1 Corinthians 4:1-21 – Leadership under the Crucified Christ

When we work overseas we become members of international and interdenominational communities. Since we come from different countries and from different religious backgrounds, even though we are all disciples of the Lord Jesus, we find that we disagree about so many things. How are we to deal with all of our disagreements?

Disagreements in believing communities are nothing new. The Corinthian community had many disagreements. In addition, not only were there disagreements, there were competing rival factions within the one community. This unfortunately happens in many communities as well.

So, we have been reading 1 Corinthians to see how Paul advised the Corinthians in order to see how his advice to them can inform us as to how we can move beyond divisiveness and be thriving, diverse communities of faith in our host countries.

As we have seen in the previous posts, the Corinthian culture had negatively impacted the believing community’s understanding of leadership. From 1:10 to 3:23 Paul had been trying to correct the community’s wrong thinking. In Chapters 1 and 2 Paul worked to reshape their understanding of power, wisdom, and spiritual maturity. In Chapter 3 Paul constructed a new vision of the Temple of God. In this chapter (4) Paul proceeds from this new vision of the Temple and paints a radically different vision of what leadership in God’s Temple means. Leadership for Paul was rooted in his understanding of Jesus, the ultimate leader. It appears that Paul’s perception of leadership was shaped by Jesus’ life and death as Messiah- by his service, humiliation, and crucifixion. Let us read through the chapter by sections and reflect on each one. The first section is verses 1 through 5.

Leadership as Service
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God (ESV).

The last chapter ended with Paul showing how leaders and teachers belonged to the Church, the church members were not to belong to them. Paul follows this point up by saying that the true position of leader-teachers is that of servant (Greek: huperetes) and steward (Greek: oikonomos). Both terms indicated that leaders-teachers stood in a subordinate and responsible relationship with Christ. In Luke 1:2 the ESV translates the term huperetes as ministers- ministers of the word. A steward was the chief servant of a household- administering and overseeing the household for the owner of the house. Joseph in Genesis 39:4 functioned as the steward of Potiphar’s house. With Joseph as an example, we can see that stewards were entrusted with a significant responsibility. Yet, stewards did not own anything in the house; they were still servants. This positional reality was meant to shape the Corinthians’ understanding of what it meant to take a position of leadership in Christ-centered communities.

Paul points out that as stewards and servants, teachers have been entrusted with the mysteries of God. Christ expects them to handle this responsibility in a trustworthy and faithful manner.

Then Paul takes a different tack than one would expect. One would think that Paul would give guidelines as to how to judge whether a teacher was being faithful or not. To the contrary, Paul appears in this instance to indicate that the Corinthian community should not begin judging their leader-teachers. Verses 3- 5 give some indication why. In verse 5 Paul speaks about intentions. In verses 3 and 4 Paul says that he does not even judge himself. Is he calling for restraint in judging the leaders because the Corinthians have become so confused by their own divisions that they cannot clearly discern their own motives behind what they were doing? Whatever the reason, it is clear that Paul advocated that the Corinthians not get caught up judging their leaders-teachers.

This may indicate why Paul used himself, Apollos, and Peter as examples in this letter (verse 6: I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit). It is possible that the divisions did not revolve around Peter, Paul, or Apollos at all. Paul may have simply used these names as examples because Paul may not have wanted to label any of the teachers in Corinth as miscreant. This problem of self-advancement and divisiveness could have been due to immaturity and not to evil intentions. Paul could not have known anyone’s intentions because he was writing not from firsthand experience. He was writing from what had been reported to him by a delegation from Corinth. Therefore, it appears that Paul created a safe zone for these leaders and community members, giving them all time to pray, time for the Lord to show them their own motives, time for the leaders to examine the quality of their own teachings, and time for everyone to be responsive to the Spirit and be self-correcting. Paul gives us in these verses a great example of godly leadership!

Paul now moves on to his next point.

Leadership with Boundaries
6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? 8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!

