Friday’s Column: Brent’s Bent
It is likely that after learning of the importance that both Jew and Gentile bring to the church, members of the cosmopolitan church in Rome began to wonder what role they should play individually within the church. As a result, Paul addresses this issue in Romans 12. It may be helpful for those of us living in the twenty-first century to think of it as deciding on a career path. First, we can consult a few available vocations within the church to predict our aptitude for it. Then, we can use these guidelines to figure out where we fit in the Body of Christ.
“Prophecy” is the first vocation Paul lists (Romans 12.6). The Greek word for “prophecy” means speaking God’s mind and counsel. Initially, this referred to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to reveal God’s truth. Today, the closest thing to prophecy is preaching—expounding on God’s Word without direct inspiration. Of course, the Holy Spirit is still very much involved in this process, but today’s prophet finds His inspiration in the pages of Scripture.
The second option for church vocation, called “ministry” by the KJV, means “to serve” (Romans 12.7). This term refers to people who have been qualified and appointed to serve as deacons. However, the Holy Spirit also uses the word to describe the actions of non-office holders within the congregation. These devote themselves to serving their brethren. Paul uses this word in this context to highlight the devotion of Timothy and Phoebe (2 Timothy 4.5; Romans 16.1-2).
The third church vocation is “teacher” (Romans 12.7). The word “teach” means “to make another learn” when taken at face value. A more comprehensive range of applications is possible with this interpretation. For example, one can be Priscilla and do this privately, as she and her husband Aquila did for the ignorant Apollos (Acts 18.26). It can be an older woman mentoring a younger woman (Titus 2.4) or an appointed male leader of a Bible study (James 3.1).
A fourth possible church vocation is the “exhorter” (Romans 12.8). According to Joseph Henry Thayer, the Greek word for exhorting combines the ideas of exhorting, comforting, and encouraging. Barnabas is an excellent example of someone who publicly exhorted. In Acts 4.36, Luke says the apostles called him “Son of Encouragement.” The word “exhort” derives from the same root as one of the titles given to the Holy Spirit: the Paraclete or Comforter (John 14.16). Although this position is not a formal church office, it carries a certain air of importance in its association. What congregation does not need a bevy of Barnabases?
A fifth possible church vocation is limited to a select few, the role of “giver” (Romans 12.8). Giving in Greek refers to someone sharing their possessions with another. Only those who are financially well-off could take on this role. We cannot afford to be like the wealthy young ruler if God has blessed us with the ability to give. The rich young ruler was willing to do anything to be obedient, short of selling his possessions and donating the proceeds to the poor (Luke 18.22-23). His heart sank when he realized he would have to give up his possessions. When we give up control to God, we give up everything, including our money.
The sixth church vocation Paul lists is an official office within the local church: “leadership” (Romans 12.8). The term “leadership” refers to someone who protects, guards, and assists others. It has specific qualifications that Paul provides to the young preachers, Timothy and Titus, elsewhere (1 Timothy 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9). However, younger men should be mindful of this as a role into which they can grow as they mature in the Lord. Not everyone, regardless of their willingness, can serve in church leadership. Once granted that grace, however, such men must be diligent in their service.
The seventh and final church vocation Paul gives in this short list is one that shows mercy (Romans 12.8). I could understand one feeling confused by this being a role one can fulfill, given that we must all be merciful (Matthew 5.7). To have mercy on or pity for another person is the meaning of the underlying Greek term from which we derive our English word “mercy.” However, when you dig to the root word, you discover the intimate connection between mercy and compassion. Joseph Henry Thayer translates the “mercy” in Romans 12.8 as “to succor the afflicted, to provide help to the wretched.” When Jesus looked out at the crowds, compassion often overtook Him (cf. Matthew 9.36). So, just as with the exhorter, the one showing mercy likewise assumes a role closely resembling one of the characteristics of God.
In Romans 12.3-8, Paul enumerates the various ways in which Christians can serve the church, illustrating the diversity of the body of Christ. How do we know which role (or roles) fit us well? Make the most of the numerous educational opportunities available in teaching, preaching, evangelism, etc. You can also “shadow” more seasoned brothers and sisters as they go about their daily routines. Even if you try something and realize you’re not good at it, you’ll gain insight into the work of others and their struggles.
Don’t be too nervous to try something new or give up after a couple of tries if it doesn’t work out. It’s possible that lack of experience, rather than talent, is to blame for setbacks. Instead, give your all in every way you can. We won’t know what we’re capable of until we put in the work. It’s possible that others would better grasp our relative strengths and limitations than we would. When we prioritize our own sense of worth and confidence over listening to and learning from those around us, we risk letting our pride get in the way. Also, younger Christians can gain a lot from listening to and following the counsel of their more seasoned counterparts.
In closing, let us be mindful of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4.11: “…whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever” (NASB). There is much work to be done. The sooner we discern our role in the body of Christ, the better off the church will be.