When the Bible talks about “ministry,” what is it talking about? When it says that Christians are to be involved in “works of ministry,” what does it mean? This article examines how the biblical writers used the words for ministry. This can help us understand a little better what we are to be doing in the church and in the world.
Some of the words, although Greek, are not completely foreign to us. Our English word “deacon” is related to the Greek word diakonia, which is sometimes translated “ministry.” The English word “liturgy” comes from leitourgia, which can also be translated “ministry.”
The word diakonia is used to describe the “ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), the “ministry of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:8) and the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Leitourgia is used to describe the ministry that Jesus has received as our High Priest (Hebrews 8:6). The Corinthian Christians were a result of Paul’s ministry (diakoneo), and Paul considered himself a “minister [leitourgos] of Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 3:3; Romans 15:16).
Diakonos refers to “a person who serves.” We get the English word “deacon” from it.
In Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13 it denotes an office in the church. But almost everywhere else, the word is used in a more general sense. It refers to apostles, preachers and lay members more often than it does to deacons. The general sense of the word is “assistant.” It indicates work that benefits someone else. Paul used this word to describe himself as a servant of the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:5), a servant of God (2 Corinthians 6:4), a servant of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6), a servant of the gospel (Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23) and a servant of the church (verse 25).
Paul said that many of his co-workers were also servants: Phoebe (Romans 16:1), Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7), Timothy (1 Timothy 4:6) and Epaphras (Colossians 1:7). Jesus said that his followers should be servants (Matthew 20:26; 23:11; John 12:26). All Christians must be servants. We are deacons of Christ, of his message and of one another.
Diakoneo is the verb form of diakonos; it means “serve.” The most specific meaning of diakoneo is to work with food to serve other people. Martha “served” at a dinner (John 12:2; Luke 10:40). Jesus told parables about servants who were expected to prepare food and serve their masters (Luke 17:8; 22:27). In the early church, seven men were chosen “to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2-3).
Diakoneo can refer to more general types of service, too. Jesus served his disciples (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). Jesus’ disciples should also serve (Luke 22:27; John 12:26). When we serve others, we are showing love to God (Hebrews 6:10).
Some people served Paul in prison (Philemon 13; 2 Timothy 1:18). Serving can include financial assistance: Several women served Jesus from their own possessions (Luke 8:3). Paul collected an offering to serve the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25).
Diakoneo often means manual labor, but service to others can also be done through speaking. When Jesus said that he served his disciples, he included his teaching. The gospel is included when Paul says that the Corinthian church was a result of his serving (2 Corinthians 3:3).
1 Peter 4:10-11 uses the word in both a general sense and then in a more specific sense:
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides.
Everyone should serve (in a general sense), but each serves in a different way – some serve by speaking and some serve by manual labor. It is this latter type of service that forms the core of the office of deacon (1 Timothy 3:10, 13). No matter what type of serving is done, it should be done with the strength God provides, so that he gets the praise and glory (1 Peter 4:11).
Diakonia is another word in the diakonos family. It denotes the result of serving – “service” or “ministry.” It is translated in a variety of ways. Martha was busy with dinner “preparation” (Luke 10:40). In the early church, there was a daily “distribution” of food for widows (Acts 6:1). Famine relief was also called a ministry (Acts 11:29; 12:25; Romans 15:31; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1, 12-13). When Macedonian believers supported Paul, it was a ministry to him (2 Corinthians 11:8).
Diakonia is often used to refer to a spiritual ministry. The apostles had a “ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Paul said that his ministry was “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). Paul’s message of reconciliation was his ministry (2 Corinthians 5:18). The new covenant is a “ministry that brings righteousness” (2 Corinthians 3:8-9).
All members are encouraged to have a ministry. Church leaders exist “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12) – “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (NRSV). There are different kinds of ministry (1 Corinthians 12:5), but they should all be used “for the common good” (verse 7). Those who have been given a gift of ministry should use that gift (Romans 12:7). Those who have other gifts should likewise use them to serve others (1 Peter 4:10).
Paul frequently called himself a doulos – a slave or servant of Jesus Christ. In Jewish society, a doulos was usually a servant. In Greek society, he was usually a slave. However, this type of service is not restricted to slaves and apostles – it is commanded for all Christians. This is another description of our ministry.
Christ took on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:7), and he quoted the proverb, “No servant is greater than his master” (Matthew 10:24-25; John 15:20-21). Since our Master served as a servant, shouldn’t we also be servants? In Christianity, greatness is measured by service. “Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Matthew 20:27; Mark 10:44).
