The last word on worldly judgements (1 Cor 3:18-4:5)

At the start of each day I’ve been summarising the content of 1 Corinthians so far, so we can keep the flow of argument before us. Thankfully, Paul has already done this for us as we come to chapter 4:

3:18-23 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

In other words, stop bringing worldly judgements about leaders (or anything else) into the church: God’s wisdom is of a different order. All leaders belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God – we’re all on the same team. (So get along! Remember the theme-statement of the letter, in 1:10.)

In chapter 4, Paul takes what he’s been saying so far and applies it in a more direct way to the situation in Corinth – the division over leaders, specifically Paul, Apollos, and Peter (Cephas, in Aramaic). He starts off by again summarising what their attitude to leaders should be – respect as God’s servants, but not treating them more highly than servants:

4:1 This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.

He then acknowledges that leaders should be accountable; this isn’t to say that leaders are beyond judgement:

4:2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.

But his point is that Christian leaders should not be judged by the world’s standards – whether it be by a human court, by the court of public opinion, or even (perhaps being a touch hyperbolic) by themselves.

4:3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.

Why is this the case? Because, as he’s been saying throughout, God’s wisdom operates on a different plane to human wisdom. And God is the one who judges.

4:4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

And that judgement is coming. It is God’s final judgement we should wait for.

4:5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

Now this presents us with a small problem in application. Sure, it plays well for those times when Christians are judgemental, pointing out specks in others’ eyes. And that happens frequently enough. Except I don’t think judgemental, “holier-than-thou” Christians are the context here.

And it also raises the question of: should we ever make judgements about people? Elsewhere, Paul himself says to “examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5), “each one should test their own actions” (Gal 6:4), to “test” all prophecies (1 Thess 5:21), to test deacons before allowing them to serve (1 Tim 3:10). These all sound like judging ourselves, and judging others. The last one is particularly telling, as it refers to making judgements about leaders.

The context is important. In 1 Timothy 3:1-10, the criteria for judgements about leaders is given. These are moral qualities (e.g. above reproach, faithful to spouse, temperate, self-controlled in 3:2), character traits (e.g. gentle, not quarrelsome, in 3:3), and adherence to true doctrine (3:9). These are the criteria by which leaders are to be “judged”.

1 Tim 3:10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

The context in 1 Corinthians is different, as we’ve seen. It’s about judging leaders by worldly standards: eloquence in speech, their status, whether they also have a day job (see 1 Cor 9), etc.. Sure, Paul speaks in strong, absolute terms, appealing to the truth that ultimately, only God is judge. But the context, it’s not about being “judgemental”, Pharisaic Christians (although that is also wrong); and it’s not about the church making wise judgements about the suitability of leaders. Again, it’s about allowing the world’s values to inform how we do things in church.

For example, how often do we look for potential deacons or leaders by first noting their worldly occupation? Accountant? She’d make a good church treasurer. Executive? He’d make a good church secretary. Teacher? She’d be a good youth leader. And so on. Yes, natural ability will come into it in terms of what we might be able to do in the church. But the first consideration should be character. Is that accountant godly? Is that executive a good father? Does that teacher live out the values of the gospel? When seen this way, 1 Cor 4 and 1 Tim 3 are not as far removed from each other as at first glance.

Don’t judge the way the world does. God is the ultimate judge, so wait for him. If in the meantime we need to make judgements about leaders (as sometimes we will), God has given us his criteria, to apply with prayer and wisdom and humility.

To think about

What ways does worldly status influence the judgements we make in churches?

How do you live out the tension between making godly judgements, and leaving God to judge?

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