4. The Struggles and Joys of Christian Leaders (1 Corinthians 4)

Audio (23:32)

Paul suffers in prison  again  this time just before his execution. Rembrandt, detail of St. Paul in Prison (1627). Oil on panel, 73x60 cm., Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.
Paul suffers in prison -- again -- this time just before his execution. Rembrandt, detail of "St. Paul in Prison" (1627). Oil on panel, 73x60 cm., Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.

In this chapter, Paul continues the quest to reestablish his authority with the Corinthians as their apostle, and in doing so he opens up a bit about the things he has to suffer in order to serve Christ. It is an inspiring chapter -- and humbling.

If you're a pastor or Christian leader, the chances are that you've complained about your hardships. You may have complained a lot! In 1 Corinthians 4 we find insights about what apostles and other Christian workers have to suffer. Perhaps it will help you to understand that as you follow Christ, you too can expect to suffer hardship. Indeed, as Paul exhorts Timothy:

"Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 2:3)

But perhaps you're on the other end -- criticizing pastors and Christian leaders for their often very real weaknesses. This chapter has something to say to you, too.

Servants Entrusted with God's Message (4:1-2)

Paul begins by explaining just how his sometimes critical readers ought to evaluate him.

"1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful." (4:1-2)

"Regard" (NIV, ESV), "think of" (NRSV), "account of" (KJV) is logizomai, primarily a mathematical and accounting term, then of cognitive processes. The basic idea is to "calculate." Here it means, "as a result of a calculation, evaluate, estimate, look upon as, consider."90 The Corinthians may have called Paul a lot of things, but here Paul says, the category in which you should place me in your mind is that of a trusted servant of God who is the bearer of special words from God to you. He uses two titles to describe his role:

"Servant" (NIV, NRSV), "minister" (KJV) is hypēretēs, frequently used as technical term for a governmental or other official, "one who functions as a helper, frequently in a subordinate capacity, helper, assistant."91 This is different from the words usually translated "servant," that is, doulos, "slave," and diakanos, "minister, servant." Hypēretēs suggests administering the affairs of another.92

"Steward" (NRSV, KJV), "one entrusted" (NIV) is oikonomos, "manager of a household or estate, (house) steward, manager." This isn't the homeowner, but one of his servants who is entrusted with the task of managing. Robertson explains, "The steward or house manager (oikos, house, nemō, to manage, old word) was a slave under his lord, but a master over the other slaves in the house, an overseer over the rest."93 Figuratively, this word refers to "one who is entrusted with management in connection with transcendent matters, administrator."94 It is used in this sense in Titus 1:7 ("A bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless....") and in 1 Peter 4:10 ("faithfully administering God's grace...").

A third word is important for us to understand also -- mystērion, "mystery," which we also see at 2:1, 7; 13:2; and 14:2. Here it is translated "secret things" (NIV), "mysteries" (NRSV, KJV). The Message paraphrase catches a bit of the sense, "God's most sublime secrets." What Paul means is that the wonderful truths about the cross, the resurrection, and the salvation of the Gentiles have been hidden for ages, only hinted at in the Old Testament. Apostles -- and Christian pastors and teachers -- have both the immense privilege and huge responsibility of unwrapping these truths to people. They don't own the Gospel, but are Christ's assistants in the Kingdom, as well as managers of households owned by the King, charged with providing spiritual food for those in their household.

But verse 2 reminds us that faithfulness is required of apostles, pastors, and teachers.

"It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful." (NIV)
"It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy." (NRSV)

The word is pistos, "pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust, trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust/faith."95 Faithful means that people can count on you. That you keep your word. That you are always present for duty when you're expected. In the vernacular, a faithful person isn't "flaky." If you want to be a pastor or elder, a teacher, you must "get your act together" and acquire a reputation of being faithful if you want to be taken seriously. After all, your faithfulness doesn't reflect merely on yourself, but on Christ whom you assist, and on God, in whose house you are providing food.

