Prominence in the Church
Put bluntly, the main reason we undervalue many important ministries is worldliness. The world looks for human recognition (compare Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18; 23:2-12, 27-18; Luke 6:22-26). We do lip service, for example, to the power of prayer, yet view an evangelist basking in the limelight more favorably than the prayer-wrestler hidden in the back room. We exalt the virile missionary and sneer at the withered old lady whose paltry dollars God multiplied to carry that missionary to the field. If we’re blinded by carnality, heaven isn’t. To measure success in terms of human acclaim is to serve man, not God.
The most powerful ministry is probably intercession. And the world’s greatest intercessor could be the ‘no-body’ sitting next to you in church last Sunday. Only the spirit-realm comprehends what Christ’s sacred service agents accomplish behind closed doors and behind enemy lines.
Of necessity, singers perform in public; sound mixers and prayer fighters serve off- stage. Everyone sees your eyebrow. No one sees your liver. But which is more important?
Your average evangelist steals glory for soul-winning from those who prayed, witnessed and worked the miracle of enticing non-Christians to a Christian meeting. Many of the evangelist’s ‘converts’ either found Christ before he arrived or through counseling after he left. Though few preachers are deliberate glory thieves, there will be many reversals in the next life.
The Scriptures reveal that Christians differ so greatly from each other that it likens them to totally different bodily organs. Some of us are like eyes – spiritually perceptive but delicate and useless for carrying anything. Some are like arms – strong and useful but can sense very little. Being destined to fulfill different roles in the body of Christ means that some people will be more spiritually perceptive than others, not because God is moving more powerfully in their lives, and certainly not because they are more loved of God, but simply because they are called to perform a different function in the body than other parts.
Just as everyone sees your fingernails and no one sees your kidneys, some parts of Christ’s body will, of necessity, be more noticed than others. Again, this is solely because of their function. Prominence in the body does not in the slightest mean prominence in the heart of God. In fact, as Scripture points out, God has ordained that those parts of the body that get all the attention – such as our hair – are actually less important than parts that no one sees (Scripture).
It is not uncommon in our society to refer to one’s leaders as ‘superiors’. No wonder we fall for the lie that some vocations are superior. This delusion has so fogged our thinking that it would seem to require thousands of words to clear our minds. Yet just one sentence from Andrew Carnegie’s epitaph almost does it. This man started working for two cents an hour and ended up giving away $365 million. His leadership ability was the key. Before he died he ensured his tombstone read:
“Here lies one who knew how to gather around him men who were cleverer than himself.”
When referring to the leaders and big names of the Jerusalem church, Paul wrote:
“ . . . those who seem to be something – whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man –” (Galatians 2:6, New King James Version).
Let the truth overwhelm you: Paul was writing about the so-called pillars of the church, including Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:9). He had in mind the most intimate friends of Jesus when divinely moved to declare that God has no favorites.
Try the Amplified Bible:
“ . . . those who were reputed to be something, though what was their individual position and whether they really were of importance or not makes no difference to me; God is not impressed with the positions that men hold and he is not partial and recognizes no external distinctions.”
One more time, remembering that Paul was referring to apostles ranked with the greatest and most spiritually gifted leaders the church has ever known:
“ . . . as far as their reputed leaders were concerned (I neither know nor care what their exact position was: God is not impressed with a man’s office) . . . ”
And what of the great apostle himself? Paul reminded the Corinthians that he preached Jesus as Lord and himself, not merely as Christ’s servant but as their slave/servant (2 Corinthians 4:5 – note also 1 Corinthians 3:4-7). Burn that into your brain.
Prominence in the church – even God-ordained prominence – does not imply prominence in the heart of God. Not even apostleship breaks this immutable rule.
Except perhaps for a malfunctioning part of our body, our hair usually receives more attention than any other physical part of us, even though it is the least important. This paradox, insisted Paul, is typical of the way God deliberately arranges honor, prominence and attention among the members of his church (1 Corinthians 12:23-25).
Leadership is valuable, but there are a multitude of ministries of equal significance.
It is our carnal side that covets leadership. Few of us display the spirit of Francis of Assisi. When his followers had swollen to thousands they began to abandon his principles. He returned from Egypt to find that the men he had left in charge were forbidding the eating of meat and allowing the ownership of goods. His response to those wanting to usurp his authority was to humbly relinquish leadership of the order he had founded. The Friars selected another leader, to whom Francis submitted as a common brother. Even on his death-bed, some eight years later, Francis bowed to his ‘superior’s’ directive that he stop singing and face death in a more ‘dignified’ manner.
