[This is part of a series of sermons on the topic of “One Another”. To access previous messages, please click here.]
Last week, we opened the word to Romans 15:7 and Colossians 3:13. We talked about accepting one another and forbearing one another. We understood that acceptance is not just putting up with someone, but to actually gather them in with excitement.
All of us have had that one instance, that one person who, when we saw them our immediate response was, “Oh no, here comes such and such.” This is the response we are encouraged to suppress. Believers are supposed to rejoice at the presence of other believers.
One of the first times I recognized the impact this can have is one day when I was in the hardware store. Two men walked in from my church. They were great guys and I was excited to see them. A “Sales Associate” was standing right next to me and I turned to the person and said, “These are my brothers and I am very happy to see them.” The employee did not know how to take that because, of course, these two men looked nothing like me. When they approached me, I hugged them both. After that, I told the individual that these were my brothers in Christ and that our bond was greater than any ever constructed on earth. That, too, threw her for a loop.
Ladies and gentlemen, probably the most glaring example of submission and obedience to these scriptures lies in the current day. Islamic nations (and Muslims in general) regularly torture, persecute, harass and murder Christians all across the globe. They do this because the satanic god they worship demands that they kill all those who do not believe in him and will not convert to Islam. That is how Islam started (convert or die) and that is how it operates still today. Christianity is the opposite of Islam, just as the true God is opposite Satan. We put these scriptures into operation when the Christian sees a Muslim coming. The Christian does not lose their countenance and utter, “Oh, no, here comes a Muslim.” Instead, their response is to pray silently that they have the opportunity to show them the truth of the God of love and His Son Jesus Christ. Further, there is no more sweet fellowship and rejoicing than meeting another believer in Christ under such stress laden circumstances as those that exist in countries such as Iraq, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even godless China. Folks, this is the truth of life in Christ. We can love as He loved. We can even love those who hate us, persecute us, torture us and kill us. Truthfully, our blood is as seed for the kingdom of Christ.[i]
As we look at 1 Corinthians 4:6, we should consider the fact that these Corinthians had a myriad of spiritual problems that plagued them. Honestly, they were a very wicked bunch in many ways. They took advantage of the Lord’s Table. They permitted ungodliness in their assembly – as a matter of practice. They were judgmental against one another both in their Christian maturity and in their Christian childhood. They permitted unchallenged adultery in their church. Christians were taking other Christians to court in order to get property from them. These people had some serious problems. Paul had personal knowledge that most of these problems existed. Yet, with all these challenges Paul, although very forthright and circumspect in his epistle, still loved them and endured them. As wicked as they were Paul loved them and there is no evidence he considered them apostate.
In these passages of 1 Corinthians, there was an issue of contention. Some were bragging that they followed the great orator Apollos. Others claimed affiliation to Paul. Yet others claimed Christ. The problem with these folks is that Corinthians wanted to be in the in-group. They wanted to be recognized as being in the right social circles. Their entire bent on these issues was that if they were attached to one orator, then it had better be the best in the city.
In today’s world, we still have folks that want to be attached to the “right” church. Some see attendance at one church a plus because there is a great preacher there. Some are attached to another church because it is big, therefore (they conclude) it must be good. Others attach themselves to a church because it has a vibrant youth group. Yet others seek business connections at church. Therefore, they want to ensure there are enough influential people attending to make their Sundays worthwhile. Then folks begin to tell others about their connections and where they attend and why in order to encourage more business, not more godliness. Today we might find comments such as:
- “I attend where the Mayor attends.”
- “The President comes to our church when he is in town.”
- “Did you know our pastor has a new best seller out?”
- “Pastor Frank’s new commentary series just hit the market. We’re really on the map now.”
This is today’s Corinth on display. Ladies and gentlemen, let me confess something to you. Many people do not attend Grace Bible Church because I have told them not to. If your pastor attempted to pull people from other ministries, it would soon become a matter of pride. The problem is that there are ministries that are unfaithful to the scriptures too. Some exist in our town. If someone comes to me though and says they have been attending church X for many years and are considering changing, I tell them they are welcomed, but then I ask why. If the reason is because of a conflict, then I suggest that conflict be resolved first. One cannot run from challenges that they face in a ministry; they must face them head on and not cower from conflict. Paul certainly does not shy from conflict in this passage when he tells the Corinthians that they are arrogant in their approach to worship.
Paul, as I did a moment ago, applies this principle to himself to show others how to avoid the sin they are involved with. He also does so because it is not something that just applies to the church leadership, but something that should apply to the attitude of all of God’s people. No church can stand while the members murmur against each other, remain prideful in their opinions or press their personal advantage upon others. We should understand it is the simplicity of the gospel and the salvation of man that will build this ministry, the Lord Jesus Himself. A well-known or highly coveted ministry may very well reach more people for Christ. That may unify a church. However, a great Christ-centered ministry in a little hamlet like Lander, Wyoming may reach the next great teacher of the gospel. This gospel involves great humility.
