Sometimes we hear Christian jargon batted about so much that we lose our grasp of what is meant by the terms. Because words like servant and servanthood have been used so much, I’ve chosen to use different ones.
If one has a spirit of helpfulness, it is easy to slip from freedom in serving into the bondage of subservience. Right away we can get a clue from the sub- prefix. It means “under,” “beneath,” “lower,” “further down” or “less important.” That meaning is useful, of course, when we talk about a subway or submarine, subzero temperatures, a subbasement, or a subhead. But sub- connected to service means, not retained and remunerated fairly for aid one has given, but service that is required because the server is under the other. He/she is beneath the one being served, lower and less important.
My purpose in pointing out this difference is that Christians sometimes confuse the two. (As I have done myself.) Too frequently, it can be seen in churches where officials use their position to assume a superior stance over others. They “deserve” their privileges and even if they do not require obeisance, they quite readily accept inappropriate deference. Sadly, it is found in home relationships too. The husband—backed by Scriptural teaching, he supposes, concerning the submission of his wife to his decisions and wishes—domineers or even abuses his family. The wife may not realize there is any other way to interpret those same Scriptures, and hates the position in which they have placed her. In these churches and homes, those who “under” are not able to give freely in serving, but are enmeshed in subservience. While risking oversimplification, I see the two sharply contrasted in these ways.
Serving allows one to understand and minister to others while retaining his/her own identity and objectivity.
Subservience requires one to give up autonomy, even one’s own Spirit-led intentions.
Serving has genuineness about it; it is consistent with the rest of the giver’s life.
Subservience means the giver may have to hide feelings of frustration and anger.
Serving is about honestly assessing need, not always yielding to what is wanted or demanded.
Subservience is allowing oneself to be manipulated by another, even when their agenda might not be particularly self-serving.
Serving means one chooses to be in a caring or giving situation.
Subservience requires one to co-operate or suffer negative consequences.
So what are people to do if they are caught in subservience rather than serving? Some situations can be altered so that the sub- part no longer exists to create an imbalance of power. That’s why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees. Some relationships have to enter a negotiation phase, where both giver and receiver act honestly and graciously. Remember Jesus washing Peter’s feet? And some have to be ended. The Apostle Paul and Barnabas perhaps illustrate this when they went their separate ways, although thankfully, only temporarily. None of these are easy, especially if the inequality is firmly established. But serving is a Christian privilege, fully based on the Scripture; subservience is not.