RPM, Volume 12, Number 39, September 26 to October 2, 2010

I Corinthians 4:1-5

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

If you have a Bible, let me invite you to open it to the New Testament, and to Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, where we will be spending our time this morning looking at Chapter 4:1-5.

In this letter, Paul has been doing two main things. Firstly, he has been responding to some problems that are troubling the Corinthian church and, secondly, he is responding to some questions that they have asked him. In responding to the problems in the church, he has first tackled the problem of division, i.e., the way that they were forming cliques and factions which were, for the most part, gathered around various leaders, or at least the names of various leaders. Some of these leaders were apostles and others were, apparently, local leaders, of varying degrees of effectiveness, that had risen to prominence following Paul's departure.

Now, in dealing with this subject we have seen that one of the factors behind their forming these personality cults was the way that they were thinking about at least two things in particular - firstly wisdom (what it is, how one gets it) and secondly, leaders and ministry. We have already looked at the first part (wisdom) and are still listening to what Paul has to say about the second part on leaders and ministry.

Now, as I think we have already seen, part of the problem in Corinth was not merely the fact that they had an inflated view of a number of different leaders - which WAS a problem - but alongside that it would seem that there were a significant number of people who were now either opposed to Paul or, at the very least, were increasingly unimpressed with him and his former ministry among them.

So, as part of his attempting to correct their faulty thinking about leaders and ministry, Paul, in the verses before us this morning, wants to re-iterate and expand upon what he has already said to them about regarding their leaders as servants. Further, on the basis of that expanded understanding, Paul wants to explain to them how and why their negative evaluations of him are both baseless and completely inappropriate. That's what we're up to this morning. Let's pray before we go any further...

(Read passage)

The fundamental role of a leader in God's Church is to be a steward. That is the idea that Paul wants to drive home in the passage before us this morning. "...one should regard us", he says, "... as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God..." The word that Paul uses for "servant" here is not the one he typically uses but a different word, one which means something more than just "servant", something more like the word "steward" - which we'll look at in just a moment.

When he talks about "the secret things of God" - a better translation of which is "the mysteries of God" - when Paul says those kinds of things he's simply using the same language with which he has previously described the Gospel, including God's plan to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles - in passages like Romans 11, Romans 16 and Ephesians 3. In these and other passages Paul describes God's plan of salvation as a "secret thing" or a "mystery" because the precise aspects of this plan were hidden from God's people until he made them plain through the sending of His Son.

When Paul says, "those entrusted with", in verse 1, the word there is the one that everywhere else in the NT is translated as "steward" or "manager". Now, "steward" is not a word that we really use these days - the closest thing to it is the word "stewardship" which we DO use but which we tend to think about only in terms of money and how it is handled.

However, the concept of a "steward" and of "stewardship", in Paul's day, was much broader than that. To be sure, the steward was a servant, like every other servant. However, he was not just a servant. He was a trusted servant. He was a servant that had been placed in charge of other servants. He was a servant that the master had great confidence in and so would allow him to administer his wealth and property and all sorts of things that were valuable to him.

So, when you put all these ideas together, you see what Paul is saying, don't you? He is saying that the Corinthians are to view their leaders as stewards - as people who had been entrusted with "the mysteries of God" - the Gospel with all its implications. As part of that trust, they had a responsibility to faithfully administer these things on God's behalf.

Now, understanding that God's leaders are to be regarded, first and foremost, as stewards is a very helpful thing. It was something that, if the Corinthians could have gotten hold of it, might have given them a very different perspective on their Founding Apostle. Because, you see, it is only when you understand the nature of a leader's role, that you are in a position to know what are the proper criteria for evaluating that leader. If you MISUNDERSTAND the leader's role, then you will also be mistaken in the criteria you use to evaluate.

So, for example, if you think the primary role of a leader is to be an ENTREPRENEUR or a CEO, then the criteria you will use for evaluating him would be his creativity and productivity and, ultimately, the bottom line - whether his work was "out there" on the cutting edge of things, and getting results. Or, alternatively, if you think that the primary role of a leader is to be something like a CRUISE DIRECTOR, then the criteria for evaluating him will be whether the passengers are enjoying the trip, whether they are happy, not getting bored, being entertained.

Nevertheless, if the primary role of a leader is to be a STEWARD, then the criteria for evaluation is different because it is not a steward's primary job to invent the future and be innovative or guarantee results, nor is it his job to make everyone happy or, to insure that they never feel need or hardship. The steward's job is to take that which has been entrusted to him by his master and administer it faithfully - to be true and loyal to that, no matter what the cost or result. As Paul says, in verse 2, "...it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful..." Faithfulness, then, is the proper criteria by which God's stewards are to be judged.

