When Service Becomes Vainglory

As a sin becomes more ubiquitous in a culture, its appropriate name seems to become more elusive in language.  “Fornication,” for example, is an everyday sin, but not a word you hear every day in the West. “Usury” is likewise pretty much unheard of unless you read old books. Stealing our language is an important part of Satan’s work of temptation, after all. If we lack the tools to even conceptualize a trap, it becomes all the easier to fall into it.

“Vainglory” is another word that’s fallen into disuse even as we fall more and more into the sin it describes: a kind of empty and boastful self-aggrandizement. Whereas sinful pride is about puffing up your view of yourself, the vainglorious puff up their reputation among others. They covet things like honor and prestige, ultimately stealing them from their community.

It’s easy to point fingers at the world on this one. Virtue-signaling has become a national pastime. Our worship of diversity leads to fundamentally vainglorious attempts at “inclusion” and “representation.” The practicalities of elections have made vainglory a way of life for our ruling class.  Not to mention celebrity culture, which speaks for itself in this regard.

But it’s the Church which most needs to guard herself against the ubiquitous sorts of sins. The more common they are in the world, the more natural they will seem when Satan promotes them in our congregations. It’s particularly ironic that one of his favorite tactics for promoting vainglory among Christians is by twisting our regard for humility and service to others.

There are many calls to humble service in Scripture. Naturally, Christians ought to eagerly follow the example of our Lord. As Paul tells us when exhorting us to humility in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name this is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

But as always, Paul is only echoing what Christ himself taught. When James and John tried to secure a higher position than the other disciples, he says to them all in Matthew 20:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be you slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In both cases, God’s Word explicitly instructs us to curb the sinful sort of ambition which seeks the personal glory that authority can obtain. And yet, in both cases, neither glory nor authority are excluded. Christ is exalted specifically for his humility, and every knee shall bow to him. The Apostles were likewise given profound authority in the Church and promised twelve thrones from which they would judge the twelve tribes of Israel. It would seem that there is a certain paradox with respect to humility.

The solution to that paradox lies in what both Jesus and Paul specify: service to others. As Paul says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This is the point of our humility–not contempt for authority or even glory.

There are many to whom God has given authority. Nevertheless, their goal should not be obtaining the privileges of position, but rather fulfilling the responsibilities for which that position was ordained. Certainly, God is not so unjust that he won’t honor and reward the obedience of those who serve as they were commanded to serve. Nevertheless, we serve because we love God, not because we covet His rewards.

It is important for Christians to recognize both the paradox and its solution. If we do not, it becomes quite easy for Satan to twist it into vainglory. All he has to do is make our service about honoring the servant rather than fulfilling the needs for which the servant was appointed. Once he does this, Christ’s instructions towards humility ironically become stepping stones to our own glory. And it’s frighteningly easy to fall into this inversion.

I often see this happen in my own denomination when we try to make liturgical innovations to the Divine Service. As the name “Divine Service” implies, the point of coming to church on Sunday mornings is to be served by God. We hear His Word; we receive His Sacraments; we’re forgiven our sins. And, of course, we respond to these gifts in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving as a normal part of our liturgy and hymnody. Christ came to serve, and on Sunday morning, we revel in such an amazing gift. Liturgy may evolve over time, but it must always reflect that.

Now, as a matter of practicality, holding church services requires service by members of the church as well. There are pastors, organists, ushers, altar guilds, elders, acolytes, and many others who have different responsibilities in making sure things run smoothly. I’m even one of them–as an elder, I sometimes assist with serving Communion. Nevertheless, while I’m happy to serve such needs, that’s not at all why I’m there on Sunday mornings. It’s not why any of us should be there. When Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him while Martha chose to serve, Mary was the one whom Jesus commended.

But so often, our liturgical innovations are suggested not to fill any need of the congregation, but only the desires of the would-be servants. I don’t know how often I’ve heard encountered that with respect to our youth. For example, we supposedly need to add things like liturgical dance, skits, guitar solos, and the like to the middle of the divine service to give our youth a chance to “participate.” I’ve even heard that if we resist such things, we’re basically shutting them out of God’s house.

How badly this inverts both participation and service! In the Divine Service, we’ve all been invited to our King’s lavish banquet. Do we really believe that it’s better for us to be a waiter than to sit at His table and feast at His invitation? Is bussing the table more of a participation than eating what’s been prepared for us? Is that really what we want to teach our youth?