The danger any leader-teacher faces is to go beyond what is written. Paul likely was referring to the Old Testament in this phrase. As we look back in chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Paul drew from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job to make or support his points.
1.19 – I will destroy the wisdom of the wise (see Isaiah 29:14).
1.20 – Where is the wise man? (see Isaiah 19:12).
1.20 – Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world (see Jeremiah 8:9)?
1.31 – The one who boasts must boast in the Lord (see Jeremiah 9:23-24).
2.9 – No eye has seen (see Isaiah 64:4 and 65:17).
2.16 – For who has known the mind of the Lord (see Isaiah 40:13).
3.19 – He catches the wise in their craftiness (see Job 5:13).

Paul demonstrates by this usage the authority the Scriptures carry. The Scriptures are supremely and uniquely authorized to guide and govern our beliefs, values, and behaviors. They governed Paul’s values, thoughts, and actions; and they exist to provide healthy boundaries for us. We are not to go beyond what is written for our own benefit. Some meaningful reflective questions arise at this point. Do we intentionally keep ourselves under the authority of the Scriptures? If so, how do we do this?

For the Corinthian community, they had gone outside the boundaries set by the Scriptures. As a result, they were destroying the harmony of their community by exalting some over others. Paul uses the Greek word phusioo to describe the likely but dangerous attitude behind their doing this. Phusioo can be translated as puffed up, arrogant, or haughty. The word is used six times in 1 Corinthians, three times in this chapter alone. In 4:18 and 19 the ESV renders phusioo as arrogant. In contrast, Paul reminds the Corinthians and the leader-teachers that there is no reason to boast about what any of them have because whatever they have was given to them by God. It is not as if they reached any spiritual height or developed any special spiritual insight on their own. This is why boasting for any believer at any time is completely out of place. Everything and anything we have that is good is a gift from God.

The boasting that was taking place within the Corinthian community was a bit over the top for Paul. Even though he did not want to unleash a wave of judgmentalism in the community, he had to address the underlying cause of the rivalry and divisions that existed in the community because he knew that they were caused by the very human but very insidious pride. So, he gets a bit sharp with his pen.

From what Paul writes in these verses we see that these leaders must have been teaching that they had reached such a pinnacle of spiritual experience that they were kings in the spirit! Paul shows what humbug all their triumphalist rhetoric was by writing: Would that you did reign!

Now, why was Paul so upset by their triumphalism? Ephesians 2:6 clearly states that Jesus’ followers are currently ruling and reigning with Christ because we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. The problem, though, is that the Corinthian leaders’ triumphalism stood in direct contradiction to what it actually meant to rule and reign with Christ in this world. Paul was an apostle and he experientially understood what it meant. The crucifixion is supposed to shape our understanding of what it means to rule and reign with Christ in this world. Paul develops this point in the next section.

Leadership and the Cross
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

The phrase linked with the words exhibited and spectacle appears to draw from the imagery of gladiators in the arena. Paul says that the apostles were like gladiators, but Paul and the apostles had no chance of victory. They were doomed to die while everyone looked on and watched them in the fight. Wherever they traveled they encountered opposition, difficulty. They felt weak. They experienced abuse. In response to the abuse they received, they blessed. Paul summarized their position as the scum of the world, and the refuse of all things.

In reading this, one must wonder how Paul got the stamina to carry on when life was so difficult. What motivated him? This is where the humiliation and the crucifixion of Jesus indelibly shaped Paul’s understanding. Look at what Paul said in Philippians 3:7 and 10: Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. It appears that Paul knew that the cross, in addition to being the means of our salvation, also expressed in a most poignant way the very character of God.

Since the humiliation and the crucifixion of Jesus shaped the experiences, the understanding, and the leadership of the apostles, from where did the self-proclaimed triumphalism of the Corinthian teachers come? It did not come from the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul viewed the Corinthians’ triumphalism as sheer folly.

As one who has served in the hard places, Paul’s insights and example are as valid today as they were when he first wrote them.

Leadership with Grace
14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.

Paul quickly turns away from his sharp irony and expresses his heart. Paul did not want to abuse the Corinthian community. He loved them. They were his dearly loved children in the Lord. He had brought the gospel to them. He just knew the end result of going in the direction they were going. Self-advancement, rivalry, and divisiveness would eventually destroy the community. He cared for them and wanted them to avoid this at all cost. Since he loved them and cared for them, he sent Timothy to them. Out of his love and care he asks them to remember how he lived among them and imitate him.

