One of the major failures in the Corinthian church was their wrong view of Christian leadership and ministry. We've already seen that failure and some of the problems and divisions it caused in chapter 1: 11-16 and last week in chapter 3. Paul in 3:3-4 says that they were worldly in their attitude to leaders and that this caused jealousy and quarrelling among them. Some were saying 'I follow Paul' and others were saying 'I follow Apollos'. Some were boasting about men (3:21) and giving their allegiance only to men. They were far too ready to put the spotlight on individuals, to play one leader off against another, to compare this person with that person, to put men on pedestals and to knock others down (especially Paul) and to judge or examine leaders on the wrong grounds (4:1-5). Some of their own leaders had become arrogant (4:18) and were impressing people with their talk and causing them to doubt Paul's apostleship, his way of life in Christ and his example of servant leadership.
We too can have a wrong view of Christian leadership. Rather amusingly my two sons were yesterday deciding how to cheer the JPC football team in their league cup final. Christopher wanted to shout 'David Holloway's church!' when Tom shouted 'No, Arnold's church!' (Arnold is our verger) How do we view Christian leaders and what is successful leadership? Do we need to grow up in our view? If we're leaders or in ministry who are we wanting to please and whose commendation counts – men's or God's?
So here in 1 Corinthians 4 Paul is concerned to teach how the Corinthians and how we should regard those in Christian leadership. He wanted his readers to understand how God measured and evaluated a Christian's service. The second half of verse 6 in chapter 4 explains his purpose:
Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.
Now of course we must avoid extremes when it comes to evaluating leaders and their ministries and we must be aware of what the whole of Scripture teaches. On the one hand, we can be so indifferent that we accept any leader who comes along. But the other extreme is to be so hypercritical that Paul himself would fail the test. Paul also tells us here what God requires of his servants, what the attitude of leaders should be, what example they should set and gives us some clues about how they should treat those in their care under God. But Paul's main concern is to teach the Corinthians and so us and or them and us to learn from Paul and Apollos (v6-7) and the way they have applied this to themselves so that we ma learn from them the meaning of the saying 'Do not go beyond what is written', ie beyond Scripture – then you will not take prid in one man over against another.
So then how were the Corinthians to regard Paul, Apollos and Peter? How ought we to regard those in Christian leadership, even though there are no Apostles today like Paul and Peter, and what is required of them? Which brings us to my first heading and Paul's first picture of the true servant: the heading is faithful and the metaphor is servants & stewards.
First, FAITHFUL – SERVANTS AND STEWARDS (vv1-7)
Paul has already said in 3:5:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
Now in 4:1 Paul says, "men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with (or as stewards of) the secret things (or mysteries) of God" (namely the gospel). Don't boast of men, says Paul in 3:21, you are not servants of such people: they are your servants.
The original word for servants is unusual and means an 'under-rower'. It described the slaves who rowed the Roman galley-ships. Paul is saying: We are not the head of the ship but only the galley slaves who are under orders – servants of Christ. And, secondly, stewards of the secret things of God. A steward is a servant who is charged with providing the establishment of a large estate with food and all things needful. He was responsible only to his lord. He simply does his master's bidding and looks after his affairs. And Christian ministers are stewards who share God's wealth, the secret things of God, God's Word with the church family (Mt 13:52).
What is required of stewards? What is required of servants of Christ who have been given a trust? Look at v2: "Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful". The steward is to be faithful to his master. The Christian steward is to be faithful to Jesus Christ and faithful to the gospel. A steward may not please all the members of the household; he may not even please some of the other servants; but if he pleases his own Master, he is a good steward (cf Ro14:4). So here in 1 Cor 4 the main issue is not 'Is Paul popular?' or 'Is Apollos a better preacher than Paul?' The main issue is 'Have Paul, Apollos and Peter been faithful to do the work God assigned to them?' Jesus taught about this in the parable in Luke 12:41-48. If a servant of God is faithful in his personal life, in his home, and in his ministry of God's Word, then he is a good steward and will be adequately rewarded.
