True leadership: the scum of the earth

In the last section Paul pinpointed the cause of the problem in Corinth: the problem was quarrelling and jealousy over which leader to follow, the cause was immaturity and worldliness. The Corinthians were not growing because they were associated too intimately with the world’s system of thinking. Two problems, two causes and one solution – walk in the Spirit.

Paul is not finished with this discussion. In this 4th chapter he describes the qualities of real leaders and how the church members ought to relate to them.

  1. You’re judges, we’re servants

We’re seen a lot about what was wrong with the attitude of the Corinthians towards their leaders, now Paul gives them a picture of what a leader actually is. I recall at work being part of a day’s training on leadership. The day started off with the tutor placing about 50 photos of various well known leaders on a table and we were each to select two and give reasons for our selection. There were photos of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and many others. You can imagine the discussion about the various qualities of the leaders people selected: great orator, bold, imaginative, courageous, indefatigable etc. I suspect that the Corinthians had the same sort of perspective as we have of leaders. But remember that God’s wisdom is not like that of the world, he turns things upside down and is radically different; his foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom. So how does Paul describe a church leader? As a servant or literally in the Greek an ‘under rower’. In the galley ships of the day there were slaves who rowed under direction of one who coordinated their efforts. This enabled the ship to plot a straight course. That’s what Paul and his fellow leaders were – under rowers.  This was a radically different image of a leader than held by the Corinthians.

Paul and his fellow leaders had been entrusted with important information revealed to them by God, their task was to be faithful to this and nothing else. Paul says that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. What is the trust? The word of God – nothing more and nothing less. The great examples to us in the bible of great leadership comes from those who simply trust in what God says, they don’t add anything and they don’t take anything away. They don’t re-interpret God’s word with some ‘key’ to understanding, they just take what God says and get on with it. Many Christians have noticed this and have pointed out that false religion has almost always added to God’s word (“you need God’s word as well as the writings of cult leader X”) or subtracted from God’s word (“forget the miracles, special creation, virgin birth and resurrection all you need is Jesus’ example”). This observation seems to be quite correct, but in churches that say they accept God’s word (without addition or subtraction) I also see that there is often heated debate about add-ons: which hymn book to use, which translation of the bible to use, which confession of faith to use. These are of secondary importance, they have not been entrusted to us by God and yet these things are often the source of division and quarrelling. If we major on these we are diminishing what God has entrusted to us. True leaders are faithful to what God has entrusted to them, not what tradition or worldly convention demands.  Traditions and conventions can be helpful, but they are not God-given they are man-made – they should not be a source of conflict or quarrelling. If they are it is a sign that worldly thinking has entered the church.

So a picture of a church leader is beginning to emerge, what were the Corinthians doing? They were sitting on seats of judgment to pronounce verdicts on the church leaders. What a cheek! Paul says that he doesn’t care about the judgment that the Corinthians or human courts come to, in fact he doesn’t even judge himself. Paul states that his conscience is clear in his leadership.  This he points out doesn’t make everything he does perfect, but it does indicate that he’s working to the best of his abilities – he can do no more. So who does judge – ‘it is the Lord who judges me’ says Paul.

Paul says, get off your judgment thrones – it’s not your job to judge. God is the judge and he has an appointed time when he will judge. In the meantime Paul says simply wait until the judge comes. He will perform a perfect judgment and then what is currently hidden will be brought to light. We wait for that day too.

Paul goes on to point out that he was saying all of this to be of help. His motivation was to benefit the church in Corinth – sometimes there is a need for straight talking not to destroy people but for their benefit. He wanted them to learn what it meant to ‘not go beyond what is written’. I take this as a reference to God’s word although we have to recognise that the New Testament was not available to the Corinthians at the time of Paul’s writing. Going beyond God’s word though clearly takes us into dangerous territory and Paul associates this with being ‘puffed up’ or arrogant and in this state it took no time at all for the Corinthians to quarrel over their leaders.

