1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In school, I remember getting to play—experiment—with litmus paper. Litmus paper is able to distinguish between an acid or a base. For example, if you put a drop of lemon juice on it, it would turn red or pink, indicating an acid. If you put bleach on it, it would turn blue, showing that bleach is a base.
Litmus paper has been around for hundreds of years, and the phrase “Litmus Test” has come to be used for more than just testing acids and bases. It came to be used to point out the decisive test of a person’s character or ability. Someone might say, “The war on poverty was the litmus test of his presidency,” meaning that it was the decisive test of his leadership.
What’s the litmus test of a church leader—a pastor, deacon, missionary, Sunday school teacher, and so on? That’s what we’ll discover in 1 Corinthians 4—
1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. 4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1–5)
Paul brings his discussion of the divisions in the Corinthian church full circle. They were declaring that Paul or Apollos or Peter was the best to follow, he said (in 3:21) not to boast in men.
Now, here, he tells them why—because they don’t have the right test for who is the best and, furthermore, they are not the ones who can give the best judgment of a leader anyway.
First, what we see here is…
I. THE DESCRIPTION OF LEADERS
1 Corinthians 4:1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
This verse reaches back to chapter three where Paul warned the Corinthians not to boast in other men—don’t consider us apostles and leaders to be people who you boast in. We’re ministers of Christ; we’re stewards of God’s revealed wisdom. That’s all.
Those two phrases, “ministers of Christ” and “stewards of the mysteries of God” give us a good description of a leader in Christ’s church. First…
A. They Are Servants Of Christ
“ministers (ὑπηρέτας) of Christ”—refers to a servant or an assistant.
Paul, Apollos, and anyone serving in the church is first of all a servant of Christ, then a servant of the people that they minister to.
In other words, teachers and leaders in the church are not to bow to every whim of the people, but to serve them first as a humble and obedient servant of Christ. Their marching orders come from above.
A pastor is not really an employee of a church. Sure, there are some similarities, but to call a pastor an employee would be inaccurate. He is first a servant of Christ. He is first an employee of Christ.
Secondly, Paul describes a church leader as that…
B. They Are Stewards Of God’s Word
1. What is a Steward?
When we think of “steward” today, we might think of “a person who looks after the passengers on a ship, aircraft, or train and brings them meals.”
But that is not the image that we’re supposed to have. Perhaps a good way of understand “steward” is to think of him as being an “estate manager” or even just a manager.
Think of how Joseph was given authority by Pharaoh to run all of Egypt. He was a steward of Pharaoh. One ancient document records for us the kinds of things a steward was responsible for in those days. A master wrote to his steward,
“I have empowered you by this document to administer my estate in Arsinoe, and to collect the rents and, if need be, to arrange new leases or to cultivate some land yourself, and to give receipts in my name, and to transact any business connected with stewardship, just as I can transact it when I am present, and to distribute the plots in Karamis, restoring to me what remains over, as to which matter I rely on your good faith, and I confirm whatever you decide about them.”
So a steward or manager is one that is given authority by his master to conduct business, to make decisions, and even take the initiative in projects to further his master’s estate.
A steward is a great way of thinking about any Christian who ministers. We’re God’s employees. We work for him.
2. A Steward Of What?
Paul, Apollos, and the many, many other Christians since then, have been charged with being stewards, caretakers, estate managers of…
“the mysteries of God”—the mysteries of God referred to here are simply the things that God has revealed to us that we could not have discovered on our own. The Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are things that could not have been figured out by man, so they are a mystery in that sense.
Now, any Christian serving as a pastor, missionary, teacher or even a witness to a neighbor is to be a steward of God’s Word. What does that mean?
Consider the post office. They are stewards of our mail—we’ve entrusted them to get our letters from us to the person we’re writing to. We don’t want them to write our letters for us, we want them to deliver them.
So the Christian is a steward of God’s Word. We are entrusted with communicating it completely and accurately. Just as we expect the postman to deliver our letters, so God expects us to tell others what he has said in his word.
1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.
The word for “required” (ζητεῖται) “it is to be sought in a steward” (Present/Active/Passive). This is what God is looking for in his church leaders…to be “found faithful” (ἵνα πιστός τις εὑρεθῇ).
In a similar vein, Peter encourages Christians to be good stewards of the gift that has been given to them.
10 As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. (1 Peter 4:10)
Faithfulness is not the only requirement (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 have more), but Paul seems to be saying that it should be the primary one.
A pastor or Sunday School teacher might not be the best speaker, but if they are faithful, that is pleasing in God’s eyes.
Faithfulness is not just about showing up, but it’s being faithful in studying the Bible, in prayer, in reaching out, and so forth. It’s being faithful in all aspects of your ministry. That’s why faithfulness is the primary requirement.
