Pride of position, arrogance in ability, and conceit over tribe have, through the centuries, been the source of much unhappiness among God’s people—as far back as 2 Chronicles, where God threatened judgement upon Judah for its pride (32:24–26). It was no less a problem in the local church and between churches and Christians in the early centuries.
The apostles, on more than one occasion, wondered who was the greatest. Pride led to pretension in Ananias and Sapphira, which resulted in their death. Paul warned churches about conceit (Philippians 2:3) and warned of new converts being destroyed by conceit (1 Timothy 3:6). Conceit blinded people from the truth (1 Timothy 6:4) and the New Testament plainly condemns pride as worldly and therefore to be rejected (1 John 2:16). Arrogance has no place in an elder’s life (Titus 1:7). Ultimately, pride of position, and threat of losing it, motivated the Jewish leaders to mistreat and murder Jesus.
In the text before us (1 Corinthians 4:6–13), Paul instructively rebukes the Corinthians for conceit, with an aim of cancelling it. He aims for them to reject the world’s wisdom and rather to return embracing the cruciform life.
Perhaps there is not a more uncharacteristic sin among Christians than the sin of conceit. “Conceited Christian” is a glaring contradiction, or at least it should be. An arrogant follower of Jesus Christ is repulsive; it should be unthinkable. After all, Christians, by the grace of God, have been raised from spiritual death. Christians were once depraved and hopeless sinners who, though deserving God’s holy and everlasting wrath, are yet mercifully and graciously delivered from his just condemnation (Romans 8:1). Everything a Christian has is from God: justification (Romans 4:25), sanctification (Philippians 2:12–13), and eventual glorification (Romans 8:29–30). Where is room for conceit?
Though the world rejects the uncomplimentary truth, nevertheless the instructed Christian sings, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” This reality lies behind Ellsworth’s observation that “pride is never more sickening than when it shows up in the life of the Christian. It is totally out of place there because it contradicts the teaching of grace.” Too many wear a cross around their neck yet conceit reigns in the heart.
Sadly, the Corinthians were no longer singing this stanza, for they were behaving arrogantly. They were guilty of ugly conceit. And it was tearing the church apart. Therefore in this passage, “Paul moves from speaking figuratively and indirectly about the church and its leaders, to speaking literally and directly to the situation in Corinth…. He shifts from polite metaphors to blunt commands … even insulting sarcasm and strong language” (Ciampa and Rosner). Paul pulls no punches in his attempt to cancel the culture of conceit. Again, Ellsworth comments, “If pride can be called an illness, it is safe to say that the Corinthians had an epidemic on their hands.” Paul therefore provides the antidote—the “vaccine”—for the epidemic of conceit. The antidote includes three elements:
- Confront Conceit with Scripture (v. 6)
- Confront Conceit with Reality (v. 7)
- Confront Conceit with the Cross (vv. 8–13)
Confront Conceit with Scripture
First, Paul urges the church to confront conceit with Scripture: “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 favour of one against another.”
In the preceding passage Paul, intimates that a critical and judgemental spirit was characterising this church. This was connected to a partisan spirit as church members were lining up behind their favoured leaders, while apparently disparaging those lining up behind other leaders. The root of this partisan discord, as Paul makes clear in this passage, was sinful conceit. As Pastor David Jackman writes, “Behind all our judgementalism lurks the monster pride, ignorant of humility, forgetfulness of grace.”
So it was with the church of God in Corinth. Yes, it was a genuine church of God and yet it was being defaced, disfigured, and divided by satanic, fleshly, worldly, conceit. And in Paul’s attempt to cancel—to kill—this conceit, he begins by confronting the church with Scripture, with “what is written.”
In Psalm 119:9–12, the writer expresses his passion for “what is written” as a means to live a holy life. He writes, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!” Paul wanted this church learn to live within the boundaries of Scripture. This is essential if conceit will be cancelled.
