1 Corinthians 4

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. (1 Corinthians 4:1)

Let me be blunt as we continue in our study of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. There are some Christians who are “too big for their own spiritual britches.” To put it another way, there are some believers in Jesus Christ who have developed a “big head.”

Use whatever vernacular you have to describe it. It is possible for us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and there is nothing that exudes a more obnoxious stench than that rotten odor that emerges from the self-righteous Christian who suffers from a “superiority complex.”

It is this problem that the apostle Paul has been addressing in these first 1 Corinthians 4 of 1 Corinthians 1. Yes, he is writing to believers. They are “saints together” in ministry. They are persons gifted by the Lord in so many ways, yet they have remained spiritually immature. They are no longer “natural” men and women who have never received Jesus Christ. They are regenerate. They accepted Jesus Christ as Savior. However, they are no longer “spiritual” men and women living according to the wisdom of eternity and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. They have backslidden into natural temporal wisdom and normal, human-conditioned responses, which make them look very unspiritual. They are “carnal” Christians, fleshly in the way that they do business.

Succumbing to the world’s value system, they have attached themselves to leaders in the church. These were good men, three of the very best-Paul, Apollos and Peter. However, they had made cult heroes of them, pitting them against each other. Immature Christians produce divisions in the church. When the church is built on human values and human beings, it ends up with a human enterprise. And this human enterprise ends up creating carnal, fleshly followers of Jesus whose perception becomes distorted. Instead of spiritual maturity, the result is spiritual immaturity.

N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. This prolific author and noted New Testament scholar is named by Christianity Today as one of the top five theologians in the world. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1 titled Paul for EVERYONE, Wright shares this homey illustration of such self-seduction in which one sees oneself as spiritually mature, when one has devolved to spiritual immaturity and carnal, fleshly attitudes. He writes:

Once during the “hippy” era in the late 1960s, I sang and played my guitar in a folk club on the west side of Vancouver. I was there a week, and got to know some of the other regular performers quite well. One was a young man with the beginnings of a drug habit. He was quite a good guitarist, and a passable singer. But, some way into the evening, he would take a shot of whichever drug it was he was using at the time.

The effect was revealing. (I had never been remotely tempted to try drugs before, and I certainly didn’t want to after watching him.) Once he was “high,” his playing and singing got worse and worse; but he came off stage convinced that he had been absolutely brilliant. Nothing could deter him from taking the drug to enhance his performance, as he thought, even though the rest of us tried to tell him it was doing the opposite.

Paul is now bringing his discussion of wisdom and folly, and spiritual maturity and immaturity, right down to where the Corinthians themselves are. They have been using the drug of sophistry, supposing it makes them more “spiritual”; and Paul declares that it has made them all the more merely human.

Now as Paul transitions to other issues facing the Corinthian church, he emphasizes some words about leadership and ministry that have enormous implications for you and me. Here at St. Andrew’s, we are increasingly discovering that God wants every one of our members, all four thousand plus of us, to be involved in ministry. Our goal is “every member in servant ministry for others.”

The basic thesis of our text today is that both you and I are called to leadership, and that leadership is to be a “servant leadership.” There is no room for the frills of superiority complexes or party factions when it comes to a healthy church made up of spiritually maturing persons engaged in healthy ministry. Every one of us is both a follower and a leader. Every single one of us is called to servant leadership.

Let me share with you this morning five action principles for you as both a follower and a leader.

I.

Action Principle 1: Develop genuine humility.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:18-19, “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. . . .”

The tendency of most of us, who are of average intelligence with reasonably good perceptions and capacities to process a reasonable amount of data, is to pride ourselves in our own wisdom. Perhaps this comes out of some of our own natural inferiority complexes. We have learned to compensate for our own feelings of low self-esteem by being assertive and taking initiative. The tendency for some of us is to be talkers, not listeners. God wants us to be genuinely humble. He wants us to avoid the pride of mind and the arrogance of intellect. How easy it is to inadvertently shoot ourselves up with the drug that makes us feel superior to others.

You have been in situations where you were surrounded by intellectual dilettantes. These are people who pride themselves in their intellects. They have developed large vocabularies, and they name drop big words designed to make others look dumb. The person who is inflicted with this pride of the mind becomes argumentative.

Have you noticed that at all in yourself? A basic symptom of this intellectual pride is the need to win every argument. It is done by put-down. That superior position must be maintained. It also tends to produce an exclusivity that isolates oneself from others. An old proverb says, “He who knows not, and knows not what he knows not, is a fool; avoid him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a wise man; teach him.”