Q1. (1 Corinthians 4:1-2) In what sense is a Christian worker a "steward"? Have you ever met a Christian worker who wasn't faithful? What effect did this have on the church? On this person's witness. What are the reasons we are sometimes unfaithful in our area of ministry? What can we do to remedy that?

Christian Servants Can Be Accurately Judged Only By God (4:3-5)

Now Paul talks about how he handles criticism, the often harsh judgments of those at Corinth, for example.

"I care very little if I am judged96 by you or by any human court.97 (4:3a)

Whether he is judged by church members -- or even a human court of inquiry -- Paul isn't concerned. Then he says something startling!

"Indeed, I do not even judge myself." (4:3b)

You know what he means. So often we are our own worst critics! Of course, we constantly critique ourselves so that we can improve. That's good. But Paul is talking here about a final, damning judgment. It's not that he didn't make mistakes. Of course he did. But Paul learned to leave the final judgment to God and not torture himself with guilt and a sense of shame and inadequacy. He applies grace to himself -- especially himself -- and is the healthier for it.

"4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God." (3:4-5)

Paul doesn't continue on with a guilty conscience. He is quick to ask forgiveness and move on. But he realizes that the human mind is capable of all kinds of rationalization of our actions -- rationalizations that we almost believe ourselves! So excusing ourselves doesn't settle the matter. God is the judge and will issue his final judgments -- and praise -- on the Day of Judgment. He alone can see our motives98, which are hidden to others, and often to ourselves.

Remember Samuel trying to discern which of Jesse's sons should be anointed king. He's wrong time after time. The Lord tells him,

"Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7)

Later on, David himself prayed,

"You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart....
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:6, 10)

"May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, O LORD,
my Rock and my Redeemer." (Psalm 19:14, NRSV)

This gradual interior change is called sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit to build Christ's character in your heart. Pride can't see its own flaws, humility can, and grace can wash them away. Praise God.

Also, God alone can see and evaluate the fruit borne by your ministry, sometimes evident in lives only decades after your influence on that person. Prejudging the effectiveness of your ministry is futile. That is why we should "judge nothing before the appointed time" (3:5a). Leave it to God.

Notice the last part of verse 5:

"At that time each will receive his praise from God." (4:5b)

Sometimes we don't think we will deserve any praise. But you may be surprised. I'm taking a watercolor class that has a critique session every week when the teacher says some words about each of the students' paintings. Last week, John turned in a very amateurish painting, which I was sure would be severely critiqued. But the teacher didn't do so. She knew John -- his abilities, his weaknesses, and his style. And she spoke gentle words that took all that into account.

Dear friends, the Lord loves you. And on judgment day don't expect just harsh words. If you love him, you'll probably heart some words of praise and appreciation. We serve a great and gracious God!

Q2. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5) Why doesn't Paul care how others judge him? Why doesn't Paul judge himself? Why are our motives so important in God's judgment process? Do you see God as a harsh judge? An easy judge? Why?

The Foolishness of Sectarian Pride (4:6-8)

Now Paul urges the Corinthians to apply these truths to their own situation of division over which leader they think is best.

"Now, brothers, I have applied99 these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, 'Do not go beyond what is written.' Then you will not take pride in one man over against another." (4:6)

The phrase, "Do not go beyond what is written," is obscure to us. Paul could be saying: (1) Don't go beyond the Old Testament Scriptures I have cited in my letter so far, or (2) something like, "Keep within the rules" (New English Bible). We're just not sure. Pointing them to teaching of Scripture makes the most sense to me.

Now Paul continues to deal with the Corinthians' pride and arrogance.

"For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (4:7)

Why are they boasting of some kind of superior knowledge if they received it as a gift? Has God blessed you with powerful gifts, good looks, and wide influence? It's so easy to pride ourselves on our good looks, for example, and look down on someone who is homely. It will help your humility to direct Paul's question to yourself:

"What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (4:7)

Now Paul uses irony to show his readers how foolish their position is.

"Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings -- and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!" (4:8)

The Suffering of Christ's Apostles (4:9-13)

Paul is still dealing with their pride. But he does so by emphasizing his own weakness and struggles -- no doubt to shame their arrogance by explaining that being an apostle involved not worldly glory -- but suffering for Christ.

"For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display100 at the end of the procession101, like men condemned to die in the arena.102 We have been made a spectacle103 to the whole universe,104 to angels as well as to men." (4:9)

The NIV's addition of "at the end of the procession" and "in the arena" aren't in the text, but might have been part of the image in the apostle's mind -- we don't know. But clearly he sees the struggle of the apostles as an important spiritual battle in heavenly places. The next sentence is dripping with irony.

"We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!105" (4:10)

Now he continues with his list of sufferings of the frontline apostles and church planting teams that are evangelizing the Mediterranean area in the first century. Such sufferings have often been the lot of itinerant missionaries and church-planters -- and many preachers -- throughout history.

"11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags106, we are brutally treated107, we are homeless108. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed109, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure110 it; 13 when we are slandered111, we answer kindly112. Up to this moment we have become the scum113 of the earth, the refuse114 of the world." (4:11-13)

We find it pretty hard to relate to this kind of description of being considered the lowest of all people. We have worked hard to become respectable and wouldn't do anything that would expose us to such abuse! Perhaps we are soft! Though I disagree strongly with their often incorrect interpretation of the Bible, I expect that Jehovah's Witnesses, who faithfully go door-to-door, experience this kind of insult and abuse daily. And somehow they avoid answering back rudely. They put us to shame!

How far are you willing to go to proclaim the gospel? What are you willing to endure? Even the slightest put-down is likely to stampede us into full retreat.

Paul shared his experience with the Corinthians to help them understand what it costs to be fully committed.

Q3. (1 Corinthians 4:9-13) Why do you think Paul lists the abuse he has to take? What effect did he want it to have on his readers? What effect does it have on you? Do you avoid ministry that comes with abuse?

Your Father through the Gospel (4:14-16)

"I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children." (4:14)

Though Paul claims that he isn't writing to shame the Corinthians, I'm not convinced. I think that's exactly what he was doing. But he is saying here, I think, that mere shame is not his goal. He wants to warn115 them -- as a father would his sons -- that their rejection of him is a big mistake.

"Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel." (4:15)

"Guardians" (NIV, NRSV), "instructors" (KJV) is paidagōgos, "one who has responsibility for someone who needs guidance, guardian, leader, guide."116 In Greek culture, this was often a personal slave-attendant who accompanied a young boy everywhere, and was responsible to teach him good manners, discipline him when needed, and make sure he learned his lessons at school.117

But Paul is more than a guide or instructor for them. He led them to Christ. He founded the church. He has become their "father through the gospel." As their father, he has more authority than a guardian or instructor. So he boldly says to them:

"Therefore I urge you to imitate me." (4:16)

"Imitate/imitators" (NIV, NRSV), "be followers of" (KJV) is mimētēs, "imitator."118 Later in this letter he exhorts them,

"Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (11:1, NRSV)

Children learn by imitating their parents (Ephesians 5:1).

Sending Timothy to Remind You (4:17)

Paul has established his authority as both the Corinthians' apostle and father. Now he announces why he is dispatching Timothy to them with an apostolic commission.

"For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church." (4:17)

Timothy's task is to reinforce to the Corinthians what Paul lived out before them and what he had taught them. Notice how Paul describes Timothy here -- "my son whom I love" and "faithful in the Lord." Paul can trust Timothy with this delicate mission because Timothy has proved himself reliable and faithful. Could God send you on a delicate mission and expect you to complete it satisfactorily? Jesus said,

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much." (Luke 16:10)

"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things." (Matthew 25:21)

In our training, God gives us little tasks. And as we complete them faithfully he gives us more. So also, in selecting church leaders, we must be sure they are faithful people. Of prospective deacons, Paul says,

"They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons." (1 Timothy 3:10)

Q4. (1 Corinthians 4:17) What qualities about Timothy encouraged Paul to send him on a sensitive mission to the Corinthians -- that might have involved some disrespect and abuse? If God were to call you to fulfill a sensitive mission -- to a neighbor or across the world -- would you accept? Why or why not?