So Paul sees himself as responsible or answerable, not to the Corinthians or to any human court (v3), but to the Lord (v4). And he is aware that one day he must give account to God of his stewardship (v5) as must we. That is Paul's motivation as a minister of God to the Corinthians. What is ours as a servant and steward? Are we looking for praise from God or from men? Are we being faithful to the Lord, to the gospel and to the task he has assigned us to do? And what do v3-5 say to us about our judging of leaders and of ourselves as leaders? The Corinthians were judging God's true servants at the wrong time, by the wrong standard and with the wrong motive. Look at those verses:
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent (only through faith in Jesus Christ can he be justified). It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
Paul knows that the Lord's criterion, in scrutinizing his ministry, will be neither success nor popularity, but faithfulness to him & his word.
Secondly, HUMBLE – KINGS AND PAUPERS (vv 8-13)
The true servant is humble and the metaphor Paul uses is that of Kings and paupers. The Corinthians believed that they were a successful, lively mature and effective church. They were satisfied with their leadership and thought they had become the best they could be. They thought they'd arrived. Hence Paul's irony in v8. Look at that verse:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings – and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!
Yes if we have put our faith in Christ we have been enriched (1 Cor 1:5) to reign with Christ but we won't enter fully into that inheritance here and now. Yes there is glory but what about the way of the cross, which Paul now reminds them of in v9-13 and which is authentic Christian ministry here and now. Lets remember the authentic marks of Christ's own ministry. For as Jesus said:
A servant is not greater than his master. (Jn 13:16)
Now Paul wishes, along with many of us no doubt, that the Corinthians really had become kings so that he might become kings with them. That he could be beyond all the hardships, the persecution, the depression and the sometimes sheer slog of being fools for Christ's sake (v10). They might think they've arrived but Paul knows he has not. They think they are strong but Paul is aware of his weakness. They are honoured – they take pride in their reputation and respectability in the world – he is dishonoured – he is mocked and scorned by the world.
Look at v11-13. That is authentic Christian ministry. For Christ's sake he has become the scum of the earth. Now Paul sees the apostles as supremely called to this suffering (v9-10). He imagines a Roman general's triumphal procession where the captives are displayed as a spectacle ending with the captured king who was already sentenced to death. Paul is in such a position. But we too are called to go the way of the cross. Philippians 1:29 says,
It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.
Yet many of us who are Christians, like the Corinthians, find authentic Christian ministry difficult to both accept and embrace. To be "a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men" goes against our natural inclinations. And we forget the truth that God's strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:10)
Someone commenting on these verses has written:
"It is no sociological or circumstantial phenomenon that the Christian church is growing most noticeably amongst the poor in certain parts of the world. This growth reflects accurately the way these Christians approximate more closely to the pattern of Christian life and ministry described in the New Testament. God has chosen the foolish, the weak the low and the despised (1 Cor 1:27-28)."
We need to remember Paul's teaching from 2 Cor 4 here with regard to the metaphor of kings and paupers. If we are being blessed in our Christian life and work then others are being buffeted. If we are experiencing the buffeting and the cost of authentic Christian ministry then we can be assured that it is genuinely releasing blessing in the lives of others we are touching. All Christians are both kings and paupers on earth – wealthy in Christ and yet despised by the world.
Thirdly, TENDER – FATHERS AND CHILDREN (vv 14-21)
Thirdly the true servant shows both tenderness and toughness as a true father does to his children. V14:
I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children.
He has the warmest of feelings for them. He loves them in the Lord and wants to tend them in order to help them grow. It should be said that in seeing himself as a spiritual father to the Corinthians he does not see it as an authority position or as one invested with status. He would not have wanted to be called Father Paul in the wrong sense which some ordained ministers do today. Jesus' words in Mt 23: 9-11 would have been familiar to him:
Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven…He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.
No Paul sees himself as father to the Corinthian Christians in the sense that he proclaimed the gospel to them. V15:
for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.
He does not take the credit for their conversion but he was the father who stood by and assisted at their birth. "Therefore", v16, "I urge you to imitate me" – his way of life in Christ. Like a true father, and because children copy their father, he had been an example to them and Timothy was to remind them of his way of life in Christ. This is a reminder to us that leaders are to live exemplary lives. He was also willing to discipline the children as a faithful parent should. He finishes the chapter with a strong plea for these children to stop boasting and to grow up. The arrogant could not back up their talk with their walk. Their religion was only in words. But as Paul says
the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.