Servant Leadership: A Study of 1 Corinthians 1-4

Recently I heard a message on 1 Corinthians 4 entitled “Servant Leadership” that I found disturbing. I’ll present an alternative interpretation of this passage.



Chapter four of this letter follows naturally along with the previous three. After the greeting and preamble of 1 Cor 1:1-9, Paul warms to his subject: the Corinthians have been elevating human leaders (including Paul) to a position higher than themselves–maybe as high as Jesus himself!

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
1 Cor 1:12 NIV

Paul implores them to stop the division–stop looking to human leaders and human wisdom and joining “camps” based on one human leader or another (including Paul himself), and instead focus on Jesus.

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
1 Cor 1:20-21 MSG

Paul rebukes them for “boasting” about their favourite religious rockstars and instead, if you want to brag, do what the Scriptures say and brag about the Lord. 1 Cor 1:20-21 CEV

Continuing in Chapter 2, Paul continues to deprecate his own “wisdom” and point constantly back to Jesus.

I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.

I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s Spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else.
1 Cor 2:2-5 MSG

If Paul ever claims to use “wisdom” to teach, it’s not Greco-Roman “logic” or Jewish reasoning.

We do use wisdom when speaking to people who are mature in their faith. But it isn’t the wisdom of this world or of its rulers, who will soon disappear. We speak of God’s hidden and mysterious wisdom that God decided to use for our glory long before the world began.
1 Cor 2:6-7 CEV

Paul continues talking about this spiritual wisdom through the end of Chapter 2. If we snipped these verses out and took them out of context, we might be tempted to believe he’s setting himself up as some Oracle of Wisdom, filtering God’s knowledge through himself and certain other select leaders. Human leaders do this all the time.

But without hardly pausing for breath, Paul reminds us that he and the other apostles are “nothing”.

Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us—servants who waited on you as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master. We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving. You happen to be God’s field in which we are working.
1 Cor 3:5-9 MSG

Paul, Peter, Apollos: they all have gifts and assignments and “wisdom” from God. Paul doesn’t deny that. But he constantly, relentlessly waves the spotlights away from himself and back to Jesus. He places himself and the other apostles last in the order of importance, with God at the top.

So stop bragging about what anyone has done. Paul and Apollos and Peter all belong to you. In fact, everything is yours, including the world, life, death, the present, and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
1 Cor 3:21-22 CEV

Now we get into 1 Corinthians 4.

Chapter 4

Remember that the chapter-and-verse demarcations are not in the original writings. Paul does not suddenly change his message in the transition to Chapter 4. Peterson’s “The Message” shows Paul’s intended message crystal-clear:

Don’t imagine us leaders to be something we aren’t. We are servants of Christ, not his masters. We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them. The requirements for a good guide are reliability and accurate knowledge. It matters very little to me what you think of me, even less where I rank in popular opinion. I don’t even rank myself. Comparisons in these matters are pointless. I’m not aware of anything that would disqualify me from being a good guide for you, but that doesn’t mean much. The Master makes that judgment.
1 Cor 4:1-4 MSG

Notice: that’s not “judgement” in only the negative sense. He’s mostly referring to judging the apostles more highly than appropriate–treating them as rockstars or faction leaders. Paul is not, like most leaders, setting himself up higher than any other believer, cavalierly ignoring their criticism or praise. He’s not saying, “I can do what I like–God is my only judge.” He’s saying it’s irrelevant what he or anyone else thinks about Paul. It doesn’t matter much what Paul thinks about Paul. God knows the heart.

The Corinthians were treating Paul and the other apostles the way we treat leaders today. Believing all their promises, expecting them to solve all our problems–and becoming bitterly disappointed when the “hope for change” turns out to be all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Humans do all kinds of things for all kinds of motivations. Some are rational motivations, some are emotional, some are belief- or identity-oriented. Some aren’t “sane”. The common factor is that no-one, often not the person himself, really understands his motivation.

Haven’t you ever done something and thought afterwards, “Why on earth did I do that, or say that? What was I thinking?!” Most of us do. Figuring out why can be a worthy study, but at the end of the day, most of it is at best educated guesswork.

If I don’t know why I do some of the things I do, how on earth would anyone else know?

God, however, does know our hearts and motivations. He knows them perfectly. Paul reminds us: “Don’t get bogged down trying to figure out who’s a rockstar, whom to put up on a pedestal and whom to discount. Don’t get into this hierarchy nonsense, with certain people “above” others. It’s ridiculous. Certainly do not put Paul up on some pedestal, you ninnies. You have no idea what’s going on in my heart. Only God knows that.”