Having written many words instructing the Corinthians away from worldliness and the spiritual immaturity it produces, Paul brings this matter to a close. He tells the Corinthians that his reference to himself and Apollos was for the purpose of discipling them away from arrogance and towards gospel humility. His use of metaphors with reference to himself and Apollos was for their “benefit,” not his and Apollos’s. Let me explain.
Earlier, Paul referenced himself and Apollos as those who were God’s farm labourers serving him by planting and then watering the gospel seeds, while crediting God as the one who caused the growth (3:5–9). All glory to God, not to the labourers.
Then, in 3:10–15, Paul likens himself as a builder who constructs the house of God upon the foundation that God laid, Jesus Christ. He neither designed the temple of God, nor would he or could he take credit for it. He simply built with the gospel materials the Lord gave to him. God gets all the glory, not the labourers.
Finally, in 4:1–5 Paul refers to himself and other church leaders (including Apollos no doubt) as “servants” and “stewards” (ministers and managers). Neither of these was a position of great reputation in the Corinthian culture, since they were positions predominately filled by slaves.
By referring to himself and Apollos as minsters and managers his concern was not so much that they would focus on them but rather that they would learn that just as they—an apostle and a gifted leader—were merely servants and stewards and not to be exalted, so they should view themselves. After all, if the leaders are humble, should not those who are following them be humble? Sadly, this was not the case in the church at Corinth.
It is clear that Paul was not describing himself in terms that would lead to boasting. There was room for the world’s conceit. Just as he and Apollos (along with any other church leader) had nothing to be conceited about, neither did the Corinthian congregation. As MacArthur says, “Servants are faithful and meek, not proud; stewards are trustworthy and submissive, not arrogant. Neither is any Christian to be.” This is the scriptural disposition expected of every Christian. This is “what is written” as the directive for the church. Jesus said it best, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26–28).
Paul says that the motive of his instruction was so that they may “learn by us not to go beyond what is written.” Though there is debate about Paul’s meaning, it seems clear to most that this was a well-known saying to the early church. But what particularly did Paul mean by this phrase?
“What is written” is a euphemism in Scripture for Scripture (see 1:19,31; 2:9; 3:19; 6:16; 9:9,10; 10:7,15; 14:21; 15:45,54). Therefore, Paul is speaking about that which is recorded in Scripture, including his own inspired apostolic writings (see 5:9).
Paul writes that they must be careful to live within the boundaries of Scripture rather than “going beyond it.” This is the expectation for the Christian in every area of life. The Christian lives under Scripture not beyond or above it. When our attitudes and actions are not determined by God’s word, we are behaving (and believing!) like the world. And here, Paul uses the statement to drive home his exhortation that they must cease and desist from their arrogance and divisive favouritism.
When you think about it, the highest conceit is that of rejecting the authority of God’s word. And sadly, too many Christians live like this. The truth “written” remains the truth. “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
Yet, despite “what is written,” Christians refuse to become accountable members of a local church, refuse to repent and participate in the Lord’s Supper, refuse to humble themselves and gather with the church for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and ministry. Some Christians refuse to submit to their appointed leadership while others—like the Corinthians—sinfully exalt leaders above what is biblical. Again, whenever we disobey Scripture—including when we are “hyper-scriptural,” thereby adding to God’s word—we are committing the grossest form of conceit. And calamity and contention are its bitter fruit.
It was for this reason that Paul desired that the Corinthians “will learn the scriptural idea of the subordination of man. Uniformly the Bible elevates God. The Corinthian emphasis on the persons of teachers meant that they were thinking too highly for men” (Morris).
The world may be into self-exaltation and making a name for oneself, but the Christian lives to exalt Christ and to make his name known. The world may be partisan, but the Christian commits to living in loving unity and with appreciation for those differing. In essence, the word and the gospel of God make the Christian radically and noticeably different from non-Christians. The culture of the Christian congregation is discernibly different than the culture created by non-Christians. The local church should be the most humble place in the community.
