In his thought-provoking book, A Non-Anxious Presence, Pastor-Theologian Mark Sayers writes, “Leadership was once seen as the art of building consensus. However, now it can feel like the act of desperately avoiding conflict—a change that is creating anxiety in many leaders.” The apostle Paul was no such leader. Though I’m sure he appreciated times of a conflict-free ministry, he was not controlled by anxiety over the need to confront sin, which marred the glory of God in God’s temple, the local church. Being committed to the message of the cross, and being devoted to the Christ of the cross, he embraced a cruciform life, embracing the uncomfortable consequences that flowed from it (vv. 8–13).
Therefore, he said what needed to be said, wrote what needed to be written, and did what needed to be done. And when it came to the local church, he was willing to enter the conflict of confronting the comfort zones tempting his fellow believers. He aimed to move them from crossless comfort to Christ-consuming commitment. One such example is before us in 4:14–21. This example provides the exhortation we all need.
Paul has written some biting sarcasm, drawing a distinction between the Corinthians comfortable standing in the world and his and the apostles’ very uncomfortable standing before the world. Whereas the Corinthian church, before a watching world, was apparently enjoying fullness and fortune along with powerful position, even fame (“kings”), Paul and his fellow disciples were suffering hunger, harassment, and hostility as they bore their cross proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ, crucified.
It’s clear that, since his departure from the Corinthian church three or four years earlier, the church had lost sight of the message of the cross replacing it with the wisdom of the world, which is the message of comfort.
Paul had been confronting this in written words and soon he planned, if necessary, to confront it in person. But, before visiting, he hoped they would respond to his exhortation to be a cruciform church. He wanted his eventual visit to pleasant, not painful. But that would be up to them. They would need to take up their cross as they re-embraced the message of the cross. This means they would need to leave their comfort zone.
Paul’s main concern was to confront their demise into a crossless and, in the end, Christless Christianity in favour of a comfortable culture conformed “Christianity.” He desired church-wide consensus on the centrality of the cross and was willing to confront those who resisted. Even if it meant facing conflict.
In our study of this text, we will focus on the confrontation that we all need as we are tempted towards a crossless comfort zone. We will consider this in three broad movements through our text:
- An Affectionate Confrontation (vv. 14–15)
- An Appealing Confrontation (vv. 16–17)
- An Authoritative Confrontation (vv. 18–21)
An Affectionate Confrontation, vv. 14-15
Paul begins with what we might call an affectionate confrontation: “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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” (1 Corinthians 4:14–15).
Ellsworth notes, “In this passage, Paul abruptly changes his tone. The storm of sarcasm subsides and is replaced by the gentle, soothing tones of a father reasoning with his erring children.” The word “ashamed” in this context means to disrespect, humiliate, or embarrass. Of course, there is a sense in which he wanted them to feel shame (1:27; 6:5; 15:34), but his intention was to bring about change for their good (Rosner). He wanted the church to be ashamed of their addiction to comfort and their rejection of the cross, without crushing them with self-recrimination. With great affection, he had written some hard things in order to “admonish” them—to put them in the right mind, to convict them, to warn them, to reprove them gently (see Acts 20:31; Romans 15:4; Colossians 1:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Confrontation with shameful reality is necessary to overcome empty rhetoric (vv. 20–21). We need to be confronted when we abandon the cruciform life in order to be corrected back to it.
The words “as my beloved children” supply the affectionate note. This is not a mere playing with words to provide the anaesthesia for the surgery; rather, Paul’s heart surged with loving esteem for these people. This idea is further stressed in v. 15: “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” “The whole thrust of the paragraph is relational, and its purpose is clearly restorative” (Jackman).
Of course, Paul was not contradicting the command of Jesus to, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). In that context, Jesus was addressing self-righteous Pharisees, who usurped God’s rightful authority. Jesus was forbidding spiritual loyalty to mere men that rivals that which God alone has the right. When people refer to popes and priests as “father,” it is dangerously close to, if not fully, violating Jesus’ words. Paul is not doing that here. “Paul’s claim to spiritual fatherhood is completely different. His ‘fatherhood’ was consistent with, and in submission to, Christ’s authority, not in competition with it. Paul was living in submission to his Lord, and his fatherhood was in a secondary sense only” (Ellsworth).
