Volunteer or Servant?

He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. Philippians 2:7

Are you a volunteer or a servant? Are you aware of the difference? Let me explain the distinction and then I’ll ask again.

We often describe those who work for the church on an unpaid basis as volunteers. It’s a term we’ve borrowed from social clubs and non-profit organizations. Leaders of clubs and non-profits make it their business to cultivate a steady stream of volunteers, because without them, the organization can’t succeed. Churches too, live or die by their ability to attract and mobilize volunteers. Church leaders go to seminars and read books to learn how to more effectively “recruit volunteers.” A church not making good use of volunteers is a church destined for mediocrity. To try and operate without the assistance of volunteers is a suicide mission for church staffs. In churches all across the country, the volunteer model of ministry has been used to do some wonderful things in the name of Christ. If only it were biblical.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:43-45

Nowhere in scripture do we read about the volunteers that God has used to achieve his purposes in this world. During his ministry, Jesus didn’t go around recruiting volunteers; he called people to be servants. Actually, he called them to be slaves. This is what he considered himself to be and it’s also what he expected of his followers. In our English Bibles, the Greek word “Doulos” is usually translated as “servant” when in the 1st Century it meant “slave.” Given the baggage attached to the word “slave” in our culture, it’s probably better to translate it as “servant.” Or is it? If thinking of ourselves as slaves of God offends us or makes us uncomfortable, then maybe we should pursue the image a bit further and try to understand why.

“Suppose one of you had a slave plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the slave when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the slave because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have only done our duty.'” Luke 17:7-10

What is a slave? Slaves are people who are owned by someone else. Slaves have masters. They are not free to do what they want to do. Instead, they do the bidding of their master. Aye, there’s the rub. Our country is built upon the conviction that people were created to be free. Certainly this conviction is right and true and worth pursuing, as long as we don’t let it overstep its bounds. Spiritually, there is no such thing as freedom. In Romans 6:6, Paul’s tells us that we who have died with Christ in baptism have been freed from the bondage of sin. Hallelujah! Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we’re-but if we stop celebrating and keep reading, he’ll tell us in verse 18 that having been set free from sin means we have become slaves to righteousness. In scripture, when God offers freedom, it comes in the form of a choice between masters. The Israelites could serve Pharoah in Egypt or they could serve Yahweh in the Promised Land; we can serve Satan in the Dominion of Darkness or we can serve Christ in the Kingdom of Light, but either way, as Dylan said, “We’ve got to serve somebody.”

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. Romans 6:22

So in a spiritual sense, we’re all slaves. We’re either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ. Either way, we are not free to do whatever we want. We obey a master. Unlike so many slaves who have been abused by their earthly master, we have a Master who loves and cares for us and is always looking out for our best interests. Make no mistake, though. God is still our master, and he expects obedience from his slaves. That’s why the term “volunteer” has no place in the Kingdom of God. It’s fine for the club, but not the church. Volunteering is something free people do. All slaves can do is humbly and obediently respond to their master’s command. When Jesus commands us to take care of the needy, we shouldn’t have to ask for volunteers. Instead, we should coordinate the efforts of all the slaves in our church, making sure the task is accomplished as efficiently as possible.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 2 Cor. 4:5

So let’s be clear about what the church is and what it’s not. It’s not a club of volunteers who give their spare time to a good cause. It’s a group of slaves who were bought at a price, and whose entire lives are devoted to serving a common master. While on the earth, Jesus took the form of a slave. His apostles considered themselves slaves of God and of the churches they served. Everyone in our church is a slave. I may receive a salary from the church, but I’m a slave of Jesus Christ. I serve him and I serve you, because he served you. If you’re a Christian, you’re not just a member of a volunteer social organization; you are a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. You serve him and the rest of the church, because that’s the example he set for us.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no slave is greater than his master, . . . John 13:14-16

Jesus never asked his followers to give up a few hours of their day off, but he did call them to give up everything they cherished in life for the sake of his Kingdom. This distinction is crucial, because in our “it’s cool to be busy” culture, where spare time is scarcer than an environmentalist with a chainsaw, most church volunteers have to be cornered, coddled, and convinced that their participation won’t take up too much of their time. Volunteers ask, “How much is required of me?” This is often another way of asking, “How much (or little) do I have to do to get you off my back?” Slaves of Christ, on the other hand, serve their church at the pleasure of their master, realizing their lives and the time by which they’re measured, already belong to him. They go the extra mile in everything they do, doggedly pursuing excellence, because they believe their master is worth the extra effort. The church doesn’t need more volunteers who give away what time they can spare. We need more slaves whose lives belong to the Lord.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Col. 3:23-24

So once again I ask: Are you a volunteer or are you a slave? Let me ask the question another way: When this whole thing gets wrapped up and you’re standing there before the Lord, are you expecting to hear him say to you, “Thanks for your time,” or “Well done, my good and faithful slave?”