And yes, I understand that many of them find church boring–I certainly did myself when I was that age. But that wasn’t because it was boring or because I wasn’t serving (I was an usher at the time.) It was because I didn’t really understand the service and didn’t really know why I was there. That lack of understanding born from our failure to pass on our heritage is the real participation problem that needs to be resolved. Finding busy-work for our heirs just covers up the real issue.

The same inversion often happens when it comes to women participating in church. Many confessional Lutherans have a peculiar kind of complex when it comes to feminism. While they acknowledge that women are forbidden the pastoral office, they’re ashamed enough of God’s command that they feel the need to compensate for it. I’ve written before about those who claim that we need more women leaders in the church–not because their leadership is needed as a service but in order to give the servant herself a kind of status or recognition.

But that complex extends to the divine service, where we seek to have women serve as lay readers, preach children’s sermons, and basically get as close to the office of pastor as possible without crossing the line. I was involved in a discussion over women lay readers recently, and literally every reason given in support of the practice was a benefit to the lay reader herself rather than anyone else. I heard, “We need more ways for women to be involved,” which is the same fraudulent reasoning we inflict on our youth. “We need to show that women can do more than just cook and clean,” was the saddest considering what lay reading actually “proves.” After all, I already assume that able-bodied women in our congregations are capable of both reading and speaking. But I suppose one can’t expect sound reason to proceed from feminist insecurity.

But the most egregious example of inversion I experienced happened a couple decades ago while attending a faithful church on “LWML Sunday.” For my non-Lutheran readers, Lutheran Women’s Missionary League is an auxiliary service organization in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. They do many different kinds of service work, but educating women and raising money for missions are some of their priorities. One of their traditional ways of fundraising was with “Mite boxes”–little cardboard boxes into which people can put their spare change and then return to the organization.

The purpose of having an LWML Sunday is to recognize and honor those who serve God in this organization. But even (or perhaps especially) as someone who had just repented and returned to the Church after lapsing during high school and college, it made me rather uncomfortable. I was there to sit a my Savior’s feet–with the eagerness of a new convert even–but all the LWML-centric liturgical alterations were distracting me from Him. The kicker was a special hymn we sang called “Amazing Mites” (sung to the tune of Amazing Grace)

1. Amazing Mites are sent with prayer Here and abroad to share
With those in need, that is our aim, and always praise His name.

2. Each coin is giv’n with loving heart. In this we have a part.
What joy it is to do God’s work! From this we’ll never shirk.

3. Amazing Mites, those coins so small, When in the box they fall,
Become a force for our dear Lord And spread His Word abroad.

4. Our Mites help many in despair. They show how much we care.
They tell the news of God’s great love, And point to Heav’n above.

This was the first time I ever stopped singing a hymn mid-verse on account of conscience. Lutheran hymns run the gamut of praising God, thanking God, praying to God, and so forth. But this hymn very blatantly praises our own works rather than our Lord. I did not come to church to worship mite boxes.

Thankfully, I’ve never again heard that hymn sung–at any congregation (I did speak to my pastor about it, and it was never used there again.) But I have to admit that this first experience of LWML Sunday left a bad taste in my mouth that I’ve never really been able to get rid of. Even LWML Sunday services that are far more tasteful and which retained Christ at the center of the Divine Service inevitably put me on edge.

If we are to avoid falling into these sorts of traps, then we must be on guard against vainglory–even when we serve.  Yes, we should look forward to hearing “well done, good and faithful servant” from our Lord. And we should certainly take the time to recognize our fellow-servants who are doing good works; simple gratitude requires as much. Nevertheless, we must be on guard against inventing new works so that we may be recognized.  And we should be especially on guard against coopting the Divine Service for such purposes–the congregation isn’t a conveniently captive audience.

To that end, we ought to let the 10 Commandments guide our good works. As Luther says of them in his Large Catechism:

Here, one will find his hands full and will have enough to do to keep these commandments: meekness, patience, love towards enemies, chastity, kindness, and other such virtues and their implications. But such works are not of value and make no display in the world’s eyes. For these are not peculiar and proud works. They are not restricted to particular times, places, rites, and customs. they are common, everyday, household works that one neighbor can do for another. Therefore, they are not highly regarded.

There is no vainglory to be found in simply doing what God has given us to do. No one who diligently pursues that will ever find themselves with leftover time for inventing new works for themselves.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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