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Servants and Stewards

*1 Corinthians 4:1-5
December 3, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:55 in the audio file.

Or, How to Evaluate Gospel Preachers

There are a lot of preachers in the world. Maybe the percentage of preachers in the general population isn’t that high, but even in our neck of the liberal woods, there are numerous churches, Christian congregations, and there’s usually at least one preacher in each place. How do you know what makes a good one? Who’s job is it to decide? Is there a website of preacher ratings?

Even the first-generation Christian congregation in Corinth had a wealth of preachers. Though they had started to fight about their favorite, Paul told them: “all are yours.” The believers were God’s temple (3:16), and building a temple usually took hundreds of workers over many years. Paul, Apollos, and Peter were just three of the men who preached a crucified Christ. They built with gold, silver, and precious stones. The Corinthians didn’t need to narrow down who they listened to, they could learn from all of the men who truly preached the gospel.

Listening and learning is good, receiving in thanks is good, but boasting in men was, and still is, prohibited (3:21). The reason, as I said, was because they had been given possession of all the (qualified) preachers.

But which ones were qualified? That is the question Paul answers in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5. There are standards for evaluating preachers that keep us from putting them too high or too low. Here are three aspects of evaluating gospel preachers.

The Criterion of Evaluation (verses 1-2)

Paul already referred to himself and the other preachers as “servants” (3:5) and “fellow-workers” (3:9). Now he adds a couple different but related words and shapes the Corinthians mindset about their ministers. This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In other words, think about us in these terms, regard or reckon or add up the numbers like this. Make an evaluation of us according to these categories.

Servants (ὑπηρέτης) is a word that meant assistant, with an emphasis on not being the boss. It’s different from doulos, “slave,” but it still doesn’t include liberty to do whatever one wanted. A servant is a subordinate, one who does the will of the master, who in this case is Christ. Stewards (οἰκονόμους) is a great word that often described a servant who managed a household. Joseph worked himself into this sort of position at least twice in Egypt. A steward had responsibility for a variety of tasks (“purchasing, accounts, resource allocation, collection of debts, and general running of the establishment,” Thiselton) but still on behalf of someone else.

Titles such as reverend (as in a person worthy to be revered), cardinal (from “hinge” so a pivotal character), father/pope, are not what Paul had in mind.

In Paul’s case, and in the case of very preacher, he was a steward of the mysteries of God. It could be the word he already used in 2:1, “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” The mystery was the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” that “none of the rulers of this age understood” (2:7-8). So the mysteries of God are the gospel truths of the glory of a crucified Christ. The mysteries of God are the gospel truths of a world-rejected and yet world-conquering wisdom that reveals the depths of God (2:10). The mysteries of God are the spiritual, and Spirit-revealed and Spirit-discerned truths that demonstrate the power of God.

These are precious truths, like a treasure (see 2 Corinthians 4:7) that God entrusts to men to pass on to others. The steward must answer for what he did with these grand, eternal mysteries. Did he undersell them? Did he feel the need to make them more palatable to the current age? Did he seek man’s admiration more than his master’s approval? A preacher is not stewarding his appearance or reputation, a preacher is stewarding the Fort Knox of theology.

What do you think a preacher should do? What makes him appealing? Though he may have a variety of tasks to perform minute by minute, like an estate manager checking on orders, he must be acting on behalf of God’s gospel in it all.

Verse 2 adds more about evaluation, namely, the one quality that is indispensable (hence criterion rather than the plural, criteria). What he must have is not rhetorical eloquence, certainly not as the world judges it (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). It is not personal charisma and magnetism. It’s not that he’s necessarily easy to listen to or easy to get along with. “A master does not want a glib talker for a steward, and neither does God” (Garland).

In gospel ministry, the performance review isn’t very long. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. Stewards have one job; they must be faithful (which would be another good translation of πιστός). Some may have more experience than others, some may have more skill than others, but experience and skill by themselves could be used to better cheat the master. The all important question is: is the steward obedient and loyal to the master?

It’s usually at this point that most of the preachers I would and have listened to point out that the criterion of evaluation is being faithful not successful. And, of course, “faithful” is the word in the text. But as soon as that is said, an ostensibly impenetrable defense is built of a highly-spiritual sounding excuse. I myself have heard, and used, the excuse.

Why is it often an excuse? How do you know if a farmer is faithful? You look at the field he’s been assigned to work in. How do you know if a builder is faithful? You look at the building he’s been working on. Is there fruit at the harvest? Is there another row of bricks laid?

In the parable of the talents, the master returned and told the five-talent man, “Well done good and profit-hungry servant. You have cared about my bottom line.” No. When the five-talent man made five more talents and presented them to the master, the master called him faithful. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

Faithfulness starts in the heart but it does not stay there. Faithfulness is not a closet virtue. In preaching, that doesn’t necessarily mean that faithful preachers have mega-churches. A crowd isn’t the same thing as a field of believers growing in size and strength and unity and good works. But faithfulness usually has profit, at least to those with eyes to see.