Centuries later, George Whitefield, declared, ‘I know my place . . . even to be servant of all.’ Whitefield was the powerful founder of the Methodist movement. Today he is rarely credited with this honor. To foster love and unity between his followers and Wesley’s he abandoned his leadership rights and turned the entire ministry over to Wesley. To his horrified supporters he said, ‘Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified . . . ’
Not everything that passes as leadership in the Christian church corresponds to Christ-likeness.
A Lowly Ministry?
The gifts of the Spirit arm us for active duty. The Spirit fits us out with that particular mix that suits our individual call. Yet we usually eye such gifts as evangelism, prophecy, teaching, miracles, and ignore the other half – helping others, administration, showing mercy, giving, serving. You may even feel compelled to check the Bible before believing they belong alongside the attention-grabbing charismata (Romans 12:7-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28).
The way we revere a few gifts and denigrate the rest, you’d think the ideal body of Christ consisted of a giant set of flapping gums, a fingernail emitting divine bolts of power, and a few emaciated odds and sods.
Is there really such a thing as a lowly ministry? Might it not be that the only thing that can make a ministry mediocre is a mediocre effort? In the context of ministry, Paul speaks of ‘striving to excel’ (1 Corinthians 14:12 – Amplified Bible – many versions are similar). The pursuit of excellence is a challenge from the throne of God to every Bible-believing Christian.
‘Do small things as if they were great, because of the majesty of Christ,’ counseled Hudson Taylor. He said we should even ‘hang up clothes, wash, dress and comb our hair in a way to use to the full measure of ability which God has given us to the glory of his holy name.’ I was so impressed I chose a likely spot on the floor, rummaged through two dirty shirts, assorted books, three socks and a shoe, finally found a pen, blew off the fluff and recorded the quote. (My special gift is the ability to encourage – people come to me thinking they are the world’s worst and leave greatly encouraged.)
If you are called to be a cleaner then rise to that challenge with the grace of Strauss, the flair of Michelangelo, the persistence of Edison and the dedication of Jessie Owens. Polish with the love of a mother, the care of surgeon, and the joy of a lover. Pour your soul into your work till it gleams with heavenly glory; till God can look at your floors and see his face in them; till all of heaven exalts you as an example of what a cleaner should be.
The standard and status of nursing rocketed because Florence Nightingale brought a sense of God’s call to a job that had been regarded as little better than prostitution. Edith Schaeffer, wife of Francis and hostess of the Christian chalet L’Abri, believed table settings could be elevated to an art form. The world has yet to see how you can transform the task before you.
The world marvels at the work of a genius. It is even moved by someone who overcomes severe handicap to do something a normal person could do. But though the world misses it, ordinary people are just as capable of heroics.
Paul White – later to became renowned through his Jungle Doctor books – wanted to become a medical missionary. His financial predicament made it essential that he obtain a scholarship to pay for his medical studies. This necessitated being ranked in the top two hundred students in the final year high school exams in his home state of New South Wales, Australia. He came one hundred and ninety-eighth. To add to the drama, to attain the mark that barely enabled him to scrape in, he had not only studied feverishly, he had repeated his entire final year at high school. His grades the first year were too poor. Now to turn this into a thriller, read the conditions of the scholarship: it would terminate the moment he failed just one examination, or part thereof, in any of the six years ahead of him. In his third year, over half of the students failed. With a pass mark set at fifty, he scored fifty, fifty, and fifty-one. He had pushed himself to the limit and he still had three more years to go.
Paul White might have had unremarkable ability but, to me, his graduation is a wonder equal to an armless woman using her mouth and feet to change her baby’s clothes; as sensational as a man walking on Mars.
Rarely in life do we have the precise measures of achievement that students have, but like White, we can grasp the hand of Jesus and teeter on the edge of our ability with the daring of a tight-rope walker, to the hushed delight of angelic throngs.
God’s Favorite People
‘God must love ordinary people because he made so many of them.’ We laugh. But the truth is profound.
From tongue-tied Moses (to er is human) to cave-mouth Peter; from down-in-the-mouth Jonah to high-as-a-kite Noah; (Noah embarrassed himself by getting drunk – Genesis 9:21) from Job in his trouble-bath to Mordecai having the last laugh, the Bible bristles with ordinary folk who achieved extraordinary things for God. And you were born to continue this tradition.