The apostle Paul was a great intellectual. When he instructs you and me who think we are wise in this age to become “fools” so that we may be truly wise, he is not putting down intellectualism. He is urging you and me to understand the limitations of temporal, human wisdom and to see the unlimited potential of eternal wisdom. A basic prerequisite for having eternal wisdom is to see the ultimate futility and limitation of temporal wisdom.

For example, I may make straight As in the finest university in America. I may receive a Phi Beta Kappa and go on and mop up a PhD in the minimum amount of time and receive the finest job offers in America and have a lifetime marked by academic and civic awards, but actually be a fool for not truly understanding who I am as a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. My dad would constantly refer to that great common equalizer when he would say, “Just remember, John, everyone puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.”

The apostle Paul came to understand the ultimate principle of “coherence” for his life came from his encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. He knew he was not perfect. All of his accomplishments he refers to as refuse, garbage, when compared to what Jesus Christ had given him through His life, death and resurrection. Salvation is the priceless commodity obtainable only as a gift. That’s the humbling fact of life.

The Corinthians were trying to bring in the stuff off the streets of that pagan city and baptize it into the church. They wanted intellectual prestige. They wanted to be noticed and complimented for being well connected with the right spiritual fraternity or sorority. Paul urges them and us to see ourselves as we are, very special persons, equals, living together in Christ’s church, living in genuine humility.

The reality is some of us on occasion will receive personal recognition and applause. Watch out for it. It tends to strip us of our humility.

Last Saturday morning, I was privileged to have breakfast with the great internationally noted preacher and biblical scholar, Dr. John Stott, who shared with a small group of us pastors a challenge to be humble. He stated, “Flattery is like cigarette smoking. It is of no danger unless you inhale.”

Genuine humility marks the life of the servant leader.

II.

Action Principle 2: Don’t boast about how well connected you are.

In 1 Corinthians 31 Corinthians 4:1, Paul writes, “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”

This action principle touches me at the point of my vulnerability. I have an ongoing temptation toward name-dropping. I’ve been blessed by God with some wonderful mentors and intimate contact with well-known leaders. All of that is good. What is not healthy is wherein I find my own identity vicariously in them and their prominence, building up my own ego by parading whatever intimacy or acquaintanceship I’ve had with such persons.

There is a natural human tendency to attach ourselves to a hero. There is much contemporary literature describing this tendency. One of the classics is Daniel Levinson’s THE SEASONS OF A MAN’S LIFE. This Yale professor shows how the average person in his young adult years attaches himself to a mentor. This mentor is usually half a generation older, young enough not to be seen as a father yet old enough not to be viewed as a peer. The young adult sees this person as a model. You can probably identify someone who has been a mentor to you. That’s healthy up to a point. However, Levinson notes that, in most mentor-mentoree relationships, the young adult comes to a point in which he or she begins to push the older person away, even to some extent criticizing that person, as the younger person strikes off on his own. There is health that comes from this individuation. Hopefully, at some future date, that young person will return and, as a peer, reestablish a healthy relationship with that mentor.

Paul is noting the immaturity of the believers at Corinth who found their identity wrapped up in their leaders. So one boasts that she’s a follower of Paul. Another boasts that he is a follower of Apollos. Another boasts that he or she follows Peter. They are caught up in a stifling immaturity that simply doesn’t understand who Paul is, who Apollos is and who Peter is. These human leaders have become overly inflated by their followers. They are bigger than life.

We life in a celebrity era. We attach ourselves not only in business to mentors. That’s healthy if you come to the point where you stand on your own two feet. We also do it in politics. And we are increasingly doing it in the church. We have our Christian talk shows that mimic the secular talk shows. We have our own set of celebrities. It is healthy to have leaders, but let’s not get ourselves too enmeshed with these leaders to the point that we do not understand who we are as individuals and who they really are as individuals. Paul uses two words to describe a Christian leader.

One is the word servant.

The Greek word is huperetes. It is translated servant or minister. It originally meant a rower on the lower deck of a ship, one of those galley slaves who pulled at the great sweeps that moved the great Roman warships through the sea. The picture is that of Christ as the pilot who directs the course of the ship. And Paul refers to himself and the other leaders in the church as rowers, servants, who accept the orders of the pilot and labor only as their master directs.

Two is the word steward.

In the Greek, this word is oikonomos. This person is in charge of the whole administration of a house or an estate. He controls the staff, issues the supplies and rations. This person runs the whole household. But however much this person controls the household staff of slaves, he himself still is a slave as far as the master in concerned.

