A podcast listener named Gregg writes in to talk about missions and the value of our vocations. He asks, “Pastor John, it is obvious that you have a passion for missions. It is also obvious that you believe work and vocation are important aspects of a Christian life. What is puzzling to me is when you state in your book Let the Nations Be Glad! that missions is the second greatest human activity. Does this not posit a kind of hierarchy of human action which puts ordinary work lower on the rung of human activity?
“For example, being an artist or a janitor is not as great as being a missionary, and, therefore, as not as great in God’s eyes? Moreover, doesn’t this statement about missions render most of humans and human activity as not engaging in the second greatest human activity? After all, most Christians are not missionaries and do not, cannot, spend most of their waking hours engaging in missions. What I am concerned about is your statement concerning missions leading to a kind of spiritual hierarchy in which missionaries are engaging in the (second) greatest human activity while the rest of us are not.”
It might be helpful, first, to give the context for the quote in Let the Nations Be Glad! and explain what I was getting at there. That might remove some of the stumbling block. But then I do want to raise the question of whether Gregg means that no distinction should ever be made in the way the various vocations or tasks are honored. So, here is the quote:
[William] Carey and thousands like him have been moved and carried by the vision of a great and triumphant God. That vision must come first. Savoring it in worship precedes spreading it in missions. All of history is moving toward one great goal, the white-hot worship of God and his Son among all the peoples of the earth. Missions is not that goal. It is the means. For that reason it is the second greatest human activity in the world. (38–39)
“The ultimate goal of human existence is heart-felt, white-hot worship of God among the nations.”
So, the point was to distinguish the ultimate goal of life from the secondary means to attain it. The ultimate goal of human existence is authentic, heart-felt, white-hot worship of God among the nations. Missions is not that and so it is not the greatest activity. It is secondary. It is means. So, calling it the second greatest activity wasn’t aimed at ranking it above teaching algebra, but below worship. So, now the question is whether preaching the gospel to an unreached people group at the risk of your life is in some sense a greater activity than teaching algebra or pastoring a local church like I did. That is still the question. My bias is to rank risk-taking missions among unreached peoples above my ministry, but let’s think about it.
Gregg asked this. Does this not posit a kind of hierarchy of human action which puts ordinary work on the rung of human activity — for example, being an artist or a janitor is not as great as being in mission work — and, therefore, not as great in God’s eyes? So the question in front of us is: Should we ever ascribe a kind of greatness to one human activity over another? And if so, in what sense and why? So, to answer that, let’s put a couple of Bible verses in front of us: 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Another one: 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.”
So, it seems to me that at least in some sense it is fitting and right to describe some roles or activities or vocations as having a certain kind of honor or esteem that other roles or activities don’t have. For example, if the President of the United States comes to visit you in your house, you will probably think of some ways of showing a special regard that you would not have thought of if one of your friends drops by — or even, say, the city councilman who lives in the neighborhood.
“It is fitting to describe some vocations as having a certain kind of honor that other roles don’t have.”
I think what we need to do is start making some distinctions and ask: In what sense is one vocation or one human activity greater than another? Because we know from the Bible that there is an evil way to make distinctions. There is an evil ranking of people. James 1:9–11, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.”
Then there’s Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free” — those are pretty radical distinctions in role — “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ.” Now, that is the truth that Gregg has taken hold of and wants to make sure that we don’t lose. And you add to the equality that we have in Christ — equally adopted, fellow heirs of God, which is astonishing — you add to that the truth that a task, nevertheless, can be measured in various ways.
So, example: Compare the preparation and delivery of a sermon to unbelievers in a hostile missionary setting, compare that with the preparation and delivery of an algebra lesson to a class of compliant teenagers in a Christian school. Now, how do we compare those two activities? The truth that Gregg is fastening on — and it is exactly right and crucial to grasp — is that the act of faithfulness in the preparation and delivery of the sermon and the algebra lesson may be exactly the same: the faithfulness. Or, there may be more faithfulness, more trust, more devotion, more humility in the preparation and delivery of the algebra lesson than in the preparation and delivery of the sermon.
“When God rewards any activity, it will be on the basis of our faithfulness in the activity.”
There is the crucial truth, that no activity in and of itself is a greater activity in the measure of its worship and devotion and faith than any other if you just consider that: the devotion, the worship, the faithfulness. And when God rewards any activity, it will be on the basis of our faithfulness in the activity. So, measured in that way, the algebra lesson might be the greater activity than the sermon to the hostile unreached people; namely, the algebra teacher did it with greater trust, greater humility, greater faithfulness.
However, aren’t there aspects about the preparation and delivery of the sermon in the pursuit of the salvation of sinners among a hostile audience which are more significant, greater than the preparation and delivery of that algebra lesson? First, I think of the subject matter is more exalted closer to ultimate reality. Algebra is good. Algebra is God’s creation. Algebra is needed. But Algebra is not the gospel. And Algebra does not save sinners. The gospel does. And the teaching of that algebra lesson may be done in greater faithfulness than the preaching of the sermon. But the likelihood of miracles of eternal significance happening are greater in the preaching of the sermon and the risking of life is also greater in that audience.
“My pastoral ministry did not have some of the aspects of worth and honor that some missionary activities have.”
So, at least for myself, as a pastor for 33 years who is basically surrounded by people who loved and approved me and who paid me well in a society that didn’t put me in jail, in a city with ample medical care, central air conditioning, functioning infrastructures, in view of all of that, I have always felt that missionaries who have taken more risks, go into harder places, enduring greater trials with less affirmation are worthy of a kind of esteem and honor of which I am not worthy. I think that is true. And when I say that, I am not belittling the value of my 33 years in ministry. I believe it was honorable. I believe it was a gift of God. But it did not have some of the aspects of worth and honor that some missionary activities have.
And I hope all of us can make those kinds of distinctions. I hope we can happily recognize a double or a triple honor activity when it happens and give that greater honor and in no way feel like our life is being minimized.
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