Servants or Saints?

Imagine for a moment you’re in first-century Corinth, where for several months you’ve had the privilege of listening to an ex-Pharisee from Tarsus named Paul teach about the kingdom of God. You’ve also appreciated the ministry of an Alexandrian teacher named Apollos. And then, one evening at a gathering of believers, you hear this read out from a letter Paul has sent the church:

“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos.’. . . Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:11-13).

“. . . 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. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor 3:5-6).

So what’s he on about? And what’s this about only servants?

So there are different ministries. So what? Is this just pious cant? Is this the kind of thing someone just says, soaking up praise like the warmth of the morning sun and then saying to everyone and no one in particular he fears the temptations of pride as a stumbling block to his ministry?

Now imagine yourself at a 21st century book signing and the author is making a few remarks before everyone lines up for a copy of her new book. She reads 1 Cor 3:5-6 (only servants).

At this point in your life you’ve become a bit cynical, because there is an analogue to politically correct in church circles that you might call theologically correct, where certain key words and phrases are predictably inserted in speeches, public prayers, sermons and endorsements. They are like the markings on a football field or soccer pitch, defining what is in- and out-of-bounds.

For example, there used to be an anecdote (which I will describe generically) that cropped up in book forewords, speaker introductions and unsolicited testimonies so frequently that it became part of church folklore: The Servant-Leader Who Cleans Toilets. (Mercifully, I think the anecdote has gone the way of leisure suits and long sideburns.)

It went something like this: Someone in a large ministry went looking for the CEO in his office, didn’t find him, then searched the building until finding him in the rest room, down on his knees on the cold tiles—scrubbing the porcelain bowls one by one.

There’s something wrong about this, however. Does it really give you any insight into what it means to be a servant? I didn’t think so.

Skim over the only servants exposition in 1 Cor 1-4 until you get to this:

“Now, brothers, 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 take pride in one man over another. 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?” (4:6-7)

He’s not just saying it, he’s doing it. By “deconstructing” his ministry (What do you have that you did not receive?), he is being a servant as well as calling himself one. Later, in his second letter to Corinth, he summed it up nicely: “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).

But isn’t Paul’s ministry commendable and praiseworthy? Or Apollos’? (Luke certainly commended him in Acts 18: 24-28.) Is there a contradiction here? What about Paul’s praise of the Corinthians in chapter 1, calling them spiritually gifted? Was he sincere, or just saying it to gain their attention because he knows he has harder things yet to say?

What Paul discerned was the insidious effects of pride. The various ministries (Paul, Apollos, Cephas and probably unnamed others) were given to the entire church, for the benefit of everyone. But pride, not only in one ministry but in one man over another, sowed the seeds of division. It scattered the parts that belong together.

Using Paul’s metaphor about the body (1 Cor 12:12 ff.), the church consists of “many parts,” but they form “one body.” Paul didn’t want us to speculate, like a game of Clue, as to who “the eye” is, or “the hand,” or “the feet.” The point was that just as the human body is indivisible in design and function, so is the body of Christ.

When believers take pride in one man over another, they no longer have ministers like Paul and Apollos who are servants. They’ve turned servants into Saints and set in motion a centrifugal force that pulls the body of Christ apart. More on that in the next post.

Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels

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