Although Paul may be motivated by love, and wholeheartedly desire to be gracious, he is a leader and he knows that he has a responsibility to the community to act decisively when it is needed. Paul expresses this decisiveness in his ensuing final comments of this section.

Leadership and Discipline
18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

Here Paul pulls out the stops and asserts that some of these leader-teachers are arrogant. He has been told that they assume he will not return. Therefore, they will not be held accountable for their actions. However, Paul asserts he will return and he will hold them accountable.

In what was Paul’s authority based and how would he exercise it? Paul had no civil authority over these individuals. He could not send anyone to jail. Paul was dependent upon the Lord to validate his authority and teaching among the members of the Corinthian community. Paul knew that the Lord had called and anointed him for this apostolic work. So, he was sure that the members of the community would hear his teaching and be convinced that he was right. This was why he said that the kingdom of God consists of power not of mere talk.

However, notice how Paul ends. Paul does not want to exercise his authority in a disciplinary manner. He would prefer that they resolve their differences ahead of time. His preference is that he come and encourage them. In this Paul demonstrates godly leadership. The godly leader wants to guide and empower people, and then watch them work things out on their own, doing what is right. Though Paul can appear very strong in parts of some of his letters, and though he was a very determined person, Paul did not have a controlling personality. Love for Christ and for others shaped who he was.

Paul had a radically different view of leadership. His understanding of leadership was shaped by Jesus’ life and death as Messiah. Matthew records the character of Jesus with these words: The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). Paul, likewise, described Jesus’ character in a similar way:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).

Thus, the crucified Christ shaped the way Paul understood leadership. It was self-sacrificial service. This understanding shaped the way he lived and shaped the way he served the Lord as well as the Church. NT Wright described Paul’s life this way:

Nobody in Corinth, or any of the other towns outside Palestine, had ever before witnessed somebody living the way Paul lived. Nobody had seen someone giving of himself generously, living a life of self-sacrifice, and refusing to play the power-games and the prestige-games that were the stock-in-trade, not only of the sophistic teachers who came and went (and made a lot of money), but of the local rulers, the magistrates and civic dignitaries, and those who promoted and ran the new imperial cult. Paul was different, and the difference mattered, because he was modelling the Christ-life (Wright, N.T., Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 53).

Since the Crucified Christ shaped Paul’s view of leadership, Paul expected the leader-teachers of the Corinthian community to follow Jesus, humble themselves, and serve faithfully and responsibly like he did. These leader-teachers were unfortunately getting sidetracked, getting caught up with illusions of their own significance. There were members in the community encouraging this as well. They felt that they had come to understand in a more complete way what ruling and reigning with Christ really meant. Paul knew as one of Christ’s chosen apostles that this was all rubbish. Ruling and reigning with Christ in this life meant service and hardship.

Therefore, Paul called on these leaders to be shaped by Jesus’ cross, accept hardship, and serve the Lord’s community. Paul called on them to not go beyond what is written. This means that they were to study the Word and accept the boundaries for life, teaching, and leadership that the Scriptures set. In this we learn that the Scriptures are supremely and uniquely authorized to be the only authority for our values, lives, and practices. We are encouraged to study and teach them appropriately.

Paul was not afraid to lead, but he led with love, compassion, and grace.

These truths should shape the way we interact as international and interdenominational communities. Paul would encourage us to be humble about our perspectives. Differences in perspective can enhance a community as long as they do not become vehicles for elitism. When elitism strikes a community, rivalry, personal advancement, and divisions are sure to follow. To keep this from happening we ought to listen to one another and diligently search the Scriptures together, learning from one another. Even after we study together it is likely that we still will have differences of opinion. This is normal and we are to graciously allow for differences in perspective. If we focus not on getting agreement but on serving one another in love and encouraging one another, we will glorify our one Lord in our host communities.

Following Paul’s advice is not easy to do. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to do this well and to flourish as a community. And it is possible for divergent communities to flourish. I have been part of communities where we flourished together. It is wonderful when it happens.

Posted in