Numerous people were called slave-servants of God: Moses, Simeon, Mary, Paul, Timothy, Silas, Luke, Epaphras, Tychicus, Peter, John, James and Jude. All of God’s people are commanded to be servants (1 Peter 2:16). Service is part of what it means to be a Christian. Many of Jesus’ parables included servants; these parables have extra meaning for Christians, the servants of Christ.
Doulos also has metaphorical uses – sinners are slaves of whatever has power over them (2 Peter 2:19). Christ frees us from the slavery of the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). He frees us from the slavery of sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:16-20) by redeeming us, purchasing us with his own blood. He frees us from “the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1) so that we may serve him in the new way of the Spirit (Romans 7:6). We become slaves to obedience, slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:16-22).
Christians are “slaves of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22; Ephesians 6:6). We are all admonished to serve the Lord (Romans 12:11; 14:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:9), and one of the primary responsibilities our Lord gives us is to serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13). As slaves of Christ and slaves of one another, we serve one another by using the gifts God gives us (see appendix below).
Paul calls us slaves, but he also says that we are not slaves (Galatians 4:7). In some ways we are like slaves, but in other ways we are not. With respect to obedience, our obligation to Christ is like that of a slave – we are to obey. But with respect to reward, we are much better than slaves. “As long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave…. You are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (Galatians 4:1, 7).
Some Greek words for service also mean worship. Latreia and latreuo denote religious service or worship. (We see the root word latr- in the English word idolatry.) The NIV uses “serve” and “worship” almost interchangeably for these words. Worship was done at the temple (Luke 2:37; Acts 7:7; Romans 9:4; Hebrews 8:5; 9:1, 6, 9; 10:2; 13:10). In Revelation, the saints “serve” God in his heavenly temple (Revelation 7:15) and will “serve” him always (Revelation 22:3).
Christ has cleansed us so that we may “serve” God (Hebrews 9:14). We are exhorted to “worship” God (Hebrews 12:28). Christians “worship” by the Spirit of God (Philippians 3:3). Paul exhorts us to be living sacrifices, which is our “reasonable service” (KJV), “your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV). Our service to God is not centered on a temple, but is done wherever we are.
Leitourg- words originally referred to a public service, but they eventually came to refer specifically to religious service and worship. We get the English word liturgy from these Greek words. This was the type of service Jewish priests performed (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 10:11; 9:21). This religious service is now done by Jesus, our High Priest (Hebrews 8:2, 6). In the context of priests and sacrifices, Paul said that he was a “minister” of Jesus Christ (Romans 15:16).
A practical service such as famine relief could be called a leitourgia (Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 9:12). By using a leitourg- word, Paul was reminding his readers that this seemingly ordinary service to the saints was actually an act of worship. All Christians can perform religious service (Acts 13:2; Philippians 2:17).
Ministry of all believers
There is a progression in the way worship words are used. In the old covenant, God required the Israelites to serve him through a priesthood, a sacrificial system and a temple. In the new covenant, all Christians worship God through spiritual sacrifices, and we all serve God in the Spirit. The ministry of worship has been given to all the people.
This is one reason the 16th-century Reformers taught “the priesthood of all believers.” Jesus Christ is the High Priest, and all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6). Every Christian can enter the heavenly Holy of holies because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:19). Christians offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5; Romans 12:1). We also have the priestly duty of interceding for one another in prayers and in practical action.
The Reformers also noted that Christians serve God through their secular work – their vocation or “calling” – as well as through their involvement in the church. A person who grows food is providing a service to society; a person who works in a factory or teaches school does, too. Christian homemakers and government employees are also serving others.
“Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). All work – in the home, in the store, in the car and in the office – is an act of worship to God. We are his slaves – full-time ministers in his service.
The New Testament says the same thing in many different ways: Christians are commanded to serve one another. None of the words for service or ministry is restricted to the ordained clergy. All members are enslaved to one another. We all have obligations to one another. Whether our service is in word or in deed, it is a religious duty for all Christians. Whether we are ordained or not, we are all called to serve the Lord by serving one another.
As slave-servants, we are ministering to one another, to the church, to the gospel and to the Lord. God has given each of us a ministry. We should minister to one another’s needs. God has given us abilities so that we will use them to serve others. All Christians – whether men, women, deacons or elders – are called to be ministers.
Appendix A: Allelon
The Greek word allelon gives us a helpful introduction to the ways in which Christians should serve each other, because this Greek word means “one another” or “each other.” It is often used to describe our mutual obligations — the responsibility that all members have toward one another.