Now, of course, the Corinthians, because they had a lot of faulty ideas about their leaders, were using all sorts of OTHER criteria to evaluate Paul - e.g., whether his preaching was as good and dynamic as that of Apollos, whether his message was "new" and "innovative" and in step with the "wisdom of the age", whether his ministry was attracting the "right kind" of people, whether he had a winsome and dynamic personality - all kinds of other criteria were being used to evaluate Paul - every kind, apparently, except the right kind - faithfulness: Was Paul being faithful to teach and live out the Gospel just as it had been given to him by God? Had he been careful not to add to it in any way? Had he been careful not to hide or minimize or sugar coat it in any way? Further, was Paul faithful to press the claims of the Gospel on the people to whom he ministered, urging them to respond to the message and to live as God's people, in God's world. Had he been faithful to God in that way?

Well, if the criteria by which a steward will be judged is faithfulness, then THAT means the only one who, ultimately, will be qualified to make that judgment is God, for at least two reasons. Firstly, while a leader has responsibilities toward those whom He leads, the leader is, in the final analysis, only fully accountable to God since God is the one who has "employed" him, gifted him, set him apart, and called him to that task.

Second, because faithfulness is about both actions AND attitudes, then, because only God knows what is hidden within the human heart, then He alone is in a position to make any definitive statement about the worth of a man's life and ministry. The revelation of what IS hidden in a man's heart - whether good or evil- is something that will NOT take place until the Lord comes again. As Paul says in verse 5, "...judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts..."

This is why Paul, in verse 3, dismisses the Corinthians' negative evaluations of him. "I care very little..." he says, "...if I am judged by you or by any human court..." Now, in saying these things, Paul is not being flippant, nor is he saying that he does not at all take into consideration the things that many of the Corinthians are apparently saying about him. But he IS saying that, in light of the fact that the Lord is his ultimate judge, and in light of the fact that only God can see what the Corinthians cannot see, and in light of the fact that the Corinthians are using rather shallow criteria in their evaluation of him - in light of all those things, the opinions of the Corinthians, or of any other believers for that matter, were of relative un-importance, particularly when it came to the matter of evaluating whether he had been faithful to carry out the duties with which he had been entrusted.

After making this rather bold statement, Paul goes on to make another rather surprising statement, and one that no doubt would have caught the Corinthians off guard. He says, "I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me... " Now, I don't know about you, but I think that is a VERY interesting remark by the Apostle Paul.

It is interesting because of its bluntness, and honesty and its terrible consistency. You see, Paul really does believe that the inner workings of the human heart are something which no person is fit to finally judge - not even the person himself/herself, which perhaps may surprise you a little bit. I mean, we are all accustomed to thinking that nobody really knows what's going on inside of us. The unspoken exception, whenever we say and think those kinds of things, is that while no one else except God may know what is going on inside of us, WE DO. And perhaps, to a certain extent, there is some truth to that.

However, have you ever stopped to think why you do anything? Why did you come to be with God's people this morning? Did you really come to be with God's people this morning? Or was it for some other reasons? "I came to worship God", you say. Well, okay, but is that the only reason you are here? Is there no other motivation for your coming?

Or take, for example, the Angel Tree Ministry that many of you are helping out with this Christmas - which is a great thing - but let me ask you - why ARE you helping out with that ministry? Let me say it again - why are you helping out with THAT ministry? Now, of course, I think that all of you would have some good, biblical reasons for being involved in this kind of thing. And that's great. But are those the only reasons you're involved? Are altruistic motivations really the only thing that is driving you?

Now, of course, I am not for a moment suggesting that we should only do things when our motives our 100% altruistic. Because if that were the case, nothing would ever be done. But I AM saying that the human heart is much more complex than that.

So, continuing with our example - and this is just an example - but there are all sorts of things that might motivate a person to be involved in something like Angel Tree. Alongside our biblical reasons we may also be driven to help out because we are remembering the pain of a Christmas that was pretty bare, perhaps we are driven by our grief over a parent-wound in our own life and so identifying with these children in some way, perhaps we have a guilty conscience over something we have done - or are still doing - and are trying to assuage it with "good" activities, perhaps we are concerned for our own children and the frightening degree to which the Monster of Materialism has invaded their hearts, as well as our own, perhaps we are worried about what people will think if we DON'T participate - do you see what I mean? There are all sorts of things that might be part of any ministry decision. The human heart is VERY complex. And if you ever sit down and try to think through why you do the things you do - then you will very quickly come to the conclusion - as Paul did here - that nobody is able to fully evaluate the human heart except God.

