together, of whatever kind, is so necessary “for building up the body of Christ.”
For growth, say the next verses in Ephesians 4, is the purpose of all this work. Verse 13 says the body of Christ, the Church and its members are to be built up, one, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith”; two, verse 14, “that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine”; three, verse 15,”rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”; and, four, verse16, it is from Christ that “the whole body, joined and held together … when each part is working properly, … grow[s] so that it builds itself up in love.”
Well, that is some basic guidance about Christian work and workers and the “who” of Christian work. But I now want us to think for the rest of the time about the “how” and the “what” of Christian work. So look at those verses 1-2 of 1 Corinthians 4:
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (1 Cor. 4.1-2)
And our first heading relates to how the Christian worker should work. The answer is as A SERVANT OF CHRIST
Let me start with a little context about this letter to the Corinthians. Paul is unhappy about how the Corinthian Christians are treating their leaders – which included Paul, along with others like Peter and Apollos. On the one hand, different people were putting different leaders on pedestals and giving them too much honour and attention. On the other hand, there was negative and wrong criticism of leaders going on at the same time. So Paul is saying, leaders should not get either too much or too little respect and acclaim. Rather, he says, verse 1 of 1 Corinthians 4:
“This is how one should regard us [the leaders], as servants of Christ,”(1 Cor.4.1)
However, Paul is going to imply that doesn’t just relate to these elevated Christians like Paul and Peter and Apollos. For it relates to everyone whether in leadership or not. A few verses later in this chapter, in verse 16, Paul urges every Christian in Corinth – the recipients of this letter - to be “imitators of me”. So every believer should regard themselves as a “servant of Christ”.
But what does it mean to be a “servant of Christ?” Well, first of all, it means that you will acknowledge Christ as Lord and master and so your position as his servant. You will then trust and obey him as a servant does a good Lord and master in ordinary life. For to be a Christian means to accept Jesus as Lord. Paul writes in Romans 10.9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Sadly in churches it is possible to be in Christian work and leadership without being a real servant of Christ who confesses him as Lord. Is there anyone here like that tonight? Somehow you have got under the radar. Well, the Bible’s command is “repent and believe”. A Commissioning Service is a great occasion for doing just that. It is so easy. It is simply trusting in the Christ who loves you, who wants the best for you, and died for you and for your sins, taking your guilt and punishment on himself. And by faith united with him you receive his Holy Spirit.
But all that said – assuming you really are a servant of Christ – being a servant tells you how, at its most basic, you should act as a Christian worker or leader.
For the word “servant” here is different to other words for servant in the New Testament. In probably is best translated “underling”. The word originally could mean an oarsman – a rower. And rowing on the lower deck of a Greek trireme (an ancient ship, often a warship, with three banks of oars either side) must have been pretty terrible in the underneath position. Of course, by the first century AD in Corinth the word could just have had the meaning of an “underling”.
But what it certainly means here is that the Christian worker, as a servant of Christ, should be marked by humility – they should be underlings and not Lords. For this is to follow Jesus’ example. He was himself a great example of humility, through voluntarily being an underling. The early Christians had what may have been an early hymn in Philippians chapter 2 that celebrates Christ’s humility. Just to quote one verse, verse 8 - speaking of Jesus, it says:
“being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.8)
And the early Christians would have remembered that the need to exercise humility was a fundamental teaching of Jesus. For example, he had said (Luke 14.11):
“everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14.11)
So at the start of a new Church Year as we face an exciting new future, let’s be challenged by the words at the beginning of that hymn-like celebration of Christ’s humility in Philippians 2 (verses 3-5):
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”(Phil. 2.3-5)
So how is your humility? Nor is humility just to be a theory. It needs to go from the head to the heart. It needs to be translated into reality in the light of people you know – in your group or where you work.
Of course, humility in leadership does not mean failing to give correction of ideas or behaviour where that is needed. But, and this is important, Christ’s servant must deliver that correction with God-directed care. As Paul told Timothy, as a young Christian leader (2 Tim 2.24-25):
“the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Tim. 2.24-25)
A servant of Christ is to be humble and when he or she has to correct anyone, it must be done with “gentleness” and not brutality. That is why Jesus said (Mark 10.42-43):
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Mark 10.42-43)
And these days you especially have to work at humility as did the early Christians. For it was not something the ancient world always liked. And today it goes against the grain of the modern secular world. For at the heart of humility is the truth of the creaturely status of men and women. But acknowledgement of that creaturely status is systematically being eroded, not least in Western Education. And that leads to the ultimate sin. For a denial of belief in a Creator (however he chose to create the world) is at the heart of humility’s opposite, namely pride – the deadliest of the deadly sins. The sin of pride, ultimately, is putting yourself in the place of God.
And that is why a humble servant of Christ will go against the grain of much in the modern world and this will cause opposition and conflict. But Jesus predicted that in John 15.20:
“A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”(John 15.20)
So every believer should regard themselves as a “servant of Christ”. However, a servant of Christ has not only to be humble, but do what the master orders.
That brings us to our second heading, A STEWARD OF GOD.
