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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 57–68 

A Serving People

Herb Kopp

The title and the subject headings of this paper were determined by the Board of Reference and Counsel of the General Conference. After establishing the biblical base for service in the church, I will address three points of tension among us on the question of who is gifted for service: (1) Does the Holy Spirit give his gifts equally to male and female and (2) to clergy and laity? (3) Are some gifts more important to the life of the congregation than others? I do not intend to present final answers to these issues, but rather to give direction to dialogue and discussion.

I . . . propose . . . we drop the language of ordination . . . we ought to lay hands on our significant leaders.


Each society has a way of ordering work so that we know which is noble and which is demeaning. The service language of the New Testament is notoriously paradoxical in that it ranks as most noble those qualities which, in the Roman world, were thought to be the most ignoble. Allow me to highlight a few of the New Testament service words. {58}

The Dignity of Service (diakonos, latreia)

The New Testament uses two words to describe service, and it uses them often. The first word is diakonos from which we get our English word deacon. The second word is latreia. These two words are closely akin to each other. The first meaning of diakonos in the Greek/Roman world was simply “table waiter”; then it came to mean “to care for household needs”; and, finally, it developed a general meaning, “to serve people.”

The second word, latreia, means much the same, except it has the added nuance of “service without pay.” At the center of this word is the idea that something must be sacrificed for the sake of the Gospel. Twice, in the book of Hebrews, this word is used to describe Jesus as one who served God without demanding something in return.

Now let us pull these two words together. Diakonos means to serve, to wait on tables, to do menial household tasks; and latreia means to do it without wanting something in return. We must, however, make a distinction between how we see “waiting on tables” and how the Greek/Roman world saw it.

Let me illustrate. In our first year in Winnipeg I met an older man in a coffee shop who told me that he had been a waiter for twenty-nine years. He loved his work and he earned a fine living, often earning more through tips than through salary.

In New Testament times, this kind of work was considered unworthy and dishonoring to the free person. Only the lowest of classes were table waiters—people who had no rights and no strength to improve their lot in life. Yet this word is used to describe Jesus. As he said, “. . . the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Sixty-five times this word appears in the New ‘Testament. Paul calls us to be servants of the gospel, servants of the church, servants of righteousness, servants of God, and servants of Jesus Christ.

In other words, to be servants of Christ means that we voluntarily serve others and wait on them as the table-waiters would obediently and properly wait on the tables of the master. Indeed, to be Christian means to be servant. This is more easily spoken about than lived, but the opposite of being servant is to be master, and there is only one master—Jesus Christ.

The magic of the early church isn’t magic at all—they simply outserved the resistance to the Gospel, and the church {59} multiplied and grew! There is dignity in service.

The Grandeur of Slavery (desmios, doulos)

Desmios is a very strong word. It literally meant to bind, to imprison, to take away the right of free movement. The word was used to describe the binding of a sheaf of wheat, or a bundle of sticks. No longer are they free to be by themselves; they are “bound together,” and there is nothing they can do about it. A thief, when he is captured, is bound so that his freedom is restricted and he no longer can do what he wants to do. A person who is blind or has a serious illness is bound by the restraints of that condition.

Doulos, the second word, is a noun which described the condition of 60,000,000 people at the zenith of the Roman Empire. They were slaves. These people had no rights, no privileges and certainly no collective strength. They could be bought and sold at the whim of the owner. The master had unlimited control over them. To be a slave was to be at the lowest possible level of humanity. To be a slave was to be barely above the level of animal.

Paul takes these two words, which have such a negative ring, and uses them to describe our relationship to God. Frequently he opens his letters with the standard line, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ. . . .” And to the Colossians he writes, “And above all these, put on love which binds (desmios) everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). Herein lies the great paradox of the gospel; that is, we are no longer bound, we are free, and yet still we are bound. We are no longer slaves; we are sons and daughters and yet, still we are slaves.