Paul is saying that, spiritually, he was the means that God used to plant the gospel seed by which the Holy Spirit then caused conception of the new birth secured by the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross and vindicated by his resurrection. In this way, he was their spiritual father, creating a special relationship between him and them. Paul will highlight that, in “begetting spiritual children, setting an example in spiritual life, exercising spiritual firmness” he had and was fulfilling what it means to be a spiritual father (Ellsworth).
Most of us can relate to this kind of relationship. Though not always the case, most Christians tend to have fondness for those whom the Lord used to bring the gospel to them and/or who were used by God to shape their Christian life. There is usually affection that runs both ways. So with Paul and the Thessalonians (see 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). Paul showed deep, loving, sacrificial care for those converted under his ministry and instructive concern for their development into Christlikeness.
His desire was the same for the Corinthian church: “to see the Corinthians live in a way that accords with Christ’s giving of himself to others” (Schreiner). That is, he wanted to see these saints live a cruciform life, shaped by the power of the cross, displaying the power of the cross: the ability to live uncomfortably in a world obsessed with the comfort zone.
He acknowledges that they had enjoyed having “countless guides in Christ,” but reminded them that he alone had a special fatherly relationship with them.
The word “guides” translates a word from which we derive the English “pedagogue,” which, in the ancient world, functioned usually as a tutor. The role was filled by a servant who would, at the very least, take the child to school for instruction. So, who was Paul referring to? No doubt, to those who had come to the church since Paul’s time there, and who were now building the temple of God in Corinth (3:11–15). It probably refers to Cephas and Apollos. It may also refer to those of whom Paul speaks pejoratively of as “super apostles” in 2 Corinthians (11:5; 12:11).
After three-and-a-half chapters of telling the church to stop with their obsession with personalities, Paul, interestingly, begins to tell them that they should pay attention to him! This is because, relationally, he was in a different position than others. He emphasises his unique relationship with them in order to help them to listen to him. He was not merely a tutor to them but rather was their fatherly shepherd. Rather than promoting one-upmanship, he was giving a loving reminder that, relationally, he had their best interest at heart in a way that others did not.
Many years ago a pastor was discussing with me the influence on his church members of various Bible teachers through the radio, TV, and on cassette tapes. He lamented that some of these members were not faithfully gathering with the church. He observed that these “guides” (good and solid teachers) would not be visiting these members when they were ill or when tragedy struck. His point was that only he and his fellow pastors could relationally shepherd them. These members, being well-fed by these gifted and favoured teachers, were still in need of local pastoral care. There is a lesson for us here.
But let me apply this in another way, for clearly some of these “guides” in Corinth were taking church members to the wrong school—to the cross-less classroom. And in our day, this is a particular danger facing the local church, for the digital world offers a whole mess of supposed comfort zone Christianity. The digital world that can be such a blessing can equally be such a curse as it promotes a customised rather than a cruciform Christianity.
Mark Sayers, in writing about churches in a digital age observes,
In the networked world, even the most committed believer will consume only a fraction of the information and input from their church compared to what they consume via podcasts, YouTube, and Netflix. The digital network is now our primary formational environment. It shapes our opinions, values, and worldview. Today, the average churchgoer will Google a problem before they approach their pastor.
Of course, Google does not always get it right!
The digital world offers “countless guides” through podcasts, sound bites, livestreaming, etc. In some ways, this is a wonderful age in which to be a Christian because of the availability of good resources. But it also offers lots of poison from those who are appealing, saying what we want to hear. We don’t want to hear about suffering; we want to hear about pleasure, success, prosperity. We don’t want to hear a message that invites us to being rejected but one that promises we will be respected and accepted. We don’t want a message that results in discomfort but one that promises comfort. And the digital world offers a whole lot of the latter and little of the former. Therefore we need affectionate confrontation with the message of the cross by those whom the Lord has used to bring us to himself, to point us to him.
