In this epistle, Paul is burdened to help the Corinthian church to live differently than the Corinthian culture. The gospel of Christ produces this difference, including how Christians evaluate ministries and ministers.
In his book You Are Not Your Own, Alan Noble argues that, until a person comes to salvation in Jesus Christ, they will live in bondage to self-affirmation as well as to the affirmation of others. This ultimately leads to a sense of what he calls “resignation”: that is, becoming resigned to the assessment that we just don’t measure up. That is a depressing way to live, and a hopeless way to die.
But Christians can live in light of the good news that, because the Lord Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again for us, we are accepted—affirmed—in God’s sight. Because we have been bought with a price, we can live in the light of God’s affirmation, thereby motivating us to live in such a way that we will hear, on the day of judgement, the affirming words, “Well done—enter into my joyous presence—forever!” Something of this truth lies behind Paul’s words to the Corinthian church in 4:1–5.
Paul has been exhorting the church to stop its arrogant, destructive behaviour of fractious favouritism over various minsters. God’s gift had been abused (3:21–23). Rather than appreciating the varied giftedness, the Corinthians were finding their identity in leaders rather than in the Lord. They were evaluating messengers of the gospel by worldly standards rather than by God’s standard. They were behaving like infants rather than mature followers of Jesus Christ (3:1–4). He therefore wanted them to grow up in Christ. He wanted them to understand that, at the end of the day, God is the one who will make the ultimate assessment of one’s ministry, not them or any other human. God makes the evaluation that matters. Paul makes this clear in 4:1–5.
In this passage, Paul points to both the responsibility and the accountability of the Christian leader—the messenger of the gospel—using himself as an example. His conclusion is straightforward: His ultimate audience is God, not the Corinthians. It is before his Divine Master that he will either stand or fall (Romans 12:4). God will assess the integrity of his ministry and it is this divine evaluation that matters. In explaining this, he points to three related truths that matter.
- The Mindset that Matters (v. 1)
- The Metric that Matters (v. 2)
- The Motivation that Matters (vv. 3–5)
I trust we will see that what was true of Paul is equally true of each Christian as well.
The Mindset that Matters
After several weeks in the hospital early last year, I was delighted to finally be at home. But even though much was familiar, there were also a lot of things missing—like clothes, dishes, and some small appliances. I quickly learned that we had not been robbed while I was away but that my wife had found a podcast called “The Minimalist.” She was very impressed with the advice of this expert concerning reducing clutter in one’s home. My wife is an overachiever and tends to maximise everything she does, including, as I learned, minimising! The result was that we went from an over-abundance of plates and bowls and coffee mugs to barely having enough. (In fact, we had to recently purchase more coffee mugs because she had given away so many.)
It has been over a year, but I am still trying to find peace about a minimised household. In fact, on Good Friday we had a family meal at my daughter’s house at which I noticed plates and bowls that seemed very familiar. When I commented that I recognised these as once belonging to us, I heard my wife say to her daughters, “Your father is still talking about this!”
I share this story to illustrate that, in life, it is helpful to find a moderate position between excessive maximising and obsessive minimising. Paul has this principle in mind as he writes to the Corinthian church about their evaluation of Christian ministers.
It would appear from the content of this chapter that a good portion of the church at Corinth was critical of Paul. In other words, the “I am against Paul” crowd was larger than the “I am of Paul” crowd. While some were guilty of maximising his value, others were guilty of critically minimising his value. Neither was healthy; neither would promote spiritual maturity in the church.
Later, Paul would write 2 Corinthians, in which he would confront head-on the so-called “super apostles,” who were undermining his ministry, tempting the Corinthians to be led astray. I think the seeds of that later larger problem were being sown when Paul wrote this first epistle, which explain why he addressed it here.
Just as in 2 Corinthians, Paul was not boasting in himself, but out of concern for this flock, he desired this church to pay heed to his gospel ministry. He was concerned for their wellbeing and therefore, no doubt with a great deal of discomfort, he defended his ministry so they would benefit from it (see vv. 6–7).
Therefore, in vv. 1–5, he instructs them concerning the responsibility and hence the accountability of his apostolic ministry. In the opening verse, he points to the mindset the Christian leader is to have as he leads the flock: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (v. 1). Specifically, those who lead God’s church have the mind of a minister and of a manager.
The Mind of a Minister
In this opening verse, Paul instructs the Corinthians concerning how to properly evaluate him (and his fellow apostles). In a sense, he is saying that, rather than exalting them as masters, they are to evaluate them as “servants” of the Master. And though they are lowly servants, nevertheless they are important for the well-being of the church. Again, they are neither to be maximised nor minimised.