Elizabeth Achtemeier has summed up this paradox well: “There is no such thing as absolute freedom; either you are a slave to sin, or you have been set free to be a slave of Jesus Christ.”

Every generation struggles with servanthood. Each generation must affirm anew that Jesus, and not mammon, is Lord. Servanthood runs counter to our socially-conditioned way of thinking. We are taught self-expression, self-actualization, self-development. We speak about a good self-image, self-esteem and self-awareness. All these, in their place, are fine—but strangely absent in our language is the concept of slavery. We need to rediscover the concepts of doulos and desmios and be prepared to live as Christ’s bondservants and slaves. {60}

The Grace of Demanded Service (aggareuein)

“There are some words,” writes William Barclay, “which carry in their history the story of a nation’s triumph or a nation’s tragedy.” Aggareuein is such a word. It is used only three times in the New Testament and each time it is translated “to compel.” The central meaning of this word is that one is forced to do something which is distasteful and which one would not do unless compelled. The first time this word is used (Matt. 5:41), Jesus tells his followers that if only one mile is compelled, they are to go two. Mark and Matthew use the word of Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry Christ’s cross to Calvary.

This word, “to compel,” is a very interesting word with a substantial history. Cyrus the Great formed a kind of Pony Express to carry messages across the far-flung Persian empire. His generals calculated how far a horse could run without breaking down and established posts for exchanging horses at such points. If no army horses were available, or a horse was lame, then privately owned horses could be impressed into service. Soon, this became the law of the ruling nations. And the Romans, in Jesus’ day, used it fully. This action of impressing into service either horses or man-power was the bitterest and most humiliating evidence of servitude. It was a constant reminder to the Hebrew nation that they were slaves, a vanquished people. And what made matters worse was that the petty officials and minor bureaucrats abused the system for their own gain. Grudgingly, the Jews gave this service. Roman law demanded one mile and that is what they would give.

Then Jesus came along to blow this sensitive issue wide open. He said, “If someone exacts from you the most distasteful and humiliating service, if someone compels you to do that which you would never offer, if you are treated like a defenseless victim in an occupied country, don’t resent it. Do what you are asked, and do even more, and do it with grace and good-will.”

This text does not teach that we are to be workaholics who spend all of life running. God knows, too many families have been ignored by men and women who were too busy serving God to help their families. But this word does confront our mischievous ability to avoid doing the difficult work. Being a lay person or a pastor is fulfilling until aggareuein is encountered. Then we know what it means to be impressed into service.

In summary, the New Testament teaches that we have been set free from slavery to sin to become slaves of Jesus Christ. We {61} do well to reaffirm servanthood as the only way to live within the kingdom.


There was a time when the Holy Spirit was called the neglected person of the trinity. But things have changed. Beginning during the mid ’60’s and sweeping into the ’70’s a tidal wave of enthusiasm regarding the work and person of the Holy Spirit injected new life into many of our congregations.

As with any new movement, excesses in enthusiasm soon lead to divisiveness and difficult church situations. However, one of the positive results for the MB church was that many persons rediscovered the texts which speak about the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; Rom. 12). From that initial burst of interest, when everyone seemed to be using the language of the gifts of the Spirit either to find meaningful service opportunities or to rationalize a lack of interest in service opportunities, a settling down has become evident.

We have learned from painful experience that love (1 Cor. 13) is the milieu in which gifts flourish best, both in terms of receptivity to a person with a gift by the congregation and the practice of it by an individual. We know and affirm that gifts are given by the sovereign will of an all-knowing God, that they are given to keep the body of Christ functioning rightly, and that they are given for the common good and not for individual glory.

We have read the plethora of literature—everything from the “touchy-feely” stuff to the hard, critiquing material—telling us how to find and nurture the latent gifts of the Spirit and have come to the conclusion that through the affirmation of the body the gifts present among us are best recognized and utilized. We also know from experience that affirmation of gifts comes more readily to those active in service than to those not actively serving.

