We Are Slaves of Christ

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Every Christian is called to service in Christ’s name David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors from First and Second Corinthians that describe ministers of Christ, and he explores them in this series. His message today: “We are Slaves of Christ.” Christians are called to the lowliest and most humble kind of service.

The Christian church seems to be fascinated with titles. In this, as in so many things, it is more in tune with the customs and attitudes of the world than those of its Lord and Master. We may claim to live in a democratic society where everyone is equal, but we make the pecking order pretty clear by the titles we place around people’s names: “Doctor, Professor; Assistant Vice-president, Senior Vice-president, Executive Vice-president, Chairman and CEO.” It’s a long, daunting climb to the top. And the church really is no different: “Father, Bishop, Reverend, Right Reverend, Most Reverend”! That’s all rather interesting in light of Jesus’ command to his disciples:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant.

Mt. 23:8-11

I suppose the reason we make a big deal out of titles in the church despite Jesus’ caution is to lend ourselves an air of greater importance and authority, perhaps in the hope that people will then listen to what we have to say.

I sometimes think about the titles the apostle Paul could have used for himself, had he been so inclined: “Prince of the Apostles, World’s Greatest Evangelist, Missionary to the Gentile World, Founder of the Christian Church, Author of the New Testament!” Humanly speaking, Paul of Tarsus was all those things and more. He could, without much exaggeration, have claimed any of those high titles for himself. But he didn’t. There was, however, one title to which the apostle aspired, one title that Paul did use again and again especially to introduce himself to people he didn’t know. Over and over in his letters we find Paul appending a two-word phrase to his name to explain who and what he was. Paul was a doulos Christou, “a servant of Christ.”

Under-rowers

One of the basic assumptions of New Testament Christianity is that Christians don’t belong to themselves any longer. “You are not your own,” says Paul to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “for you were bought with a price.” It’s difficult to imagine any Christian teaching that runs so contrary to popular opinion in our own society. “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do with my own life,” people scream nowadays. “Our bodies belong to us, and no one has the right to control them,” cry our contemporaries by the million. But it isn’t so.

If there is no such thing as God, then fine; do whatever you can get away with. But if God is real, then he has the absolute right to tell every last one of us what we can and cannot do with our bodies, with our minds, with our whole being, for he created us. God has the same rights over us that an artisan has over his handiwork.

“Can I not do with you as this potter has done?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”

Jeremiah 18:6

But for Christians, God’s claim goes even deeper. Notice that the apostle grounds God’s ownership of us not in the doctrine of creation but in the fact of redemption. We are not our own, Paul says, because we were bought with a price, and the price was Christ’s very blood.

You were ransomed [wrote the apostle Peter] . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

1 Peter 1:18-19

So we are not our own. We belong, body and soul in life and death to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, because he has paid for our sins with his precious blood. And in so doing, he purchased us. He is now our Lord, our Master, and we are his servants. Here is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:1:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

I will say more on the second part of that verse, “stewards of the mysteries of God,” in a future message. Right now I want to focus on the first part. This is how you ought to think of us, says Paul, that is, think of me and my fellow apostles and all leaders in the church. For that matter, he could have said, this is how you ought to think of yourselves. This is the way all Christians should see themselves – “as servants of Christ.”

Actually, that’s not quite strong enough; it’s more like “slaves of Christ.” The word translated “servant” in 1 Corinthians 4:1 is not the one normally used in the New Testament for ordinary servants. It’s not Paul’s familiar doulos Christou, the phrase we find over and over in Paul’s letters (as I’ve mentioned already). Rather, the word Paul uses here in 1 Corinthians 4 is the unusual huperetas. That’s a technical Greek word that literally means an “under-rower.” What an odd choice of words!

What’s an under-rower? To understand that you need to picture the mightiest of ancient warships. They were called “triremes” because they had three tiers or banks of oars along each side. A trireme had a single mast and a square sail which it used for regular sailing, but its real strength came from all those oars. Of its crew of around 200 men, only 30 or so were soldiers and sailors. The rest were slaves, chained below decks to their oars. When they rowed together they could send the ship hurtling forward at an incredible rate to ram and sink enemy vessels with the trireme’s iron prow.

So who are we as ministers of Christ, as leaders, as apostles, as ordinary servants? This is who we are. We’re not officers walking around up on the deck; we’re the huperetas, the slaves down below. We’re not even in the top tier of slaves! We are Christ’s under-rowers, says the apostle, right down in the bottom of the ship.

Obedience and Freedom

Now try to picture that. Let that metaphor fill your mind and prompt your imagination. What does this image suggest to you about serving Jesus Christ if even the most exalted of Christian leaders – the apostles themselves – are really nothing more than under-rowers? It isn’t a very exalted or glamorous position, is it? It certainly doesn’t sound appealing – not just a rower, but a bottom-row rower! A slave like that has really only one requirement. Only one thing is demanded: obedience. All an under-rower had to do was to start rowing when the captain said start, and stop when the captain said stop. His entire life, his total existence, was simply “a long obedience in the same direction,” in Eugene Peterson’s descriptive phrase for Christian discipleship.

We are under-rowers of Christ; that is what we are. We obey his commands. We’re not in this business of ministry to get all we can out of it. The point is not whether our ego needs are being met. We’re not expected to chart the course for the church’s future, we’re just supposed to keep on rowing even when we don’t understand where our captain is taking us.

We need to be clear on one more thing. The choice that is offered to everyone is not a choice between lowly service to Christ or lofty freedom to serve yourself and your own interests. It’s not a question of either submitting to Christ’s slavery or remaining free to do whatever you want without having to answer to anyone or anything. The world simply doesn’t work that way. Our own human nature doesn’t allow that choice because we are not free agents; we have to serve some master or other even if it means being enslaved to our own appetites. No one has made this point better than singer, songwriter Bob Dylan:

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But here’s the really interesting thing. The paradox of the gospel is that Christ’s service is perfect freedom. If you will submit to becoming his slave, you will discover that, for the first time in your life, you will be truly free. When we take Christ’s yoke upon us, when we sit down at our bench and accept our identity as his under-rower, he sets us free, free from our addictions and fears, free from the clamorous demand to prove to ourselves and everybody else that we are worth something. We are freed from the tyranny of the devil, free to be ourselves, the very selves that God meant us to be.

All we have to do is give up what we imagine now to be our “freedom” and to become his servants. Of course, that means our lives will henceforth be devoted to carrying out his will rather than our own. There is this one thing about being a servant: it’s that, well, you have to serve. So why does it seem, as I look at myself and Christian leaders all around, like so few of us are living as real servants of Christ?