Confront Conceit with Reality
Second, Paul urged the Corinthians to confront conceit with reality: “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?” (v. 7).
Paul wanted this church to experience humble harmony, but this could not occur unless they saw and acknowledged their sinful conceit. They needed to be confronted with the reality that they were the fruit of grace, not the fruit of their own gifting. They needed to be faced with the reality that they were not superior to other Christians just because they were the recipients of enormous grace. The fact that they were graced with such gifted teachers did not make them any more special to God than any other Christian. They needed to face this reality. So do we.
Through a worldly, fleshly allegiance, the Corinthian church was guilty of being partisan, leading to ungodly, fleshly, worldly rivalries. After all, if one was a follower of Cephas, they presumably were opposed to Paul and or Apollos. If one was a follower of a super apostle (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11), they were presumably opposedto a “lesser” apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9).
As we will see in a moment, the same is too often sadly true in churches and in the wider church. Paul unhesitatingly confronts them with some humbling rhetorical questions to help them face reality.
“For who sees anything different in you?” In other words, why do you think you are anything special and hence justified to “go beyond what is written”? Do you seriously think you are superior to others and that God’s rules (and rule) does not apply to you?
“What do you have that you did not receive?” In other words, are you a church founded on the gospel by your own efforts? Did you invent the gospel? Are you self-creative when it comes to your identity? Are you the originator of the gospel that formed you into a church? Of course not!
Therefore, “if then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Here the hammer drops, and Paul accuses them of conceited boasting. How foolish! How silly! How wrongheaded!
The Corinthians had received (as a gracious gift) the word of God (v. 6a), and they, like every other church, is responsible to obey it. The Corinthians had received the gospel and therefore, like every other local church, they were to be humbled by it, not puffed up by it.
The matter of being “puffed up” was a major problem in this church (see 4:18; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4). It needed to be rooted out through a healthy dose of biblical reality.
Just as conceit can rip local churches apart, so it can rip the wider church apart. Perhaps this is a reason that more inspired words were written to the church at Corinth than to any other church in the early new covenant era.
In what ways do we see the destructively divisive rotten fruit of conceit? We saw this in the bitter rivalries in the (primarily Western) church over differing approaches to COVID-19 restrictions. We see this in godless rivalries between Calvinists and Arminians, credobaptists and paedobaptists, and cessationists and continuationists. Christians fight over preferred Bible versions and, yes, form tribes over celebrity preachers: If you are for Washer, you must be against Dever; if you are for MacArthur, you must be against Keller. God deliver us from such tribalism!
These differences matter. These differences are important. We must not minimise our convictions about these matters. And yet we must also be alert to sinful pride creeping in alongside our convictions tempting us to think we are better, more loved by God, more accepted by God than those with whom we differ.
We must guard against the temptation to pridefully assuming that God cannot, has not, nor will not use those with whom we differ. Of course the biblical responsibility to confront and to separate from heresy remains But we need to be very certain that we are correctly applying the label “heresy.” When churches and ministers and ministries are clear and sound with reference to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we should be very, very slow to throw around the H word. A person may be wrong in an area and yet still be orthodox. Guard against ungodly partisanship. It is both the child and the mother of pride. Stop it.
Prideful partisanship arises from worldly thinking and destroys godly unity both in the local church and the wider church. Like the Corinthians, we all need such discipleship.
Confront Conceit with the Cross
Finally, and ultimately, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to confront conceit with the cross:
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! 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. 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. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
(1 Corinthians 4:8–13)
In this passage, the apostle uses sanctified, stinging sarcasm to drive home to the Corinthians that they are living according to the wisdom of the world, while they need to be living in accordance with the foolishness of the cross of Jesus Christ (see 2:1–5!). As Carson points out, Paul is making the point that “to praise a form of leadership that despises suffering is to deny the faith.”
