Over the years, I’ve heard well-meaning Christians give all kinds of reasons why they need to take extended ministry breaks or can’t serve at all. If you are going through some extenuating life circumstances, please note that this post may or may not be applicable to you. That being said, when we hear something like this, we empathize with them because for many of us we’ve been there. In the end, each individual has to make his or her own decisions, but on what basis should he or she make that decision? As Christians, we turn to the Bible because God’s Word is our supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. We have to ask ourselves, what does the Scriptures have to say about ministry burnouts, long ministry breaks, or not serving at all? There are two things I would like to share with you as we wrestle with the above question.
1. I can’t recall any Scriptural passages giving God’s people permission to take long ministry breaks or exemption from serving the local church. If there was one, the closest one I can find comes from Deuteronomy 20:7, 24:5 that grants newly married Israelite males one year exemption from compulsory military service and/or public service. Two things I see here. First, the exemption from the army was to eliminate the possibility of the new husband dying in battle soon after marriage. Second, the context of this passage deals with compulsory public service duties. In most local church ministries in the USA, the analogies breaks down and neither applies. For most of us, doing ministry does not mean putting ourselves in positions where we can physically die. Also, for most of us, ministry duties are not compulsory but voluntary. Maybe I’m not aware of another pertinent passage, but at least this passage does not seem to give God’s people permission to take extended ministry breaks or exemptions from serving.
2. Scripture seems to reject all excuses. For instance, in Luke 14:12-24, Jesus uses the Great Banquet Parable to basically say that He will not accept any excuses for not following Him. If you are offended by my use of the word “excuses,” let me remind you that Jesus starts off verse 18 with the words “But they all alike began to make excuses.” If I may take the liberty to modernize the three excuses.
a. verse 18 – I can’t because I just bought a real property (field)
b. verse 19 -I can’t because I’m too busy at work (oxen)
c. verse 20 -I can’t because my family needs me (newly married)
Jesus does not even pretend to empathize with them, but flat out rejects what may seem to us as reasonable excuses in the harshest terms (v24). These are not my words but the very words of Jesus. I want you to read it for yourself. Read the surrounding passages or better yet read the entire Gospel of Luke. In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus likewise rejects two other excuses in verse 59 “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” and verse 61 “but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
Circling back to Luke 14:25-33, Jesus teaches us to count the high cost of following Him.
a. verse 26 – we must put Jesus above all other relationships (hate father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and self)
b. verse 27 – willing to suffer and yes even burnouts (bear our own cross)
Does the demands of discipleship seem too hard and difficult? Who told you that discipleship was going to be easy and comfortable? Jesus said the exact opposite. If you are a Christ follower, this is the agreement you made with Jesus when you committed to follow Him. Do you regret your decision? I hope not. Let me encourage you that as Christ followers, we don’t run away from sufferings that come with following Jesus (not talking about all sufferings), but we embrace sufferings because God uses our sufferings for Him to mature us and others to be more like His Son. Discipleship or following Jesus is not an additional thing we do in our lives but it’s a lifestyle. The sooner you can start the lifestyle of a committed Christ follower the better.
Let me end by saying that the Christ follower lifestyle must not be confused with legalism. Legalism at its core wrongly assumes that doing stuff for God gains special favor from God. Legalism is the burdensome yoke of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned (Matthew 11:28-30). Let me reassure you that if you are a Christian, you have already received the maximum unmerited favor from God in Christ Jesus. For those of us who are married, hopefully we serve our spouses not because we want them to love us more but rather because he/she already loves us. The dishes still needs to be washed, lawn still needs to mowed, and many other chores still needs to be done, but somehow being loved and loving back makes the yoke lighter. Likewise, Christ followers live the disciple lifestyle because God already loves us. Just for added emphasis, let me be bold and say that if you decide to not to serve God, He will still love you but at the same time if you love Him, you will do what He commanded (John 14:15). This is the tension we all have to reconcile in our faith walk.