Have you ever listened to a conversation in which, though no one has actually said it outright, nevertheless you sense a lot of tension? The participants may be talking about one issue, but it is evident that an underlying issue is really what the conversation is about. That is happening in this letter.
Paul has addressed two issues – divisions in the church and the Corinthians captivation with worldly wisdom. As we have examined his discussion of these issues, we have noted that the Corinthians were questioning Paul’s own qualifications to be their authority. There were divisions because some were holding up other church leaders as the men they belonged to rather than to him. Yes, they were enamored with what they perceived as wisdom that he did not seem to possess.
In our text this morning, Paul makes it clear, “Don’t judge me.” He certainly seems like a man of our time. If we voted on the bumper sticker saying that most characterized modern Americans, it would be “Don’t judge me.” “You judging me?” are fighting words. Is Paul a modern man? Let’s see what judgment we come up with!
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Paul is back to his teaching about the roles that Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and he play in the church. They are servants of Christ. He has said that before in 3:5, though he is using a different Greek term for servant than used then. This term indicates a person who exercises some amount of authority under the authority of another.
The next descriptive word identifies the type of authority Paul has in mind. They are stewards of the mysteries of God. That is a “mysterious” phrase in itself, something you would expect Gandalf or Merlin to say: “I am the steward of the mysteries of God.” A sudden gust of wind would accompany the statement, perhaps even a minor chord! What does Paul mean?
A steward is one entrusted with something to keep and manage. A steward of his master’s house would be entrusted with managing the household’s operations. Joseph was a steward of the house of the Egyptian officer, Potiphar. He eventually rose to be in essence the steward of Egypt under Pharaoh. The steward is in charge to use money and resources, even to direct the service of others; but what he has charge over belongs to another, his master or an official above him, and the authority he possesses is subservient to higher authority. His authority is only to be used in service to the one over him.
What are these “mysteries” of God? Are they secret knowledge that require arduous learning to master? The druids of England were stewards of such mysteries; so are the shamans of nature cults. In the time of Paul, mystery cults flourished. These were religious sects which claimed to possess secret knowledge, which one could obtain only after going through initiation rites and which may take years to master. For Paul, the “mysteries of God,” or “mystery” as he writes everywhere else, is the gospel of Christ. It is secret, or hidden, knowledge in the sense that God had not made it clear until Christ actually came. Even then, Jesus ordained his apostles to be taught by the Holy Spirit this mystery and commissioned them to teach it to the church. Paul, himself, was directly ordained by the resurrected and glorified Jesus.
We’ve already talked about this before; there are no secret Christian teachings. Nor are there secrets encoded in the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. There is merely the gospel, at once simple and yet extraordinarily profound; weaved throughout the Old Testament, but brought into the open in the New. To the apostles was entrusted making the gospel clear as we now have it in the New Testament. That is why the church is referred to as being built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” in Ephesians 2:20. They are the foundation in the sense that their teachings about Christ form the base on which the church now stands.
2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. That is certainly an understatement as Americans have discovered recently from the corporate financial scandals. Follow where Paul is going with this. He is a steward. As such he must be trustworthy. Ah, aren’t the Corinthians questioning this very quality? He may have started off well with the Corinth Church, but it seems that he is squandering God’s gifts with his simple-minded approach to ministry.
Paul’s response: 3 But with me 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.
It seems that Paul is getting a bit uppity. Not only does he put the Corinthians in their place, but any human judgment. The Greek phrase corresponds to our “having a day in court.” Paul is saying that he does not consider any person able to judge him. Indeed, he doesn’t even judge himself. Maybe “uppity” is not the right word. Maybe Paul is simply a free-spirit. He does what he does and so be it. Everybody has to walk to the “beat of his own drum” and thus should avoid judging anyone else.
If that is the case, he is a hypocritical free-spirit. He has already passed judgment on the behavior of the Corinthians and in the next chapter flat out says, “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing” (5:3). So then, is his problem arrogance? If we pull this verse out of its context, it is as arrogant a comment as anyone could make.
