Last time we saw how the word ‘volunteer’ often has the associations of ‘charity’, such as helping those who are in need, or of ‘essential service’, such as the volunteer reserves in the armed forces. Both these aspects can be found in the Bible.
In the Old Testament translations there are several occasions where ‘volunteer’ is used (more in the NASB than in the ESV, which I normally quote from).
Ps 110: 3 ‘Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power…’ (ESV), ‘…volunteer freely…’ (NASB)
Judges 5:2 (Song of Deborah and Barak) ‘That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly…’ (ESV), ‘…the people volunteered…’ (NASB).
Judges 5:9 ‘My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people…’ (ESV), ‘My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel, the volunteers among the people…’ (NASB)
Neh 11:2 ‘And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem’. (ESV) ‘And the people blessed all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem’. (NASB)
All these references refer to major issues where people make a freewill choice; to fight alongside others, to conform to a governmental structure, etc. None is ‘charitable’ but all refer to a person’s personal decision or choice to become involved in a particular way, similar to those who volunteer to become part of a disciplined army or emergency service in our generation.
In the New Testament we do not find the word ‘volunteer’ as such, but there are many occasions on which people give themselves to serving one another willingly, including in ‘charitable’ ways. The Kingdom mandate of Is 61:1-3, quoted by Jesus about himself in Lk 4:18-19, focuses on his calling to serve those who are poor; this scripture surely also applies to the church, his body now on earth. Other examples are plentiful (eg Matt 25:31-46, Jas 2:14-24, Heb 13:1-3).
Army and Charity
Combining these two perspectives – ‘army’ and ‘charity’ – how might this apply to us? In the Old Testament examples people ‘offered themselves freely’. But we live in a different dispensation so should expect even more than this freewill decision. There is ‘added value’ for us. What is it?
We have been amazingly and wonderfully saved by and daily benefit from the sacrificial love of Jesus who willingly abandoned his rightful place at the right hand of the father to become a servant (Phil 2:5-8) for our sake. And in doing so he totally subjected his will to the father.
As we become Christians we are drafted into the army of God. In any army there is discipline and the necessity to work together with colleagues under the authority of the officers in charge. We may not be paid and to that extent we are volunteers, but we know that we have been saved for purpose, and if we are to fulfil that purpose we submit ourselves willingly to him and follow his direction, just as a volunteer in the armed forces submits himself to the direction of the leaders. What a privilege!
It’s for our sanctification!
Once that decision has been made we come under the leaders’ authority with all the discipline and obedience that implies. That does not guarantee an easy ride. Discipline is sometimes hard. The soldier who decides not to get out of bed in the morning for parade would not enjoy duvet-comfort for long! Nor should we if we commit to serve, say, on a Sunday rota and don’t ‘turn up’. But as we trust the leaders of the church, who lead the church to serve God’s vision and have our best interests at heart, we can serve with joy and fulfilment even if, at times, we don’t really want to. Such service is part of our sanctifying process; it gives us the opportunity to become more like Jesus who always did what the Father told him.
Next time we shall begin to look at some of the practical matters related to ‘volunteering’ in the church.