“All men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with [the true church] . . . serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.” —Belgic Confession, Article 28
The most public office in the early church was, of course, apostle. The apostles’ visibility seems to have been essential, as they, like Jesus before them, drew crowds in support and opposition. How could those who knew of the apostles not be moved to find out who they were when so “many wonders and signs were done through” them (Acts 2:43)?
Many gathered to listen to the apostles, not just because of their ability to work miracles by the name of Jesus; they also had a penchant for making bold, universal claims of truth, like Peter’s Pentecost defense of Christ’s messianic claims or Paul’s apologetic for the resurrection in Acts 17. Indeed, their work, by Christ’s command, was primarily that of the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2–4).
So when we read about the appointment of seven men who would “serve tables” (Acts 6:2), the glory seeker in all of us might think this: Wouldn’t it be better to preach the word, save souls, and change the world than serve the widows and poor in the church? Yes, the latter was a noble or good cause, but the real action was in what the apostles were doing.
But the truth of the matter is that most of us are not and never will be in the position of the apostles. Even the greatest and most well-known preacher is below these “pillars” of the church in terms of authority and importance (Gal. 2:9). Yet these men of honor and distinction, having followed the teaching of Christ, would not have thought of themselves as greater than any other. For Jesus Himself turned the world on its head when He told His disciples about the honor and distinction of being a servant: “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” (Matt. 20:26–27).
So though their calling and responsibilities would place them in the public eye, even the apostles would be servants. If this was true of them, and more importantly as we ended our last article, also true of Christ Himself (Matt. 20:28), then how is it possible that any Christian would be exempt from this command?
Now it is true that, in a general sense, people of all backgrounds learn this principle when they are young. Mom and Dad told us we had to share with our family members. And though we might not have understood the personal advantage in doing so (besides avoiding discipline!), we later learned that it is best for us to let go of what is ours for the enjoyment and benefit of others. Life cannot be lived well when we hoard our belongings, time, or love. We are constantly being challenged on a daily basis to live a life full of mutually dependent relationships.
However, De Bres is not talking about a natural calling in article 28 when he speaks about service. He clearly has in mind what Christ has taught and given to us as His church. For our Lord places service in the context of the believing community, that is, “among you.” Undoubtedly our service is for the Head of the church in the sense of honor and obedience, but our service is also to the body of the church in the sense of love and sharing. We are to serve to the “edification of the brethren,” which includes word (Eph. 4:15) and deed (Eph. 4:16).
All those who would claim to serve the body must then remember that since the body as a whole belongs to Him, so do its members. Indeed, all expressions of communion, community, fellowship, and fellowshipping are in Christ or they are not. For “we, being many, are one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5). To be sure, we can pretend at church and thus pretend to be a community of servants, but we can’t pretend to partake of Christ. Perhaps we can before men, but not before God.
In reality, then, the gift (whatever it is) I have is not my own but belongs both in life and death and in body and soul to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. So, we must all be reminded that He will also call us to answer for how we did or did not exercise our gifts to the glory of His name (Matt. 25:14–30). Indeed, a person may have gifts, but that alone does not indicate a heart that is known by the Lord (Matt. 7:21–23) and truly trusting in God.
This is why Paul beseeches the Roman Christians, by the mercies of God, to give themselves up to Him in this service (Rom. 12:1). The bond between the Christian and Christ’s church is not an act but a reality grounded in the gracious action of God. The reality is not the Roman Christians, but God’s mercy to which we are called and which we receive in Christ. Thus we speak here of being “partakers with Christ in all His treasures and gifts” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 55).
We see first that we all share in Christ. The service of the church members to each other is because they all belong to Him. Having this understanding and practicing its practical outworking, we prevent the abuse of gifts in the church. Instead of exercising them for personal gain or even abusing them to the point of tyranny and lording it over others, we remember that these gifts are to be used in connection with our mutual communion in Christ.
Let us also see that these gifts are all accessible in Him to all. All in the church are granted or allowed to partake, and none are forbidden. There is to be no special class of Christian or believer in the church. There is no high priest but Christ, and in Him we are all priests. And what do priests do? They serve in the temple. So we also serve by those gifts Christ has given us in the New Testament temple of God, which is the church of our Lord, for in this we become, as Romans 12:1 puts it, “a living sacrifice . . . which is [our] reasonable service.”
That is why we must not forget that these gifts are not often extraordinary or outstanding. Yes, sometimes one may long for some extraordinary power or influence in the church—sometimes just a spot a little closer to the “throne room” (Matt. 20:21). Sometimes we may even feel useless in the church in terms of our ability to serve.
But if we are believers in Christ, we have the gift of faith. And faith is the primary gift, and with it comes all the other graces, as we see from 2 Peter 1:5–7. Indeed, it is faith in Christ that unites us to Him and receives all His benefits (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 20). How do we exercise this gift? Paul speaks of the “measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). So if you have a strong faith you must help the weak, and if you have a weak faith you must let yourself be helped by the strong. God can always use our faith—in confession, love, and humility—to encourage the body. You might simply encourage the discouraged by letting them know what God has done for you and how thankful you are for His mercy in Christ!
If you have knowledge and wisdom, you must share them with others. For “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3), so that all might know and believe all that Christ wants them to know and believe. So you can counsel your brothers and sisters in the church even as Paul tells Titus that the older men and women in the church have been appointed to help the younger (Titus 2:1–5).
If we have the gift of love—that is, Christ’s love for us, in us, and working in us love for Him and for one another—then we can serve the body in love. You must show your interest in others’ best interests: “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Rom. 12:10).
Therefore, we ought never to think that we have nothing to contribute by way of service in the church. Please, brothers and sisters, don’t ever think that! You are needed and wanted. Perhaps I can say, on behalf of other office-bearers in the church, that we don’t say that often enough or communicate that very well to our congregations. But it is true. Why even the youngest, most helpless, or weakest member of a church could serve, even if he or she was physically incapable of being in the services on the Lord’s Day. That is, he or she could pray, serving others by praying for their needs and that the Lord of the church would provide the body with all that it needs to serve Him.
Let us purpose to serve the Lord and His church not only in our actions but also in our attitude. Our catechism speaks of using our gifts “readily” or without delay (Q. 55). In this we display the mind of Christ, as we know that Christ did not delay or hesitate to die for sinners, even those who were enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). And we will also do so “cheerfully”: not in murmuring, but out of the joy of the Spirit that Christ has blessed us with, marveling that we have been given this opportunity to serve Him by serving His people.
In other words, there are a multitude of opportunities to serve in the church. May the Lord Jesus Himself help us to do so even as He continues to strengthen the bond between the Christian and His church.
Rev. Daniel Kok is pastor of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA) in Leduc, AB.