The Minister – not a show piece but a servant

(L.F. Schulze)

Read: 1 Cor. 1: 10 -20; 3: 16 - 4: 2.

Sing: Psalm 100 1-4

Text: 1 Cor. 1: 17 and 4: 1-2:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they are found trustworthy.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is especially known as the letter about the unity of the church. The Ephesians should know that the church is the body of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, however, Paul is no less preoccupied with the unity of this small circle of believers which came into being during his long stay (18 months) in this Greek metropolis. In fact, taking his other letters into account, it seems that the care for the unity of the small congregations was one of his constant preoccupations. Listen to his plea in 1 Cor. 1: 10-11:

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there are no dissensions among you, but that you are united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brethren.

Compare these words with those to the Philippians (2: 1-3):

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourself.

There is also a similarity in argument between what Paul writes in the first chapter of this letter and in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. In 1 Cur. 1: 13 we read:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

In Ephesians 4 :4-6 the unity of the church, the body of Christ is stressed again:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

In both instances Paul underlines that the unity of the church has its roots in the unity of God – God is one; Christ cannot be divided. All should live in humility from the bounty of God’s grace.

Yet, instead of humility there is pride in man, turning unity into dissension. Because of his pose and his perceptions, man is inclined to go his own way. In Corinth , however, unity was not disrupted only by individual obstinacy but also by collective faction-forming, group opposing group in their eagerness to follow a religious leader of their choice.

Perhaps the situation in Corinth was conducive to this sort of dissension. Its population was cosmopolitan. Sacked by the Roman army in 146 B.C., Julius Caesar rebuilt the city exactly one century later. He did so as a military precaution, and not in order to restore the glory of Greek culture that flourished in the old city. Therefore the inhabitants of the ‘new’ Corinth , dating from 46 B.C., were not Greeks but Italians – Caesar’s ex army veterans as well as freedmen. By the time of Paul – roughly another century later – many Greeks have resettled in this thriving metropolis. Its situation on the “bridge” or causeway between two seas, and on the main route from Rome to the East gave Corinth a natural advantage to be the most important mercantile city, and a practical stay-over for the traveler. Because of its booming business many Jews settled there and many people from the East tried to eke out a living in this provincial capital of Achaia, where the Roman proconsul had his seat (Acts 18: 12). One commentator presents us with a vivid picture of Corinth and its people in the time when Paul first preached the gospel there:

A newly created city, with a very mixed population of Italians, Greeks, Orientals, and adventurers from all parts, and without any aristocracy or old families, was likely to be democratic and impatient of control; and conversion to Christianity would not at once, if at all, put an end to this independent spirit. Certainly there was plenty of it when St Paul wrote. We find evidence of it in the claim of each convert to choose his own leader (1: 10 – 4: 21), in the attempt of women to be as free as men in the congregation (11: 5-15; 14: 34,35), and in the desire of those who had spiritual gifts to exhibit them in public without regard to other Christians (12, 14).

Of the evils that are common in a community whose chief aim is commercial success, and whose social distinctions are mainly those of wealth, we have traces in the litigation about property in heathen courts (6: 1-11), in the repeated mention of the pleonektés (greedy person – L.F.S.) as a common kind of offender (5: 10, 11; 6: 10), and in the disgraceful conduct of the wealthy at the Lord’s Supper (11: 17-34).

The purported democratic (human) right of each to choose his own leader (instead of following Christ), leading to faction-forming, is expressly censured by Paul:

For it has been reported to me by Chlo`e’s people that there is quarreling among 

you, my brethren.  What I mean is that each one of you says, I belong to Paul”, or “I belong to Apollo’s”, or “I belong to Cephas”, or “I belong to Christ”.