Arrogance Will be Confronted by Paul in Person (4:18-21)

Having established his authority, Paul warns those who still dare to oppose him. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously says in the 1984 film The Terminator, "I'll be back!" In a similar way, Paul puts them on notice that he is coming in person to deal with anyone who still opposes him.

"18 Some of you have become arrogant119, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing120, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power121 they have." (4:18-19)

A lot of Christian blow-hards can loudly and arrogantly express their opinions, but they have nothing to back it up. They're just hot air. The story goes that one day a lady criticized evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody's reply was "I agree with you. I don't like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?" The lady replied, "I don't do it." Moody retorted, "Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it."

Critics are generally talkers, not doers. God's kingdom is different. Paul says,

"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power." (4:20)

Now Paul concludes his exhortation.

"What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" (4:21)

You might not like this. Why should Paul threaten, you ask. But think how a parent talks to an arrogant child. That's what Paul is doing here.

Being a Christian leader requires a lot of us -- faithfulness, endurance, putting up with abuse and misunderstanding, and much, much more. Dear friends, we are often such wimps, such complainers! God forgive us! I thank God for men and women who have gone before us and set the bar high that we might aspire to serving the Lord no matter what comes our way.

Jesus told his disciples,

"Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me." (John 15:20-21)

Jesus told Ananias about Saul (Paul), just after his conversion:

"This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." (Acts 9:15-16)

1 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

With sorrow I remember early motives of mine to be up in front of people as a leader. What pride! I thank God for humbling me -- and continuing to humble me. Dear friends, God is sifting our motives through what we suffer. But there will also be a reward on the Day of his return. There will be a word of appreciation, a reward, and an invitation, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master."122


Father, forgive our grumbling and complaining. Forgive our sensitivity to criticism and our anger when we are mistreated by others. Humble us. Help us to be steady, to be faithful, to be people whom you can assign to sensitive tasks, confident that we will do our very best to complete the mission. O Jesus, form us into disciples of whom you can be proud. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"It is required of stewards that they be found faithful." (1 Corinthians 4:2, ESV)

"Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God." (1 Corinthians 4:5)

"What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7b)

"I urge you to imitate me." (1 Corinthians 4:16)

"The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power." (1 Corinthians 4:20)


90. Logizomai, BDAG 597, 1b.

91. Hypēretēs, BDAG 1035.

92. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 159.

93. Robertson, Word Studies.

94. Oikonomos, BDAG 698, 1 and 3.

95. Pistos, BDAG 820, 1aα.

96. "Judged" is anakrinō, "to conduct a judicial hearing, hear a case, question, an administrative term in Greek (BDAG 66, 2).

97. "Human court" (NIV, NRSV), "man's judgment" (KJV) uses the term anthrōpinos, "human," and hēmera, "day," here "a day of judgment fixed by a judge" (BDAG 438, 3bα).

98. "Motives" (NIV), "purposes" (NRSV), "counsels" (KJV) is boulē, "that which one thinks about as possibility for action, plan, purpose, intention" (BDAG 182, 1).

99. "Applied" (NIV, NRSV), "in a figure transferred" (KJV) is the verb metaschēmatizō, "transform, change," here, "to show a connection or bearing of one thing on another, apply to" (BDAG 642, 3).

100. "Put on display" (NIV), "exhibited" (NRSV), "set forth" (KJV) is apodeiknymi, "to show forth for public recognition as so and so, make, render, proclaim, appoint", especially as administrative term (BDAG 108, 1), an old verb "to show, to expose to view or exhibit" from the time of Herodotus (Robertson, Word Pictures).

