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Is serving in the church equal to loving the Lord your God?

David Hwang

  In Scripture, loving God is closely tied with serving Him, and with loving and serving His people. If we truly love God, we will also love His people – so much so that whoever “does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20); and if we love God’s people, we will desire to serve them using the spiritual gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit to help build up the body of Christ. Christians who are not using their gifts to serve others are not loving God as they ought, because by withholding the gifts that are meant to benefit others, they are not loving their brothers and sisters as they ought. This is not to say that every believer must serve in a visible ministry in the church; however, all believers should be exercising their gifts to serve others in the church, whether that means a public ministry like preaching or a private one, like praying for a brother or sister.

  So, those who love God will serve in the church to the degree that God has equipped and enabled them. However, serving in the church does not in itself equal loving God, because as we also see in the Scriptures, loving God involves much more than just serving in the church; and as no doubt many of us have experienced, it is easy to fall into the trap of serving in the church, even as our minds and hearts are far from God.

  Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength involves loving Him with all that we are and with all that we have, so that every part of our being and every part of our life is given to Him. Thus, while serving in the church is a necessary expression of loving God, it is by no means the sum total of loving Him. When we love God, it means that our desires and affections are focused on Him; that our ambitions are for the things of God, rather than for the things of the world; that the totality of our lives are lived in glad submission and obedience to His will, as revealed in His Word. Loving God impacts all areas of our lives – how we spend time and money, how we conduct ourselves at school or at work, how we relate to our spouses, how we raise our children, how we interact with others, how we submit to those in authority over us, and so on. Serving in the church is therefore but one small aspect of loving God.

  Thus, while people who passionately love the Lord will often serve actively in the church, it is not necessarily true that those who are most active in serving are the ones who love the Lord the most. Demas, for example, served with the apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24), yet ultimately showed that he loved the world rather than God (2 Timothy 4:10, 1 John 2:15). Diotrephes was a church leader who undoubtedly served vigorously in his church, not because he loved God, but because he loved to put himself first (3 John 9-10). Paul spoke of those who preached Christ fervently, yet did so out of envy and selfish ambition rather than out of love for God (Philippians 1:15-18). Jesus Himself warned that there will be some who seem to be doing great acts of service yet in the end will be rejected because they were not doing God’s will (Matthew 7:21-23). These examples illustrate at least two common traps into which believers can fall as they serve in the church:

  1) Serving with improper motives: People serve in the church for many reasons other than love of God. For example, Diotrephes served because he wanted the attention, respect, and power that came with leadership, not because he loved the Lord. Paul’s opponents preached Christ out to promote themselves. Even if they preached the true Gospel, they did so to forward their own selfish ambitions, rather than out of genuine love for Christ. In our day, these same improper motives may still be found among some serving in churches. Some serve not out of love for Christ, but for selfish ends (for example, to draw attention to themselves or to their church, or to gain power or influence); others may serve out of fear of men – because everyone is doing something and they feel pressure to do something too. Even if we begin serving genuinely out of desire for God, our sinful natures are such that our motives can easily become tainted, leading us to fall into the second trap.

  2) Disobedience in other areas of life: The Scriptures are clear that those who love God will obey Him (John 14:15, 15:10; 1 John 2:3-5, 5:3). Obeying God involves not just serving in the church, but extends to all other aspects of our lives too. Unfortunately, it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are loving God because we are serving in the church, even as we live in disobedience to Him in other areas of our lives. Such disobedience may take many forms and extend across the whole spectrum of life, but let us briefly consider two that seem common among people who serve actively in churches.

  First, people who are busy in serving sometimes (or often) fail to give proper attention to developing their walk with the Lord. Like Martha, we are too busy doing things to take the time, like Mary, to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen and learn from Him (Luke 10:38-42). We neglect to spend time with the Lord in His Word and in prayer; we neglect the regular study and application of the Scripture to our lives. In short, we neglect to know the Lord and to build a deeper personal relationship with Him, thinking that what we do in the church is somehow an adequate substitute for knowing and loving Him. Or we turn a blind eye to sin in our lives, thinking that our service in the church somehow is a substitute for holiness. As a result, we grow distant from the Lord, even as we spend many hours serving in His Church. In so doing, ironically, we cut ourselves off from the source of true power for our service, because apart from Christ, we can do nothing. Service in the church then becomes an end in itself rather than an expression of love to God – an idol that usurps the place of God in our hearts.

  Second, some who serve actively in the church do so to the neglect of other responsibilities that God has commanded. If we love God, we will obey His commands; negligence towards responsibilities He has given us means we are not loving God as we ought. Such failure stems often from an improper view of life that separates service in the church as somehow being more “spiritual” or more about loving God than other areas of life. One particularly prevalent shortcoming in this respect is the neglect of responsibilities to one’s family, in the name of service to the church. While it is true that some Christians focus too much on their families to the neglect of their responsibilities to others in the church, it is also true that some believers focus too much time and energy on serving in the church to the neglect of their God-given responsibility to their spouses and their families. God purposes that marriages between believers should demonstrate the beauty of the love between Christ and His Church, as husband and wife live together in harmony, loving one another, serving one another, and helping one another grow in Christ-likeness (Ephesians 5:22-23). He also intends that godly marriages should result in godly homes where children can grow to love and follow the Lord (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:1-8; Malachi 2:15). Children need to be raised in the training and instruction of the Lord, and God gives this responsibility primarily to the parents (and fathers in particular – Ephesians 4:6) – not to the school system, or even to the church. Yet, how many Christian marriages have grown cold or even broken apart because one spouse neglects the other, even as he or she devotes much time and energy to caring for others in the church? And how many children of church leaders or pastors have fallen away from the faith out of neglect, even as their parents pour countless hours into helping others know the Lord? Brothers and sisters, let us be clear: when service in the church causes us to neglect these God-given responsibilities to our spouses or children, we are disobeying our Lord and failing to love Him as we ought – and Scripture is clear that such neglect in fact disqualifies a person from some forms of service (1 Timothy 3:1-12). Serving in the church should not be at the expense of other responsibilities that the Lord has given us. Rather, if we are to be faithful stewards of what the Lord has given us, we need to balance our use of time, energy, and resources so that we are able to faithfully discharge all the responsibilities He has placed upon us.

  In conclusion, while it is true that those who love God will serve in the church, it is not necessarily true that serving in the church means that we are loving God. As we serve, we need to ask God to be searching our hearts, that we our service might genuinely flow out of our love for Him, not out of false motives. Our service should flow from an ever-deepening relationship with God that bears fruit of obedience in all areas of life. Service in the church that flows genuinely out of love for God and for neighbour will benefit both those being served and the one serving (1 Tim. 3:13); but service – even sacrificial service – apart from love, ultimately amounts to nothing and gains nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). So let us be careful how we serve.