What’s going on here? I want us to listen to these verses again, but this time from the Message translation, an excellent contemporary paraphrase by Eugene Peterson:
“Don’t imagine us leaders to be something we aren’t. We are servants of Christ, not his masters. We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them. The requirements for a good guide are reliability and accurate knowledge. It matters very little to me what you think of me, even less where I rank in popular opinion. I don’t even rank myself. Comparisons in these matters are pointless. I’m not aware of anything that would disqualify me from being a good guide for you, but [even] that doesn’t mean much. The Master makes that judgment…” (1 Cor. 4:1-4)
Okay! It’s something about judgmental-ism vs. judgment. It’s about reliable and faithful guides in our life, and not about ranking people.
In Corinthian society, the number one social more of the time was honor vs. shame, or praise vs. blame. So, in your relationships, you’re always trying to avoid being “shamed” while at the same time seeking “honor” in your neighbor’s eyes. To be praised instead of blamed. You can imagine the energy it takes to keep up pretenses. And running a close second to “honor/shame” was, patron vs. client. Everyone had someone above them to whom they were indebted, and meanwhile you cultivated as many clients as you could, that owed you. Jesus, and Paul following him, spoke out against these societal value systems. So when Paul says, “It matters very little to me what you think of me, even less where I rank in popular opinion,” he’s addressing these issues head on. How they rank him is not important to the gospel message he has preached. We know that Paul has been attacked by the “Apollos faction” in the Corinthian church. They complain that he’s not an eloquent or powerful speaker; he’s not as wise as Apollos; he doesn’t support their elevated positions by which they “lord it over others” in the church.
So Paul uses himself as an example, not to lord it over others, but to be a reliable and faithful leader, a leader who is a servant. And in that we certainly can hear the words of Christ. Paul points them towards the big picture, that ultimately, we have only one Judge, God. It’s not that Paul thinks he’s perfect. In other places he confesses his many shortcomings and sins. As a former persecutor of Christians, he even calls himself the “chief sinner.” But he also knows God’s grace. And if grace comes to him, the chief sinner, it can come to all of us. And together, we can live into the forgiveness of Christ, knowing that we no longer have to live by rankings, or by honor vs. shame. Now we live by grace through faith. Judgmental-ism is overcome.
But, in this in-between time, as Paul describes it, waiting for the glorious Day of Christ’s return, we still need to render good judgment in dealing with one another, remembering who is the true and fair Judge of all.
When I was younger, much younger, like back in middle school, I remember there was always one friend’s house we hated to go to, our friend Steve Godar. Because whenever we went there, Mr. and Mrs. Godar were the grumps of the century, and always made you feel like dirt, shamed. ‘What are you doing here,’ they even said to their own kids! And every once in a while they’d shout something else down at us: ‘What are doing in the basement? You better not be making a mess! Don’t you have anywhere else to play?’ In their basement, they had this really cool jukebox, a real one. It was rigged up so you didn’t have to put any money in, just punch the buttons, A-11, and it would play, “Eight Days a Week,” by the Beatles, B-3 and it played “Wild Horses,” by the Rolling Stones, H-6, Roy Orbison, and D-12, the Jackson Five. What could be better?! But it got to be that just the thought of walking over to their house and having to get by the judgmental barrage of disapproval at the front door, was more daunting than the appeal of that cool jukebox. Sometimes all it took was a scowl or disapproving look from Mr and Mrs. Godar, and you got an ugly feeling about yourself. Who wanted to be in that environment? They seemed more like “security guards,” as Paul says, than “reliable” parental “guides.”
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians, we know, was grounded in love, the love of Christ that had been shown to all believers. In chapter 13 he says it so beautifully:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
This is the cosmos, the world, of our God, the new age of Christ, that Paul wanted to gift them with, in place of the burden of, honor vs. shame, and client vs. patron. There can be no Mr. and Mrs. Godar’s in our Corinthian church, Paul wrote to them! We do not shame our brothers and sisters, we do not trade in judgmental-ism.
It’s not that Paul doesn’t believe in rendering a judgment where judgment is needed. He does that more than once in this letter, citing, factionalism, immorality, and exclusionism at the Lord’s Table. Somewhere on a sliding scale between the nasty judgmental-ism of the Godar’s, and a false “niceness” face that we sometimes put on, that ‘everything is okay,’ is a place where we can sit down and talk with one another about expectations and behaviors that may need a judgment of right and wrong, or where we can just come to a place where we ‘agree to disagree.’ It’s the place, says Paul, where we can still be sisters and brothers, united in the Body of Christ. We have seen Paul do it when he calls out those involved in factionalism, yet also insists that the Corinthian congregation is “holy,” as he does in the opening of his letter, and in the 3rd chapter, where he insists they are, “God’s temple.”
“So,” says Paul in our last verse today,
“don’t get ahead” of the one-and-only real “Master, and jump to conclusions with your judgments before all the evidence is in. When he comes, he will bring out in the open and place in evidence all kinds of things we never even dreamed of – inner motives and purposes and prayers. Only then will any one of us get to hear the “Well Done” of God.”
Even now, this is the judgment we live by, the commendation and approval from God, not the indebtedness and judgmental-ism that others seek to hold over us. God hears and knows our inner motives, purposes and prayers. And, as servants, we live and express those with one another within the Body of Christ here and now, and in the body and blood we joyfully receive, around the banqueting table. “what a blessedness, what peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms,” as our sending song says. We live by, God’s commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Go in peace!”