Spring 1997

Volume 16, Issue 1

Draped in a Servant’s Towel Rather Than a Master’s Robes

by Joseph V. Noveson

Joseph V. Novenson is senior pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Tennessee and for the past sixteen years has served as a speaker for various youth organizations. He has also been a ministerial advisor to Reformed Theological Seminary. His varied background includes work as a radio disc jockey, guitarist and song writer, and advertising layout designer.

The Reverend P.T. Chandapilla is Vicar General of the St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India. He lives like Mother Teresa but thinks like John Calvin. For almost fifteen days he challenged me to the core or my convictions with one concept that manifested itself in various ways: to believe in a Sovereign God and to be a broken and humble servant are necessary corollaries. There is no option if one is consistent with Reformed thinking. That's strong - but I believe P.T. Chandapilla meant it to be strong.

Think carefully of the challenge to servanthood of the Apostle Paul. You may need to leave behind a western way of thinking in order to read II Corinthians 4:5 with an open heart. Paul said. "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…”

At least we can say that we have sought to declare Christ as Lord over every person and every place and every part of creation. We want the doctrine of sovereignty to work its way in our thinking to every atom and every subatomic particle in God's creation. But, listen as the great apostle presses his point further: “…and (we preach) ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake."

Ouch! There is the rub. That's where it hurts. We do not score well in the apostle's prescription when it comes to preaching ourselves as servants.

First, we score low on servanthood in general. We have no problem with "leadership." We use words like "CEO," "president," "director," "leader," "point man,” pioneer," and there is nothing inherently wrong with such words. But the danger lies in the fact that these terms exist in exclusion from the concept and the vocabulary of "servanthood."

Here's an example. I own quite a few three ring binders from leadership conferences. I cannot recall, though, a single servanthood conference ever being offered as an option. I can understand, for within my own heart, I seem to not mind being above people in a pulpit or next to them in a pew, but I don't like being beneath them as a servant. Perhaps we've collapsed beneath cultural pressure.

That's bad enough, but we score even worse on a second matter far beyond the general concept of servanthood. That is Paul's call to "preach ourselves as servants." Imagine standing before any body of Christ and proclaiming with all the declarative authority of every other doctrine you have ever preached the following: "I am your number one foot-washing, toilet-plunging, trash-cleaning, floor-scrubbing, diaper-changing spiritual janitor.”

Do not take my words "toilet-plunging and "floor-scrubbing” for pure drama. Do you really believe that such menial acts as these are somehow lower than the Son of God becoming man and suffering on the cross with the weight of the sin of all His people on His back? Do you really dare to think that the Sovereign God, serving until death and even death on the cross, is less menial or less difficult than the act of plunging a toilet?

We are called in Philippians 2:5 to, "have this mind or attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus who, being the very nature of God did not consider that equality with God something to be grasped” but chose to live a life and die a death of extravagant servanthood. However, we carefully edit from our manner and ministry any acts that subjugate us below those around us in any way. I fear losing control, becoming the beleaguered underservant of someone else. Quiet, stoic resignation marks me instead of a joyous sense of privilege to be like my King.

Ask yourself: Have we wielded our reformed convictions about God's total control in a manipulative way so that we can maintain our own control? Though it is foolish to try such a thing, I have. And I have lots of company.

But there is a third way in which Paul's call to "preach ourselves as servants" is carefully avoided. The church to whom Paul wrote this letter was the church that suffered from drunkenness and overeating at the Lord's table (I Con 11:20-22); unabated incest that was marked by proud proclamation instead of broken repentance (I Con 5:1-2); the abuse of the revealed propositional truth of God mediated through the gifts of the Holy Spirit in supernatural wonder (I Con 14:20); and there were actually lawsuits against one another (I Con 6:1-Il). We might, on a good day, consider ourselves servants of a church like Rome but rarely if ever the servant of a church like the one at Corinth. We would find a reason to he "called" elsewhere. We would quickly "feel a peace in our hearts" about going to a place with more amenable circumstances and fewer broken and twisted views of the Gospel and of life.

As a result, pastors are going to the churches that need them less and to the places of strength instead of the places of weakness. I am not saying that God never moves pastors; I am saying that I believe that He moves us far less than we think He does and for far more profound reasons than we think He does. Our lack of servanthood has made us a kingdom of nomads who care little for people in pain and much for our own progress in ministry. This is a travesty and completely unlike the Savior who, as my friend P.T. Chandapilla put it, "always went to the hack of the line and not to the front." He taught me that Americans tend to go to the front of the line and there is always a large crowd there. He suggested that I start at the hack of the line, because usually the only people there would be those in need and Jesus. He is dead right!

Servanthood requires a level of humility and brokenness that is not conducive to self-promotion, self-protection, or self- presentation. Such tendencies are so indigenous to offer present definition of Reformed leadership that it is easy to forget how contrary' that is to our true Reformed heritage.

An illustration: Imagine that a Reformed leader today, perhaps teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary, writes his autobiography. Imagine the shock if the title was, "Everything I Have Done Wrong." It's happened before - that's exactly what Augustine of Hippo (345- 430 A.D.) did. The International Dictionary of the Christian Church has called Augustine "the greatest of the Latin fathers." In The Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge calls Augustine of Hippo "the last major thinker of the ancient world and the first philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages." He is an articulate Reformed theologian in his autobiography Confessions. Within it he saws, "I will now call to mind my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul; not because I love them, but that I may love thee, oh my God." Only a man who sees himself as a busboy in the kingdom, a mere servant whose reputation and self-promotion mean nothing, would write such a book. Oh, how the Reformed community is dying for men who have a manner and a style and posture of life that is marked by such servanthood.