The Corinthians lost sight of this and so, reminiscent of chapter 1, Paul makes the point that to follow Jesus will put one at odds with the world. In the case of the Corinthians, he makes it clear that the church is to cancel the prevailing culture of conceit by the Christian culture of the cross. Paul and his fellow apostles are Exhibit A of what this looks like. To understand this passage we will consider it under two major sections.
Hard Words for a Haughty Church
In vv. 8–10, we see Paul’s hard words for this haughty church. His pastoral heart is revealed in his epistles both by words of tenderness (see for example 1 Thessalonians 2) and in words of biting sarcasm, as here.
Because he had a shepherd’s heart, he was concerned to correct the foolish thinking and behaviour of the flock. Hard words were sometimes necessary (see Galatians 1). It was love for the Chief Shepherd and for his sheep that motivated him to write these words.
Twice, Paul used the word “already” as he sarcastically said to the Corinthian church, “Wow, you have arrived. I sure wish we were like you.” Ouch!
This provides us with some insight into the triumphalist spirit of the church. Rather than embracing and experiencing the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, the Corinthians were only seeking the power of Christ’s resurrection (see Philippians 3:10). Like so many of us, the Corinthians only learned and desired the first part of that verse.
They had a category for power, but not for perseverance; a category for triumph, but no category for trials; a category for popularity, but not for persecution; a mindset of self-preservation and conceit, but not for self-abnegation and humility. Sometimes, hard words are necessary to jolt us back to a biblical grasp of the Christian life.
First, Paul sarcastically “applauds” them that they are so spiritually saturated, spiritually full, having all they could want, with the implication that they no longer need to hunger and thirst after righteousness (v. 8a). Apparently, they have already been filled to overflowing enjoying the full inheritance of the Christian.
These Christians are so spiritually satiated and satisfied that they don’t need the full ministry of their church. They don’t need Bible study. Their children don’t need Sunday school. They don’t need a small Group. They don’t need the Sunday night prayer meeting. They don’t need the fellowship of the saints. They don’t need the Lord’s Table. And they certainly don’t need church membership. In fact, they are so full by a multitude of podcasts that they don’t much need the preaching of their own church!
Second, apparently, they are so spiritually well off (“rich”) that they no longer need to be poor in spirit mourning over their sins (v. 8b). They are so spiritually successful that they don’t need repentance, accountability, elders speaking into their lives, or counsel from God’s word. After all, they are not spiritually impoverished at all!
Finally, these Corinthian Christians are living like spiritual kings having conquered all their enemies enjoying victory after victory in an otherwise hostile world. They seemingly have already inherited the earth.
They are so victorious and so respected in their workplace, in their community, and in their schools, that they don’t need be instructed as to how to fight the good fight of the faith. They don’t need to be challenged with the truth that all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. They are so victorious over sin that they have no need to be warned about the world, the flesh, and the devil. They are so importantly successful in their Christian life that they should not be expected to serve the Lord’s people but rather they themselves should be served as the centre of attention.
Brothers and sisters, hear the voice of the Chief Shepherd. If you felt the sting of conviction from any of this, then humble yourself, get off the throne of your supposed victorious life and “learn by us not to go beyond what is written.” Repent of your go-it-alone arrogance, turn away from your conceit, and turn to and trust Christ as he matures you through godly relationships in the church.
Having sarcastically reprimanded them, Paul then sarcastically reflects with the rhetorical, “And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!” (8c). He is preparing to contrast his life and ministry (and that of the apostles) with their experience. His life is certainly not satiated, rich, or conflict free.
Rather, Paul explains that, while the Corinthian are living first class Christian lives, enjoying the accruements and affirmation of the world, Paul and his fellow apostles are treated—by God nonetheless!—as those who are the least of peoples, as those who are fodder for the gladiators to be abused and mocked before an arrogant and godless culture. In fact, all the universe observe them as objects of rejection (v. 9).
Paul brings his sarcasm to a close identifying himself as one being treated like fools in the world while the Corinthians are lauded as wise. He is weak and to be dismissed while the Corinthian church is viewed by the world as powerful and influential. And while the Corinthian church is honoured by the surrounded society with all speaking well of them, he and his fellow apostles are dishonoured, despised, treated as disreputable.