All the more reason we need to keep it in its context. Paul is addressing a specific situation. The Corinth Church, which he founded as an apostle, is questioning his authority and his performance. They don’t think he has been performing up to the standards of a true apostle. It is to this that Paul refuses to be judged by them, and to which he adds in verse 4 he is not aware of anything that can be said against him.
This is an important distinction. Paul is not claiming to be perfect; he is not claiming to be blameless in every way. He is answering the charge, either directly or indirectly made, that as an apostle he has not been a trustworthy steward for his Lord. His response is that such judgment is reserved only for the Lord. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
It is important to be clear about the issue. It is not over whether Paul can be judged at all. If he sins, if he lies or steals, then, yes, by all means it is the responsibility of other believers to hold him accountable. Even his teaching may be judged if he contradicts the gospel, as he tells the Galatians: even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (1:8). Paul is not given carte blanche to act anyway he wants or teach whatever he wants. On the other hand, his mission as an apostle was given by Christ, and therefore, to Christ, alone is he to be accountable in carrying out that mission. Thus, how well he carries that mission out is not only not under the judgment of others, but even himself. All that matters is what the Lord thinks.
This is an understandable concept. Let’s use UF football for our illustration. We have our opinions about the performance of our new football coach. Some questioned his ability to prepare his team well; some questioned his game day coaching, and so on. Even so, we all understood that he was not accountable to us for how he coached the team. He could have replied (and probably wanted to), “with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human sports reporter or even the players. What matters is the judgment of the person who hired me and entrusted me with coaching the team. Even then, the judgment will come at the appropriate time at the end of the season.”
We should note, further, that most likely the Corinthians were not merely passing on their opinions about Paul such as we do about Gator football. They believed that some of them had been endowed with special knowledge and wisdom, and thus were in the position of rendering judgment. The consequence would be to teach doctrine and practice that were contrary to the gospel. It would be the same as the coach’s assistants teaching their players to perform in ways contrary to the coach’s philosophy. It is one thing to render opinion; it is another to pronounce judgment as though being the one in authority, and then acting against the coach.
Thus again, Paul’s performance is for Christ to judge, and such judgment will come at the appropriate time: 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
This is a sobering thought. Paul tries to make it positive: each one will receive his commendation from God. He no doubt considers it positive for himself. At other times he speaks with confidence of winning his crown. But it is also evident that he wants the Corinthians to consider the future judgment. The Lord will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. The Lord will not judge by listening to what we have to say. There will be no opportunity for a defense. He is going to reveal to everyone and to ourselves what is really in our hearts and what we have kept in the darkness. Paul’s contention all along is that they are acting out of pride and not from a humble desire to be obedient to God. When the Lord returns, it will be determined if he is right about them or they right about him. He certainly is conveying to them that they ought to be examining themselves closely now before that judgment comes. Again, the judgment is not about their salvation but about their work in the church.
One lesson we can draw from this text is the seriousness by which we are to take the gospel. Paul is anxious about the Corinthians understanding the “mysteries,” i.e. the gospel, correctly because he is entrusted by God to impart these mysteries properly. For the same reason I must take heed of teaching the mysteries carefully, and you must take heed of learning them well. I am called by God to be a Minister of the Gospel. I have been entrusted by him with presenting the gospel mysteries, not through special revelation such as Paul may have been given, but through studying and teaching God’s Word. I don’t have liberty to go off on tangents, to select what interests me or is comfortable to teach, nor to feed you only what you want to receive.
You are also entrusted by God to receive, profit, and use what you learn for the sake of our Lord. You may not, like the Corinthians, select certain aspects of the gospel that you enjoy the most and ignore the rest. You may not determine what it is that you ought to be hearing from God’s Word. And you may not keep what you learn for yourself, deriving only benefit for yourself. Once you learn the mysteries, you become stewards of them yourselves are expected to bear fruit with them somehow. It may be through teaching them, or it may be that they spur you to action of some kind for God’s kingdom. The gospel is not a gift for us to place on our shelves for our private benefit. As you learn, you ought to be thinking how you may use what you learn to benefit someone else. You serve the Lord by serving others.