This is what Joseph was in the house of Potiphar in the Old Testament. He was given great responsibility; however, he remained a slave. Paul is saying that, whatever a person’s position is in the church, whatever power or prestige that person may enjoy, he or she remains a servant of Jesus Christ.

We’ve been talking about stewardship in the last several weeks, haven’t we? Everything you have is yours only because God has entrusted it to you. It actually belongs to Him. You have temporary custody. What are you doing with it? Are you giving the first fruits, the tithes and even more back to Him to be deployed in His service? And then are you careful in how you use the rest? Or are you ripping off the Owner, thinking that His back is turned and you are going to be master and pretend that everything you have belongs to you and not to the Lord?

The early church leader Origen observed in his commentary on this text, “If Paul can say this of people like himself, Peter and Apollos, how much more will it be true of us? We ought to be on our guard to make sure we are found to be trustworthy stewards.”

The primary point that Paul is trying to make here is that, in God’s eyes, all of us are equals together in ministry. Name your favorite preacher, teacher, spiritual leader for whom you have the greatest admiration; then remember, all are equals. They are equal with you. They are rowers alongside you. They, too, are managers of that which is not theirs. Don’t boast in them, putting them up as paragons of virtue. That’s idolatry. They are creature not Creator. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. If you are going to boast, boast in Him. Don’t boast in human leaders nor dethrone human leaders in a way in which you put yourself on a pedestal and boast in yourself.

III.

Action Principle 3: Let faithfulness be your ultimate goal.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:2, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”

This has to be one of the most important concepts of biblical revelation. It is the failure to understand this that makes most of us shy away from the positions of Christian leadership to which we are called.

We are fearful of failure.

We have seen others who do so well. We know we can never match them. We see others who seem so much more gifted, and we back off, simmering in our feelings of inferiority. It’s important that we discover that God has not even called us primarily to lives of fruitfulness. He has called us to faithfulness. He wants us to be trustworthy.

Jesus uses the analogy of the vine and the branches. He refers to himself as the vine. We are the branches. He calls us His branches to simply, faithfully abide in Him. Branches do not bear grapes all year. There are seasons of harvest, and there are times when very little appears to be happening.

I am convinced that we as a church could accomplish many times what we are accomplishing for the Lord if every one of us would see ourselves as simply called to faithfulness, to be trustworthy servants and stewards of the Lord. We are not here to brag on our own accomplishments any more than we are here to boast in the accomplishments of other people. So if faithfulness is the name of the game, we will relax and do our little or big job to the best of our ability and encourage and help others to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and leave it at that. After all, the field belongs to Jesus. After all, it is His building. After all, it is His temple. We are not called to be “successful.” We are called to be “trustworthy.”

Just imagine what would have happened to Joseph in the Old Testament if he had any other ultimate goal than trustworthiness. I believe he would have become suicidal. Here he had faithfully done his job in the house of Potiphar, so loyal to his master and to his God that he refused the seductive sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife. Then he ends up in prison, double-crossed by that scheming woman who resented his refusal of her advances. Talk about feeling like a failure and wondering where God is.

You may feel like a failure right now. That doesn’t mean that God is finished with you. If you and I are faithfully serving Him, He frees you and me to be singularly unimpressed by our own dossiers, no matter how impressive or unimpressive they are. Every so often, I fall back into my own fleshly, carnal state and begin to pride myself in my accomplishments. Then I am stopped short by the Holy Spirit, who says, “Wait a second, Huffman, if you want to start playing that game, I can show you a whole list of failures. Don’t revert to the world’s evaluation. The fact that you were “Man of the Year in Religion” in Pittsburgh back in1977 wasn’t an award given by God. It may very well have been the year you did the poorest job for Me. The fact that you haven’t gotten any big awards like that since doesn’t mean that you’re not doing what I want you to do. Your award doesn’t come from human beings and the external appearance of success. You have had some years when what you’ve been doing has gone totally unnoticed and have counted more in terms of My evaluation of faithfulness in terms of kingdom business!”

Every church has a few people you can always count on to get a job done. They are not particularly flashy. They are not particularly well known. They are not looking for human accolade. When some of us are doing our up-front work to which we’ve been called, they are faithfully taking charge of the supply routes. They are in quiet prayer while we teach and preach. They work long volunteer hours at the computer updating lists or addressing letters. They sit by the hour in what seem to be endless committee meetings, in which the work could be done unilaterally by a strong moderator in one-third of the time. But they are willing to subordinate their own impatience to the greater good of the family that needs to process its business in a way in which everybody gets to share their thoughts on the matter.

