How do you evaluate a pastor? All kinds of criteria have been used to determine who are the most successful, the most influential, the most gifted, and the most effective ministers. Some magazines take surveys and write extensive reports, ranking pastors by church membership, attendance at worship services, sizes of church staff and Sunday school, academic and honorary degrees, books and articles written, numbers of messages given at conferences and conventions, and so on. As popular as this practice may be, it may not always be true to God’s Word.
I Corinthians 4:1-5 focuses on the true nature and marks of God’s ministers. Paul is not speaking here of the traditional concept of a full-time employee of a church who is hired to do the preaching, the teaching, and the counseling, as well as officiate at other church functions. This concept is unknown in the New Testament. It came into the church only within the past 500 years. A minister of Christ in the New Testament was anyone, “anyone”, who, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, was a preacher or a teacher of the Word of God. That is what Paul is talking about here. And Paul gives basic guidelines and standards by which ministers are to minister and be evaluated. He also gives us the characteristics of a true minister.
I. THE IDENTITY OF THE MINISTER (verse 1)
In verse 1, the first characteristic Paul gives us is the identity of the minister. When Paul says, “Let a man regard us in this manner”, he is referring to all men, both Christians and non-Christians. He wants them to see God’s ministers according to what God has called them to be, that is, “servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The word “servants” is a translation of the Greek word “huperetes”, which literally means “under-rowers”. Everyone in Corinth understood what that word meant. Corinth was where the war ships of the Roman Empire crossed the isthmus that separated the Ionian Sea from the Aegean Sea, and the Corinthians knew that the lowest deck was the place where the lowest class of slaves sat. Then, on a little deck, raised up about them all so that all could see him, was the captain of the ship. It was the rowers’ task to row according to what he said. If he wanted the ship to move, then they were to row. If he wanted them to stop, they were to stop instantly. Their whole business was to obey his orders. That is the word that Paul chooses to describe those who are teachers, preachers, and ministers of the Word of God within the congregation of the church. They are “under-rowers” of Christ.
A young pastor at a pastor’s conference once asked an older pastor whom he respected, “What would you do if you were in my shoes? My church board called me in and said to me, ‘Look, there are some things we want you to understand. One is that this is our church; it is not your church. We were here before you came and we are going to be here when you leave. Therefore, we expect you to do what we want you to do and not what you think you ought to do.’ What would you say to a church like that?” The other pastor told him that he would call together the elders of the church and would say to them, “Brothers, I think you are suffering from two very serious theological errors. One, you think this is your church, but it is the Lord’s church. Churches belong to Him. They do not belong to the people. They are not a democracy, owned by the people. Jesus said, ‘On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ So all of us are under the authority of the Lord of this church and it is His work to tell us what He wants the church to be, and not our job to tell Him what we think it ought to be.”
“The second error is that you think you hired me to work in this church, but you have not. I did not come on that basis. I have joined you to share the ministry with you. I appreciate the fact that you have set me aside and given me support from the congregation so that I don’t have to spend time earning a living but can devote my full time to the study of God’s Word, and to the ministry of preaching and teaching His Word. If you will not accept those terms then I will have to look elsewhere. I cannot work on any other terms because that is what the New Testament says.”
He went back to his church, shared these principles with them, and they fired him. But now he has another church, and he made his stand clear from the beginning, and things are working out very well with him. So, to look first of all at men’s needs is to fail men as well as to fail the Lord. A minister who becomes so occupied with counseling and helping his congregation and community that he spends little time in the Word is unable to meet those people’s deepest needs. To serve Christ is to serve His Word, which is the revelation of His will. As a servant of Christ, his function is to obey God’s commands as revealed in His Word, serving Him with all humility.
Ministers of the Gospel are also “stewards of the mysteries of God”. The word for steward is “oikonomos”, meaning “housekeeper”. When you are on an airplane you find a stewardess or a steward who serves coffee, tea, milk, and other beverages, as well as serving a tray of food at the proper time. They are entrusted with certain valuable commodities which they are responsible to give you.
A minister of Christ, whoever he or she may be within a congregation, is to be a steward entrusted with what Paul calls “the mysteries of God”. These are the secret truths and the hidden wisdom which can only be found in God’s Word and nowhere else. As a steward of God’s mysteries, a minister is to take God’s revealed Word and dispense it to God’s household, so that lives are changed and are lived on the basis of these remarkable truths. A preacher or teacher’s concern should not be to please his hearers or to dispense his own views. As the apostle Paul said to Timothy in II Timothy 2:15, “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.”
II. THE REQUIREMENT OF A MINISTER (verse 2)
In verse 2, Paul says that the most important requirement of a good steward is that he be trustworthy or faithful. God does not require brilliance or cleverness or creativity or popularity. He can use servants with those qualities, but only trustworthiness is absolutely essential. So the main issue is not, “Is Paul popular?”, or “Is Apollos a better preacher than Paul?” The main issue is, “Have Paul, Apollos, and Peter been faithful to do the work God assigned to them?”