Christianity is relational and only those with whom you have meaningful connection can helpfully confront you with the need to take up your cross while rejecting the temptation of living comfortably with the world. Paul cared enough to confront his readers with the truth and his relationship with them should have helped them to understand that he was concerned for their welfare.
Pastors need to resist the comfort zone while calling on the congregation to do so as well. Further, we need people in our lives who will care enough about the glory of God, about the good of the church, and about our cruciform calling to confront us when we are living comfortably with the world. We need fathers and mothers of the faith whose exhortation we will hear because of their examples we can follow (Hebrews 13:7). And if you can’t do that in the church in which you are member, then honestly seek one where you can. But keep in mind that you and I need fathers in the faith more than those who will simply be our friends in the faith. It is more important to have a pastor than to have a pal.
An Appealing Confrontation
Second, we see an appealing confrontation: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 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” (vv. 16–17).
In a sense, this is also an awkward confrontation, for Paul very self-consciously appeals to the church to imitate him. In the light of his relationship with them (vv. 14–15), he writes, “I urge you, then [because of my relationship with you], be imitators of me.” A more literal translation would be “become like me.” Again, after three and half chapters telling them to stop following men and rather follow Christ, now he says, “Follow me!” He will say so again in 11:1.
Paul, of course, was not contradicting himself. His concern was an unhealthy partisan division in the church, where fidelity to Christ and the message of the cross were replaced with the exaltation of certain individuals and a minimising of the cross. Paul never suggested that the congregation did not need leaders to teach and to lead them to their Master and his message. And since they were heading in a wrong direction, he exercised his leadership strongly, appealing (“urge”) that they follow his life, which he just described in the previous passage (vv. 9–13). He exhorts them, like him, to take up their cross and follow along with him into a life of discomfort. Don Carson summarises well:
In the context of these chapters, of course, what Paul wants them to imitate is his passion to live life in the light of the cross. He does not expect them to suffer in exactly the same way he does; he does not demand that they all become apostles or plant churches in distant lands. What he does expect of them is that they will imitate his values, his stance with respect to the world, his priorities, and his valuation of the exclusive centrality of the gospel of the crucified Messiah.
Paul reenforces this appeal by informing them that he had sent Timothy to instruct them further concerning Paul’s “ways” (the way one conducts oneself). Interestingly, he informs them that Timothy was also one of his spiritual offspring (“my beloved and faithful child”). In other words, Timothy would vouch for Paul’s lifestyle of uncomfortable cross-bearing as he affirmed how Paul taught this call of the cross “everywhere in every church.” He did not have one set of expectations for the church in Corinth and another for the church in Ephesus, or in Thessalonica, etc. Though the Corinthians may have boasted in their ability to have a creative and unique Christianity, Paul demolishes that idea making clear that the message of the cross is both glorious as well as painful. So don’t try to recreate it.
On two other occasions in this epistle, Paul refers to the universality of Christian expectation (7:17; 15:33). It is clear that there is a biblical standard that cuts across all cultures and all epochs for the local church. In this particular context, it is imperative that we see that living a life of discomfort because our commitment to Jesus Christ and the message of his cross is non-negotiable.
Of course, this will sometimes look different in different places. Certain temptations and hardships will vary from place to place, but bearing the cross and proclaiming its message will call for a commitment to discomfort.
In these days of incredible confusion and increasing foolishness we must be prepared for conflict, even from those professing to be Christians. Though not belligerent, neither are we to be less than we are, nor to believe less than we have been given to steward (4:1–2).
