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A Job Description for Faithful Stewards

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 4

Godly leaders are not to be a source of pride for the church—they are not to be unduly exalted. They are to be respected, however, as faithful examples and humble servants of God who answer to Him.


I have mentioned before that rather humorous conversation between a patient and his doctor. After taking a number of X-rays, the doctor showed him why he needed major surgery. The man asked if the doctor would be willing to just touch up the X-rays.

Well, a good doctor is not going to touch up the X-rays! He is going to get to the root of the problem—the cause of the pain.

Like a good doctor, the apostle Paul is doing an exam on the church in Corinth, and he is exposing the root problem. The symptoms are jealousy and arguments and division. But the root problem is pride. Frankly, this church thinks it has arrived, but Paul knows that it is going astray.

As we set sail back into 1 Corinthians, Paul will spend all of chapter 4 reshaping their perspective on what it means to be an apostle. Paul writes in verse 1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

Paul does not use the normal term for “servants” here but a word that originally referred to a slave rowing on a galley ship, below deck. It was back-breaking work in terrible conditions. The term came to be used more generally of lowly service—the lowest of the low.[1]

The Greek word for “stewards” was used for administrators of someone else’s estate. They were answerable to the owner for how they managed what belonged to him.

Pastors and church leaders today do well to remember this realistic job description. We are servants who work in difficult, often unseen places, rowing hard to keep the boat moving forward; we are also administrating an estate that does not belong to us—redeemed people do not belong to us; they belong to Christ.

To emphasize the goal of our service, Paul writes, “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (verse 2).

Do you want to be evaluated properly? Do you want to feel good about your ministry? Well, the servant—the steward—does not enjoy the approval of God because of eloquence, or impressiveness, or the size of an audience but because of his faithfulness. Just keep rowing for the sake of His gospel and His glory.

Paul applies this personally in verse 3, saying, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.” Paul knows the Corinthians are standing in judgment of his ministry—they do not approve of Paul’s ministry at all. They think he is falling down on the job.

But Paul is not too concerned about their opinion. He is ultimately responsible to the Lord, but he warns them in verse 5, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes.” One day the Lord will evaluate the true faithfulness of His servants, and His opinion is all that matters.

Paul then gives an additional warning in verse 6 against being “puffed up in favor of one against another.” This word translated “puffed up” means to be inflated. These believers are swelling up in their arrogant pride like hot-air balloons. And that pride is being manifested in their jealous quarrels and silly arguments—even pitting Paul and Apollos against one another.

Beloved, a proud Christian is a tragic contradiction. You cannot brag about something you did not earn or deserve, including a ministry that God has entrusted to you.

A young preacher once said to an older pastor, “Please pray that I will stay humble.” The older pastor replied, “Tell me, what do you have to be proud about?”[2]

Paul says it this way in verse 7 “What do you have, that you did not receive?” Everything you have is a gift from God.

Paul now writes with what we could call sanctified sarcasm. He effectively says, “Okay, I’m impressed with you.” Listen to what he writes here in verse 8:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!

He is saying to them, “You think you have already arrived. You are even beginning to think you are better than the apostles.” Like hot-air balloons, they are rising higher and higher in their own estimation.

As one author writes, Paul is going to fire some arrows into their hot-air balloons and puncture their inflated egos.[3] He is going to bring their balloons back down to earth, so to speak, where they belong.

And to do that, Paul describes in realistic terms the ministry of an apostle. He writes with that sanctified sarcasm in verse 10, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise.” These Corinthians think the apostles are weak, while they are strong. They think they are special, but the apostles are, as he says in verse 13, “the scum of the world, the refuse [garbage] of all things.”

In fact, Paul writes back up in verse 9 that the apostles are “like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world.” He is using an image people living in the Roman Empire would immediately understand.

The great Colosseum at Rome would be filled with citizens, eager to see the gladiatorial games, as well as prisoners thrown into the arena to fight with lions and bears. The word Paul uses for “spectacle” gives us our word for theater.[4]

The world would come to watch this life-and-death theater played out on the sands of the arena. These prisoners cast into the arena were as good as dead.

Paul basically says to the Corinthians, “If you want to be in the company of the apostles, just know what that will mean for you in the future.” He continues describing the apostles’ sufferings:

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. (verses 11-13)

Paul is not exaggerating, and he is not promoting his self-sacrifice. He is honestly contrasting the proud attitude of the Corinthians with the humble spirit of a faithful servant.

And with that, Paul shifts to making a tender appeal to them:

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children . . . For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (verses 14-15)

Now as far as we know, the apostle Paul never had physical children. In fact, it is difficult to prove that Paul was even married. But he certainly had spiritual children—the fruit of his ministry. And he speaks tenderly to those spiritual children in Corinth as he appeals to them to humble themselves and follow his example (verse 16). He is not being proud; he is acting like a concerned parent, spiritually.

Paul reminds them that he is planning to come to Corinth if the Lord wills. And he says in verses 18-19 that he is going to confront the proud leaders in the church and deal with their arrogant talking. They are big talkers, but they are actually little people. And their divisive talking is hurting the church.

Paul gives them two options: they can follow his example or face a “rod” of discipline. In the last verse of chapter 4, Paul asks them, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

You do that with your children all the time, don’t you? You tell them they have a choice to make—either obey or face some punishment. Paul says here, “I am coming to visit you, and what happens will be up to you.”

[1] Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Eerdmans, 1958), 74.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Wise (Victor Books, 1983), 56.

[4] Wiersbe, 56.

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