“Row, row, row your boat!”

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” [1 Corinthians 12:4-6].

Whenever we approach the Holy Sacraments of the Church, we are individually addressed and identified as “the servant of God.”  Perhaps seldom, however, do we seriously consider and reflect upon the nature and essence of our “service” to God that justifies such an esteemed appellation!

The primary definition of service, from the Latin servitium, means the occupation or condition of a servant.  And “servant,” from the Latin servus, means “slave.”  What a blow this is to our proud modern American ego that normally understands service in terms of what people, business, technology and things can do for us.  In a society whose economy is largely driven by consumerism, it’s no wonder the “service industry” is prominent.  It’s how a majority of Americans earn their living these days, “slaving” for others.

Somehow this idea of service doesn’t seem to translate well into our spiritual lives. Our life “in the world” has so accustomed us to seek, expect and demand service from others that when it comes to our relationship to God and His Church, we often do the same thing. Contrary to the teaching and example of Christ [Matthew 20:28], we frequently find ourselves coming to church to BE served, rather than TO serve.

Should we research the topic of service in the Scriptures, it may be both confusing and overwhelming, depending upon which Bible translation we use (e.g. the above quoted “varieties of service” from the Revised Standard Version is rendered “differences of administrations” in the King James Version!).  Yet, just as there are 20-some definitions of “service” in the dictionary, there are, as Saint Paul suggests, “varieties of service” to be found in Scripture.

Indeed, the most often used New Testament word for servant is doulos—“slave”—a voluntary or involuntary subjection and subserviency. When Christ said, “you cannot serve God and mammon” [Luke 16:13], He was teaching the impossibility of a “slave” serving more than one master. He exemplified this as He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant [doulos], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” [Philippians 2:7-8]. It was thus in imitation of Christ that the apostles introduced and identified themselves as “servants” of Jesus Christ; Paul, James, Peter and Jude begin their respective epistles in precisely these terms.

Do OUR lives truly reflect such dedicated, committed “service” to God?

Another scriptural aspect of service is diakonia, translated “minister” as well as “service.” It’s where we get “deacons”—those originally ordained by the apostles to serve tables and, on behalf of the Church, care for widows. This is practical service, certainly not limited to the ordained. It’s attending to things that must be done and running the necessary errands to do them. If you think about the kitchen crew and waiters at a parish dinner, you get the idea.

There are yet other aspects of service implied in various scriptural words. There’s service specific to liturgical ministry, detailing duties connected with worship, priestly and otherwise. (Sometimes we forget that “liturgy” implies work!) There’s the service performed by those hired to do so—“wage-workers.” And there are domestic servants who manage household chores as stewards. All of these are quite appropriate and applicable to Church life today!

But there’s one word, used rarely in the New Testament, that provides a fascinating image of service. Among other places, it’s found in 1 Corinthians 4:1. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  In this verse, “servants” derives from a verb meaning “to row;” as in “row, row, row your boat.”  The image created takes us into the bowels of a great ship before motors and engines, wherein a multitude of hardy men flexed their muscles in synchronized rowing to provide the power and strength to move the floating ship in the direction and at the speed commanded by the captain. These were “servants” performing necessary, hard, menial and generally unappreciated labor in relative obscurity. Maybe they occasionally received a pat on the back or some small commendation from those who actually realized and acknowledged the crucial significance of their work, but they were basically behind-the-scenes workers who made the ship move.

This type of service is as essential to the life and work of the Church, on every level, as it is to the movement of a great ship. Yes, as Saint Paul says, “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators,” etc. [1 Corinthians 12:28ff.].  But the “varieties of service” excludes no one!  Not everyone is called to or capable of standing at the helm of a ship, but everyone with the will and strength to do so can work together, behind-the-scenes, to help move the ship in the right direction!