I. The Pride that Divides
Paul is finishing an argument that he began in Chapter 3 verse 5 where we read,
“Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?”
There are obviously contentions in the church concerning the ministry of Paul compared to that of Apollos and others. The church at Corinth was frequently tempted by a pride that would claim they were “a cut above” other churches in the region. Paul tells them they should recognize and follow the wise masters in verse 10. He tells them this is a wicked and unacceptable worldly foolishness in verses 18 and 19.
The Corinthians felt the freedom to do things the way they wanted, when they wanted and with whom they pleased. The issue at hand is a discussion about comparing one church leader against the other and making that comparison a point of contention between individual church groups. Paul talks of himself, Apollos and Cephas. Ultimately, all belong to God (verse 23).
The issue of humility has to be applied beginning with the leadership itself. We should be the example. We cannot have a “do as I say, not as I do” response to exhortation. A leader focused upon himself and thinking he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread is not going to help, but will instead hinder a ministry for God. This means the entire church leadership from the Pastor down. The ministry may be successful, but it is only successful existentially and not spiritually. Everyone appears to be doing well, but inside they are the same wretched souls, unworthy of God’s blessing.[ii]
Paul used the word we find translated here “transferred” to speak specifically about those individuals responsible for dividing the church at Corinth. They wanted to submit to another leader, or convince the church that the current leader (Paul, Apollos, whomever was their current leader) was not the right one for them. Instead of indicating which pastor he knew was having trouble with internal strife, Paul simply points to himself. In truth everyone probably knew that a very cordial and friendly relationship existed between Paul and Apollos. Regardless, the inference is clear. Paul knew that people in some of the churches were murmuring against the leaders of their individual ministries.
The Corinthians were admonished to keep to what is written. Now, a contention exists that some believe this means the Old Testament scriptures. Perhaps the tendency was for these folks to exceed the Old Testament scriptures in their thoughts and judgments of others. This certainly follows our understanding of the pride of man. We frequently step out of the bounds of scripture when we lean upon our own understanding and deceive ourselves.
Another view is that Paul is referring specifically to what he has written here. Was Paul, then referring only to the letter he wrote? Admittedly, this passage is difficult to discern. The truth of the reference may not be known until we reach glory. Regardless, a lesson does lie in these exhortations regardless of the specific reference to epistle or Old Testament.
All agree that this portion of the writing is difficult to figure out. However, the fact remains that we are admonished to not hold one individual above another in such a way as to create disunity. We do this with other pastors. We do this with old pastors. There are challenges when pastors who have retired and are greatly loved make room for others younger and different. New, old, young, elderly, experienced and novice – the pastoral description does not matter. What matters is that the people support the ministry and the pastor serves the Lord faithfully.
If a leader is provided to your ministry by the Lord, your duty in honor to God’s choice is to submit and support that leadership. Quibbling about previous leadership and how they may have done things better or squabbling about whether we have a relevant ministry because we have influential people attending our church is not productive. Those types of competitive comparisons only create strife and disunity. The entire section of scripture in 1 Corinthians 3:5 through 4:6 deals with church unity, or the lack thereof, in the churches at Corinth.
The bottom line is that the Corinthians have been boasting in men, boasting in their church leadership and boasting in men among them in their congregation. As if to say this or that individual could do a better job. They have done so at the expense of a relationship with one another. They have created disunity in the church and they certainly do not display the humble heart of the believing saints in the Kingdom of God.
We might do well to consider one other fact. Paul was not with the Corinthians when he wrote this letter. This means they were reminiscing about having Paul back when Paul was clearly led to leave and minister elsewhere. Paul was writing from his ministry in Ephesus. A church he would eventually address an epistle to, and from yet another location.
If God places a leader in your midst and calls him to minister to you, the Christian duty is to submit to that leadership under God. God is the one who determines the leaders of His chosen people. To compare one over another, to murmur about the shortcomings of one over another, and especially to brag about your leaders over others is evil. This only creates strife and sedition and fuels our flesh to be one up on one another.
I understand that the next subject has been a very recurring subject with respect to the teaching of this pulpit. It is certainly one which strikes deeply into our personal space and probably the most glaringly opposite thing of the world we live in today. That may be why we see it so prevalent in the scriptures. If we were to wrap up a Christian testimony into a small box, one must look at Christ and identify with His testimony in life. Jesus loved everyone. However, His second most glaring attribute was humility. It was in this humble testimony of Himself and His desire for all mankind to join Him in His kingdom that we find the unity in Christianity through the Savior Himself. This is no different in the church, where each person must humble themselves one to another, as well as humbling ourselves to our appointed leadership.
II. The Humility that Unites
In John 17:20-21 God Himself prays for unity among those who believe. The fact is that Paul is reinforcing this unity here and he argues that unity originates from humility. Literally, the Greek word translated “puffed up” used here in 1 Corinthians 4:6 comes from the word for a bellows that pumps hot air into a furnace to stoke the fires. Paul clearly indicates that we are not supposed to self-inflate or inject heat into a situation to make it more volatile. Consider what we can do to help or hinder church unity with our words and discussions. When we think more of ourselves than we ought, our tendency is to place ourselves in competition with others.