So don’t judge anyone until the Lord returns. He will show what is hidden in the dark and what is in everyone’s heart. Then God will be the one who praises each of us.
1 Corinthians 4:5

Religious leaders ought never to allow congregants to place them in that precarious position of unquestioned authority. That degree of power is so tempting, so tasty, so precious–and the exact opposite of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus called the disciples together and said:

You know that foreign rulers like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over everyone they rule. But don’t act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. And if you want to be first, you must be the slave of the rest. The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue many people.
Matthew 20:25-28 CEV

This is Christian Leadership and Authority in a nutshell: a Christian leader must be a slave. If you’re not a slave to your congregants, you’re not a Christian leader, regardless of the title you hold.

Paul continues to implore the Corinthians:

For who do you know that really knows you, knows your heart? And even if they did, is there anything they would discover in you that you could take credit for? Isn’t everything you have and everything you are sheer gifts from God? So what’s the point of all this comparing and competing? You already have all you need. You already have more access to God than you can handle. Without bringing either Apollos or me into it, you’re sitting on top of the world—at least God’s world—and we’re right there, sitting alongside you!
1 Cor 4:7-8 MSG

Paul is not being sarcastic here. He is not harshly condemning the Corinthians in the style of an autocratic demagogue. He is pleading with them to not look to Paul and Apollos to give them something they don’t already have. Like Dorothy Gale and her companions pleading to the Great and Powerful Oz, the Corinthians already have everything they need!

Paul continues to shine the light away from himself and the other apostles:

It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We’re something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We’re the Messiah’s misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we’re mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don’t have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, “God bless you.” When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We’re treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture’s kitchen. And it’s not getting any better.
1 Cor 4:9-13 MSG

There are, however, those in and around the Corinthian church that are trying to “show up” the apostles by demonstrating “real leadership”–the kind of pompous iron hand the Corinthians are used to. Paul implores them to ignore that kind of deceitful false leader, and stick with the gentle slave-leadership of the apostles.

I’m not writing all this as a neighborhood scold just to make you feel rotten. I’m writing as a father to you, my children. I love you and want you to grow up well, not spoiled. There are a lot of people around who can’t wait to tell you what you’ve done wrong, but there aren’t many fathers willing to take the time and effort to help you grow up. It was as Jesus helped me proclaim God’s Message to you that I became your father. I’m not, you know, asking you to do anything I’m not already doing myself. This is why I sent Timothy to you earlier. He is also my dear son, and true to the Master. He will refresh your memory on the instructions I regularly give all the churches on the way of Christ.
1 Cor 4:14-17 MSG

And the gentle hinting becomes plain speech: Paul frankly asks the Corinthians to choose between the apostles’ Godly leadership or worldly leadership trying to take over the church. Do you really want a powerful authoritarian to spank your bottoms when you get out of line? Or would you prefer Godly leadership?

I know there are some among you who are so full of themselves they never listen to anyone, let alone me. They don’t think I’ll ever show up in person. But I’ll be there sooner than you think, God willing, and then we’ll see if they’re full of anything but hot air. God’s Way is not a matter of mere talk; it’s an empowered life.

So how should I prepare to come to you? As a severe disciplinarian who makes you toe the mark? Or as a good friend and counselor who wants to share heart-to-heart with you? You decide.
1 Cor 4:18-21 MSG

The message I heard recently continually stated the opposite message that Paul clearly gives, turning this chapter into a treatise on how we should “respect authority” and leave religious leaders alone because “we’re elected to make decisions.” In effect, the message praised worldly authoritarianism as appropriate in the Church.

The scripture clearly shows that the interpretation was the diametric opposite of what Paul is teaching the Corinthian church.

May God forgive anyone who ignorantly or deliberately misuse Holy Scripture, and grant us all humility and wisdom.

One thought on “Servant Leadership: A Study of 1 Corinthians 1-4”

  1. That took you more than 20 minutes to write!

    Good insight into the whole leadership role and how it should be treated differently than the world system.

    However to play the devils advocate, we do “elect” leaders to run the system in the church and we should “respect” them to a certain degree, not like sheep mind you, but to the degree that they serve us.

    And of course, we all need a little of that humility and grace to abound in our lives.

    Lets go for coffee soon.

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