We must faithfully. and therefore at the cost of being uncomfortable, remain true as we confront error. We must be committed to a cruciform and hence at times uncomfortable life. This means that we need to confront the lie that there are multiple ways of being right with God. It means that we must confront the lie of professing Christ yet embracing a sexual lifestyle contrary to God’s revealed will. It means that we must confront the lie of professing Christ yet rejecting God’s creation of binary gender. It means that we must confront the lie of professing faith in the gospel yet rejecting membership of a local church. It means that we must confront the error of identifying as a church member while rejecting the ordinances. It means that we must confront the error of identifying as a church member and yet rejecting the discipline of the church.
Like Paul, every follower of the Lord Jesus Christ should be able to say, “Become like me—and I live the same way everywhere I am known.” We should live consistently on holiday, in the workplace, on the road, on the sporting pitch, and before unsaved family.
An Authoritative Confrontation
Finally, we find an authoritative confrontation: “Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 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. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:18–21).
What is said here forms a bridge into Paul’s authoritative declaration in chapter 5 concerning church discipline. We detect a change of tone from one of appeal to one of authoritative exhortation. This, however, is consistent with the father image. Sometimes, fathers must be tender and sometimes they must be stern. So with spiritual fatherhood. When discipling believers to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, both approaches are necessary. As Thiselton notes, “Paul’s pastoral care leaves no place for moral cowardice” and “the opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference.” Paul is anything but indifferent about the message of the cross or those who profess to believe it. Hence, his authoritative tone.
Some in the church were behaving like “empty, religious windbags” (Carson). Their arrogance needed to be authoritatively confronted (a persistent problem: 4:6,19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4).
These haughty church members were full of “talk” (v. 19) while having very little credibility in their walk. They lacked the power that can only be experienced in the cruciform message and life (1:18, 24). These arrogant, critical because crossless members were all rhetoric with little or no reality. They had all the answers but they had no power for their problems.
Apparently, some were saying that Paul was not going to come to them, and the implication is that he lacked either the care and/or the courage to do so. Paul set the record straight that, indeed, his plan is to “come to you soon” while acknowledging his dependence upon the Lord, “if the Lord wills.” Such submission to sovereignty is another mark of the cruciform life. Those obsessed with comfort have a hard time submitting to sovereignty (cf. Hebrews 5:7). When Paul does arrive everyone will see which version of the Christian life is the real deal.
Paul wanted his visit to be marked by “a spirit of gentleness,” but that will be up to them. The implication is that, if they continue to reject the cruciform life, then Paul will come and exercise apostolic authority. This is what he means by “come to you with a rod.” This was a stick, much like a cane, of which many are familiar from their school days.
Paul was not threatening them but rather was saying, with great authority, that their choice to live immaturely—to live “according to the flesh” (3:1–4)—calls for discipline. Arrogance and resulting factionalism in the church invites the rod of discipline.
Perhaps Acts 5 provides an example of the kind of apostolic authority that Paul had in mind. When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles concerning the price of their land, and therefore about the offering they were making (Acts 5:1–2), Peter confronted them and God killed them both (5:3–10). The result was deep reverence among the church and outsiders happily remained outside (5:11, 13)! Did Paul have something similar in mind? Though we don’t know precisely what he had in view, the point being emphasised is apostolic authority in the church.
Though there have been no apostles since the first century, the church is grounded in apostolic doctrine and therefore apostolic authority of the word of God continues to be the authoritative rule in the church of the living God. God’s word confronts the believer, and the expectation is submission.
We learn from this that Paul was using God-given authority for the welfare of the congregation. And thus it must always be.
Over the past 20–30 years, there has been an increasing amount of literature addressing the abuse of authority including its abuse in the church. Many high-profile, and not-so-high-profile, pastors have been removed from the ministry because of such abuses. Unfortunately, this has led to an over-reaction on the part of many to question all legitimate authority. The result has been a rejection of authority by many Christians. They have been guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The biblical position is that God-given authority, exercised in a God-pleasing way, is good for us. It is good and necessary for the church (see Hebrews 13:17). When authority is exercised properly, by those who understand they themselves are too under authority, those they lead benefit. This was Paul’s goal. Though his first choice of approach was to encourage repentance, if this did not yield the biblical result, then, as Don Carson puts it, Paul would biblically “enforce” conformity to the cruciform life through discipline. This is to be the approach of biblically instructed pastors, and the churches which they lead.