The word “regard” translates an accounting term, which refers to taking an inventory and hence to reckon. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to indeed evaluate them: They are to be held to account. But for what? In what capacity were they to be evaluated? He tells them: “as servants of Christ” and as “stewards of the mysteries of God.”
The word translated “servants” was used to describe a subordinate, who attends as a helper to another. It is used of assistants at the synagogue (Luke 4:20), of military guards (Mark 14:65), of Mark who assisted Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5), and of those who minister the word (Luke 1:2). Paul used this word in sharing his testimony before Agrippa (Acts 26:16). Lenski summarises:
To the Greeks the term meant only an attendant or helper who assists a higher master. In this case, Christ is that master. Every apostle and every minister and pastor is only an underling, a helper, or an attendant of Christ. His sole function is to take orders and at once and without question to execute them. His will is only that of his Master.
Schreiner adds, “They have a sacred trust and are not free to innovate or be creative with what has been given to them.”
Paul saw that his responsibility was to be a servant, an attendant, an assistant, or a guard “of Christ.” He was not confused about who was Master and who was servant. (This is be seen very clearly from vv. 8–13, where clearly the servant is not greater than his master [see John 15:20]). Carson summarises: “To be a servant of Christ is to be obligated to promote the gospel by word and example, the gospel of the crucified Messiah…. There is no valid Christian leadership that does not throb with this mandate.” We can conclude that ministers are to be evaluated with reference to their handling of the gospel of Christ.
The Mind of a Manager
Second, Paul sees the apostolic assignment to be “stewards of the mysteries of God.” The word “steward” is used frequently in the New Testament and it refers to a household manager.
A “steward” was responsible and accountable for the management of the household. Thiselton notes, “In the first-century life, this could include purchasing, keeping accounts, collecting debts, allocating a budget, and so on.” It even included, at times, the education of the children. It therefore was a position of great responsibility. In using this term, Paul is saying that the apostles were responsible for the welfare of the household of faith (Ephesians 2:19–22). This is a great responsibility with an accompanying great accountability. Just as a master entrusted his resources to his manager, so God has entrusted the resources for the building of his church (3:5–11) , namely, the fullness of the gospel of God.
The phrase “mysteries of God” refers to a hidden or secret thing, not obvious to the understanding (see 2:7). In Scripture, it refers to truth once hidden but now revealed by God. Sometimes it refers to the gospel (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9; 6:19), and sometimes it refers to other truth that has been revealed by God (1 Corinthians 15:51; see Matthew 13:11). Paul is saying that a major responsibility of the apostles was to take care of God’s revealed truth. The apostles were to steward the gospel to the benefit of the household.
Again, in both metaphors the accountability is to “Christ” and “God.” And as he just said in 3:20–23, as leaders, these men belonged to those they were leading. The apostolic responsibility was to serve God by serving those who belonged to Christ by serving and stewarding the gospel of God. By extension, this is how elders should see their responsibility. This is how God sees them (Hebrews 13:17; 2 Timothy 4:1–5; 2:15; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1–4).
When assessing and evaluating church leaders—when holding them to account—two significant criteria are servanthood and stewardship. But again, the emphasis is their service to Christ. In the process, the congregation is well-served and managed, but this is the overflow of worshipful service to the triune God.
Too often, leaders can be guilty of serving the congregation while not serving Christ. The result is a compromised church (e.g. giving the congregation what it wants rather than what it needs). But while acknowledging this, let us not miss the point that the disposition of the leader is that of Jesus Christ, with a towel in one hand, basin in the other, and knees bent in service (John 13:1–11).
We will have opportunity to see this again, but here let me make the important point that, just as a household steward managed what the master placed in his possession, so the gospel minister must never tamper with what he has been given: the gospel of God (Mark 1:14; Acts 20:24; Romans 1:1).
When the church maximises those whom God has appointed as their leaders, its runs the danger of a usurping God’s message. When you hear a leader say, “God told me,” rebuke and perhaps even run. But we must avoid the other extreme of dismissingly minimising God’s servants. Yes, gospel ministers are “servants” of Christ; nevertheless, we need to appreciate that they are servants “of Christ.” And, by the way, since church leaders are called to be servants, and therefore are accountable to be servants, they should not be surprised, and certainly not offended, when they are treated like servants.
The Metric that Matters
The word “moreover” in v. 2 means “in the same place.” Paul is telling his readers to stay focused on what he has just said and what he will now say. “Don’t miss this!” Don’t miss what? “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (v. 2).
Perhaps some who heard these words as they were read at the next church gathering thought, “Yes, these leaders are servants and stewards and therefore we expect such and such from them. We expect them to make us happy. We expect them to do things the way we want them done. We expect them to be skilled in the ways of our culture. We expect them to be street smart. We expect them to be up on all the latest social media controversy. We expect them to be ‘hip’ (including skinny jeans!). We expect them to entertain us like Hollywood or Bollywood.” But this ‘moreover’ prepares the church to hear what God expects of his servants and stewards: He expects them to be faithful, not famous. Not too exciting, is it? Not very avant garde. Not very cool. Not very flashy. Not very appealing to a with-it culture. But if God requires faithfulness, how dare the church require more?