One has to read from chapter 1: 10 to chapter 4: 21 to overview Paul’s treatment of divisions in this small congregation. He starts by stating the facts ( 1:10 -17) and ends with a personal application (4: 6-21). In his exposition he presents to the congregation a true view of the Pastoral Office – the ministers are simply servants; they are gardeners:


What then is Apollo’s? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollo’s watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth

 This is plain language. It tells the faithful what ministers are. Yet Paul has to hammer this truth home: the ministers are simple “fellow workers for God” (3: 9); they are only builders ( 3: 10 -15), but the congregation is the temple of God , inhabited by his Spirit ( 3: 16 ). Therefore, if anyone tries to destroy the temple by creating factions, God will destroy him ( 3: 17 ).


In our text Paul reiterates that ministers are not leaders to be followed but servants who provide; not show pieces on a pedestal but only fellow workers for God:


This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy (4: 1-2)

The word “servant” is used in a wide variety of senses in the New Testament, from temple guards to royal waiters (i.e. those who serve at the king’s table). The word points not primarily to the status of a person, but rather to the work he is doing. The same applies to the word “steward”. The Greek word is “economist” (= householder, distributor), depicting the duty of the person. The primary quality of a servant was to be trustworthy.


This quality is diametrically opposed to what we would expect. We would like a minister to be “a jolly good fellow” and to be eloquent. Even in our day of “science and technology” a minister with the gift of eloquence can impress his congregation with his poetic diction, his sweet talk, without real substance from the Word of God. In Paul’s time, before radio and TV and films, before film stars and pop stars, the idols of the young were the rhetoricians, who were met by the youth outside their city with the necessary applause, shrieks, and fainting. Rhetoricians were men with an impressive appearance, an expressive and beautiful face, a melodious voice, an acute brain, and orators if prime quality. In short: they have learned, and were schooled in the art of persuasion. Apollo’s was such a person, trained in the art of persuasion. Yet his gift was special (Acts 18: 24 ). No wonder he had a following in the church of Corinth . His opposite was Paul who refused to clothe the gospel in a rhetorical garb:


For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power ( 1: 17 ).


There is a subtle play with words in the Word, without being rhetorical. Logos is the gift of speech, without referring chiefly or especially to the gift of Tongues (which are quite distinct in 12: 8 f..),  but rather closely connected to the work of a teacher. Apollo’s had this gift of “word of wisdom” (logos sofias ), a gift of the Spirit (Acts 18: 24 ; cf. also 1 Cor. 1: 5). Its opposite is mentioned by Paul in verse 17, namely “wisdom of word” ( sofia logou). This “wisdom of speech” entails the cultivation of expression at the expense of contents. The aim was to say a thing beautifully, in poetical diction and with persuasion. What was said was of secondary importance.

Paul rejected this ideal of a flair for speech as something that frustrates the power of the cross. Paul’s own appearance obviously lacked any luster, as his opponents were quick to point out:


For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account (2 Cor. 10: 10 ).

This was a complaint which he probable heard while he was working in Corinth , for, having written that a steward should be trustworthy, he sort of defended himself against this charge by saying:

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself (1 Cor. 4: 3)

The overruling qualification of a minister is to be trustworthy – to proclaim the gospel of Christ freely, faithfully and sincerely. The church is not build by the impressive “presence” of the minister, not by the beauty of his voice, not by the force of his rhetorical arguments, but by the simplicity and veracity of his proclamation of the gospel. In being a simple servant, a trustworthy steward the power of the cross takes root and changes lives. By proclaiming the truth of the Word the power of the Spirit is at work.

Of course the servants have a variety of gifts. God used the bluntness of Paul as well as the refined teaching of Apollo’s. This Alexandrian Jew with his gift to teach (“the word of wisdom”) was used in a special way as it is reported in Acts 18: 27-28:

And when he (=Apollo’s) wished to cross to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

To be only a servant, to be above all trustworthy – this is the Pastoral Truth that believers should know; this is the self-knowledge that you as future ministers should have. Only then all – congregations and ministers – can pray for, and work towards the unity of the Church. Where people are united in the one faith, calling upon the one Lord, the Church becomes a witness to the truth that the Son was indeed sent by the Father (Joh. 17: 20 -21).