"My conscience is clear", says Paul, "but that does not make me innocent." When Paul tries to think through his ministry to the Corinthians, he cannot think of anything he has said or done that would have caused them to treat him as they have. He is not aware of anything that he has done that was deliberately intended to harm them or take advantage of them in any way. And yet, he says, that does not mean that I am innocent.

So, while Jiminy Cricket may have told Pinocchio to "always let his conscience be his guide" - Paul says, in effect, "your conscience may guide you, but that does not mean that your actions will necessarily be good or right". Consciences can be warped, consciences can become seared or calloused. One only has to think of atrocities like Stalin's oppressive Soviet regime, or Hitler's Germany, or our own dark history of racism in the South to see that consciences can be terribly misshaped and made to be un- responsive to things that are clearly wrong. Indeed, we don't have to look any farther than our own lives to see that this is the case. We all, surely, have seen the effect on our own hearts of our repeated dalliances with particular sins - dalliances that have rendered us increasingly un-responsive, our hearts colder and harder, our sensitivities dulled - if you're honest, you know exactly what Paul is talking about, don't you? Paul says that he does not trust the evaluation of his heart to ANY human court, including the court of "self'. "It is the Lord who judges" - says Paul.

"Now hang on a minute", you say. "What is Paul saying to us here? When he, on the basis of the things we have been looking at, says, in verse 5, '.... THEREFORE... judge nothing before the appointed time....' - when Paul says that, does he mean we are not to engage in any sort of judging? Is he including every kind of evaluation that people might make in that seemingly blanket statement?"

Well, you do not have to look any further than this letter to see that Paul clearly does NOT mean, by this remark, to rule out any and every kind of judgment. In the very next chapter, Chapter 5, Paul is addressing a problem of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church. Look at what he says there in verses 3-5, and then further down in verses 9-13. Now, of course, we don't have time to do a full exegesis of this text, but that's not necessary for our purposes here this morning. The thing I want you to see is that in this same letter, Paul will be making some judgments of his own about a particular person and, indeed, encouraging the rest of the congregation to join with him in that action.

Look at the next chapter, chapter 6:4-5. Again, you do not have to be fully clued into the meaning of this text to see that this too is a fairly obvious illustration of Paul's expectation that from time to time the Corinthians could and should, exercise their critical faculties and come to some very necessary conclusions about people and actions they have taken. Charles Hodge is very helpful here, "Paul is speaking here of the heart. The church cannot judge the heart. Whether someone is sincere or insincere in his professions, whether his experience is genuine or spurious, only God can decide. The church CAN judge what is external. If anyone claims to be holy and yet is immoral, the church is bound to reject him, as Paul clearly teaches in a later chapter. Or if someone professes to be a Christian and yet rejects Christianity or any of its essential doctrines, he cannot be received..."

Only the searcher of hearts can judge the motives of men's hearts. So, clearly, when Paul says, "judge nothing before the appointed time" he does not mean that in an comprehensive sense, but only in the limited sense defined by the context of his words - what he means is "do not make any final pronouncements about the faithfulness or even usefulness of any particular ministry". Let me give you a contemporary and recent example of that.

If you were here last week, you would have heard me say some things about this phenomenon that has been sweeping through the Evangelical world - and all centered around a very obscure, one sentence prayer found in the book of Chronicles, by a man named Jabez. My concern in using that prayer as an example last week was to ask some important questions about this movement, and its emphasis. I think it is good and right for us to at least wonder WHY this movement has spawned a great deal of interest in praying this very brief prayer that we know so little about while, at the same time, when we have other passages that are much more extensive and much more clearly intended as models for prayer - around these other passages no great interest seems to have arisen.

My concern was, and continues to be, over the unhelpful ways in which this certainly LEGITMATE portion of Scripture has been used to justify a theology of personal advancement. And those concerns are based not upon hearsay but upon statements made by the man who is at the center of this movement. All those things are legitimate concerns and questions that need to be asked of this whole thing.

However, if I were to go from there to say that this man's whole ministry, which in the past has included some very helpful things like "Walk Thru the Bible", etc. - if I were to move beyond what was external and observable to try and judge his heart - to make some sort of pronouncement about his motives then, according to Paul's words here, I would be on very uncertain ground. Indeed, even to look at the "Prayer of Jabez" ministry itself and ask some important questions is not to say that nothing good has come of this movement. I'm sure that it has. I know for a fact that some have found much personal help and encouragement from reflecting on what this prayer in Chronicles really does mean - all the hype about it notwithstanding.

