The Servant Church


The Servant Church

August 19th, 1979 @ 8:15 AM

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
Print Sermon

Related Topics

Downloadable Media

sorry, there are no downloads available

Share This Sermon
Show References:

The Servant Church

Dr. W. A. Criswell

John 13:1-17

8-19-79    8:15 a.m.



It will be a privilege always for us to say these words of gratitude and welcome to the great throngs of you who are worshiping with us on television, on the radio, and at the 10:50 service on television.  And there are a lot of folks at whose houses our people are knocking.  We have knocked at the door of almost thirty-five thousand homes, found almost five thousand prospects, and we want you who have had an invitation from these who have visited your house, we want you to feel that this is God’s welcome to you.

This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message entitled The Servant Church.  For three years, morning and evening, I have been preaching through the Book of Acts, and all of those sermons will be published.  The second volume will be out in about a month, and the third volume will be out the following year.  But while I have been preaching for three years through the Book of Acts, there have been many things as I have studied the Bible, and as I walk in and out among our dear people, there are many things that have come to my heart that I would like to preach on.  So for the next several weeks, or a few months, we are going to have messages that pertain to us, God speaking to us.

Mr. Zondervan sent a man down here and asked me, when I finished preaching through the Book of Acts, if I would preach a series of sermons on the great doctrines of the faith and let them publish a volume entitled that: The Great Doctrines of the Faith.  So sometime in the fall I will begin that series on the great doctrines of the faith.

But between now and then, there are, as I said, many things that have come to my heart in the last three years, and preaching through the Book of Acts, I did not have opportunity to present them.  So we’re going to begin this morning with the series that pertain to what God has to say to us today, and this is the first one: The Servant Church.

In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, verse 4, "He riseth from supper," that’s the Passover Supper, "He laid aside His garments," there’s not a thing that will humble a man more than being undressed, "And He took a towel, and girded Himself.  After that He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with a towel wherewith He was girded" [John 13:4-5]. Then, verse 12:

So after He had washed their feet, and had taken His garments, and was set down again, He said unto them, Know ye what I have done unto you? Ye call Me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 

If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. 

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.  Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.

If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.

[John 13:12-17]


We know that is not an ordinance of the church; there are two ordinances of the church.  We know that is not an ordinance of the church because Jesus said "The Holy Spirit will guide you [apostles] into all truth" [John 16:13].  So, we look to the apostolic church, the New Testament church to find; what are the institutions, the ordinances that Christ gave us to keep.  This is an example and this is a beautiful one.  And that is our message today: washing feet, The Servant Church.

First: the servant Savior.  What was He like?  Had you seen the Lord and walked with Him in the days of His flesh and you were talking to somebody else describing the Lord Jesus to them, what would you say about Him?  We find an easy answer to that question in the Lord’s self-description.  In Matthew 11:28 and following, He says,

Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart:  and ye shall find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.  For I am meek and lowly in heart"

[Matthew 11:28-30].

When the great Baptist preacher, John, sent to Him asking the question of His messiahship, He replied in these words, "You go back and tell John that the blind see, that the lame walk, the crippled are healed, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have the gospel preached unto them, and blessed is He that is not offended in Me" [Matthew 11:2-6].  The Lord’s self-description of Himself was one who was meek and lowly in heart.  His ministry was no less that.  The apostle Peter described His ministry in the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, "He went about doing good" [Acts 10:38].  All that the Lord did was always one of simple, prayerful, full of caring help, all the days of His life. 

And He was characterized by silent suffering.  There was in Him no spirit of retaliation.

Christ also –

 Simon Peter says –

suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow in His steps: Him who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not. . . Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree. . . by whose stripes we are healed.

 [1 Peter 2:21-24]. 


And that beautiful picture of our Lord as a silent sufferer; no spirit of reviling or retaliation in Him is the fulfillment of the incomparable prophecy in Isaiah 53:

He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant . . .

He is despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief . . .

Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth.

[Isaiah 53:2-7]


  He answered not a word; the suffering Savior, the servant Savior, the silent Sufferer. 

In this conference last week in St. Louis, one of the preachers spoke of his father, who was a pastor here in Dallas, and one of the members of his church was an employee in a small packing plant here in the city of Dallas.  And his assignment was to take a long sharp knife and to plunge it into the heart of cattle, then they fell down the chute and were processed.

