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Ministry is Servanthood – Colossians 1:25

As I mentioned before, in Colossians 1:24-29, the apostle Paul talks about his own ministry.

paul-iconIn verse 24 he talks he says “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” I have commented on that verse here: Sufferings for Christ’s Sake. Now he goes on to talk about his ministry in terms of servanthood.

I have sometimes encountered resistance to the idea of the “Servant Leader.” A colleague in the ministry, many years ago, was contemptuous of the idea. If you are the leader, you are in charge — that was his point of view. If you were a servant you served at the wishes of those were in authority. To him, it was a matter of who gave orders, and who served. Yet, in the New Testament, both Jesus and the apostle Paul take a very different view. Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NRSV). It seems strange to me that my old colleague in ministry could not wrap his head around this principle from the teaching of Jesus. But, it is clear that the apostle Paul also subscribed to this view. To him, true leadership was also a form of servanthood.
Verse 25:

ἧς ἐγενόμην ἐγὼ διάκονος κατὰ τὴν οἰκονομίαν τοῦ θεοῦ τὴν δοθεῖσάν μοι εἰς ὑμᾶς πληρῶσαι τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ,
“I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,”


We sometimes forget that the very word “ministry” comes from the idea of servanthood — to minister unto someone. Here Paul uses the word “servanthood” (διάκονος) to speak of his calling and vocation. He was called to be a servant. He lives to serve God and to serve the Church. Paul often speaks of himself as a servant (minister) of the gospel (Col 1:23; Eph 3:7), a servant of of God (2 Cor 6:4), or of Christ (2 Cor 11:23), of a new covenant (2 Cor 3:6). But, here the antecedent of “its” appears to be: the Church, the Body of Christ.

There is a danger in conceiving of ministry as serving the Church. Does this mean the pastor is to serve the whims of the Church — giving in to every wish of the various members (as if pastors could do that even if they wanted to!)? I think the idea here is different. Paul is serving the best interests of the Church — and he has an idea of what that is — derived from the Gospel message that he is bearing. He has an idea of what is right and appropriate for the Church — how it should live and how it should function. He has a vision of what the Body of Christ is supposed to be and he is serving in light of that vision.

For a lot of pastors, that vision of what the Church ought to be is the source of their frustration. But, I think it is, at best, a creative frustration.

The reality of the Church as it actually is, is bound to frustrate.

But, don’t let go of the frustration — it shows that at some level you still care — you still sense what ought to be. Keep speaking a new reality into being. Still keep working to foster that new reality.

Body-of-ChristBy the grace of God, the Church (an otherwise human institution) becomes the Body of Christ — in the power of God’s Spirit. Miracles happen. God’s love changes lives. People love one another. People desire to be spent in the effort to make the world a better place — out of their sense of God’s Kingdom and purpose. The apostle Paul knew this same frustration, but he did not quit. He believed God in new beginnings — new creations in Christ — and a company of people — the Body of Christ — who would embody the presence of Christ in the world.

Paul is the servant of the church “according to God’s arrangement of things” (κατὰ τὴν οἰκονομίαν τοῦ θεοῦ). This realization also helps put things in their proper perspective. He is serving the church in accordance with God’s will and purpose — both for the church and for the whole world. The word οἰκονομία gets translated in various ways in this passage: commission, stewardship, dispensation. I think saying: “arrangement of things” gets us to the heart of the meaning of the word in this passage. This clarifies what Paul means in saying he is a servant of the church — he serves in accord with God’s intention and design. His purpose is to actualize God’s will and purpose. And the success of his ministry is also to be measured by that standard.

And how is all this accomplished? It is by making God’s Word fully known. This is Paul’s role “according to God’s arrangement of things” — to be a preacher and teacher of God’s Word. He is telling the story of God — and the story of Jesus — in such a way that people can come to a full knowledge of its meaning. A similar expression occurs in Romans 15: 19, where Paul speaks of having “fully proclaimed the good news of Christ” (πεπληρωκέναι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ Χριστοῦ).

Something of God’s plan and purpose had been revealed through the Hebrew Scriptures. But, now, through Christ, more is known.

What he means by “fully known” is explained by the verses that follow: Through Christ it has been made known that God has a plan and purpose for salvation for all people.

At the center of Paul’s ministry was a calling to communicate that message in a way that would make a difference in the lives of his hearers.

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