In 1 Corinthians 4 and 2 Corinthians 5 Paul describes the ministerial vocation in four ways: a servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4), and an ambassador for Christ and minister of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5). Together, these “job descriptions” provide pastors and other ministers with a helpful foundation for understanding and practicing their vocation.
Servant of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1)
Rather than the expected “doulos” (slave) which Paul uses often as a self-identification at the opening of his letters, here he employs “hupareteo” (helper). The word conveys the idea of one who serves, hence the common translation “servant,” but not in the profound sense of servitude that doulos carries (bondservant or slave). We could perhaps translate Paul’s phrase here as “helper” or “assistant to Christ.” Our ministry assists his ministry. People often use the language “your ministry” when speaking to me. “How is your ministry going?” or “How is your church?” they inquire. This subtly shifts emphasis away from my participation in the ministry of Jesus and stresses my personal ministry in some kind of self-established, self-possessed way. It is no more my ministry than it is my church. Both the ministry and the church wherein the ministry takes place have their source in Jesus Christ.
Hence, Paul’s carefully chosen wording can help pastors remember the true nature of their ministry: they are those who work alongside Christ to fulfill his purposes. This awareness may prevent us from lazily or arrogantly presuming that our ministry needs only the support of the congregation and the ingenuity and resources attainable within ourselves and our network of association. At the core, ministry is participation in what God is doing in Jesus Christ. This language of serving (or helping, assisting) indeed fosters humility. We are not first the church’s leaders, but Christ’s servants. Ministers must remember and practice this personal discipleship in all aspects of life, embodying the serving nature of the Lord Jesus, who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Moreover we are servants of Christ. It is easy to believe that we serve the needs and wishes of the church constituency, and the more that the American pastorate mimics corporate culture, the more this paradigm of ministry that caters to the religious demands of church members spreads. We become more like Aaron with the Golden Calf, giving people what they want, than Moses with the Ten Commandments, bringing people God’s word. Pastors first serve Christ and his church, not the individual people and families who clamor for attention just as they would the customer service counter at a local retail store. We are not shopkeepers or clerks, but servants of Christ. As we serve him, we will sometimes not give people what they want, hopefully reminding them of the One they need.
Steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1)
In this rich multiple-genitive phrase Paul describes the minister as one entrusted with the mysteries of God. The word rendered steward refers to the manager of a household. Pastors manage the household of faith. Moreover, this administration in the church has to do with divine mysteries. Many are uncomfortable with mystery, including many ministers. We want a job description that clearly defines our role and function so that we can measure the results and have a greater sense of effectiveness and self-worth. We want clear, measurable metrics to know whether or not we’re “winning.” But Paul reminds us that we’re working in mysteries. We don’t always know what we’re doing, what we’re saying, where we’re going. And this admission, this confession, is liberating and orienting towards truly helpful ministry.
Like Moses on Mount Sinai, we stand between a congregation of unholy worshipers and the holy God. We work in the space between the mountains of Sunday worship and the valleys of Monday rebellion. We live and study and converse on the border of these two realms: earth and heaven, human and divine, commonplace and supernatural, and we find them constantly overlapping in new and surprising ways. Our work is to steward this interchange, this holy communication that takes place in the everyday lives of people that work long hours, raise unruly children, and fight terminal illnesses. We manage these divine mysteries not by figuring out, cataloguing, and explaining, but by entering, sharing, and encountering the mind-shattering, heart-shuttering work of the Holy Spirit with everyday people in everyday life.
Ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20)
This is perhaps the hardest of the four phrases under consideration to translate; at least it is the one with the most possibilities. “Presbia” refers to one who is a representative of another, thus “ambassador,” is a fitting translation. The preposition “huper” can be translated simply as “for” or may have the sense of divine initiative and appointment, thus, “specially assigned by Christ” may convey Paul’s intention well. The simple point is that ministers have been appointed by Christ to represent Christ to others. This is no small responsibility, neither is it one that we can accomplish only on Sundays. This is a life-consuming vocation of representing Christ to all people at all times in all places and things.
Seasoned pastor David Hanson, in his book, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers” speaks of the pastor as “a parable of Jesus Christ.” We want our lives to reveal Christ to people. Pastoring in a small, rural community (roughly 7,500 people) has impressed on me the importance of representing Christ between Sundays. People need to see Jesus not only in Sunday ministry but in weekday activities. We always represent him, and thus those who minister must stay alert at all times to the nature of their witness.
Minister of Reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18)
Paul writes that God, “through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18b). This is the heart of pastoral work and the heart of the church’s ministry: to work with God in Christ towards the reconciliation (new creation) of all things to the God (creator), in which “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). Reconciliation is the work of new creation, which is the overarching desire of God’s heart and the purpose he has to accomplish through Christ and the church. Those who serve in ministry must never forget this guiding purpose of reconciliation.
So much in daily church ministry can pull us away from this center of ministry as reconciliation. Budgets and business meetings, facilities and frustrations, all converge upon pastors, making them more attentive to maintaining the institution and less attentive to furthering the mission. Through prayer, study, and service, and in every way possible, ministers need to cultivate God’s heart of reconciliation. This purposes guides, motivates, and shapes our work. Furthermore, we again remember that we participate in what God has already started: “All this is from God” (2 Cor. 5:18a).
Servants of Christ, stewards of the mysteries of God, ambassadors of Christ, and ministers of reconciliation—these are the foundational identities the apostle Paul provides to those who called to serve in ministry (at least, so far as the Corinthian correspondences are concerned). American business culture lures us into corporate leadership paradigms through the ability to chart and measure our success and grow the church through smart programs and pragmatic strategies. Hollywood celebrity culture seduces us into showy leadership that promises to build our reputation and image and grow the church through entertainment value. Paul protects us from both abdications of true ministry by rooting our work in what God is already doing in Christ to reconcile the world to God, and by calling us to daily faithfulness in our personal lives as well as our public leadership in worship. Above all, he reminds us that we are servants before we are leaders, and that even as we lead, we serve—neither ourselves nor those who pay our salaries—but Christ, into whose fellowship we were called (1 Cor. 1:9).