And upon this day, on Sunday, the pastor asked the man, "How you doin’?"

And he said, "Pastor, I’ve quit my job." 

And the pastor said, "Well, what happened?"

"Well," the man replied, "It was like this: I was doing my assignment: down would come a big Hereford, and I’d plunge the knife into its heart; down the chute it would fall to be processed.  In would come a big Angus, and I’d plunge the knife in its heart; down the chute to be processed.  But they didn’t tell me that they were that day beginning to process lambs.  And" he said, "after those big cattle came and I plunged the knife in their hearts and down the chute they fell to be processed," he said, "the next one came was a little white fleecy lamb. And," he said, "I plunged the knife in its heart.  And," he said, "pastor, as the little thing wilted and died away, it licked the blood off of my fingers."

He said, "Pastor, I threw that knife away, and I quit my job, and I’m not going back to kill anymore." 

That’s Jesus.  That’s what the Book says.  He is brought to the slaughter, and He says not a word: the silent Sufferer [Isaiah 53:7].

You know that’s a remarkable thing about the Lord and His effect upon our lives.  "I have seen the Lord, and I have found the Lord, and I can’t drink anymore," or "I can’t gamble anymore," or "I can’t be the same again":  the effect the beautiful, precious, lovely life of our Lord has upon those who meet Him face to face.  And we know all about that for we’ve met Him and know Him, and He has that effect upon our lives.  He softens the hard things in us, and He changes the bad and evil things about us; our servant Savior. 

I speak now of our servant pastor, the servant pastor.  "If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you" [John 13:14-15].  When you get a harmony of the Gospels, you’ll find the occasion of our Lord taking off His garments, girding Himself with a towel, and washing the disciples’ feet [John 13:4-5]. 

It arose over a thing that was common among them.  They were arguing over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Apparently, at the Paschal meal, it was occasioned by where they were going to be seated and who was going to have the chief seats.  It was then, after their argument over who would be greatest [Mark 10:35-45, Luke 22:24], that the Lord disrobed, girded Himself with a towel and began to wash their feet and to teach them that the greatest is the humblest, and the master is the servant [John 13:4-16].

When you read the life of the apostles in those four Gospels, they were constantly doing that: quarrelling over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  That gave rise to the passage that we read this morning: "Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many" [Mark 10:45].  The servant pastor, he is your servant if he is true to his calling.  The apostle Peter wrote "Feed the flock of God which is among you. . .neither as being lords over God’s heritage" [1 Peter 5:2-3].   Poimen is the word for "shepherd."  Poimeno means "to shepherd the flock," and that’s the word translated here, "feed," which is a good translation.  Feed. 

Another way of saying it: shepherd.  "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you. . . Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away" [1 Peter 5:2-4].  There is a crown for the pastor who is faithful to his flock and who shepherds his people.

Now, there is an admonition here that you cannot help but look at: not lording it over God’s heritage [1 Peter 5:3].  The shepherd of the flock, the pastor of the flock, is to be a servant of his people, and not a lord over them, not lording it over God’s heritage.  As such, one of the tremendous principles, foundational, primary, in building a church is this: that the pastor use and develop his laymen and his laywomen.  The man that does that will build a great church.  And after he is buried, God’s strength will be found in its membership, for its laypeople have been trained to accept responsibility and authority.  They are accustomed to it.  They’ve been developed in it.  They’ve been trained in it.  And they carry on and on through the years and the years that unfold before them.

But the pastor that doesn’t do that – that builds the church around himself – when he is buried, the church dies.  World without end have we seen great congregations that when the pastor died, the preacher died, the congregation disintegrated and in many instances finally disappeared.  If I could wish anything for myself and the work here in this great church, it would be that: that we have so developed our laymen that they accept authority and responsibilities and they carry on the work of the Lord now, tomorrow, until Jesus comes again.

In doing that, the pastor has to remember one thing.  If he gives the responsibility and authority to those men, then he doesn’t have it.  That would be logical, wouldn’t it?  If he gives it to them, then he doesn’t have it.  He gave it to them.  And if he doesn’t give it to them, then they have no authority and no responsibility.  They are rubber stamps.  They are hollow and empty echoes.  They are figureheads.  They make no contribution.  But if the pastor gives them the authority and the responsibility, then they have it.  And, as such, they are accountable to God and to the people of the Lord for the faithfulness of their assignment.