The word translated as “require” is translated as “insist” in 13:5. That works well here as well! Those who appoint a steward to watch over the welfare of their household insist that they be faithful, and so does God. It is not a suggestion; it is a requirement upon which God insists. But what does “faithful” mean?
Simply, a steward was someone appointed because his master had faith in his character. He trusted the steward to carry out his responsibilities with integrity. Such a person was deemed to be reliable. The master, in fact, insisted that the individual be reliable. This is what God requires/insists of those he appoints to manage his household. His gospel stewards are neither to minimise this insistence nor are they to maximise by adding to it. Being faithful to this task is sufficient work to keep one fully focused and engaged.
God expects his stewards to reflect, in his household, his own faithfulness as the head of the house. That is, since God is faithful, and since his word is faithful, God expects his appointed leaders to be faithful and to speak faithfully (see 10:13; 2 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:24; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Timothy 2:13; Hebrews 2:17; 3:2; 10:23; 11:11; 1 Peter 4:19; 1 John 1:9; Revelation 1:5; 3:14; 19:11). God’s word is characterised as “faithful” or “trustworthy” (Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11; Titus 3:8; Revelation 21:5; 22:6). Like Master, like servant.
Those appointed to give gospel leadership to God’s people are those who walk with God and who rely on God (see 7:25). Because they rely on God’s mercy, they are reliable with God’s message. This is the metric for evaluating church leaders. And this metric is very different from that of the world.
There was a time that the world expected integrity of its leaders, even political leaders. Not so today. But the church date not minimise godly character. Character matters.
Unfortunately, too often, we are reminded that the church loses sight of God’s metric, of his standard and we measure church leadership by entertainment value, by ability to build the numbers and the budget, by educational attainment, or by rhetorical skill. None of these is bad—indeed, they can be really good things—but biblical trustworthiness is the starting point. Without faithfulness, fruitfulness may in the end prove to be rotten.
The original word behind the English word “found” in our text is akin to “eureka,” which is famously related to the story of Archimedes who, when he discovered the principle of buoyancy in his bathtub, ran to the king shouting, “Eureka!” (“I found it!”). Paul is perhaps suggesting that it is a joyful thing to his master when a steward is discovered—found out—to be trustworthy. And why not, when you consider all that has been entrusted to him. Perhaps there is something of this behind the several occasions on which our Lord Jesus spoke of commending faithful servants and then giving them more responsibility (Matthew 25:21–23; Luke 12:42–44).
I trust you get the point: God holds his ministers accountable to reliably manage his household. This is inseparable from a trustworthy, faithful gospel ministry—the kind that Paul will describe in the next passage (see also 2 Corinthians 4:7–12; 6:3–11; 11:16–12:10).
Let’s apply this.
The biblical metric of ministry is faithful service to the Master. The ministry of the ministers is to be focused on serving the Lord by serving the flock. Faithful minsters serve the Head of the household best when they reliably serve the members of his household. Since God gives the assignment, and since God requires the accountability, God is to be the minster’s audience. Pray this remains the focus.
When tempted to complain about the lack in those who serve the household of the local church, consider whether they are faithfully serving the Head of the house. Perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt. If you are looking for the ability of John MacArthur, the mind of R. C. Sproul, the straightforwardness of Paul Washer, the passionate expression of John Piper, or the wisdom of Mark Dever, you will probably be disappointed (unless you happen to be a member of the church where one of those men serves!). But if you are looking for faithfulness, then perhaps you will find yourself saying, “Eureka! I’ve found it!”
But an important word to those serving the household: Don’t rely on the evaluation of others. Rather, with God as your intended and intentional audience, look to him for commendation. Paul picks up on this in what follows.
The Motivation that Matters
A casual reading of vv. 3–5 may give one the impression that Paul is rather cavalier about the opinion of others when it comes to his ministry:
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. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgement 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.
(1 Corinthians 4:3–5)
To some, it may appear that Paul is somewhat arrogantly saying, “I don’t care what you think of me, I don’t need you.” But that would completely miss the point. What Paul is saying is that his greatest concern is that the Lord indeed finds his ministry to be faithful and that, even if those he serves think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it would be of little concern to him if the Lord was displeased with him. “He was simply registering his deep conviction that he could not serve God effectively if he constantly concerned himself with what people thought of him” (Ellsworth).
