1 Corinthians 4:1-5 (NRSV) – Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 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. Therefore do not pronounce judgment 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 commendation from God.
Paul apparently perceives the Corinthian church to be judging him, but he is not bothered by it because he recognizes that ultimately only God can judge him. In our current day, there seems to be a trend of Christians accusing famous church leaders of character issues. In the context of this post, I am not addressing cases of serious moral or criminal offences committed, but rather, judgment on church leaders that stems primarily from disagreements on theological or cultural issues. For instance, those who do not agree with the Prosperity Gospel will accuse its proponents of being “greedy.” Or Fundamentalists will accuse liberal Christian preachers of being “lukewarm,” “asleep,” or “cowardly.” Then liberal Christians will accuse hardcore Evangelical preachers with a fire-and-brimstone message of being “abusive.”
But ultimately, it is only God who truly knows these people and can judge their character. It may be tempting to think of famous preachers as celebrities who are trying to gauge what is popular or see what power or wealth they can gain from their ministries. But only God can truly see whether this is the case, or whether they are preaching out of genuine conviction, albeit possibly misguided. It is in this way that God will “disclose the purposes of the heart,” as Paul writes.
1 Corinthians 4:7-13 – 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? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. 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.
Apparently the Corinthians were first-century armchair experts. It seems they had a tendency to view apostles as celebrities who, like themselves, were very opinionated or image-focused. As a result, the Corinthians felt free to take sides the same way people today might side with certain political leaders or cultural icons. Paul seeks to dispel this notion by showing how apostleship is actually not glamorous.
I have to admit that this is another area where I go through some internal debate. I see preachers who are teaching things that I disagree with, but I see that they have sacrificed a lot to spread their message and that their beliefs enable them to endure hardship with a great deal of grace. They also seem very humble and empowered by the Holy Spirit as Paul describes of himself in the beginning of Chapter 2. Thoughts cross my mind about whether my disagreement with them carries an attitude of arrogance.
At the same time though, when I look at my past experiences from a Scriptural perspective, there are certain things that have to be true. The process of realizing these things was difficult personally. But perhaps that was for a reason, so that remembering the process would keep my ego from inflating and thinking I was naturally “wise” enough to choose to believe certain things.
When my mind is confronted with the fact that I disagree with some believers who are sincere and devout, my thought processes are healthier if I focus on the fact that I am believing what I have to believe as a result of Scripture and experience, rather than trying to build an “identity” around my beliefs to contrast with the identity I perceive from the beliefs of others.
1 Corinthians 4:14-21 – “I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church. But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant. 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 depends not on talk but on power. What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”
I think the essence of this passage is to just calm down and be reasonable. Paul says that his writing in this chapter is not intended to shame anyone. He just wants the Corinthians to stop the incessant, arrogant chatter in order to think clearly and follow his teaching to live from an appreciation of life. When he suggests he might have to come to them “with a stick” if they do not change their attitude, I don’t think this is about punishment, but rather, speaking sternly enough to startle them a bit and at least make them be quiet for a minute.