In spite of all the richness that the gifts of the Spirit have given to us, there remain some lessons for us to learn and relearn. Three points deserve comment. The first two will be discussed more fully in the third part of this essay.

First, we need to affirm that the gifts of the Spirit are given equally to men and women. Though 1 Cor. 12:1 addresses the matter of gifts to “brethren” (“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed”) as does Eph. 4:8 (“. . . and he gave gifts to men.”), it must not be assumed that men {62} only have received gifts from God. The language of 1 Cor. 12:7 (“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”) includes all of God’s children in the gifts of the Spirit. In other words, men and women are both given gifts in the diversity of gifts which Christ has given to his bride, the church.

One phrase in Eph. 4:8 (“. . . and he gave gifts to men”) has sometimes been understood to mean that the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are given solely to men. The argument is constructed that those are the formal leadership positions in the church and therefore are not open to women.

However, it is very difficult from this text to separate between, for example, the gift of evangelism (which many women in our churches possess) and the office of evangelist or to make a distinction between the gift of pastoral care (which, again, many women in our congregations possess) and the formal office of pastor (shepherd).

It seems that the phrase “to men” is best read in the generic sense to mean “to persons” (though, since Ephesians was addressed to a church in a patriarchal society, it was naturally addressed to men).

Second, there is no distinction in giftedness between “clergy” and “laity.” Indeed, we who celebrate the priesthood of all believers are adamant that the division between clergy and laity, in terms of spirituality, vitality, giftedness and standing before God, is artificial. The difference lies not in giftedness, but in calling and vocation.

There are, of course, degrees in “gifting” persons; both lay and clergy and both men and women, have the gift of teaching. However, some are better teachers than others. This does not mean that only those who are excellent teachers have that gift. Jesus taught that to some are given five talents; to others are given two talents; and some receive one talent (Matt. 25:11ff.)

And third, since Paul instructs us to “. . . earnestly desire the higher (greater) gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), we ought to be sensitive to the primary needs of the church and foster those gifts which meet such needs. Though these needs may vary somewhat in each congregation, the list of basic, foundational needs remains discernible. We always need the speaking gifts (prophecy, evangelism, shepherding, teaching and exhortation) and the serving gifts (helps, giving, showing mercy, administration, hospitality {63} and discernment). The sign gifts (healing, miracles, tongues and interpretation), though important and part of God’s richness to his church, are not as critical to the life of the church as the gifts of serving and speaking.

In a day when voices in the religious world are suggesting that the integrity of the gospel is authenticated by the miraculous and that its absence reveals an incomplete gospel, we need to once again affirm that some gifts of the Spirit are more critical to the wholesome life of the church than others.

In conclusion, the presence of the Holy Spirit and his rich gifts within the church are the resources necessary for continued vitality and growth of the church. We affirm that the Holy Spirit gives his gifts equally to male and female, to clergy and laity, and that some gifts are more important to the life of the congregation than others.


The Clergy/Laity Tension

The trend toward a professional, salaried ministry has had both a positive and negative effect on the Mennonite Brethren church. Through the professionalization of leadership a degree of specialization and expertise has begun to emerge which has brought many of our congregations to the forefront in service to their communities.

All in all, the MB church has tried hard to keep abreast with a rapidly changing environment. And indeed, if it doesn’t change with the times, it will soon be addressing the issues of the past.

But there has also been a negative effect on the church. As our churches increase in size and as programs develop and become more sophisticated, they have become more dependent on professional ministers.

Two trends, in particular, seem to be developing. First, decision-making, which was once congregationally based, has increasingly tended to move from-the-top-down. And second, going hand in hand with this trend, is the tendency to have the vision of the church formulated and articulated by fewer persons.

In practical terms this means that the vision of the church is held most strongly by fewer persons (and frequently centered in the professional clergy). It also means that the calling of new {64} leaders from the congregation (or from outside the congregation) is, in fact, a leadership function since it is designed to fill leadership gaps in the total program.

