14 March 2017

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

“Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (v. 1)

Psalm: Psalm 119:113-128


The context of this passage is a church at unease; different groups having allegiance to different leaders; harbouring narratives of judgement against each other.

Paul offered the Corinthian church two images to shape their understanding of ministry leadership: servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.

Servants in Paul's social world enjoyed considerable delegated authority and so needed to be trustworthy, to carry out the spirit of their master's wishes for a household. Therefore God's servants need to be trustworthy, because they were accountable to no-one but God, which set them free from courting popularity in a local church.

Paul's point was that he was not answerable to the Corinthian church. They should not hold judgement against him. He didn't even judge himself, though he considered he had a clean conscience.

Judgement, rather, belonged to God alone and would come when the Lord came at the end of time, when the true motives in people's hearts would be uncovered.

His second image was that leaders were stewards of God's mysteries.

A strong background theme to Paul's preaching was that he did not come to them converting them with lofty, clever words, but by proclaiming the mystery of Christ crucified.

The power of the gospel does not come from the cleverness of human ideas to describe it, but in participating in the subversive drama of the self-emptying love action of God, which itself confuses reason.

For Paul, stewarding the mystery of the gospel meant embodying self-emptying love in ministry, not parading around trying to lord it over other leaders, and more specifically Paul himself.

Note that Paul was speaking into a unique conflict situation and I suggest it is important not to universalise his message out of that context.

A leader accepting no accountability except to God is a dangerous liability.

His second image is closely entwined with the first and a corrective. A true servant of God embodies self-emptying love. They come from a deeper place within themselves, channelling grace so that the fruits of grace become visible.

To Ponder

  • How do you work out accountability in your discipleship and/or leadership and sense of call in the world? What works well? What is difficult?
  • How do you deal with a leader who sees themselves accountable only to God, but overlooks the stewarding of self-emptying love?
  • Do we have a cultural resistance to accountability? Why, or why not?
  • How do you deal with the human tendency to rush quickly to judgement, working out who is in, who is out?

Bible notes author

The Revd Jenny Ellis

Jenny is a Methodist minister and this year has permission to study, as well as work alongside a rural chapel to help it find a new physical presence and sense of mission in its village. She is leading a number of quiet and study days.