  • You’re kings, we’re scum

Worldly and immature thinking in Corinth had lead to arrogance and boasting. If all we have comes from God then how can we boast? This is worldly thinking par excellence! Our culture in Western Europe really does seem to have embraced this and without doubt this thinking has infiltrated the church in our day. It’s a selfish and self centred attitude that demands benefits without responsibility. This is the wisdom of the world. I can’t help thinking that we accept rather readily what Paul says as being true and then in the next breath behave as though the whole world revolves around our personal needs and wants. I certainly see myself doing this. Jesus is our example. He gave himself to save us. He became a servant. He even washed the feet of the disciples! This is God’s wisdom for leaders!

In this next section of chapter 4 (verses 8 to 13), Paul cuts right into the Corinthian’s wrong way of thinking and wrong attitude. He says, with not a little sarcasm, that the Corinthians had started to reign on their own and that they are already rich. He and his fellow leaders in contrast were ‘on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena’. What does he mean by that?  The triumphant Romans paraded through the streets to celebrate their victory, at the end of the procession the prisoners of war were paraded in their humiliation of defeat – their fate was the arena and death.  Paul is saying to the Corinthians, you have taken the place on a throne, as for us, we are headed for humiliation and death. We are fools for Christ but you are wise! We’re weak, but you’re strong!

Paul is describing the real conditions of church leaders to emphasise the error of the Corinthians in quarrelling over which leader they were following. Paul is not finished – these leaders are dishonoured, hungry, thirsty, in rags, brutally treated and homeless – they are the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world. The picture is clear – the Corinthians had totally misread the role and place of the leaders, but we might ask why, even allowing for some poetic overstatement by Paul to make his point, were the conditions so difficult for these leaders? The answer is not hard to find – they were representatives of God’s kingdom and of his world, but they were living in a hostile territory, amidst a system that is fundamentally opposed to all that is good. In contrast the Corinthians had stepped too far into the system of the world and had adopted its thinking and ways.

  • You’re children, I’m a father

If what Paul had said in the previous verses seemed a bit harsh, Paul reassures the Corinthians that he does not want to shame them but to warn them, just as one would with little children.  It has become fashionable in our time to assume that children should not be strongly disciplined but rather allowed to express themselves. Children are thus allowed to do whatever they like, with predictable consequences! This view makes two false assumptions, first that there is no such thing as a sin nature and second that discipline is cruel and unloving. You can begin to see how the world’s wisdom really is foolishness!

Paul’s harsh words are not meant to hurt but to change, and he is motivated by love. The Corinthians may have 10,000 guardians but only Paul was their father. The Greek word translated guardian was paidagogoi, the paidagogos was the instructor who looked after the child, taught and educated. Doubtless an important role, but there is a big difference between a guardian and a father – one is a job motivated by pay, the other is a relationship motivated by love. I think it’s of note that Paul did not invite the Corinthians to become his disciples but rather his children, he wanted to nurture them not dominate them.

Next Paul says something that at first blush seems a bit arrogant, he says ‘I urge you to imitate me’. The Corinthians had developed both a wrong impression and a wrong attitude to leaders, but now that Paul had set the record straight and now that they had a clearer picture of what an unworldly leader was like they would do well to treat Paul as a role model.  Since Paul could not visit in the near future he would send his trusted co-worker Timothy. Timothy would act as Paul’s representative and he would be the role model. It is not enough just to know the truth of the gospel, it must be lived out in the real world – Timothy would demonstrate what this looked like.

Christians who embrace the world’s thinking are lacking in power. We rather assume that the world’s thinking is irreligious and unchurchy in character but I think as often as not it is worldly thinking with a religious and churchy veneer that is the more dangerous form of worldly thinking we have to cope with . This thinking is totally lacking in power and is just talk says Paul. We are all too easily seduced by this thinking – it’s safe and allows us to keep Christianity under wraps in a box, all nice and tidy but totally lacking in power and reality.

Paul concludes this section by indicating that he will visit the Corinthians at some stage as their father, but whether he comes as a loving gentle father or a father who needs to exercise discipline will depend on how the Corinthians respond to his letter. The worldly thinking in Corinth was bearing some particularly bad fruit, Paul deals with this in the next couple of chapters.