This has to do not with the “how” of Christian work but more with the “what” – what, fundamentally, you are to be doing as Christ’s servant.
Of course, much of what you do in Christian work is shared with others who are not Christian believers. So making cups of tea or coffee at the back of the church, physically is not much different to making cups of tea or coffee in a café in Clayton Road. Using a mixing desk or a TV camera in church is not much different to using a mixing desk or a TV camera in a secular audio or TV studio. So what distinguishes Christian work?
The most distinctive thing is that Christian work ultimately is being directly or indirectly engaged in a particular stewardship. As Paul puts it here, it is being “stewards of the mysteries of God.” That begs two questions, one, “what is a ‘steward’?” and, two, “what are ‘the mysteries of God’?”
First, a steward is basically a trustee of another person’s goods, and entitled to manage them and dispense them according to the governing trust deed or the master’s clear orders. On the one hand, you could or can have grand trustees or stewards, like Joseph was before he went to prison as we heard in our Old Testament reading. On the other hand, you could or can have much lesser trustees or stewards who simply administer or steward, for example, another person’s “will” after their death. So that is a steward.
But what is the Christian worker or leader “stewarding”? Answer, “the mysteries of God”. What are these?
In the New Testament a “mystery” is not some secret or dark ritual. No! It is a truth that previously was hidden but now has been revealed. New Testament mysteries are open secrets – and the greatest of these is that the Old Testament together with God’s promises and predictions have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Christ’s coming has brought light where there was darkness or at least shadows. And the result has been like what happens when you have a puzzle in a magazine or paper and you just can’t do it. So you turn the paper upside down, as directed, to find the answer. And the truth is revealed.
So the “mysteries of God” are the truths of God about himself, humankind and the world, now seen clearly through the person and work of Jesus Christ. And you read about this in the Bible – the Old Testament to make clear certain realities and problems and the New Testament to provide the lens through which you now read the Old Testament.
What, therefore, makes the Church distinctive, and what makes all our groups distinctive at this church, is the truth of God as the Bible reveals it. This has been entrusted to us to steward, corporately and individually. And we are to maintain it and proclaim it and share it with others of all ages and stages.
Of course, as human beings we think the whole of life belongs to God as the Bible teaches – so we do other things as well as have Bible studies and engage in direct evangelism. But all is done with an awareness, as the Bible reveals it, of Christ being with us by his Holy Spirit and an awareness that all is under the control of our Father in Heaven.
That is why you need to work at your relationship with Jesus Christ, through daily prayer and bible reading as well as meeting like this and in groups. And that is more and more important when our stewardship of God’s truth is getting harder, particularly in today’s increasingly secular and multi-faith world.
And note - there are some people who rightly see the need for servanthood and humility. But they then get humility in the wrong place. It was G.K Chesterton who famously warned about that. He said:
“what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.”
But you must be firm regarding your stewardship. If you are a trustee of a will, you can’t muck around with it, and doubt what it obviously says. When it says, Jack must have the car, and Jill must have the house, you can’t say, “I wonder if I should give Jill the car and Jack the house, because that is what some people want.” No! You have to say, “I am awfully sorry, but I am not at liberty to change the will”. And that is what has to happen with your stewardship of the mysteries of God – those fundamental truths and teachings of the Bible. Other people may want them changed to be politically correct. But you must not change them.
And so our third, heading, a Christian worker or leader has to be A TRUSTWORTHY STEWARD
Paul knew there can be untrustworthy stewards working in the Church and playing fast and loose with their stewardship.
The woman bishop who heads the Episcopal Church of the United States was preaching recently on Paul casting out a spirit from an abused fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi as recorded in Acts 16. She was arguing that Paul was guilty of failing to value diversity and see the slave girl’s beautiful “difference.” I quote:
“Paul is annoyed at the slave girl … perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.”
That surely is an example of untrustworthy stewardship of God’s truth. And that is why we must, while being doubtful about ourselves, have no doubt about the truth and reject such teaching and so such leadership. But you can be untrustworthy not just by denying the authority of God’s word but by simply failing to study it and remind yourself of it, or simply by ignoring the bits you don’t like. Millions are doing that these days with regard to what the Bible teaches about gender, sex and marriage.
I thank God that this church was founded to encourage “trustworthy stewards” of God’s word. It was founded to be “a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth”. So as we look into the future, however much we evolve (and evolve we must as this city and country needs new Christian witness), we must remain trustworthy stewards of God’s word and truth, corporately and individually.
I must conclude
I do so with Jesus’ Parable in Matthew 24.44-51 on his Second Coming and trustworthy stewardship. It is a challenge to us all. Jesus said (Matt 24.44-51):
““Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant [or steward], whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed’, and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt.24.44-51)
I thank God for all the “faithful and wise servants [or stewards]” in this Church. And all who trust Christ and, however falteringly, seek to obey Christ can look forward to whatever it means in eternity “to be set over all his possessions”.
So have total confidence in Christ. But as Paul went on to tell these same Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10 verse 12:
“let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” ( 1 Cor. 10.12)
But as verse 13 says, “God is faithful”. So if you are tempted – (verse 14) God …
“… will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”: (1 Cor.10.14)