1Co 7:20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. (KJV)
This is the time of year when many of us are more contemplative, reflective, and willing to take inventory of our lives. It's only natural for us to do so. A new calendar year is the equivalent of a clean slate. Some of us will make resolutions that will actually "stick". Others will start strong out of the gates, only to fade away within a few weeks. Many Christians, even entire congregations, begin the year with a special campaign of prayer and fasting. Renewed interest in spiritual disciplines like prayer, bible reading, and stewardship are also part of the typical vision for the new year. All of these are designed to help us better "hear from God" and clarify our vision for the upcoming year. In no way am I trying to diminish that, or dissuade you from exploring any of those disciplines. In fact, I encourage you to do so! But I do want to issue a caveat to accompany all of these great things. Be on guard against the "somewhere out there" mentality!
Even in the natural, our tendency is to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Is it any wonder that we apply the same logic to spiritual things? I'm going to offer a few suggestions today, but none of them are original. As a matter of fact, Paul already addressed them to a group of Christian converts in the ancient Greek world. But the same truth that set the Corinthians free will also liberate us today. And it will help us realize (if we've lost sight of the fact) that our ministry is not "somewhere out there".....it's somewhere right here!
Paul's remarks in I Corinthians chapter 7 are largely in response to inquiries that they made to him in writing (verse 1a). It becomes clear from the context that some of them had the idea that their ministry was "out there" somewhere. Paul reminds them that they need not look far and wide for ministry opportunities; they were right before their very eyes! We'll look at three basic ministries that seldom get the publicity that citywide crusades demand. But their importance cannot be overstated. Where do we start? Where else? The home!!!
1Co 7:12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 1Co 7:13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (ESV)
New life, new wife? Not according to the scriptures. Paul addresses those who had become believers subsequent to their wedding vows. Were they now to live a life of celibacy, or perhaps try to find a suitable Christian mate to replace their pagan spouses? Paul answers with a resounding no! But Paul doesn't simply tell them that they shouldn't abandon these spouses- he reminds them of what's at stake.
1Co 7:16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (ESV)
Paul is not teaching salvation by osmosis. The idea that someone is saved simply by living in a Christian home or by being related to a believer is foreign to this text. Paul is, however, stating that for the Christian, marriage is ministry! Notice how he frames the idea within the context of calling and assignment:
1Co 7:17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (ESV)
Here's the truth about ministry- there's nothing glamorous about it! Unfortunately, we often think of high-profile "ministries" where leaders live opulent lifestyles, speak to large crowds in huge arenas and auditoriums, and are generally well-thought-of and admired (contrast this with the life of Jesus & the Apostles, but I digress....). When we think about ministry, we probably don't think about the day to day grind of rearing children, balancing a checkbook, holding down a stressful job, and striving to maintain healthy communication with our spouses. But God regards it as both a calling, and a solemn assignment! There's a ministry under your own roof. But there's also a ministry within your wider circle of influence.
1Co 7:18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 1Co 7:19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 1Co 7:20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. (ESV)
We often miss the forest for the trees when we read the bible. This text is not so much about circumcision (Paul himself says it's a non-issue in verse 19) as it is about the circles in which we run. What are the odds that the average Greek male came from a strong background of circumcision? I couldn't speak to that with much authority, but I'd be willing to bet that if compared with the average Hebrew male, there would be a different result. What point am I trying to make? I believe that Paul was letting them know that they shouldn't abandon all of their kinsman in order to assimilate into Messianic Judaism (Hebraic culture).
It has been said that within a few years of their conversion, many Christians have no significant relationships with people outside of their church friends/family. Of course there are always those that buck the trend, and sadly some Christians see no need for regular fellowship with other believers (the bible addresses this in Hebrews 10:25). This too, is unfortunate. But here we are specifically dealing with the issue of having friends outside of the community of faith. Jesus was intentional about having relationships with people outside of the "church" (I use the term "church" in a metaphorical sense here). He drew the ire of the religious elite of His day, and certainly we should expect no better treatment. But we cannot allow criticism to deter us from the calling at hand.
God has placed people in our lives for a reason. I used to live in almost an irrational fear that God would send me to some remote village somewhere to preach to another culture who speaks another language. Then one day it dawned on me, that God could use me right where I live- and He longs to do that in your life as well. Clearly the scriptures indicate that Jesus had friends outside of the religious community. Does this mean that because Jesus ate with the drunkards and harlots, that He condoned their lifestyle? No, and as offensive as this may sound, Jesus describes them as sick people who need a Physician (see Matt 9:12-13, Mark 2:16-17). Hebrews 4:15 clearly states that Jesus was tempted in every way just like us, yet never sinning. And now, let's discuss the third and final (for today) realm of ministry:
1Co 7:21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 1Co 7:22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. 1Co 7:23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 1Co 7:24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (ESV)
As much as we may hate to admit it, our work is a ministry. An unfortunate trend has continued in American churches for years. I speak from personal experience, but my experience is not uncommon. Many clergy from around the nation share similar stories. Most who come to a decision (often in a church service setting) to "accept the call" to ministry have a very myopic view of ministry. For them, this typically means that they will meet with the pastor, elders, or ordination board, and it will be decided that they should a) quit their "secular" job, b) enroll in seminary/bible college, c) enter the realm of "full-time" vocational ministry. I'm not trying to diminish the role of salaried clergy (I'm one of them!). But I also think it's a gross misconception to believe that this is the only viable and legitimate form of ministry.
Most pastors/clergy spend a few hours (at most) with people each week. Now compare that with the amount of time you spend with your employer, employees, and co-workers. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that we spend considerable time with the people we work with/for. Because that time isn't spent in a "spiritual" setting (most likely, your employer didn't hire you to preach to the other employees all day!) there is a tendency to overlook that time as ministry time. But believe me, you are preaching even if you don't quote a single verse of scripture to them. Paul (writing to this same group of believers) says these words:
2Co 3:2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. (ESV)
The evangelism challenge we often face, is that our actions are preaching a message inconsistent with the words we speak. And what we do typically speaks louder than what we say. Today's blog is not intended to crush ministry dreams. Nor does it nullify the fact that God sometimes does send people far from home to do His work. To some, He gives a mandate to leave their current employment in exchange for full-time vocational ministry. And yes, there are those that God uses in exceptional ways, and they will reach great multitudes and speak before great crowds and spheres of influence that others only dream of (and we need not envy them, because to whom much is given, much is required!).
But I hope we will also look around us with greater appreciation for the opportunities to do ministry right where we live. I look forward to a great year with you in 2010!!! Until next time.....