God supplied His Word, His Spirit, His gifts, and His power. All that the minister can supply is his faithfulness in using those resources for God’s glory. George Washington Carver once asked the Lord to tell him all about the universe. According to Carver, the Lord said, “George, the universe is just too big for you to understand. Suppose you let me take care of that.” Humbled, George Carver replied, “Lord, how about a peanut?” The Lord said, “Now, George, that’s something your own size. Go to work on it and I’ll help you.” George discovered over 300 uses for peanuts, and he helped farmers by showing them how to take care of the soil. Carver used what little he had, and God rewarded his faithfulness.
III. EVALUATION OF A MINISTER (verses 3,4)
In verses 3 and 4, Paul uses his own situation as an example of the evaluation of the minister. Paul is not bragging or placing himself above other ministers, or above any other Christian. What he said about his own attitude about himself should be said by every minister and every Christian. It should be “a small thing” to any of us when our ministry or our spiritual life is examined by other Christians or “by any human court”. The word “examined” means “to investigate, question, evaluate”. It does not mean to determine guilt or innocence.
It is important to remind ourselves that in the spiritual realm, outward appearance means nothing. You cannot fool God! That’s what Paul emphasizes here. He declares that he is not concerned about the judgment people place upon him and his work. This doesn’t mean that a sincere word of appreciation from others or a helpful criticism can’t be useful and even a blessing. But no minister can remain faithful to his calling if he lets his congregation, or any other human beings, decide how true his motives are, or whether he is working within the Lord’s will. Because their knowledge and understanding of his motives are imperfect, their criticisms and compliments are imperfect.
In fact, Paul says that even his own evaluation of himself isn’t really important. What matters is the Lord’s verdict. A person can do things that make him look good before men, and in the process even fool himself into thinking he is pleasing the Lord; yet, in reality, he may be motivated by selfishness and greed. Men see only the outward deeds and may be favorably impressed, but God sees the intentions of the heart. Therefore He alone can judge with complete fairness.
There is the story of a young composer whose music was being performed. He kept his eye fixed intently on one man in the audience, watching every expression that appeared on his face. It was his teacher. He cared more for the slightest mark of favor on his face than for all the applause of the large audience. In our own lives as well, we should watch the face of Christ, as mirrored in His Word, caring only that He should be pleased.
Whenever you are tempted to speak insincerely, or do a good deed only for the praise of men, remember that the Father in Heaven is watching. In His sight it’s what you really are that counts. God alone is the judge of the true spiritual value of our service.
IV. GOD’S EVALUATION (verse 5)
In verse 5, Paul looks ahead to God’s evaluation of His people. Paul tells us not to go on passing judgment before the time. We need to remember that our brothers and sisters in the faith are at different stages of growth and come from many different backgrounds and cultures. Conversion to Christ is just the beginning, and a lifetime of replacing old thoughts, attitudes, habits, and actions with new ones follows after it, through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who continually works to change us. We must take the time to understand people, get to know them, learn their backgrounds, and ask for God’s wisdom to discern each one’s stage of spiritual development. We should never draw hasty conclusions.
God has a day when He will “bring to light the things hidden in the darkness”. I do not believe “things hidden in the darkness” refers to sins or anything evil, but simply to things presently unknown to us. We know from this Scripture that the rewards and praise that God will give to his servants will not be based on the degrees behind our names, the numbers we have preached to, taught or witnessed to. It will also not be based on the programs we have planned and directed, the books we have written, or even the number of converts won to Christ through us. It will be based on one thing alone: the motives of our hearts.
According to a legend, a desert wanderer found a crystal spring of unsurpassed freshness. The water was so pure that he decided to bring some to his king. Barely satisfying his own thirst, he filled a leather bottle with the water and carried it many days beneath the desert sun before he reached the palace. When he finally laid his offering at the feet of his king, the water had become stale because of the old container in which it had been stored. But the king would not let his faithful subject even imagine that it was unfit for use. He tasted it with expressions of gratitude and delight, and the loyal man went away with a heart filled with gladness. After he had gone, others sampled the water and expressed their surprise that the king had even pretended to enjoy it. “Ah”, he said, “it was not the water I tasted, but the love that prompted the offering.”
Our service to God may be marked by many imperfections, but the Master looks at our motives. He rejoices in our loyal actions, no matter what others may think of them.
Have you become discouraged in your work for the Lord? Remember the parable of the water and let it motivate you to keep on serving the King of Kings, being faithful to Him and His Word. Someday your faithful efforts will receive God’s praise. What is done for Christ now will be rewarded in eternity.