Thus, for example, what can you do with what you have learned about being a steward of the gospel? Perhaps you will be encouraged to share the gospel with someone; perhaps you may share this lesson with another Christian who seems stuck with focusing on himself and not serving others; perhaps you may consider if you have taken seriously learning from God’s Word whatever it is he wants you to learn. That in itself will affect the way you serve in his kingdom.
What about authority and judging? Paul was not willing that anyone else judge his performance as an apostle. Should I claim the same about myself as a minister? Should I care very little about what you or anyone else has to say? Should I refute the judgment of even church courts? For that matter, should any of you have to answer to how you handle your stewardship of the gospel or are we all to wait until the Day of Judgment? We are moving into a sensitive area. If you are feeling uncomfortable with the subject, rest assure that I am too. But this is where God’s Word is leading. From the end of chapter four through chapter five, judging and church discipline will be our subject. We are just getting into the preliminaries.
Again, what about me as a minister? Ought I to be judged according to what I do as a minister? Yes, there are rightful occasions in which I am to be judged. There is an important distinction between Paul as an apostle and me or anyone else as a minister. Paul was uniquely called by Jesus Christ to be an apostle without the intermediary involvement of the other apostles or church leaders. Furthermore, he was called to not only proclaim the scriptures, but to act as witness to the new work of Christ. In his case, he even conveyed new revelation to be added to the scriptures. A minister is also called by Christ, but his calling is confirmed by the authority of the church through its ministers and elders. I announced to others that I believed I was called of God to be his minister, but only after training and examination by other church leaders, through what is called a church court, was my call validated. Paul did not need anyone to validate his calling. Furthermore, my calling is restricted to proclaiming only what is already revealed in scripture. I cannot add to the scriptures, nor give it “new” meaning; I must be subservient to what it teaches. Thus, unlike Paul, I must consider it a very big thing to be judged by the human court that Christ charged with validating my call to ministry. The standard by which that court judges me is the standard of faithfulness to the scriptures.
Can you judge me? It depends on what you mean by judging! If you mean actually disciplining me or controlling what I teach, then no. If you mean forming your own opinion and letting me know your thoughts, then certainly. Indeed, it is your responsibility to help me if I am doing something wrong. If you believe that I am doing something or teaching something that is harmful, and after coming to me about it, still believe I am in the wrong, the next step for you to take is to go to the elders. They, as my equals in ministry, and as the court responsible for the welfare of the church may then approach me. Even so, they are not in the position to exercise judgment against me. That is reserved for the presbytery. The presbytery is the church court I spoke of earlier which validated my call to the ministry. The ministers and elders of that court may pronounce judgment on my ministry and discipline me.
But here is what they cannot do. They cannot tell me what to preach or how to pastor my people. They cannot tell me that I am taking too long to go through 1 Corinthians, nor instruct me on the number of weekly pastoral visits I make. As long as I am not teaching heresy or causing division in the church, they have to let me perform my duties as a minister according to my conscience before the Lord.
I take all this time using myself as an example to show in what ways our text can and cannot be applied. We cannot apply what Paul says about himself not being subject to judgment automatically to ourselves. The principle is not that no Christian or Christian leader is to be judged. The principle is that judgment is reserved for the appropriate God-ordained church court. There was no court over an apostle, except of course for obvious sin and heresy. But there was and is an appropriate court to watch over ministers and elders. We are fortunate to be in a church denomination that takes its responsibility to make judgments seriously and which also sets appropriate boundaries for judging. No one and no court is given free reign to judge others; nevertheless, no one is given free reign to do what seems right in his own eyes.
I say we are fortunate, because it means our denomination takes seriously the gospel of Christ. That is at the heart of the matter. Do we really believe that the gospel is a matter of life and death? Do we really believe that to possess the gospel is to be given by God a sacred trust? Then by all means let us hold one another accountable to exercise that trust faithfully. By all means let us desire to be held accountable to be true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.