Modesty in Ministry (1Cor 12:22-24)

No great exegetical insights today. Just an interesting observation. For those who are in teaching and preaching ministries; I have some earth-shattering news: not every believer wants to be up front!
So what’s implied by that? Well, first that those who have teaching-preaching ministries (sometimes called “Word Ministry”) usually also enjoy being on the platform, behind-beside the lectern, in the pulpit, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, especially for a gifted teacher, there is the inherent need for an audience of students to be able to exercise those gifts.

The second implication is that Christians are different. There is ‘diversity’ in the unity of the metaphorical body of Christ; that is, the church. And that occurs locally as well as in the universal church. While we, as humans, have a delightful set of similarities. God has also made us to be different, to notice those differences, and – when we’re sane – to enjoy and delight in those differences. When we’re insane, we hate the differences and thereby become racist, and so forth.

And in the church, God has seen fit to carry that diversity a step further. In order that the people of God would be encouraged by each other, God has given each Christian – through the indwelling Holy Spirit – unique expressions of spiritual power. These powers aren’t magical: Christians can’t levitate, pull animals out of hats, etc. – but these ‘powers’ are meant to be helpful to the assembly of Christians – the church. These are abilities like uncanny wisdom; the ability to learn Bible and theology at a very high level (sometimes even in spite of a lifetime of secular academic failure); the ability to have a visionary trust and confidence in what God can and will do; yes, the ability to heal disease and sickness and even achieve the miraculous; the ability to detect the working of evil spiritual forces; as well as the ability to speak and understand the manifestation of “tongues.” There are other abilities spoken of in the Bible, as well (such as teaching and preaching), but this is list that appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.

Some of these Spirit-empowered abilities can be rather spectacular; others are more subdued. Here’s the thing: some of us with more ‘up front’ or ‘spectacular’ gifts can frequently offend those of our brothers and sisters with less public ministries.

Here’s an example from when I was working in industry. I remember a supervisor of mine – good guy, very competent, good boss – attempt to convince one of our team to do a small presentation on some technical thing she’d become an expert at. She thought that it would be great for more people to know this thing – that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that she was a shy and reserved type and the thought of standing up to present before even a small group was Very Uncomfortable for her. My supervisor tried to persuade her that he wanted her to develop her leadership abilities. My friend was annoyed: ‘Leadership? I don’t want to lead, don’t want to be a leader, I am very content following good leaders like you – please don’t make me do this!’ In talking with my boss later, he confessed that he’d made a mistake by attempting to make my friend into something that she wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.

I’ve seen that in the church. One of my former pastors, very conscious of the wonderful acts of silent service that many of our faithful members perform, wanted them to receive recognition and praise for their selfless devotion. So, every once in a while, he would mention them in a sermon – unfortunately without their prior notice or permission. The even more unfortunate thing was that he tended to go a bit, er, over the top in his praise making the person feel even more uncomfortable. A vocabulary developed for this phenomenon. People who loved the fact that they were serving behind the scenes were mortified by being “pastor-ized.”
I was reading 1Cor 12:22-24 and came across this brief text: “… our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty…” Modesty is when we keep covered what should appropriately be covered. Now this word, “unpresentable,” is a weird word. We tend to think of this as being a synonym for “ugly.” But is that the meaning that Paul is intending here? Is he suggesting that there are some expressions of the Holy Spirit in the life of a healthy church that are ugly or disgusting? That goes against the whole grain of this passage of scripture. I wonder if that word is not meant to communicate “ugly,” but merely “properly kept out of view.”
Of course, “modest” has another meaning: “not much to show for it.” If you have believers whose service is modest in that way and there is no justification or excuse, then they need to be encouraged to more energetic service. But for those who toil in obscurity, we need to be sensitive towards that obscurity – they may find great comfort in it. Not everyone wants the ‘limelight;’ not everyone wants to be up front; not everyone wants their accomplishments made public.

If so then here’s my application: we should treat our silent servers with respect. We should protect their modestly. Let the silent serving believers in the church keep doing their job. If you believe they need encouragement, let that be done privately. If you need to publicly encourage people towards more service, refer to the silent servers in very general terms so they can continue to serve in a way “properly out of view.” I see no value in publicizing the specific work of particular believers who are involved in “modest” service.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Church is awesome when we accept our differences and don't try to mold others. I know we all need to grow, but we need to let everyone grow their own way. We need to accept others' strengths and weaknesses as OK, even if we're not comfortable with them. Thanks for the reminder.