What does it really mean to serve the Lord?
Unfortunately, there is actually a lot of confusion about the proper answer to that question among evangelicals today. Some Christians believe that the only way to really serve the purposes and plans of God is what is sometimes referred to as “full time Christian service.” All other vocations are just “secular” and therefore are of lesser value. If you’re a farmer or a firefighter or a contractor or a computer programmer, those jobs are not really service to the Lord. If you really want to serve Christ, then you should pursue being a pastor or missionary. And women—well, you’re out of luck. You can’t really serve Christ full time because you can’t be a pastor and you’re stuck at home with the kids.
Others believe true service to Christ is going to entail massive cultural change, bringing whole nations to adopt legal systems that acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Anything less is “loser theology.”
Colossians 3:22–24 corrects this way of thinking.
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
When Paul says, “You are serving the Lord Christ,” he is actually talking about every single one of the vocations mentioned in the context, which begins in verse 18 by speaking to wives. Wives, it says, when you do what wives are called to do, you are serving the Lord Christ. Paul then moves to husbands: Husbands, he says, when you fulfill your God-ordained calling as a husband, you are serving the Lord Christ. Then he moves to children and parents. When you fulfill what God intends for children and parents, you are serving the Lord Christ.
And then, perhaps most remarkable of all, we get to verse 22, where Paul addresses bondservants. Now perhaps we can see how wives and husbands and children and parents are all God-ordained vocations in which we can legitimately serve Christ, but servants? We can see how God created husbands and wives and parents and children, but bondservants is a station in life that people created. Surely that’s got to be one of the most secular of all jobs.
When you read “bondservants” in Colossians 3, don’t think someone who flips burgers at McDonalds or who works at the checkout at Walmart. A bondservant in the time Paul wrote this was one of the absolute worst, bottom-of-the-barrel stations of life in which someone could find himself. Bondservants usually owed some kind of debt to their masters, had to do the dirtiest most menial kinds of work, and were often paid very poorly.
And yet, Paul looks at these individuals whose jobs include some of the most mundane, earthly, secular work, and he says to them, in your job as a bondservant, you are serving the Lord Christ.
What a remarkable thought. Paul is intentionally choosing the lowliest of all professions and calling it service to Christ as a way of saying all legitimate human vocations in life are service to the Lord Christ. There is no legitimate profession that is somehow inferior in its ability to serve Christ than another. In other words, being a pastor or missionary are high callings of God in which God-called men can serve Christ, but this is also just as true for a Christian who is called to be an accountant, a plumber, an engineer, or a homeschool mom. All legitimate vocations can be full time Christian service. You can actually serve the Lord Christ in punching keys on a keyboard, balancing accounts, fixing cars, and wiping noses.
The kind of thinking that says only full time church workers are really doing ministry was actually perpetuated during the middle ages. Medieval Christendom taught that only being a pastor was really a calling of God; all other professions were simply necessary evils. And so it is in the seventeenth-century Reformers that we get some of the most helpful arguments against this.
Martin Luther was particularly brilliant in combatting this way of thinking and in arguing that God works through every legitimate profession. He used Psalm 147:13, for example, to prove this.
The verse reads, “For God strengthens the bars of your gates;” How does God strengthen the bars, Luther asks? By city planners and architects; by politicians who pass good laws to protect the city. The psalm continues, “God blesses your children within you.” How does he bless our children, Luther asks? Through the work of teachers and pediatricians. The psalm continues, “God makes peace in your borders.” How? by means of good lawyers and policemen. “God fills you with the finest of wheat.” How? By farmers and factory workers and grocers.
Luther went on to say this: “When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ And he does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal.” God answers our prayer for daily bread through each of these vocations. Our legitimate professions, Luther said, are like the “masks” God wears in caring for the world. They are God’s work.
When you fix someone’s computer problem so that they can do their job better, you are doing God’s work. When you sell someone a product that will enrich their life, you are doing God’s work. When you vacuum under the kitchen table for the zillionth time to keep your home clean and healthy, you are doing God’s work. You can serve Christ in all of these vocations, because this is what God has called you to do.
Often in Christian circles when we talk about a “calling,” we tend to use that term only to describe being called as a pastor or missionary. But again, limiting calling to only ministry positions within the church is not what Scripture teaches.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”
Paul has just finished talking about a Christian wife who is married to an unbelieving husband. He’s going to move on to discuss those who are circumcised or uncircumcised, people who are bondservants, betrothed, unmarried, married—all sorts of various life situations.
And what does Paul say in verse 17 about every one of these situations? This is what the Lord has assigned you. If you are single, a wife or a husband, if you have children or don’t have children, if you are a manager or a bottom-rung paper pusher, rich or poor, living in a wonderful Christian marriage or struggling with an unbelieving spouse, this is the life to which God has called you. This is your calling from the Lord, no different from a calling to be a pastor or a church worker or a church planter, this is your calling; this is your vocation, which just comes from the Latin word for calling. And that is why, no matter what your calling, from the pastor of a prominent megachurch to a woman who sells crafts on Etsy, you can serve the Lord Christ in your calling.
And so on this basis, Paul says in Colossians 3, because the profession God has called you to is service to Christ, do it heartily for him and not with mediocrity. Do it for the Lord, and not for men. Work ultimately for the inheritance of Christ, not for earthly gain.
Christian bakers should bake the best bread possible. Christian bankers should invest their clients’ money with the highest integrity. Christian auto mechanics should fix cars to the best of their abilities, because they are doing it for the Lord.
God made each one of us for the purpose of serving him, and he made us with specific abilities to accomplish that purpose in unique ways. Let us pursue God’s calling in our lives in such a way that in everything we do, we serve the Lord Christ.
Consider making a year-end tax-deductible gift to our ministry, a decision that supports vital work and helps provide resources for Christians around the globe.