Faithfulness is what it is all about!

IV.

Action Principle 4: Minimize the importance of the opinion of others.

You and I are judged by three judgments.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

You note the three judgments that are incorporated into this brief statement?

First, you and I, as well as Paul, will face the judgment of other people.

Before we dismiss this entirely, we have to face the fact that we can learn from others. Antisthenes, the Cynic philosopher, used to say, “There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself-an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.”

Paul makes it clear that he doesn’t take the judgment of others too seriously. Why? Because he knows anyone who does anything will be judged negatively by someone and overly exalted by someone else. There is nothing less effective in leadership than a “crowd-pleaser.” Don’t let the opinions of others overwhelm you. Listen to them. Ask God to reveal by His Spirit that which can be helpful, but don’t let the judgments of others either give you the big head or strip you down into self-doubt and discouragement.

Second, you and I are judged by ourselves.

Paul also minimized this judgment. He knows that it can be clouded by self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, pride and conceit that can puff one up. Paul also knows that there’s that human tendency to put oneself down and view oneself as less than one should because of deep feelings of low self-esteem or inferiority. We can be too easy on ourselves or too tough on ourselves.

Third is the judgment that we are urged to take seriously–the judgment of God.

God is the only authentic judge. In the final analysis, this is the only judgment that counts. God knows the hidden circumstances. God knows all of your motivations. God is not the least bit impressed by success symbols. And God is not the least bit discouraged with you when you have done your best, empowered by His Holy Spirit, and your best is not good enough in the judgment of others and yourself. Don’t ever forget that!

Remember, God’s in the personnel business. He understands how to deploy you best and what to expect from you.

This week I came across a list titled “How To Place New Employees.”

Take the perspective employees you are trying to place and put them in a room with only a table and two chairs. Leave them alone for two hours, without any instruction. At the end of that time, go back and see what they are doing.

If they have taken the table apart, put them in Engineering.

If they are counting the ceiling tiles, assign them to Finance.

If they are waving their arms and talking out loud, send them to Consulting.

If they are talking to the chairs, Personnel is a good spot for them.

If they are wearing green sunglasses and need a haircut, Computer Information Systems is their niche.

If they mention what a good price we got for the table and chairs, put them into Purchasing.

If they mention that hardwood furniture DOES NOT come from rain forests, Public Relations would suit them well.

If they are writing up the experience, send them to the Technical Documents team.

If they don’t even look up when you enter the room, assign them to Security.

If they try to tell you it’s not as bad as it looks, send them to Marketing.

If they are sleeping, they are Management material.

I beg you, when the whimsy of what I’ve just read wears off, don’t forget the central thrust. God is in the personnel business. He has given you specific spiritual gifts. He knows how to deploy you in servant ministry. And remember, He, therefore, knows how and is the only One who knows how to make the final evaluation on your stewardship, the resources He’s given you in servant ministry to others.

This, therefore, brings us to the next and final of our action principles.

V.

Action Principle 5: Leave the ultimate judgment and critique to God.

In a way, I’ve already said it, but this action principle needs to be underlined again and again, if not for you, at least for me.

Frankly, I have a suspicion that the message God has laid on my heart for this morning from His Word is one that must be directed to me perhaps more than anyone else in this sanctuary. I swing from an achievement-oriented lifestyle in which you can orchestrate the daylights out of me by your compliments or negative criticisms to a more philosophical approach in which I try to judge how well I am doing by what I would consider to be a deeper criteria based on the facts as I know them. On that basis, I can defensively prove to myself that I am, at any given time, doing a much better job than some would grant, in spite of the apparent lack of external success symbols. Or, in a time of apparent great success in external symbols, I can minimize labeling as of the flesh that which really is of the Spirit and is genuinely God’s blessing.

What I have to do is what Paul learned to do. That is, I need to do what I do faithfully and leave the final evaluation to the Lord! That doesn’t mean not to be accountable to others and to oneself. God has given us trusted friends and people to whom we are responsible. He gives a conscience that is instructed by His Word, the Scriptures, and by the inner guidance of His Holy Spirit. We are to take others and ourselves seriously. But, in the final analysis, we are to allow God to be God, letting His evaluation be supreme.

The apostle Paul brings to conclusion these four chapters with some observations that illustrate these truths with which we have been wrestling.

First, he observes the ultimate foolishness of egotistical self-pride and party spirit.

