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People: Means or Ends?

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.  Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

Have you ever been used as a means to an end?

Whether you’ve thought of it in those terms before, the answer must inevitably be “Yes!”

We use ourselves as a means to an end every day. When we drive our bodies or souls into unhealthy and unsustainable working patterns in our determination to achieve the ends of praise, money or promotion. When we indulge our uncontrolled desires, using our bodies as a means to the end of pleasure or release.

Too often, we use other people as a means to an end too. Our spouse becomes a means to sexual gratification, ego-boosting or ministry advancement without proper attention to his or her needs. We persuade unwilling or unwitting people to keep serving in ways that, if we’re honest, we know will harm them. We don’t think of their welfare, but instead do it to achieve the end of keeping a programme going or growing our church.

I’m sure some of you have been deeply hurt and discouraged when others in ministry have used you as a means to an end. When a congregation expects you to work unreasonable hours without encouragement or proper sabbaths, you feel like a means to an end. Sometimes, it’s just thoughtless treatment - for example, when a church stops inviting you as a visiting speaker without even the courtesy of letting you know. It can even happen in a mentoring relationship. A young leader who once was so eager to learn from you moves on to a bigger ministry platform, and you never hear from them again. It leaves you feeling used.

Let me say it plainly. Immanuel Kant was right (at least in this!) You are not just a means to an end and neither are others. So don’t use yourself or others that way.

The wonderful truth of the gospel is that human beings are God’s end as well as God’s means.

People were created in God’s image to know and enjoy him. They find joy by living the way he intends them to live. In relationship with him. In the Bible, though humankind sins grievously against God, he does not respond by using them as a means to an end. It is certainly true that nations and their rulers are his instruments to work out his purposes of judgement and blessing. However, he always dignifies them with the consequences of their choices and shows surprising mercy even to the most wicked.

When it comes to salvation history, God became incarnate as a human and substituted himself in our place in order to save us. He became the means of our salvation, but not with the purpose of stopping there. No, the purpose has always been to transform those he loves into the very likeness of his Son. That is the end, and it is beautiful and good. In his earthly ministry, Jesus never used people as a means to an end. His interactions restored full humanity to people and called them into God’s kingdom, in which disciple-making disciples are both the ends and the means of mission. People come to share in the blessings of Christ through people who share Christ with them.

Thinking of our ultimate destiny, God’s purpose is for us to be a people redeemed by Christ, who enjoy his goodness eternally as we continue to glorify God. The end is glorified humanity and the means to that end is the glorious human, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit, who gives birth to new life in us, is the guarantee of glory to come. He never uses people simply as a means to an end. And despite our rather clumsy language at times, he does not “control” us, but releases, leads and empowers us. He transforms us into the likeness of the One who is our end and our means to reach it.

Creation, redemption and eternity – three reasons that people are never merely means to an end. I suspect none of this is news to you. So, why, unless I’m sorely mistaken, do churches so readily turn people into the means to some other end than their own “progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1.25)?

We could blame thoughtlessness or insensitivity. We might say it’s unintentional. We may even tell ourselves that the problem is just lack of sacrificial commitment from others. But these thin veneers hide the shameful truth that “ministry” has become an idol. And idols need sacrifices. The idol of our vainglory demands the lifeblood of God’s people. And that’s not right. Instead, the sacrifice God seeks is our living selves – alive in Christ, joyous in God’s grace, refreshed by the Spirit. So, when our sacrifice is killing us or damaging others, there’s something seriously wrong.

So, people are always more than a means to an end. But, we should also be careful of a different error: turning ourselves and others into an end and not a means. That’s what happens if we become complacent or give in to self-preservation. Remember, we are both the end of God’s purposes and the means through whom He works. Disciples making disciples and growing in the process. That’s why we must always call people to discover the works he has prepared in advance for them to do, which is the fruit of the work he has done in us (Eph. 2.10). He works in us; we do his work in the world. To equip people for that task, we need to remember that they are ends and means. As they grow up in every way into Christ, speaking the truth in love, they are the end of that work (Eph. 4.15).

So, in pastoral ministry we need to see people as both means and ends. We need spiritual wisdom to recognise when an end – think vision, mission, goal, strategy or programme – has turned a person into a means. Equally, we need insight to know when we have made a person into an end without a means by affirming laziness or selfishness. Above all, we need to know people well enough to spot which is the case. Whichever problem you diagnose, the first step is to affirm that you do not see the person as a means to an end alone. Only when they are sure they are not being used, can they begin to understand that God has a wonderful part for them to play in a story whose end is glorious.

So, how can you show people that you value them as an end in themselves? Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Never confuse God’s goal of creating mature disciples of Christ with your goal of running the church and sustaining its programmes.

  • Tell people who serve that it’s okay to take a break or leave a ministry team, because you love them more than their contribution. (They do not need to know about your anxiety over replacing them. That is between you and the Lord!)

  • Don’t use guilt trips to encourage people to serve. (If we don’t have more people, then..) That’s not right. Instead, captivate them with the wonder of God’s grace.

  • Get to know your people well enough that you know their gifts. Don’t rely on general appeals. Having said that, give space for people to follow God’s call to serve in areas you might not have anticipated.

  • Continue to bless people who stop serving in your church. Do this even when you don’t understand why they stopped. Bless those who leave your church, regardless of why they left. Shunning leavers is cult-like. It is wrong.

  • Make sure your preaching and pastoral counsel encourages the full range of works of service God has prepared for his people. Be aware that much of it (perhaps most) is in workplaces and families rather than church programmes. (See our recent post "Buffet Church")

  • Make a special effort to care for people who simply aren’t able to contribute towards ends you might have. Again, don’t confuse your ends with God’s ends. He may well use people in ways which you will never know.

  • When people from outside serve your church, send a hand-written card of thanks. Speakers truly appreciate the time you take to do that. If it doesn’t go well, give honest feedback. If you stop inviting a regular, tell them why. Don’t shun them with silence.

Having given the first words to Immanuel Kant, I feel I must leave the last words to the true Immanuel – God’s ultimate end and means through whom we reach God’s end, and in whom we become God’s means. He called us to His life-affirming, grace-saturated ethic of love for God and others, with words that call us to treat others and ourselves both as ends and as means:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.

Matthew 7:12


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