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One of the unwavering needs of a local church is finding good people to serve. To serve in Sunday school. To serve coffee. To stack chairs. To serve in the nursery. To care for the infirm. To disciple young believers. To prepare the elements of the Lord’s Supper. To serve pizza at youth group. To prepare food for congregational gatherings. The list is nearly endless. Further complicating the task of finding willing people to serve in these roles is that these roles are not all, shall we say, equally prominent or desirable to fill.
Scripture teaches the importance of cohesion in the local church in the midst of a body made up of many and differing parts (1 Cor. 12:12–31). While some of the needs undoubtedly looked different in the first century, the challenge of taking a diverse group and assembling them to fulfill the needs of a singular body is an old one. The Apostle Paul often used illustrations from God’s created order to communicate truths concerning the Christian life, and in writing to the Corinthians, he does so with the illustration of the human body. Of course, when we consider a human body, not every part is equally prominent; nor does each receive the same outward honor. Yet the impracticality of a body of all eyes or ears requires no further explanation. Some parts are presentable and others require greater discretion, but each illustrates the complex yet organic unity of the human body and of the church body, as Paul summarizes: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (vv. 21–27).
Adding to the challenge of finding people to serve in the church today is what has been discussed as a problem of institutions’ losing their formative power, and in turn becoming just one more venue to highlight the individual: his aims, his interests, his agenda, and ultimately his own prominence. In a certain respect, this self-importance is not new; we see it, for example, in the jealousy of Miriam and Aaron toward Moses (Num. 12). It seems indisputable, however, that we now live in a time when technology has greatly enhanced our ability to promote ourselves over against any group or institution to which we might belong. This may be a particular struggle for those with larger platforms and visibility, but such enticement resides in the heart of every human. Opportunity combined with the lack of discipline can ignite this sin into full flame (James 1:14–15).
Paul’s metaphor and the ever-present concern with self-aggrandizement only underscore our need to steadfastly commit ourselves to the local church. Paul orients us well at the end of his discussion of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 when he writes, “And I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31). This “more excellent way” is love, and we will be able to live out a life of service that is marked by it only if we know and are known by a specific people, whom we love, and who love us.
Christians have historically taken covenant vows upon becoming church members. To be sure, we become part of the universal church, but we always do so as part of local expressions of that invisible communion (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1–2). The church is real, flesh-and-blood souls, not abstract groups that exist only at a distance. Abstractions are easy to love because they place no demand on us. But those in the pew next to you, with names and faces you know, can and do make such demands. And we are to meet them with joy-filled love as we actively live out our particular roles in the local body of Christ. We cannot successfully take part in building the church universal without building in the context of a local church, bound by covenant. And that building requires the dirt of land clearing and laying a foundation, along with the finishing touches of a completed structure. Yet in the present age, we live in a church where fresh foundations are laid each day with new babies and recent converts, and the finishing touches are added in the glorious beauty of a life well lived by faith (see Ps. 116:15).
As a well-ordered home is filled with family members in different positions and ages, each serving where and when needed, the church must be filled with family members, members of each other arranged by the sovereign hand of God for the edification of the whole body unto maturity in Christ (1 Cor. 12:18; Eph. 4:12–13). Paul speaks of this growth as flowing from the head, which is Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).
A common note in these passages is that the Lord has equipped His people for service in ways that work together. Therefore, in matters of serving the church body, we should first consider how the Lord has equipped us to serve others instead of what our preference might be or what such service might cost us in time or energy. This cost will look different at different times. The cost to the woman at Bethany was an expensive alabaster jar, enough to make the disciples indignant at such apparent waste. The cost to the disciples on two occasions was the apparent degradation of having to consider small children (Matt. 18:1–6; 19:13–15), who were often considered in Jesus’ day as not worth the time. Instead, Christ rebukes them and holds children out as our example, and as inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. May our service in His church be marked with the same humble estate that our Lord commends in His loving rebuke.