The Corinthians were apparently applying different standards—perhaps, for example, they thought that Apollos was a magnificent speaker.
Paul corrects them and says that faithfulness as a steward of God’s Word and being a servant of Christ is the main thing. They were using the wrong judgment for leaders, so Paul goes on to explain that issue.
II. THE JUDGMENT OF LEADERS
A. Not Judged By Others
1 Corinthians 4:3a But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment:
“I should be judged (ἀνακριθῶ)—The word for “judged” means to be “examined closely.” One could find good or bad in a person from such an examination.
For example, at Jesus’ trial, Pilate said,“behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him” (Luke 23:14).
So don’t think of the judgment in this passage is a totally negative thing, it could be positive also. It’s more like an evaluation—like the judging at the county fair.
Church leaders face both positive and negative evaluations from others. The positive ones can be just as dangerous as the negative ones.
The Corinthians were choosing up sides, picking their favorite leaders. You can just imagine someone saying to the apostle Paul, “I don’t care what the others think, I think you are a way better pastor than that upstart Apollos!” You see how it could be dangerous to have a positive judgment?
In response, Paul said that it wasn’t a big deal to him to be “judged of you or of man’s judgment”—Whether people have anything good or bad to say about him, Paul says that’s a “a very small thing” to him.
One of the hardest things for a church leader to do is to separate the need to care for people on the one hand and not to care about pleasing people on the other hand. It’s a difficult tension to balance.
You can imagine a steward, in ancient times, being left with a large farm to manage while the master is off doing something else. The steward needs to both care for the other servants as his master would, but also remember to do what the master says, even if the other servants don’t like it. And if giving all the other servants a 50% raise would make them really love him, he wouldn’t do it if he knew the master would disapprove.
The same is true for negative judgment as well. If the master told the steward that no workers could take vacations, and the steward enforced that rule, he would have to face negative criticism from others. But what’s more important to him? The approval of the master or the approval of the other servants?
For Paul, the approval or disapproval of others about the ministry he performed for the Lord was “a very small thing” compared to the approval of his Lord and Master.
Paul also says that he could…
B. Not Judged By Himself
1 Corinthians 4:3b …yea, I judge not mine own self.
1 Corinthians 4:4a For I know nothing by [against] myself; yet am I not hereby justified:
What Paul doesn’t mean is that he would never examine himself, or that he would never consider the possibility that a criticism brought by someone else or even himself was correct.
What does he mean? When he says, “For I know nothing by [against] myself,” he is referring to his conscience. He was saying, “My conscience has nothing against me.”
But even though his conscience may be clear that does not mean that he is “justified” (δεδικαίωμαι). Even though a person may claim to have a clear conscience, that doesn’t mean that they are innocent before God.
So a leader can think—“I’ve done a pretty good (or lousy) job teaching Sunday school”—but it’s not their assessment of their work that will matter in the end.
Instead, the evaluation every Christian leader and worker needs to be concerned about is how the Lord will judge them.
C. But Judged By The Lord
1 Corinthians 4:4b …but he that judgeth me is the Lord.
The employee is to be concerned not so much about what the other employees are saying about him, but what the boss is saying.
1 Corinthians 4:5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.
When the Lord Jesus returns, he will judge the hearts of all men perfectly. The reason that Paul says “judge nothing before the time” is that, while the Corinthians (and many Christians today) are praising that preacher or this teacher, the ones that God will reward with praise may be “hidden.”
When we get to Heaven, we will be floored at who gets the highest rewards. It won’t be the ones with the most fame, or the most education, or the most numbers in their church…it will be the quiet ones who faithfully worked behind the scenes. Sometimes the best leaders in the church are the ones that we don’t realize are leading!
Here’s what it boils down to: your success in your ministry—whatever that is—cannot be judged by what people think of you. You will not necessarily be successful if people say nice things about you.
You will not necessarily be a failure if people say bad things about you (and strangely, Christians say more bad things about leaders and teachers than they say good things).
Your success in your ministry will be determined by your faithfulness. That is what the Lord looks for in a servant.
Why should someone be a faithful servant or steward? Why should someone care little about other’s judgments, and mainly about the Lord’s evaluation of him on that day?
The reason is found in the Lord’s Supper. What is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper? What did Jesus say?
23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:23–25)
Jesus intended the Lord’s Supper as a visual reminder of what he did for us on the cross. His body was broken, like bread, for our sins. His blood was poured out, like the cup, for our iniquities.
When you truly grasp the magnitude of what Jesus did for you, what is left but to serve him faithfully? What is left but care only about what he says?
Are you a faithful servant today? Are you concerned more about what others say of you, or what evaluation your Savior Jesus Christ has of you?