Competition is not necessarily wrong. It is wrong, however, when we have the wrong attitude about it. In the Corinthian church it appears they were attempting to brag about their preacher or teacher and therefore they sought to draw in some intellectuals or pull away other partisans from some organizations to support their individual views and beliefs. This is the height of arrogance. One group or individual thinks everyone should live and exist, spend their money and believe exactly like they do. They see themselves as so pious that they are loath to lower themselves to the level of commoners. Today we might call this elitism. What wickedness.
Quite literally, Paul is addressing, head on, a sin that exists in the church at Corinth – pride. These were a wealthy people and prosperity in all its forms carried great sway with them. This means monetary, social, entertainment and any other form of prosperity one can envision. This attitude bled over to their public worship. Just as the other wickedness that Paul would have to deal with in chapters 7 and following, he deals here with specific evils that hurt people in general and speaks of the spiritual immaturity of which the Corinthians were guilty. To this prideful group who wanted to do things their own way, this was a heavy blow to their ego. After all, they were Corinthians. As with the opening portion of the verse where Paul admonishes the Corinthians not to obey their own worldly opinions and inclinations, here they are encouraged to change from pride to humility.
We briefly discussed learning above. An important aspect of the words used in this verse is that the word for ”learn” is not the normal word derived from “teaching.” In this case, it is a word derived from the word “disciple.” It specifically speaks of those who claim to be believers.
We might get a better understanding if we realize that to a Greek, humility was an attribute that a slave should portray, not an attribute a master or ruler might exhibit. Humility to the proud Corinthian, certainly one of the wealthier if not one of the wealthiest cities in the Roman Empire, was not an attribute that came easily. It was, in fact considered despicable. Humility was a sign of weakness and not attributable to great men.[iii]
With respect to this humility, what does Paul indicate by his transference? Paul himself was a very zealous and prideful man who wickedly persecuted the church of Christ. Paul himself had to transfer all this pride to a humility that was pleasing to God. Paul understands the way the Corinthians feel in their boasting for He was very boastful at one time:
“4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: 5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” (Phil 3:4-7)
This testimony is heavily shaded by the last verse in the quote. We too should count all things in our personal lives loss for Christ. If we receive ministry from a servant of God, we should hold that person in the proper position, but not such that he might be puffed up, or that we puff them up to a point of higher consideration than even Christ. We run the risk of idolatry in this insidious activity.
God convicted me in 2003 to take Paul’s testimony and make it my very own in going forward in ministry for the purpose of humility. I knew my pride and I knew it must be submitted to God. For this reason I took Philippians 3:12-13 as my ministerial verses.
“12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,”
As I realized the changes in my life and the use of my previous skills, knowledge and understanding only for God, I realized I was much like Moses who trained in wickedness for 40 years, and, then God grabbed him and made him a great deliverer of Israel. I also realized I was much like Paul in that I saw so much behind me, but all of that was for naught, if not for the Lord alone. Therefore, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” All that which is in my past I give to you as illustration of what God had to work in me for patience, endurance and strength. All that that lies ahead rests upon God’s grace and the wisdom that is born from the previous 40 years of life. Like Moses, and like Paul, I know I am not up to the task. However, like Moses and like Paul, I know God in me is up to the task.
A summation of this teaching for the believer is well said in the Expositors Bible Commentary’s article by W. Harold Mare,
“If they (Corinthians) learn not to go beyond the teaching of the Scripture about how they should treat God’s teachers and all of God’s people, then the result will be that they will not be conceited in taking a stand for one teacher or person over against another.”[iv]
If we do not go too far in holding others up above their given position, we unify, appear Christlike and have a testimony for our community, we will be a beacon for Christ. Our challenge is to remain humble. Pride is such a destructive thing. Each one of us has a mindset that easily lends itself to second guessing the decisions of leadership. It is hard to stay in our place and realize that there are others above us that have a better view of the big picture. It is even harder to realize that that view does not have to include, in our estimation, the great wisdom and input we personally possess.
Ladies and gentlemen, if we simply submit to Christ first, His word as it is preached and presented, read and understood and to one another through that submission we receive from Jesus, we will develop a unity that cannot be broken because it is born of God. Creating seditious strife or division amongst our ministry and that of others in the community, as well as presenting ourselves as the individuals with the answers to any church challenge is prideful and absent from the truth of God’s word. We must seek unity with one another. This takes some work, folks. Nevertheless, we can do it.
Seek Christ for the strength and it will come. He will give you the ability to be humble and show you exactly what it is to live in humility.
[i] Tertullian (160-220 AD), Apology 50.
[ii] One could easily argue that this is a continuous state for any living person. It is only God’s grace that gives us mercy and God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy and He will curse whom He chooses.
[iii] We find this in Plato’s laws, number 6.
[iv] W. Harold Mare, 1 Corinthians, EBC with the New International Version, Vol 10, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1976), 212.