The congregation, which once determined the direction of the church and processed the candidates to fulfill this direction, seems to be less involved in such processes.

It seems almost axiomatic that the more the people are participants in forging vision and leading in that direction the deeper is the commitment to that vision by the whole congregation. Conversely, the more centralized and narrow the base of the vision, the harder laity must be driven to support that vision.

A further matter needs to be noted. Any attempt to broaden the base of the vision in the congregation is usually accompanied by frustration because it is difficult to arrive at consensus in a large group. Furthermore, movement forward is usually slow. Centralized leadership makes decision-making much more rapid and usually smoother.

So the church body frequently finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, the pressures of society (and often the pressures from within the congregation itself) demand a swift response to changing needs. This tends to make pragmatists out of leaders in that they are charged to find ways to make church “happen”—and the surest way to make a church “go” is to centralize decision-making around the professional staff who will do much of the work themselves.

However, our understanding of scripture is that all believers are gifted by the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are not different for clergy than for laity. Moreover, the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine to which we subscribe tenaciously, means that all are equal before God.

There appears to be a distinct correlation between the model of leadership chosen and the utilization of gifted lay persons. Some of our churches have opted for “strong leadership” (frequently a euphemism for pyramidal, centralized, top-down decision-making) where lay involvement in leadership is seen mostly in support ministries. Other churches have opted for a congregationally-based decision-making style. They tend to move slowly, and lay leaders frequently occupy key leadership positions.

We must guard carefully against allowing extremes to develop. We must not over-react to the slowness of congregational church government by giving all decision-making power to the {65} growing professional clergy class in our churches and denomination; nor must we tie the hands of salaried leadership by putting endless procedural roadblocks in the way of movement and change.

If there is a danger in all of this, it might well be that with a growing, professional clergy class, lay persons will begin to think in terms of a two-class system—“there are ministers and then there is us” as one lay person put it recently. Our present practice of ordination seems to be reinforcing this tension within our denomination. (More about this later.)

In summary, there must be balance. Gifted lay persons, both men and women, must be nurtured, trained and released to become competent worship leaders, evangelists, pastoral care persons, educators, youth sponsors, and administrators. It must remain the primary concern of the professional clergy to train and equip lay persons for such service (Eph. 4:11).

The Role of Women in the Church

At the 1980 Clearbrook, British Columbia study conference a paper on the role of women in the church was prepared by David Ewert. A comprehensive resolution flowing from that paper was brought by BORAC to the 1981 St. Catharines convention, which was again modified at the 1984 Reedley convention. Presently a paper on the same topic by Edmund Janzen and Clarence Hiebert is being processed by BORAC for publication.

The resolution accepted at the convention sessions does not reflect a male chauvinistic attitude toward women, but rather an attempt to grapple seriously with the biblical texts (usually known as the “restrictive” passages).

At present all ministry functions are open to women except “leading pastor.” Ordination of women is also not practiced. In the minutes of BORAC meetings, Dec. 13-15, 1985, the following motion appears: “We counsel our congregations not to appoint a women as the leading pastor. When discerning the women who speak of being ‘called’ to pastoral or preaching ministries, our counsel must be faithfully biblical, honest and wise.”

In all likelihood the current resolutions will not be substantively changed. Therefore, it seems repetitive and unnecessary to review and re-study all of the passages which deal with the role of women in the church. {66}

However, it might be profitable to address the matter from the point of view of consistency. The problem of consistency is made much more difficult in that it appears to come down to a matter of degree as to where the boundary for service is drawn. Frequently, these boundaries are set at the farthest possible point where unity and consensus can still be maintained. While we want to remain biblical, we have considerable difficulty being consistent.

For example, just what does 1 Timothy 2:11ff. mean? (“Let a women learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no women to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”) Does this mean that women can’t teach a Bible class or Bible study where men are present? Does this mean that the word of exhortation given by a woman to a man who is in error isn’t proper? Does this mean that a quorum at a business meeting must necessarily have a majority of men?