This week one of my dearest friends in the church, and a godly deacon, came to me, and he said, "Pastor, when you write in your Pastor’s Pen that these men are chargeable for these great ministries of the church and that your part is to work with them and to help them, pastor, some people believe that that’s not quite all the truth.  They believe that the reins are in your hands, and you make those final decisions." 

I replied to him, "I think that’s true.  The reins of the church and all of its many-faceted ministries are in my hand.  But," I replied, "if I interdict what those men do, and if I intervene in what those men do, I do two things: number one, I ruin the morale of the men.  They see that they are empty figureheads.  And the second thing is they’re very happy to check it back to me, very delighted to do so."  And I can have the whole thing.  I can take over the entire music ministry of the church.  I can do it.  I can take over the entire outreach ministry of the church.  I can do it.  I can take over the entire educational ministry of the church.  I can do it.  I can take over the entire business ministry of the church.  I can do it.  I can take over the entire educational institutional ministries of the church.  I can do it.  They would be very happy to check it back to me, put it in my hands: "You’ve got it, preacher, it’s yours." 

But when I do that, those two things inevitably follow. The men lose their feeling of accountability, and responsibility, and authority.  And the second thing is your pastor soon is so burdened and laden under an impossible heavy load until he is crushed.

It would be a weak church that followed a program like that.  There have to be trustees who head these schools, and they must be responsible, and the pastor must help them and encourage them and stand by them.   There are committees who work in all the many-faceted ministries of this church, and when they make decisions, the pastor ought to pray for them and help them and stand by them.  And when he does that, the men feel a sense of tremendous, of tremendous accountability unto God for their work and for their assignment.

Sweet people, when I was pastor of my little country churches, I didn’t have any problem like that at all.  I did it all.  I had a little church of eighteen members, my first one, and I did it all.   I had a little church then of forty members, and I did it all.  I had churches in those days where there wasn’t anybody who’d pray in public, and I’d pray in public; I was the only one that would.  I taught, and I was the only one that’d teach, so I taught.  I was the only one that would train, so I’d train.  I led the singing.  I made all the announcements.  I did all the preaching.  I held a revival meeting.  I did the whole thing. 

In the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts: "And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews," the Aramaean Jews [Acts 6:1].  You see, the problem arises when the church grows.  And when the church grows, the pastor ought to realize that there is more to its ministry than he can put his arms around.  And he ought to call in men and say, "Now, brethren, this is a great work over here; this is your responsibility, and this is a great work over here, and this is your responsibility, and this is a great work here, and this is your responsibility." 

And then the pastor ought to pray for the men, and hold up their hands, and help them in the tremendous dedication that they pour into that work of the Lord.  And if I’ll do that – if I’ll not try to lord it over God’s heritage [1 Peter 5:3] – if I will do that we will have a great strong church.  And the people will be blessed by the manifold, multifaceted, multiplied ministries of the great outreach of our congregation. 

And that leads me, of course, to my third avowal: the servant deacon.  The servant deacon – that’s his name.  Diakonos means "servant."  It is a common Greek word, household word, referring to a servant, a diakonos – in English language, a deacon; a deacon.  A deacon that seeks to be imperious can literally wreck the heart and spirit of the congregation of the Lord.  But a deacon that humbles himself before God and is a menial servant in the house of the Lord gives encouragement and brings blessing to everybody.

There are no tasks too menial for the deacon, none at all.  When I was for many years a trustee of the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, my alma mater, the head of the trustees was a marvellous deacon and layman and rich man named Mr. Anderson.  He owned the Anderson Department Store in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The pastor at that time was named Fred Brown, F.F. Brown, one of the dearest undershepherds you could ever know in your life.  And Fred Brown went down on the public streets of Knoxville to preach the gospel, to preach the gospel. 

Well, the University of Tennessee is in Knoxville, and it is a distinguished church congregation.  And some of the people criticized the pastor, saying, "That’s beneath the dignity of a pastor – that he’s down there on the streets of the city preaching the gospel.  That’s beneath the dignity of our pastor."  And Mr. Anderson heard about it.  So the next time and the next time that the pastor was down there on the streets of Knoxville preaching the gospel, Mr. Anderson, the richest man in the city and had that big far-famed department store, the Anderson Department Store, Mr. Anderson was down there with him handing out tracts, shaking hands with the people, and encouraging them into faith in the Lord.