He writes, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Isn’t that about the most profound observation that could be made? Everything we have is a gift, isn’t it? Why, then, do we make such a big deal out of boasting about who we are and what we have?

If every good and perfect thing comes from God, we are the beneficiaries of His blessing. Is there any room for party spirit, bragging, boasting and self-conceit in that? Not for a moment! It’s OK for me to be proud to be an American, a citizen of California, a Republican or a Democrat, a Presbyterian, a follower of John Calvin or John Knox or Charles Wesley. But to boast on any human being or any national identity, any political affiliation, how foolish! How much better to say, “Thank you, Lord, for making me me. Now help me to be faithful to all the potential you have invested in me. Help me not to get down on myself or to think too highly of myself. Help me, Lord, to be a servant leader. Help me to see myself in the way Paul saw himself, as someone gifted, not one determined to stand at the bridge of the ship and shout out the orders, but someone willing to take that long oar down on the third deck and faithfully keep rowing in concert with all the others who are rowing with open disciplined obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ. After all, the very privilege of being involved in enterprise with you, Dear Lord, is your gift. Thank you. Thank you for making me a steward. Thank you for helping me manage these resources you’ve entrusted, resources that are yours. Everything comes from you. Help me to be faithful.”

Second, Paul compares the “hot-stuff syndrome” of the Corinthian Christians to the “realities” of a servant leader’s life.

With biting rebuke, Paul declares the Corinthian believers are already filled with all they want, already rich, already have become kings, already wise and strong and held in honor in contrast to him and the other apostles. His was a testimony of becoming a fool for Christ. He experienced weakness. He was held in disrespect among many. He and the other apostles had experienced their share of hunger, thirst, being ill-clad, knocked about by life, homeless, working hard, going through persecution. He goes on to describe the life of a servant leader in these words, “. . .When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13).

You see, the servant leader doesn’t judge his success on the applause of the crowd, because he knows that often the applause of the crowd is based on the perceptions of worldly, natural, fleshly values, not on the values of eternity.

The Roman generals returned boastfully with their bounty. The most despised of what they brought back was a little group of captives doomed to death who brought up the rear of their entourage. They were to be taken to the arena to fight the beasts and to die. Paul likens the proud, self-righteous bickering Christians in Corinth to the Roman generals, and likens himself and the other apostles to those humble slaves.

Third and finally, he observes that his purpose in writing with such firmness is not to make them ashamed, but to warn them as a loving parent would warn his children.

He urges them to take seriously his admonitions. He is saying, “No one loves you as much as I love you, and therefore no one will speak to you as honestly as I will speak to you. Don’t be arrogant. Remember, even though on this world’s value system, I don’t amount to much as a servant leader, I have been given pastoral authority for you by God. Hear my rebuke. Wake up to your errors. Repent of those things that divide and those things of the flesh that are destroying your potential unity in Jesus Christ and your own spiritual maturity.”

Paul is saying in the final analysis that the servant leader is no Caspar Milquetoast. He bears responsibility. He sends Timothy to remind them of the right priorities, and he challenges them to decide now whether or not, when he eventually comes, he’ll have to come with the rod of discipline, or whether they will have dealt with these things in his absence to the point that he can come in joyful fellowship and love “in the spirit of gentleness.”

Here at St. Andrew’s, we have a “Servant Leadership for Life Workshop.” It’s a one-day event on Saturday, November 12, 2005, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sharon Corzine, and her great lay leadership team, coordinates this terrific workshop. Let me read a paragraph that describes it, because basically it expresses what Paul is saying here in this most significant passage of Scripture.

Christ is the model of the perfect servant leader, and, despite our fallen nature, we are called to emulate Him. Servant leadership is about using God-given gifts unselfishly to influence others toward building up the church and the Kingdom. Every believer is a minister, which means that every believer is both a servant and a leader-called to serve one another and the world and to lead each other and the world into the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We lead by the kind of life we live. Working in community, a servant leader demonstrates integrity, humility as he/she uses his/her heart, head, hands, and habits in Kingdom work. The Servant Leadership for Life workshop is about sharing action principles and practical tools for living life as a servant leader.

One practical way to put in practice the message of the morning is to sign up and take that one-day seminar.

Along with that, the best way to apply the teaching of this morning is to realize that the servant leader is not against power, but against the corruption of power. The servant leader does not find his or her identity in the principalities and powers of this world, but in the faithful service of the One before Whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The servant leader comes with absolutely no authority of his or her own. But the servant leader comes as an ambassador with all the authority of the God of Creation, the God of Redemption, the God of Glorification!

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John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

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