Leaders are God’s servants (1 Cor 3:1-5)

So far in our series through 1 Cor 1-4 we’ve seen how the Corinthians were divided over leaders. Over the next few days, we’ll see how Paul shows this behaviour to be utterly foolish. In fact, it’s immature. They think they’re being spiritual, but the fact that they’re divided shows how worldly they still are. They’re still judging others by the values of the world, not God’s values:

3:1-4 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What he’s saying is this: by now you should be mature, spiritual Christians. Instead, the foolish divisions among you show that you’re still immature & worldly. Grow up, guys, and act your spiritual age! Do you really think leaders are that important? That they function as status symbols in the church? Do you really think that by attaching yourself to one leader over another you’re proving anything?

Because the church doesn’t belong to its leaders. It belongs to God. That’s what the next few verses are about. It’s God’s church, and leaders are just servants.

3:5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.

What, after all, is your pastor? What are the youth leaders, or home group leaders, or deacons, or anyone else who exercises leadership in your church? Only servants. In the church, leaders are servants.

Now churches can respond to this in two unhelpful ways. The first one is to take it a little too literally. Paid staff, like pastors, are treated as employees of the membership. They get ordered around by diaconates. Or treated like janitors, running around fixing everything so that everyone’s experience of church is just perfect. With the term ‘servant leadership’, sometimes we forget about the second part. The leadership bit. Pastors are not our personal butlers, there at our command.

Gordon Fee writes: [Servant leadership] ‘does not mean the abdication of leadership, nor… does it mean to become everyone’s errand boy… It has to do with attitude, perspective, not with one’s place on the organizational chart… Servant leadership is required precisely because servanthood is the basic stance of all truly Christian behaviour.’

But other times, churches can go to the opposite extreme, putting pastors and leaders up on pedestals, as some kind of super-Christian. They allowing them to control the lives of the people in their care, rather than to lead and serve. There’s a difference. And this is Paul’s primary intention here. He reminds us that leaders are only servants so we don’t think of them more highly than we ought!

I remember at my senior pastor’s induction service many years ago, the preacher that morning warned us: your pastor isn’t Superman, so don’t treat him as though he is. That goes for all pastors. All leaders. All preachers. Sometimes they might talk faster than a speeding bullet, but that’s about as far as it goes. If they take their glasses off, they’re still decidedly recognisable. They’re not Superman, so don’t set them up to be. Because you’ll be setting them up for failure.

Remember, leaders are God’s servants, not our servants. But they’re also God’s servants – they’re not God. A healthy church will live by both of these truths.

To think about

What is your tendency: to treat church leaders more like janitors, or more like superheroes? What about your church’s tendency?

(If you’re a leader: what attitude do you encourage among those whom you lead?)

How can you ensure that you maintain the “servant leader” balance?

Post responses and questions

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