Any Volunteers?

I’ve been looking for a word and I can’t find it. More specifically, I’ve been looking for a word in the Bible and I can’t find it. Yet it’s a common word. And it’s a word often used to describe members of a church. I’ve used it myself, quite recently, and many of you will have used it too. But, as far as I can tell, it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible. The word is ‘volunteer’.

Isn’t that striking? We often say ‘the church is a voluntary organisation’ or ‘the church is made up of volunteers’, usually meaning we can’t force people to do what we think they should be doing! But I cannot find any reference in the Bible where the people of God are called ‘volunteers.’

However, although the word itself is not used, perhaps the idea is? My dictionary defines a volunteer as ‘someone who enters any service, especially military, of his own free choice.’ Doesn’t that describe what happens when we become a Christian? In one sense it does, although the Bible teaches us that we recognise Jesus and submit to him as our Commanding Officer only because the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see him as he really is.

But the fact that we owe our salvation to God’s sovereign work of grace does not mean we are unwilling conscripts in his army. Yes, because of God’s sovereignty, there is a sense in which we are conscripts in his army: we have been called up to serve the King of kings with an authority far exceeding that of any national government. On the other hand, as the Bible makes clear, God furthers his plans through the decisions of human beings.

This means that our choices remain our choices. This means that, although repentance and faith are both gifts from God, it is we humans who repent and believe – not the Holy Spirit within us. In other words, as Christians we have been conscripted (called up) into God’s army, yet our response to his call has been given voluntarily. Equally, if we have volunteered to serve and follow Christ, it is only because he has called us and conscripted us into his service.
If we could ask Peter and Andrew, ‘Did you follow Jesus freely or were you compelled to leave your nets behind?’, I suspect their answer would be ‘Both!’ Yes, we left our work freely, gladly even – but there was nothing else we could do! His voice, his call was irresistible. We were willing conscripts: free to choose, but with only one choice before us.

This is why, I think, the Bible uses other words to describe the followers of Jesus Christ. Not ‘volunteers’, but soldiers; servants; disciples; sons and daughters. And what is striking about all these words is that each of them involves a commitment which is far more than ‘voluntary.’ The soldier is committed 24 hours a day to his commanding officer; likewise the servant to her master; also, in the ancient world, the disciple to his teacher. And the son and daughter cannot, however hard they might try, be ‘part-time’ members of the family!

Yet, I fear this is exactly what many of us try to be: part-time soldiers, servants, disciples and family members. We view ourselves as volunteers and our Christian service as ‘voluntary’. We consider it ‘optional’ whether we attend public worship or not. We meet to pray only when it suits us. We decide which commands we are going to obey and which ones we shall ignore. We think we do God a favour if we ‘volunteer’ some of our time, talents and money. We expect our Commanding Officer to be grateful if we show up on the parade ground from time to time, ignoring the fact that our lives are in his hands and not his in ours.

May the Lord forgive us our half-hearted obedience (which is really disobedience, see 1 Samuel 15!). May the Lord give us a right spirit, to make us willing in the day of battle (Psalm 110 v 3). May the Lord remind us of his great love for us, a commitment to sinners freely (voluntarily) given, which cost Jesus his life. May the Lord set us free to love, serve and worship him. Free to be committed. Committed because we are free. Any volunteers?

Rev Dr James Torrens

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now,