The opposite of cheating and manipulating to make profit is not not wanting profit. The opposite is seeking blessing on the work done faithfully for the master.

The Difficulty of Evaluation (verses 3-4)

Paul provided terms for how to think about preachers and the criterion for evaluating them: they are servants and stewards who must be faithful, with faithfulness understood as bringing gain to the master. But if there are two ways to make profit, a faithful way and a non-faithful way, how can we know? We actually can’t, at least not completely. The Corinthians were guilty of this mistake.

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. The key word in verses 3 and 4 is “judged,” “examined” (NAS), “evaluated” (HCSB). The Corinthians were wrong exactly at this point. They thought they were wise, they thought their standards were the highest, and yet because they were worldly and fleshly and “infants in Christ” (3:1) of course they were wrong in the conclusions they made about Paul. And really any human court is limited, even the best. No human can see what God sees (and wouldn’t want to if he could).

Paul’ won’t even get too concerned about personal examination. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It’s not that he had no sin, but in terms of his preaching ministry, he had nothing pricking his conscience. He did what the Lord wanted him to do as far as he could discern. He was paying attention, since he’s able to say that he was not aware of anything. But he won’t offer a final conclusion because he’s not a perfect judge. Maybe his conscience is misinformed. Maybe he’s missing something else. Even if we think we’re good, we could be wrong. God is not asking us to grade ourselves, to accuse or acquit.

Jesus judges. It is the Lord who judges me. It could be more emphatically stated: “the One judging me is the Lord.” Faithfulness is required, and the one who evaluates faithfulness is not the church but the Head of the Church. It’s not up to a local church, it’s not up to a denominational committee or a presbytery.

Before we go on to the final verse of the paragraph, these verses have also been man-handled into excuses by certain unfaithful preachers. In putting it that way, I admit I have made a judgment. Am I already guilty of disobeying verse 5 which says to not to? No. Paul does not mean don’t ever judge any preacher/pastor for any reason. Paul appreciated the Bereans who eagerly received the word but who checked his work according to the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). Paul wrote out qualifications for elders/overseers/pastors in multiple places (for example 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). He required that their progress be evident to all (1 Timothy 4:15). He confronted the Galatians for listening to and tolerating false teachers. Paul is not distancing preachers from the people. He’s saying, Be careful with your verdicts. You can’t know everything, and you are not the ultimate arbiter anyway. The preacher ought to be humble as a servant, he ought to see himself as a servant of the flock, and the flock ought to be humble in receiving preachers from God, knowing that those preachers will give an account to God.

it is the part of a good pastor to submit both his doctrine and his life for examination to the judgment of the Church, and that it is the sign of a good conscience not to shun the light of careful inspection. (Calvin)

Preachers ought to take the evaluations of their people seriously without taking them finally. Preachers ought to teach a people to be wise, and then they ought to listen to that wisdom. If a preacher ever says, “I don’t answer to you, I only answer to God,” you can be sure that he does not have a good answer ready to give to God.

The Season of Evaluation (verse 5)

The application comes in the form of a prohibition to the believers: be patient, the Lord sees.

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, The “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8), “the Day” of fiery disclosure (3:13), is on time. On that day the Master will return and evaluate the work. Before the time is out of season, it’s too early.

When He comes He will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. We have investigations and examinations, we gather evidence and testimonies, but we can only see so much. One of the distinguishing acts of God is that He knows our hearts perfectly. His evaluation is thorough and perfect and final. Our evaluations may be true, but even when they are they are not the end of the matter. So we ought not give premature definitive verdicts (Thiselton). If there are hidden motives, they will not survive the Lord’s evaluation. We just need to wait for judgment season.

Not all of the evaluations will work out well, just as some of the work will be destroyed and the workers surviving but barely (3:15). For others, Then each one will receive his commendation from God. This is a large part of the reward, though again, I don’t think the worker’s reward can be completely disconnected from the fruit in the field of labor. Well done from the Lord will be very welcome.


A preacher who presents himself as something other than a servant of the Lord, who mixes in man’s wisdom with the mysteries of God, especially if he does it in order to elevate his own status/brand, is not trustworthy. Though we cannot judge fully, and it isn’t our job to sit in the Lord’s seat, we also have obligations to obey the word of God when it comes to expecting certain things from preachers. They are not untouchable, unaccountable to any human authority. Perhaps there have been times when a flock impatiently and inappropriately judged a pastor who was truly faithful. There is more correction for the Corinthians in the next section.

Nevertheless, I suspect far more times a pastor has claimed immunity in misapplication of these words. There will be judgment for that. We should know better.


Be encouraged that your kids (and co-workers) won’t see everything in your heart as you go through this advent season. Of course, Jesus will see everything in your heart. But be encouraged that unlike your kids, Jesus is transforming your heart for His next advent. He’s transforming your heart with joy for the world. He’s transforming your heart to prepare Him room. Also, He will be using your kids to help, so it’s all good.


[M]ay the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:12–13)