There’s not anything that a deacon would be in anywise humiliated or degraded in the menial tasks of the church, were it to be to sweep it out, were it to be to open the door, were it to be to raise a window, were it to be to help somebody out of the car, were it to be to point somebody where to park.  All of these things reflect a spirit of humility and helpfulness.

Mr. Gene Clough came to see me Friday, and he said, "Pastor, you just cannot know the faithfulness of our deacons."  He said, "For months now, every Wednesday from high noon until the evening, these men have been in my office hammering out this budget."  And he said, "If there are in a day fifteen of our staff, who come before them making appeal for a place in the giving program of the church," he said, "Pastor, then there’ll be fifteen prayer meetings.  Every time anyone comes before them to make appeal for help, they’ll pray.  They’ll have a little prayer meeting first."

In this coming Pastor’s Pen I’ve written about Leon Howard and Ed Hecht, and their men who visit for the Lord.  And it concerns how God has blessed their knocking at the door and their sharing the sweet goodness of Jesus, the servant deacon.  

I must hasten; the servant church.  The servant church; there is an admonition in the sixth chapter of the Book of Galatians in the second verse, "Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  Bear ye one another burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" [Galatians 6:2].  I have two things to say about it. 

First, the servant church and its members:  there is nobody, no one, but that ultimately comes into heartache, and tears, and sorrow, and finally illness and death.  Nobody, nobody escapes.  Wherever there is a sorrow, or a death, or a hurt, or an illness, our church ought to be the first ones there – we, the first ones there.

I think that’s what a church ought to be.  And I think that’s what the people who belong to it ought to be like.  Wherever there is a need, we are the first ones there.  Do you remember one of those stanzas in "Blest Be the Tie That Binds"?  It goes like this:


We share our mutual woes

Our mutual burdens bear

And often for each other flows

The sympathizing tear.

["Blest Be the Tie That Binds," John Fawcett, 1782]


I love to think that our church was like that.  If there’s a need, if there’s a sorrow, if there’s an illness, if there is a death, we are the first ones there.  Maybe all we can do is just be there.  Maybe all that we can do is just weep.  Maybe all that we can do is just hold somebody’s hand.  Maybe all that we can do is just pray.  But maybe the prayer, and the tear, and the touch of the hand is more than all that the doctor or the lawyer could do beside – a ministering servant church.

And then second and last: a ministering church to the needy.  No church, I don’t think, would ever be blessed, who overlooked the poor, the people that have not been fortunate, where providence has brought them ill.  Now, I wish I had an hour to speak about that.  "What do you mean, pastor, when you say that the church ought to be God’s minister to the needy and to the poor?  Well," you say, "that means that the church ought to have millions and millions of dollars and, on this side, let’s say we have long lines of people buying food stamps, and then on this side we have long lines of people with their hands held out for a dole; that’s what you ought to do."

This last week in St. Louis, we were staying in a motel, a famous chain.  And in the morning, I went into the dining room to eat breakfast, and it was full.  And I sat down, and the only place that was open, there were three others there at the table, and they invited me to be a fourth.  So I sat down there, and they said, "It will be a long time before you can be served."  So, I looked.  There were two people working in that restaurant, serving in that restaurant; one was a crippled girl, and the other was an old, old man. 

So you, say, go to the management.  "What’s the matter here?  What’s the matter here?  Look at all of these people.  This restaurant is jammed.  Look at all these people!  And you’ve got one little girl who’s crippled and one old man to pick up the dirty dishes!  What’s the matter with you?  Why don’t you get people here to work in this restaurant?" 

And he’ll answer, as our church answers, as practically every businessman in America answers: "We can’t hire them because they’d rather live off of the welfare of the dole of the government than to work at a menial task like serving in a restaurant."  And there are ten thousand, times ten thousand, times ten thousand incidences like that all over America.  We are rearing a welfare people, and we’re making our country a welfare nation.  Now, I’m not talking about that, and God strike me dead if I ever gave myself to a political scheme like that – "You vote for me and I’ll get money for you on the dole."  I’d die before I’d do it.  I’m not talking like that.