Though the sarcasm is finished, Paul’s elaboration is not. He uses sarcasm to get their attention, but he will finish by pointing them to the cruciform life he lives, and the one to whom they need to return.
Hardship in a Hateful World
Paul closes with reference to the reality of hardship in a hateful world (vv. 11–13). As he brings his loving and straightforward rebuke to a close, he contrasts his and the apostles’ humble experience with the supposed exalted (arrogant!) experience of the Corinthian believers. If we pay close attention, we will note that he is describing the experience of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Again, he is describing the cruciform life—the cross-shaped life—which is a life radically different from a conceited lifestyle.
In v. 11, we read that, whereas the Corinthians were full and satiated, Paul and his fellow leaders were hungering and thirsting. Whereas they were rich, Paul and his fellow apostles could barely afford to clothe themselves. Whereas the Corinthians lived like victorious kings, Paul and his fellow leaders were beaten up by the world with no place to call their home. There was no palace for them.
The Lord Jesus likewise hungered and lived day by day in dependence upon his heavenly Father for his daily bread. The Lord Jesus was poor and depended upon the offerings of some women that sustained him. He too had no place to lay his head and call home while eventually suffering the humiliation of being arrested, beaten, and killed—crucified.
In v. 12 Paul continues to explain what the cruciform life looks like: It is despised by the world. In that culture, manual labour was regarded as ignoble and even despised. It was the work of slaves. Paul explains that they are reviled, persecuted, and slandered. Whereas apparently the Corinthian church was popular in the culture, Paul and his fellow leaders were certainly not. They are mistreated.
When Paul describes their response to mistreatment (“we bless,” “we endure,” “we entreat”), he is not boasting. Rather, he is, first of all, pointing to what Jesus taught his disciples (Matthew 5:10–11). But, second, this response is countercultural, even to the point of producing even more contempt for Christians. The life of humility is an afront to the life of conceit. Paul is saying that to follow Christ, to take up one’s cross and follow him, is to embark on a life that will put you in conflict with a culture that will do all it can to cancel you. He concludes this thought when he says, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”
The words “scum” and “refuse” are synonyms referring to that which is wiped off, such as the waste sticking to a pot in which food was prepared or like filth wiped off from a shoe. Clearly Paul was not conceited! The words were also used of the most abject and despicable of criminals. Those rejected and, in some cases, sacrificed to pagan gods to appease their wrath. Sound familiar?
The Lord Jesus Christ modelled humility (Philippians 2:1–5), culminating on the cross. Paul is pointing the Corinthians to the ultimate example as the antidote to arrogance and deceit. The cross is the only power strong enough to kill conceit and to unite a church. We need to keep the message of the cross of Christ central. It is the only solution for the partisan world.
We need to be forever done with seeking the affirmation of the world and be content to follow in the steps of our Saviour. As he was despised, as we will be. As he was slandered, as we will be. As he was rejected, so will we be. We need to humbly follow. Humble discipleship and a conceited disposition cannot co-exist. But conceit will not be cancelled by sheer willpower. It is too strong a foe for us to resist on our own. Rather, we need the power of Jesus Christ, which is experienced as we stay near his cross.
Daily preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to yourself and you will be humbled as you face a hostile world. Surround yourself with those who are also preaching the gospel to themselves. Daily preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to yourself and you will share in his sufferings as you experience the power of his resurrection.
Non-Christian, self-sufficiency and conceited confidence may make you rich. It may give you power over others. It may produce a measure of self-satisfaction. But it will never meet your greatest need—to be reconciled to holy God from whom you are alienated by your sin. Therefore, realise your need, repent, call upon the name of the Lord and be forgiven and saved from God’s wrath. Call upon Christ and you will know the gospel’s power to cancel the conceit that is destroying your life.