Let me summarise: Paul is teaching that, sometimes, the use of authority is necessary for the church to turn away from a comfortable, because crossless, existence in the world and to turn to the call of carrying an uncomfortable cross. Sometimes an authoritative approach is the only way for us to wake up to what we have too easily forgotten. This is the purpose of church discipline, both formative (saying the hard thing) and corrective (doing the hard thing). The goal of all church discipline, whether formative (vv. 14–17) or corrective (vv. 18–21), is a cruciform life. Church discipline aims to move us from being comfortable with the world and its ways, back to being comfortable with the Shepherd, despite how uncomfortable that might be!
It is all too easy to drift into a comfortable existence with the surrounding world and its opposition to the message of the cross. Self-promotion, material accumulation, individualism, self-preservation including self-defensiveness and the safety of isolation are in direct opposition with the message of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, the message of the cross, and the incredible “power” it supplies, exhorts and empowers the believer to do the massively uncomfortable thing of self-denial, self-humiliation, sacrificial love, including a refusal to stand upon one’s rights, a moving towards others rather than remaining in the cocoon of isolation. Such a lifestyle will often result in the unbelieving world dismissing us as “scum” and “garbage” (v. 13). Who wants that? Well, in a sense the person who understands the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ desires this.
The Christian does not desire, nor does she pursue, the experience of being despised and rejected, but rather the Christian does desire and pursues the identification that leads to this rejection.
The Christian desires to be identified with the Lord Jesus Christ who was treated like scum and garbage because of his countercultural life, because of his pursuit of the cross, because of the cross upon which he died.
Jesus Christ came to earth with one thing on his mind: the cross. He came to live in a perfect way in order to die in a painful way. Talk about uncomfortable. Yet he did it. And those who trust him as Saviour and Lord are called to follow in his steps. We too are called to take up our cross, to die to self, to live uncomfortably with a world that worships comfort. How will we do this? By meaningfully encouraging one another to live cruciform and by heeding these encouragements. But when we fail to hear and heed, we must be confronted with the hard rod of discipline. Living a cruciform life is so essential that extreme measures must sometimes be pursued to bring it about, as well as to protect the church from sliding into its opposite: the crossless comfort of a Christ-rejecting world (see 1 Timothy 1:20). In the words of Paul, we need to move beyond mere “talk” to a life of kingdom-distinctive “power” (vv. 20–21). And this, as we have seen, requires confrontation.
Christians wear crosses around their necks and on their ears, and some tattoo them on their bodies. Churches put them in their buildings, on their logos, and we speak of the cross in our gatherings. This is good. But does our walk match our jewellery? Does our walk match our symbols? Does our walk match our talk?
Are we guilty of singing about the suffering of Christ on the cross while actively avoiding the fellowship of his sufferings (Philippians 3:10–14)? Are we guilty of speaking about loving Christ, the message of the cross, and the church while actually loving that which is fallen and fading in the world? Are we guilty of talking about the power of the gospel to save while living powerless before the sinfulness of the world? Are we guilty of having made baptismal vows and then being offended when held accountable to faithfully gather with and to serve the church? Are we guilty of entering into the church membership covenant and then denying it by an unfaithful choice of comfort over the required self-denial? Do our homes reflect the power of the cross (self-sacrifice, putting others first). Does our business practice display a counter-cultural God-honouring ethic? At school, are you choosing the cross or are you simply going along with the crowd?
I trust you get the point. None of the above, admittedly, is easy. Yet this is where the power of the cross is revealed. And to experience the power of the cross, we need loving and helpful confrontation from one another, including from spiritual leadership. We need loving encouragement, and sometimes we need loving enforcement. May each of us follow those who are following Christ, and may each of us live the cruciform life that enables to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ by saying, “Imitate me, as I imitate him.”