So, on the one hand, one might be discerning and even critical of some teacher or movement, or some ministry or some aspect of a ministry, but without going to the point of saying that a person's entire ministry is/was useless. Now, does this mean we never come to the place where we might denounce a person and/or his ministry? Well, what does Scripture say? Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits..." (Matt 7:15) That is, not by your spiritual x-ray vision. In another place, Paul takes a number of verses in 2 Timothy to warn Timothy about godless people who he describes as "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God"- Paul says to "avoid such people" because such men oppose the truth and are corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith...." (2 Tim 3:1-9) Clearly to make these observations about a person, come to a conclusion about them and then make a practice of avoiding them would require some sort of declaration of the value of their ministry.

But, as in the example of Jesus, the basis for that declaration would be some external thing - the active opposition to the truth of the Gospel. Likewise, in Titus 3:10-11, Paul writes, "As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned." Clearly, in this passage Paul expects that people will judge a divisive person to be such and cut themselves off from fellowship with him. This too would necessitate making some sort of judgment as regards the person.

Once again, it would seem that the basis for making this judgment would be something external and observable - the causing of division in a church - and not on one's ability to peer into a person's soul and come to the conclusion that he is "warped and sinful". In all of these cases, the movement seems to be from the OUTSIDE - IN.

This sort of movement - from the outside in - would seem to be what the Corinthians were getting wrong in Paul's case, which leads to his rebuke and prohibition. When they looked at Paul's life and ministry among them, they didn't have any real "dirt" on him, so to speak. If Paul had been preaching heresy, they might have had a basis for criticizing him. If Paul had been engaged in some sinful activity, then they would have had clear and obvious grounds for doing something about it. But they couldn't really fault his work and ministry for what it WAS. And so, if they were going to find fault with him they were going to have to do it in other ways - either by appealing to some other, worldly standards, or else by impugning his motives in some way. It would seem that both of these things had been done, and Paul calls them out for it here.

So Paul, with these verses, gives the Corinthians, and us, much to consider with regard to how we think about leaders and ministry. And, since we are running out of time, let me just list a few things here, by way of conclusion, which we won't be able to fully develop but which you can, hopefully, take away and commit to further study and reflection on your own...

First, Paul shows us what is the proper way to view and respond to those that lead among us and tells us what the proper criteria is for their evaluation - faithfulness - and that ultimately only God is in a position to make a final judgment on THAT score. Keeping these things in mind should contribute to the peace and unity of the church.

At the same time, we are reminded in this study that, while we are NOT able to judge the motives of the human heart, this does not rule out our acting with discernment and having to make some judgments, in the course of our life together as God's people. We are to make judgments about moral or immoral behavior (1 Cor 5) and yet not about matters which are more peripheral and which are issues of personal conscience (Colossians 2:16-17, Romans 14:1-12). Further we are to make judgments about true and false doctrine (Galatians 1:6-9; Colossians 2:8). Indeed, some of the judgements that we make are so severe that they require excommunication (Matt 18:15-20).

So, while the activity of judging IS a Christian action and one which we are commanded and responsible to engage in, it, nevertheless, is an activity that is liable to abuse and can be done in a WAY which is unbiblical and hurtful - which, of course, is what the injunction - "judge not, lest ye be judged" is, in context, really all about - not prohibiting the activity of judging but merely regulating it and urging you to err on the side of caution.

So, as congregations, we are instructed by the Scriptures to walk a very fine line between making necessary judgments, on God's behalf and as His representatives (Matt 18:15-20) and over-stepping our bounds by making ultimate judgments on things which are either peripheral or about which we simply do not have enough knowledge to make such a final judgment. When we overstep our bounds in this way we are not using our legitimate right to judge but are instead usurping God's authority (Romans 14).

There is a message in this for leaders as well. Those who lead also need to maintain a careful balance here. On the one hand, those who lead must not allow themselves to be bullied by those who, in their immaturity would cast aspersions on God's servants and speak with assumed expertise on matters about which they know very little. Leaders must not be unduly swayed when people use criteria other than biblical criteria to evaluate their work and ministry, or when their motives are impugned - as hurtful as that may be at times.

At the same time, we must not become deaf to our critics. We need to consider the things that are being said and respond humility to that which is true and right. We must not ever act or believe that we are above reproach. We certainly are not, and we certainly do have an accountability for our words and deeds. "A teacher must not", as Calvin says, "...take a text like this and abuse it such that, whenever a he is called to give an accounting he hides behind his appeal to the judgment of God - and will not bother to try and give a good answer or good report to the things that are being asked of him. This text is not an escape clause for such a minister as that."

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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