If to the world you seem insignificant, it merely intensifies God’s longing to raise you high. (This common theme in Scripture is worthy of close examination: Job 5:11; Psalm 113:7-9; Isaiah 40:4; Ezekiel 17:24; 21:26; Luke 1:52-3; 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.)
Recall the Messiah’s birth. The leaders, the teachers, the theologians, and the priests, were oblivious to it. Heaven shared the news with shepherds at work; with old, temple-bound Anna (Luke 2:8-18; 36-38); and with ‘wise men from the east’. The latter presumably weren’t even Jews.
It was the common people who heard this Man gladly (Mark 12:37 b). And it was from their ranks that he handpicked the ones to fire the world with his glory. He chose hotheads with provincial accents, a tax man – a small-time turncoat any self-respecting citizen would spit on – and logheads with the stench of fish on their callused hands.
Christ was continually aware of the invisible people, whether it was a despised tax collector peering through the leaves, or an unclean woman pressing through the throng; a wild-eyed madman in the Decapolis back-blocks, or a luckless loner at the pool; a sightless misfit, or a stinking leper; a cripple, or a mute (Luke 19:2-9; 8:43-48; 7:11-15; 21:1-4, 8:27 ff; John 5:2 ff). To a tired and hungry Jesus, befriending a spurned woman – giving hope to a Samaritan living in shame – was more important than food. Society’s rejects warmed his heart.
It seemed wherever there was a paltry act of kindness you’d find religious people simmering with contempt, and Jesus glowing with admiration. A pauper slipping a pittance into the offering (Mark 12:41-44), a street woman’s pathetic washing of his feet (Luke 7:36-50), a boy’s fish sandwiches (John 6:9-11), thrilled him. Mary just sat on the floor in rapt attention. That was enough to fill him with praise (Luke 10:39-42).
Jesus was forever shocking his observers by selecting non-entities for special attention. Society saw a dirty beggar, a nauseating blotch on the neighborhood, a curiosity for theological debate (is it right to heal on the Sabbath? who sinned, he or his parents?). Jesus saw a worthy recipient of his powerful love; a precious work of God brimming with beauty, dignity and heart-wrenching need; someone to die for. While crowds turned up their noses, he poured out his heart. The masses tried to silence blind Bartimeus, the loud-mouthed groveler (Mark 10:46-52). They sneered at Zacchaeus, the money-grubbing runt who soon towered over them by displaying exceptional generosity. (Luke 19:2-8). His followers wanted to push aside snotty children (Mark 10:13-16). They opposed the Canaanite woman whose incessant nagging was driving them to distraction (Matthew 15:23). No one could guess who Jesus would next honor. It was sure to be some faceless loser they had not even noticed, or an embarrassing nuisance they wished would skulk away.
Jesus came to show us the Father (John 14:9). Today, the religious world still looks at the big names, while God treasures the ‘unknowns’. He delights to endow with eternal grandeur their simple acts of service.
From the time Mary, ‘just a housewife’, mothered the Son of God, and the world’s greatest Teacher spent five or six times longer as a carpenter than as a teacher, humanity has had living proof that the mundane can be holy.
The world is filled with God’s undercover agents – ministers of the gospel who have successfully infiltrated enemy territory using all sorts of ingenious covers – housewife, plumber, bus driver . . .
One of the most powerful influences in evangelist D. L. Moody’s life was the now-famous statement, ‘Moody, the world has yet to see what God can do with and for and through and in a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to him.’ The words that moved the man who moved the multitudes was uttered by a butcher.
In Argentina, around-the-clock pray-ers do battle in what is possibly one of the most powerful centers of prayer earth has seen. Some independent observers have concluded that it is bolts from this continual prayer storm that fuel the massive Argentine revival and spill over to the rest of the world. The participants are 2,000 prisoners.
Brother Andrew, ‘God’s Smuggler’, tells of a girl who became a Christian because he obeyed the Spirit’s prompting not to share the Gospel with her. He was in the ideal position to witness, but his Spirit-led refusal to exploit it, seized the girl with fear that she was becoming past hope. This moved her, like nothing else could, to give her life to the Lord.
The journalist who found Livingstone and was converted by him, initially grabbed headlines and published a book about his adventure. It is not this that interests me, however, but a letter Stanley wrote some years later. According to a modern appraisal of missionary history, this solitary letter, published in a newspaper, did more for the cause of missions than many missionaries have achieved in a lifetime.
Try not to underestimate God’s ability to use for his glory, even the most trivial things you do. (I’d like to say never underestimate it, but that’s a tall order when living within you is the One whose power surpasses our wildest hopes (Ephesians 3:20).