What I’m talking about is the way we do it in our church.  Dear people, you don’t realize it, but out of the giving, when you put money in that envelope and turn it into the church, a large part of that money that you give goes to a ministry for the needy.  Over a half million dollars, here in this town alone, in the city of Dallas, more than a half million dollars goes for those people.  But how do we do it?  Not in a dole, not in a handout. 

What we do is we go into the homes of those people, in twelve chapels and many other small preaching ministries, and we try to get that man to God.  We try to get that man to take the responsibility of a loving support for his family, and if we can change that man, if we can win that man to Jesus, we have a new home, a new father, new children, a new wife; we’ve made all things new as God says He does with us in Christ [2 Corinthians 5:17].  And that’s the way we do it.  Out there, all through this city, we have ministers of God working in those homes, in those families.

I remember coming down here to the church one time before Christmas when we had a mission banquet, and that year they had testimonies.  And, dear people, I’m not exaggerating when I say to you I sat there and wept for two solid hours listening to those men as they said, "I was in the gutter, I was in the gutter, and my family was hungry and naked and unsheltered.  And this pastor," and he’d refer to one of our mission pastors, "this pastor came and won me to Jesus.  Now I have a fine job, and we’re paying for our little home, and my children are clothed, and we walk in dignity."  That’s what we need.  That’s what we need.  And that’s the great ministry of this church in that vast outreach that covers this city far beyond what you realize.

Dear people, that’s the whole work and assignment and effort of the people of God.  Come to the Lord, give your heart to Jesus, and it’ll be a new day for you and a glorious one.  It’ll be a new day for your house, and your home, and your family, and a marvellous one.  Try it and see.  To walk in the pilgrim way of the Lord is to walk in glory in this life and to walk straight into heaven in the life that is to come.

And that is our appeal to you.  Give your heart to Jesus.  Put your life with the people of God. Come, pilgrimage with us.  Our faces are toward Jesus, our hearts are lifted toward heaven, and it’s a glory road every step of the way, even through our tears and sorrows.

I realize that a lot of times it’s difficult to get up the courage to get into that aisle and down here to the front.  I know because I went through that when I was converted.  So we want to do everything we can to make it so that you can make that decision for Jesus.  And that’s why I have our deacons come and stand at the head of each one of these aisles.  And I want you deacons to do that now. 

I want a deacon at that aisle, and one there, and one there, and one here, and one there, and one there.  I want you to come and stand at the head of the aisle, and I want you to face our congregation.  If it’s difficult for you, think of how much more difficult it is for a lost man to come, and to come down that aisle?  Would you do that?  I want a man here, and one there, and one there, and one there.  I want a deacon to come and stand at the head of each aisle.  That’s the way.  That’s the way.  That’s the way.  I want a deacon to stand at the head of each aisle.

And in a moment we’re going to stand and have a prayer.  And then we’re going to sing us a song.  And while we sing the song and our people pray, to give your heart to Jesus: "Pastor, I’ve decided for God, and here I am," or "I want to put my life in this dear church, and I’m going to bring my whole family with me."  Down one of these stairways and down one of these aisles, that godly deacon will greet you and tell you how happy he is that you’ve come.  He’s going to bring you to me and tell me who you are and why you’ve come.  And then we’re going to have a prayer together and rejoice in the Lord.  God love you and bless you as you make that decision for our Savior.  Now, may we stand together?

Our Lord, if at any time in our lives we’ve tried to lord it over God’s heritage, we’ve been imperious, may God forgive us.  And those times when we’ve tried to be a servant and a blessing to the people, Lord, multiply those times.  Help me, Lord, to be a good shepherd, and help our people to love one another and to bear each other’s burdens, and in any kind of need, or distress, or illness, or sorrow, we’re there to strengthen, to pray, to comfort, to encourage.  And, our Lord, bless this invitation now.  Some coming to these deacons, "I want to be saved.  I want to give my heart to Jesus"; some, "I want to be baptized, I’ve found the Lord"; or some, "I want to bring my life into the circle of this dear church."  And bless them, Lord, as they come, in Thy precious, saving, and keeping name.

And while we wait before our wonderful, wonderful, Lord, who loves us, and gave Himself for us [Galatians 3:20], while we wait before Him in the softness of the singing of this appeal, down that stairway, down that aisle, make the decision now.  Answer with your life.  And God bless you as you come.