An antidote to pride (1 Cor 4:6-13)

Nearing the end of our series through 1 Cor 1-4, Paul has begun to apply to the Corinthians more directly what he’s been saying thus far about worldly judgements and dividing over leaders. In fact, in today’s passage he makes it explicit:

4:6 Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.

(Warning: nerd content. One of the clever things that may be going on here is that Paul is committing a rhetorical no-no. If you make an allusion, it’s considered bad form to then make it explicit. It’s a bit like explaining a joke. He makes clear that his references to different workers with different tasks (see chapter 3) are about Paul and Apollos. That was probably as obvious to the Corinthians as it is to us. But by patronisingly explaining it he’s perhaps tongue-in-cheek playing along with their image of him as someone who is rhetorically clumsy, whilst also treating them like children who need it explained to them, continuing the “milk not solid food” critique of the previous chapter. Is Paul really capable of this nuance? Wait until a few verses later when he launches into a sarcastic use of self-pity before deciding.)

He brings home the point to himself and Apollos, so that the Corinthians won’t think their status comes from attaching themselves to one leader over another. Quite simple. (What is meant by “do not go beyond what is written” is anyone’s guess. The Old Testament Scriptures? Paul’s teaching? The rules of the community? Scholars, ironically, are divided and go well beyond what has been written in this verse. We have to be content with the fact that we don’t know what Paul means here.)

4:7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

Paul moves beyond just the disputes over leaders, to the wider issue of status-seeking and boasting. Everything we have has been given to us by God. So why should we boast about anything, as though we somehow earned it or deserved it? Our appearance, our intelligence, our gifts, our social skills, our sporting abilities – everything is a gift of God. When we grasp this, it undercuts all boasting and pride.

The next section is one of my favourite parts of the Bible, because it shows that sometimes, sarcasm can be used for good. Here, Paul plays along with their boastful self-image for a bit:

4:8a Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us!

You’re right, Corinthians! You are important, you are wealthy, you are all kings – we are but unworthy scum!

If Paul were speaking to us today, would he take us to task for thinking we already have it all, particularly in comfortable Western churches? Our riches, our scholarship, our music and presentation styles… (“Already you have become hip!” – in contrast with Paul, who’s become “uncool for the sake of Christ.”) … or the many other status judgements we bring from the world into the church.

In case the Corinthians missed the sarcasm, he gives a quick aside:

4:8b How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!

But then he continues, this time wheeling out the violins and contrasts the Corinthians’ high status with the apostles’ lowly status, in the eyes of the world. It’s an argument from pathos (an appeal to the emotions), seeking to evoke pity. It’s a bit over-the-top, as are the descriptions of the high-status Corinthians. The Roman writer, Quintilian, describes this as a common strategy: feigning submission to your opponent in order to highlight their arrogance (Institutes of Oratory 6.2.16).

Indeed, in verse 14 Paul makes it clear it’s not to be taken at face value, but as an ironic rebuke. Have a read of it, preferably in a dramatic voice with a string orchestra accompanying you:

4:9-13 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

This highlights the foolishness of the Corinthians’ obsession with worldly status, when compared with the experience of those who do embrace gospel values at considerable cost.

Perhaps returning missionaries, looking at the attitude of some Western churches, would be moved to write something similar:

“For it seems to me that God has put us missionaries up for ridicule, like Christian stereotypes on TV. We are dorky for Christ, but you are so Christian-chic! We re-use teabags, but you sip Fairtrade lattes! You are cool, we have mission-beards! To this very hour we can’t afford take-away food every night, our clothes are from op-shops, we get harassed by local authorities, and when we get back to our home country we can’t afford even to rent…”

Perhaps overdrawn, but do you get the picture? How silly do our pretensions in comfortable churches seem when compared with those who give up much more for the sake of Christ!

I’m writing this not to shame us (v14)… but that will have to wait until tomorrow.

To think about

What gifts from God do you subconsciously boast about, even if it’s only to yourself?

Are there Christians  you are tempted to judge as inferior by worldly standards? How could your thinking about them be transformed by considering what they have endured for the sake of the gospel?

To do

At my church, we are part of a worldwide program each October called “Bibles for the Persecuted.” Apart from raising funds to send Bibles to Christians who don’t have half a dozen Bibles on their shelves, it has some other unexpected benefits. Each day, we read stories of persecuted Christians in different countries, and pray for that country. Many in our church say they find this a great antidote to the lure of worldly judgements and attitudes. Our “first world problems” pale in light of these stories, and remind us of the kind of things that are truly boast-worthy.

You can get involved here:

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