Service: Breadth and Range
The lifestyle of the ancient church is demonstrated, at least in concept, by the numerous terms used in the New Testament texts to describe various types of servants. In all cases, these were people who put the interests of others ahead of their own interests. The idea is that throughout the sacred writings, putting others ahead of oneself is a covenant priority. To illustrate this concept, let’s consider three of the Greek words uses (out of a total of 8). First, doulos is the word we translate as “slave”. It was often used by Jesus to describe the accountability God expects from His stewards (Matt. 25:14). Christ was so described (Phil. 2:7). Paul described himself as one (Phil. 1:1). All Christians were slaves of Christ (1Cor. 6:20). Second, diakonos is a term meaning “servant” (2Cor. 4:5). It is also rendered “deacon” (1Tim. 3:8), “deaconess” (Rom. 16:1). And “minister” (2Cor. 3:6). Third, oikonomos was a word used by Paul to describe service as a total system of responsibility. In the NIV it is rendered “manager” and describes stewardship. A stewardship was the oversight of the master’s entire business; business management was a synonym. Christ regarded his people as stewards (Luke 16:1-13). Every Christian was to manage the church to Christ’s best interests (1Pet. 4:10). The management of the covenant, the revealed “mystery of God” was a stewardship (Eph. 3:3,9)
Christlikeness: Words and Behaviors
The Apostles took the message of Christ’s Lordship to the people, offering his death and resurrection as a proof of his Lordship. As people responded to the Gospel and entered the church, many who had no Jewish behavioral background needed an example for their new life’s actions. It was not practically possible for the eyewitnesses to explain in detail the biographical details of the life and behavior of Jesus to everyone, so a system of attitude development began where the Apostles taught the new Christians to imitate Christ’s attitude and purpose rather than his specific biographical actions, thus they did not initiate behaviors of imitation of Christ in culture, but rather the imitation of his approach to culture and daily life. As a consequence, generalities were developed demonstrating what types of behaviors were never like Christ, and what types of behaviors are always like Christ.
Paul often generalized actions never Christlike as “the works of the flesh”. In so stating, he did not indicate that the body was evil or sinful, rather that a lifestyle centered around the body was sinful.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
When Paul spoke of liberty, it was understood that it never included these types of behaviors; they were always out of bounds for the Christian.
In the same way, there were certain types of behaviors, when undertaken with proper motive, that were always like Christ. Paul usually described them with some form of the word “Spirit” (Eph. 5:18 ff., Phil. 2:1-9).
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Christlikeness: the Individual
Individuals differ in Christlikeness at the time of their conversion, and they develop at differing rates. Some may develop Christlikeness more quickly in one area of life, and more slowly in another. For example, one person may exhibit very mature attitudes and behaviors in social settings, but may lag behind someone else in private prayer, while yet another may have a strong prayer life, but lag in their finances. For this reason, the church was not to impose a list of rules on everyone. Instead, there was one basic rule: “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14).
In addition, each individual was to bring some kind of ministry, some kind of gift to build up the body of Christ. For some, that might be large amounts of money, for others teaching, or hospitality or service to widows… (Rom 12:3 ff.). “Normal” for a Christian occurred when he or she lived in their culture as Christ would have lived in that place and time. “Abnormal” was to live in their culture in a way that was not Christlike. The individual Christian was to be like Christ seven days per week. He was to behave as Christ would behave had He held the same job. By helping his co-workers succeed, he would be doing what Jesus would have done, and such behavior was “right in the sight of everybody” (Rom. 12:17). When God had Christians well placed in society who were “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16) the explosive leaven of God could work in society (Matt. 13:33 ff.).
Christlikeness: the Church
The church was the very embodiment of Christ, and as such it was to project Christ to the surrounding community; its behavior was crucial in this effort. What the church brought to society was revolutionary. At last a system had come into the world that made sense; that had an objective standard… and that standard was Christ. It was covenant with compassion: hesed. The ancient prayer of the Jew had been overridden by God.
I thank God I was not born a Gentile,
I thank God I was not born a slave,
I thank God I was not born a woman.
It made little difference if one was born a man, for the man would support the best interests of women. What difference would it be to have been a master? He was charged with promoting the best interests of the slave. What difference if he were a Greek? He must aid the Jew. If he were a Jew, he must support the Greek. It was true what they were saying:
“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here…”
The Hebrew church deferred to the Greek in a dispute (Acts 6), Paul collected an offering from the Greeks to support the Hebrew church (1Cor. 16) . In every human relationship in the church, the rule of Christ was to prevail. Christ and the church were the model not only for husband and wife, but for every superior/inferior social relationship. The socially superior was to be superior as Christ, and the inferior to remember Christ as a servant: each was to behave as Jesus would behave.
Church and the “Rule Book”
An interesting situation that develops within the church is the one that develops when some members are stronger, and others are weaker… not because of social position, but because of their relative maturity in dealing with temptation. A newer, weaker member may find that they cannot easily resist certain types of temptations, and the natural tendency of such people is to develop a system of rules. For example, one who feels sexual temptation while dancing may decide that they should abstain from dancing. One who feels temptation to gamble away their paycheck when playing cards might determine never to play cards. One who is tempted to return to their old way of life when they attend social gatherings and festivals may choose to abstain from such gatherings entirely. While this all makes perfect sense, the difficulty arises when these people attempt to impose their personal abstentions on everyone else, in the assumption that all of the members share their personal areas of weakness. As we have already seen, there is no such listing of rules in the New Testament, rather the standard is Christ. He drank wine, attended festivals and spoke with sinners, and was often criticized for it by His enemies. A stronger member, not attracted to a particular weakness had liberty. Like Christ, he might drink a little wine, attend a social event and so on, without troubling his faith. Paul instructed in this area:
When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
Could the weaker brother be allowed to destroy the liberty of the stronger? Could the liberty of the stronger brother be allowed to destroy the faith of the weaker? In both cases, the answer was no. Each was to consider the best interests of the other. The weaker brother was not to take away the liberty
of the stronger (Rom. 14:3) he was not to rewrite the covenant (Gal. 5:1) but the stronger could not destroy the weak (1Cor. 8:9-13). The solution is that the stronger may exercise and enjoy his liberty in Christ, but not in the presence of the weaker who might be harmed by it. Again, the emphasis is on placing the interests of the other in first priority.