If we absolutize this passage and enforce its obviously clearly stated prohibition, then a major revision of current MB church practice is necessary both in our local congregations as well as in our support agencies (in our mission programs and in the Seminary).

John Redekop, in an Opinion column (Mennonite Brethren Herald, 18 April 1986), addresses this matter. He writes:

. . . how can we justify having one set of ‘rules’ for women in ministry in overseas mission and another for women in ministry in the sending conferences? It seems to me that either it is proper for women to preach or it isn’t, either it is proper for women to lead congregations, or it isn’t.

Redekop is both right and wrong. He is right in that women missionaries have had considerably more latitude in ministry abroad than women in the home church. (As a matter of fact, missiologist Peter Hamm points out that at one time women were ordained for missionary ministry, but the practice has been abandoned in recent years.)

But Redekop is also wrong. Hamm reports that no woman missionary has ever been the leader of a congregation anywhere in our own fields. (It is noted, however, that women are active in leadership in denominations with whom we co-operate.)

Let me propose, for discussion, another way of thinking in this matter. It has basically to do with our understanding of ordination. John E. Toews, in two very helpful articles (Christian Leader, 28 August and 11 September, 1979) suggests that recent {67} studies show that the distinction between the Hebrew word samakh, which means “investing the recipient with particular authority and communication power” by the laying on of hands, and the Hebrew word sim, which means “to touch or to bless” may have been lost by the Septuagint translation of both words with the Greek word epitithemi.

In other words, what do we mean by ordination? Do we mean a transference of authority and power (samakh); or do we mean the communication of blessing for a task (sim)? Toews concludes that it is the latter rather than the former.

In one sense it is very difficult to separate “blessing” from “authority” because blessing for ministry gives authority in service. However, this authority has limits and is not an end in itself. Furthermore, we reject the sacramental view of ordination (see the 1981 General Conference Yearbook, for the resolution on ordination) that grace or gifts are imparted through the ordination act.

Though we understand ordination, in theory, to be blessing, we tend to treat it as the transference of authority and power. Why else do we ordain for life? Or, why do we do it almost exclusively to pastors? And why else do we “defrock” those who betray its sanctity?

The laying on of hands is a biblical concept and is connected with initiation into ministry in the church (Acts 6:6; 13:2; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).

In both the Acts texts, as Toews points out, it is clear that the laying on of hands did not impart spiritual gifts or status. It rather simply recognized the gift as present.

In the 1 Tim. 4:14 text, the gift is given by prophetic utterance and the laying on of hands is blessing for ministry with that gift. In 2 Tim. 1:6 the grace (gift) given by Paul’s laying on of hands is to encourage and not let the gift die “which is in you.”

In summary, the laying on of hands is for the particular purpose of blessing those already gifted for ministry in the body and is not a transference of authority power and status. Nor is it to be used to establish and give credentials to a professional clergy class. In summary, if the laying on of hands means blessing for a task and if it does not mean a seal for ministry and leadership for life, then we ought to be laying hands on many more persons in our congregations.

I would like to propose that we drop the language of ordination and commissioning entirely and speak only in the New Testament terms of “laying on of hands.” We ought to lay hands {68} on our significant leaders: pastors, teachers, missionaries, pastoral care persons, elders, counselors and other persons whom the church calls forward to ministry.

By laying on of hands we invoke the blessing of God on their ministry and give them authority to fulfill the task to which the church and God has called them.

At this point in our collective understanding on the role of women we have drawn the line at “leading pastor” and ordination. We allow women to teach, to counsel, to work in pastoral care, to administer programs, to lead congregations in worship, to preach (in some congregations) but not to be “leading ministers” or to be ordained.

If we can unwind the idea that the laying on of hands is to establish a clergy for the church and retrain ourselves to think it to be a way of blessing persons for ministry, then we can accept and bless gifted persons on the merit of their giftedness and integrity, and not on the basis of gender.

Herb Kopp is a seasoned former pastor who is presently editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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