101. "At the end of the procession" (NIV), "last of all" (NRSV), "last" (KJV) is eschatos, "pertaining to furthest extremity in rank, value, or situation, last: 'last, least, most insignificant,'" of the apostles, whom God has exhibited as the least among humans, by the misfortunes they have suffered (BDAG 398, 3).

102. "Condemned to die in the arena" (NIV), "sentenced to death" (NRSV), "appointed to death" (KJV) is epithanatios, "pertaining to being condemned to death, sentenced to death" (BDAG 372).

103. "Spectacle" is theatron (from which we get our English word "theater"), literally "a place for seeing, theater," then, "what one sees at a theater, a play, spectacle" (BDAG 446, 2).

104. "The whole universe" (NIV), "world" (NRSV, KJV) is kosmos, "the sum total of all beings above the level of the animals, the world" (BDAG 562, 4).

105. "Dishonored" (NIV), "disrepute" (NRSV), "despised" (KJV) is atimos, "pertaining to being without honor or respect, dishonored, despised" (BDAG 149, 1).

106. "In rags" (NIV), "poorly clothed" (NRSV), "naked" (KJV) is gymniteuō, "be poorly clothed" (BDAG 208).

107. "Brutally treated" (NIV), "beaten" (NRSV), "buffeted" (KJV) is kolaphizō, "to strike sharply, esp. with the hand, strike with the fist, beat, cuff someone." Here, of mistreatment in general (BDAG 555, 1).

108. "Homeless" (NIV, NRSV), "have no certain dwelling place" (KJV) is astateō, literally, "be unsteady," here, "to be without a permanent residence, be unsettled, be homeless" (BDAG 145).

109. "Cursed" (NIV), "reviled" (NRSV, KJV) is loidoreō, "to revile, abuse someone" (BDAG 602).

110. "Endure" (NIV, NRSV), "suffer" (KJV) is anechō, basically, "to regard with tolerance, endure, bear with, put up with," then, as here, "to undergo something onerous or troublesome without giving in, endure" (BDAG 78, 2).

111. "Slandered" (NIV, NRSV), "defamed" (KJV) is blasphēmeō, "to speak in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates, maligns, slander, revile, defame" (BDAG 178, a).

112. "Answer/speak kindly" (NIV, NRSV), "intreat" (KJV) is parakaleō, "to call alongside," here, "treat someone in an inviting or congenial manner," something like our "be open to the other, have an open door": "invite in, conciliate, be friendly to or speak to in a friendly manner" (BDAG 765, 5).

113. "Scum" (NIV), "rubbish" (NRSV), "filth" (KJV) is perikatharma, from the verb that means, "cleanse all around" or "on all sides" -- "that which is removed as a result of a thorough cleansing, dirt, refuse, off-scouring" (BDAG 802).

114. "Refuse" (NIV), "dregs" (NRSV), "offscouring" (KJV) is peripsēma, from the verb "wipe all around, wipe clean" -- "that which is removed by the process of cleansing, dirt, off-scouring" (BDAG 808).

115. "Warn" (NIV, KJV), "admonish" (NRSV) is noutheteō, "to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct" (BDAG 679).

116. Paidagōgos, BDAG 748. Paul says that the law was our paidagōgos until Christ came in Galatians 3:24-25.

117. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Eerdmans, 1982), p. 182.

118. Mimētēs, BDAG 652, a.

119. "Arrogant" (NIV, NRSV), "puffed up" (KJV) is physioō, "literally, "to blow up, inflate" (from phyra, "bellows"), here "to cause to have an exaggerated self-conception, puff up, make proud" (BDAG 1069).

120. For more on the phrase, "if the Lord is willing," see Lesson 15 on 16:4-8.

121. "Power" is dynamis, "potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability" (BDAG 262, 1).

122. Matthew 25:21.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text