Think next of the way we handle crisis in the leadership around us. Think of the way the last major disagreement within a Session or Diaconate meeting was handled in your church. Was it handled in a servant manner or by autocratic demands? In Luke 22:24 an argument arose among the disciples as to which one was the greatest. Imagine, having lived with the greatest teacher, the son of God Himself for all of this time, yet the twelve begin to argue over who is better than the other. They obviously did not understand servanthood very well. Christ addresses this major breakdown in leadership again from the posture of a servant, v. 25-30: "The Kings of the Gentiles lorded over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead the greatest among you should be like the youngest and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?" Imagine, instead of flexing his authoritative might, our Savior declares His servanthood. What would happen within Reformed churches if, when leadership broke down and arguments arose over who was right, the pastor chose servanthood instead of self-promoting folly.

Perhaps it is time to admit we do not believe in the utterly unique and singularly powerful example of servanthood. Mr. Chandapilla taught me that in the ancient Hebrew culture the Jews considered themselves superior while they sold the Gentiles as servants. The Gentiles were outcasts deprived of the privileges and rites of the Jewish culture. In the Roman culture there was the "freeman" and the "bondman." There were accredited Roman citizens, and the others without citizenship were often slaves. In the Hindu culture, we find people with caste divisions. The upper class are rulers of all kinds and the lower outcasts are in the position of servants over the menial and awful tasks. Within the Islamic culture, there are believers and there are Kafirs, non-believers. A Kafir is a slave or worse. Finally in the Marxist culture there are the exalted proletariat dictators and the menial bourgeois as well as the capitalist. The latter two are to serve the former or they should be removed from culture.

The idea of the servant strata in society is common, yet Christian servanthood presents the ultimate paradox. For here the master himself is the servant! In the cultures of the world, the servant and the master are separated by a huge gulf. In the Kingdom of God, the Master and the Servant are one. Perhaps that is why there is such radical impact by Christian servanthood and why, more than all, the Calvinist should manifest it, for he or she believes in the ultimate strength of his Master, a master who chose to be a servant.

Why are we so afraid of servanthood? Perhaps it is because the definition of Christian servanthood in accord with the lifestyle of Christ is as follows: Servanthood is not simply doing what one is assigned. Nor is it doing one's rightful duty. It means you will do what no one else would possibly choose to do! That is how Christ serves.

This is difficult for us for several reasons. The premium in servanthood is action, and not the communication of information. In America, Chandapilla said, we think we have done something when we have said it. We think we have really done it if we have said it and someone requests a copy. Perhaps we think we have done it even more if we have been asked to speak at a conference on a topic that was recorded on a tape or perhaps autograph a book that we have written. However we can have done all those things and never once have truly done the thing about which we spoke or wrote or communicated. Our information-based view of Christian leadership no longer values someone who simply does what no one else would dare to do in menial servanthood.

The Gospel’s proclamation must be wed to a lifestyle that serves and runs to the back of the line. We should live in such a way that the culture cries out, "Why are you the way you are?" Think of how much of Christian leadership is not labor or work of the menial type but rather traffics in information only. It is centered on conferences and congresses and colloquiums and committees and communication. But rarely is it focused on doing the work of a slave.

So where do we begin to rightly respond to the Biblical data that seems to be so effectively edited from our thinking and practice?

First, I believe that the Scripture would challenge us to redefine leadership from a servanthood posture and wrestle through the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation with the implication of beginning a leadership style that runs to the back of the line instead of the front.

Second, we must ask, in accord with Acts 5:31, that God gives us the gift of repentance, and that it be profound and deep when it comes to having lived for many years from the vantage point of autocracy instead of servanthood. The manner of our teaching, preaching, and modeling has been more in accord with an organizational CEO than with the Kingdom picture of servanthood. Until we wash our tears with Christ-like repentance, we will not advance in the area of servanthood.

Third, we must return to the old ways of pastors who understood this. When we read of the Puritans and see how they chose to visit individuals in their congregations and not to distance themselves, we should follow their model. The commitment to catechize in their homes was expected by men like Richard Baxter, who wrote a magnificent work, The Reformed Pastor. Moving from the crowd to the individual was his constant thrust. We, however, move from the individual to the crowd and the radical shift in practice that this will require of us, back to the individual will seem at first completely counter intuitive. I suspect we will feel we are petting the organizational cat from the tail to the neck and we will feel her back bristle and rise beneath our hand. But we must admit the Scripture is right and yield to servanthood.

As I look for an example of servanthood, I can not miss the momentum accompanying the life of service chosen by Mother Teresa. Without a single piece of stationery nor fax machine nor organizational address nor telephone campaign, she simply gives of herself to people and does those tasks that no one else on the planet will do. She lives as a servant. The world stands in awe-struck, slack-jaw wonder. I cannot deny the conviction brought to my heart by the model of her ministry; It begs a question: Oh, my God in Heaven, what would happen if someone had the lifestyle of Mother Teresa and the theology of John Calvin? And does not the theology of Calvin better undergird and found a lifestyle of servanthood? Is that not the necessary corollary to truly believing in a Sovereign God? I think it is!


Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1
Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.


Last updated 8-10-99.