Perhaps the most comprehensive command Jesus gave was the well-known “Love one another” (John 13:34). “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (verses 34-35). This command is such a fundamental statement of our Christian duty that it is given again in John 15:12, 17; Romans 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11-12; and 2 John 5. This is the attitude in which we should always interact with one another.
Paul developed the command a little further: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). He prayed that the Lord would help the Thessalonians’ love to increase not only for each other, but that their love would also increase for everyone else (1 Thessalonians 3:12). “Always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). In his second letter to the Thessalonians, he thanked God that their mutual love was indeed increasing (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
In Christ, we belong to each other and form one body (Romans 12:5). We are members of one another (Ephesians 4:25). “We have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). Paul prayed that the Roman Christians would have “a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5). To avoid division in the body, Paul wanted members to “have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25). “Offer hospitality to one another” (1 Peter 4:9).
We see further development of the command in the words of Jesus: “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50). Paul put it this way: “Live in peace with each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:13*). [An asterisk indicates that the pronoun is heautou instead of allelon; the meaning is often the same.] “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). Paul shows how this is done: “Do not be conceited” (same verse). “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider [each other] better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5.)
“Stop passing judgment on one another,” Paul writes (Romans 14:13). “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7). “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:16).
“Serve one another,” Paul wrote (Galatians 5:13). Peter gives the same point: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (1 Peter 4:10*). Jesus had given the same lesson when he told his disciples to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Paul wanted the Roman Christians and himself to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:12). One purpose of our weekly meetings is to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds…encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). “Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13*). “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11). “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith” (Jude 20*).
Paul wanted “mutual edification” (Romans 14:19). “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16*; Ephesians 5:19*). Paul was confident that the Romans could “instruct one another” (Romans 15:14).
These are some of the ways in which Christians, as servants of Jesus Christ, minister to one another. None of these types of service or ministry is restricted to ordained elders or pastors.
Appendix B: Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The “gifts” of the Spirit are God-given abilities distributed as God knows is best for different aspects of Christian service. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, even though they are all inspired by the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4). God gives these abilities “for the common good” – so Christians can help one another (verse 7).
But not everyone has the same spiritual gift or ability, just as not every part of the human body performs the function of seeing, hearing or walking. Feet, hands, eyes and other parts serve different functions. By contributing to the body as a whole, the various parts serve one another. So it is in the church, the body of Christ (verses 14-27).
God distributes the gifts: one power to one person, another gift to the next person, a third ability to another, just as God determines (verses 8-11). God appoints people with various spiritual functions: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle-workers, healers, helpers, administrators and speaking in different kinds of tongues (verse 28). By dividing the gifts in this way, God encourages members to work with and help one another. Through a division of labor, God encourages us to work with one another. As we work together, Christ gives us growth (Ephesians 4:15-16).
What are the gifts? Paul lists some in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30: church leadership positions such as apostle, prophet and teacher, or gifts of miracles, healings and tongues, or less spectacular but equally necessary abilities such as helping others and administration. Another list is in verses 7-10: messages of wisdom and knowledge, faith and healing and miracles, inspired messages of prophecy, tongues or interpretations, or a special gift for distinguishing between spirits. The precise difference between wisdom and knowledge, or faith and healing and miracles may not be important here; Paul is simply making the point that spiritual gifts come in many varieties, although they are all “for the common good.”
Romans 12:6-8 gives another list of gifts (none of the lists is complete): prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving to others, leading others or showing mercy. Some of these service gifts should be found in all Christians, but some people are distinctly better at certain activities than other people are. As God gives us these abilities, we should apply them as best we can for the common good of the body of Christ.
The gifts in these lists come in three major categories: church leadership, speaking, and serving others. Peter summarizes “gifts” under the categories of speaking and serving (1 Peter 4:11). “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (verse 10).
Paul said that God had given the Philippian Christians the ability to believe in Christ and also the opportunity to suffer for him (Philippians 1:29-30). Suffering patiently and faithfully can be a useful spiritual gift. Paul says he was given a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), which emphasized Paul’s weaknesses, therefore showing that the power of his message came not from himself but from God (verses 8-10).
Paul referred to marital status, whether married or not, as a gift (1 Corinthians 7:7). Any of life’s circumstances can be considered a gift of God if we are able to use it to glorify Christ and serve others. It does not matter how spectacular or seemingly ordinary the gift is – what matters is how it is used (1 Corinthians 13:1-4). Love, a fruit of the Spirit that all Christians should have, is the test of whether an ability or gift is good.
All gifts should be used to glorify Christ and to benefit others.