You will remember that the Corinthians were presumably judging books by their covers when it came to ministers. For whatever reason, Paul was not cutting the muster. Members of the congregation had their opinions of Paul and others, and they seemed to be well entrenched. While some maximised the giftedness of ministers, they likewise minimised the gifts of other ministers. We learn in these verses that Paul was not swayed by either. Rather, he was motivated by pleasing his Lord. Carson notes, “It appears that some Corinthian believers were quite prepared to write off certain Christian leaders, simply because they preferred to follow some other leader as guru…. To write off all authority in any other Christian leader not only betrays a woeful lack of courtesy but places the self-appointed judge in the place of God.”
In these verses Paul emphasises that only God can accurately assess the faithfulness and fruitfulness of a person’s ministry, for only he knows both its motivation and its ultimate effectiveness. Therefore, the faithful minister will be careful to resist shaping his ministry according to congregational demands, societal demands, or even his own introspective demands for, in the end, God’s demands are what matters. (I am indebted to Roger Ellsworth for much of this.)
Resisting Congregational Demands
Faithfulness is the minister’s calling, and the household of faith will have an opinion with reference to whether they are succeeding. The problem of course is that no one is able to read the heart, no one can accurately measure faithfulness, and certainly no one is able to measure fruitfulness. Humans are fallible in their judgements and therefore it is folly to try and finding either ultimate affirmation or ultimate condemnation in the opinion of others. For this reason, Paul writes, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you.”
But further, because of diversity in a congregation, some will be happy with the leadership while others will not. And if the leadership is trying to gauge the faithfulness and fruitfulness of its ministry by consensus, it will find itself rather schizophrenic! Decisions need to be made and not everyone is going to agree. Sermons will be preached, and some will be blessed while others bored. Ministries will be commenced, and some will be supportive while others will be resistant.
But further, and closer to the context, the word is King, and the minister must faithfully proclaim it regardless of potential pushback. Paul said this again when he wrote to Timothy:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.
(2 Timothy 4:1–5)
As Carson writes, “A leader’s ultimate allegiance must not be to the church, or to any individual leader or tradition. It must be to the Lord alone and to the ‘secret things of God’ he has entrusted to him… There is only one Person whose ‘Well done!’ on the last day means anything. In comparison, the approval or disapproval of the church means nothing”.
Resisting Societal/Cultural Demands
The words, “or by any human court” take the pressures of the ministry away from the congregation into the larger context of society. Paul’s points is that, as a minister of Christ, as a manager of God’s message and household, he is not concerned with the culture’s evaluation of what he does and says as a minister of the gospel. If the world does not approve, that is not his problem. Paul never expected the unbelieving world to either understand or approve what he did for Christ. Neither should we.
The world will neither understand nor appreciate the faithful church’s opposition to the transgender compromise prevalent in our day. We cannot expect the world to appreciate the church’s commitment to prioritise the gospel over social justice. But this also applies to the pressure from the various tribes within evangelicalism. We must not shape our ministry according to the expectations of 9 Marks, or Ligonier, or TGC, or T4G, or Sola 5, or G3, or whoever. We must shape our ministry according to what the Lord calls for as his ministers and managers.
Resisting Introspective Demands
What Paul has been saying is further strengthened in vv. 4–5:
Paul has said that he is not seeking his identity in the opinion of his critics. After all, they might be saying terrible things about him. They may have a very low opinion of him. That is okay because Paul himself does not even claim to be pure in his motives. Though he can find no reason for condemnation of his ministry, nevertheless, he confesses that this does not mean he is innocent (“acquitted”). After all, he is not God and therefore does not fully know his own heart.
Any experienced minister of the gospel knows the internal battle with his own heart. His motivations are not always, if ever, entirely God-centred. But if he waits for perfection then he will never get on with the ministry. Rather, as Paul writes, the minister does his best awaiting the day when his efforts will be infallibly evaluated for all to see (3:10–15). Ellsworth helpfully summarises the thought here:
This does not make the minister cavalier but rather it makes him both conscientious and confident. He continues to conscientiously minister in accordance with God’s directive knowing that as he does so in dependence upon the Lord that the day of judgement will result in “commendation from God.” Those who seek to do well in accordance with God’s mandate will hear “well done” in the end. Therefore we can say, “The only assessment of Christian workers that counts is not congregational, not even personal, but only that by ‘the Lord who assigned them each his task’ (3:5)” (Rosner and Ciampa).
We can conclude with the exhortation we began with: Brothers and sisters let us be careful to neither maximise nor minimise God’s appointed leaders in his church. Let us heed the words of the now late gospel preacher David Prior: “Do not condemn us, and also do not eulogize us. Leave that to the Lord; He will do all the judging.” And I must add, only the Lord, who was fully judged in our place, fully acquitted by the resurrection, is perfectly able to assess the hearts of those he saves.