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The View from the Pew

by Mike Robinson

The Church in Corinth had big problems! Despite the good things that were to be commended, Paul had received word that the tension level was at an all-time high. There were moral problems, doctrinal problems, relational problems, behavioural problems, marriage problems....all things considered, it was enough to make the average pastor cry! So the Apostle put quill to papyrus and wrote what we now call 1st Corinthians.

Which problem will he address first? The answer to that question is most illuminating because it gives us an insight into Paul's priority list when it comes to growing a Church and dealing with problems. So, we open the letter and read the opening verses. Following the typical but genuine expressions of encouragement and thanksgiving (and the value of that approach ought not to be overlooked by Church leaders!), Paul zeros in on Problem No.1.

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another,"I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ". (1 Cor.1:10-12 NIV)

Paul's first target (and, presumably, the one that he considers most important) is the problem of division and leadership or, to be more specific, the problem of the attitude of the people towards their leaders. He spent the first 4 chapters - 20% of all he wrote in the letter - dealing with this critical subject. It is one thing to have leaders who are seeking to cultivate positive and mature qualities and attitudes but it is quite another to have people who have a right relationship and attitude to their leaders.

There is no suggestion in Paul's response that the leaders themselves encouraged these personal followings; rather, the reasons for these "cultic" attitudes are to be found in the ignorance and immaturity of the believers themselves.

Differences are to be expected among a diverse group of people and those differences are acceptable if they are handled with love and respect so that differences are not permitted to become divisions. Remember that divisions emerge when differences are handled unwisely and immaturely. The divisions and quarrels described here are a deadly threat to the very life of the Body of Christ.

Instead of being united under the divine leadership of Jesus Christ, these believers in Corinth were divided over human leadership. The 'party catch-cry' acted as a rallying call to the faithful causing an ungodly polarisation to develop and deepen in the Church. This is an all too common tragedy in the lives of our Churches today because, in some instances, leaders want to cultivate their own personal following while, in other cases, followers insist on putting their leaders on the proverbial pedestal. Sometimes it may be an unhappy combination of the two aspects!!

Every new movement or teaching seems to thrust a particular person into the limelight as the leader of that group or movement and the tendency is to then treat this person as the sole and infallible authority on that teaching thereafter. It seems that we still insist on creating our modern- day gurus and investing in them the kind of allegiance that should belong to Jesus Christ alone. Often that particular teacher or author has been a human instrument that God has used to bless and enrich our lives and understanding. Yet we easily mistake the channel (human) for the source (divine) and treat the channel as though it is the source!

A few years ago a couple asked to visit me in my office in order share something of what God had been doing in their lives. I was delighted at the growth that had occurred for them and within them. In the process of the conversation, they enthusiastically showed me a series of books and tapes that had been the means of opening them in a new way to the purposes of God.

I became uneasy when I realised that all the books and tapes featured just the one teacher. The possibility of 'hero-worship' was strongly suggesting itself to me so I then began listening at a deeper level and noted that the Lord was being mentioned only in passing while the main feature of the conversation was this new guru. I felt that I must alert them to the danger they were facing if they did not distinguish between the divine source of their blessings and the human channel. To give God's glory to another is idolatry...and that sin is alive and well today!

I sense that the same dynamics were operative in Corinth. God had used Paul, Apollos and Peter to bless people in various ways. No doubt their approaches to ministry differed one from the other and each ministry 'style' appealed to some and not to others. Some would have classified Paul as the 'Founding Pastor' and, as such, they would have given him a special place of honour in their hearts.

Others would not be impressed by that qualification but could have found the preaching of Apollos more eloquent and challenging than that of Paul. Perhaps others saw Peter's credentials as far more impressive than either Paul or Apollos. After all, he was one of the original disciples while Paul was something of a 'Johnny-Come-Lately'. Of course, there are always those who have nothing but disdain for human leadership and their claim is that they follow no one but Christ. It seems that the Corinthian Church had its share of them, too!

As we consider our human leaders in the Body of Christ, it's healthy to ask some questions: How do we perceive their function and responsibility? What kind of attitudes should we have towards them? What does it mean to honour, respect and obey them? For that matter, why should we?! Why is there this tendency to unduly exalt our favourite leaders? Alternatively, why are other leaders always in the firing line? Our attitudes to human leadership greatly effect the success or otherwise of that leadership. (These questions have enormous implications for those of us who are leaders, let alone those we are called to lead)

We look now at two key areas as we seek to review (and, where needed, revise) our attitudes to those whom God has appointed as leaders among us.


The way that Paul dealt with the divisive attitudes concerning leadership in Corinth provides us with a model whereby we can carry out the evaluation of our own attitudes. Be warned at the outset that this exploration could be disturbing for leader and follower alike! Paul begins his correction by asking three questions that have staggering implications for the believers at Corinth concerning their 'favourite' teacher or pastor (1 Cor.1:13)

1. Is Christ divided? The obvious answer is "No". But Paul has already acknowledged the divisions at Corinth. If Christ is not divided, then how come His Body is?! The divisions were a denial of their professed relationship to Christ.

2. Was Paul crucified for you? Again, the only answer is "No". The implied but unmistakable rebuke in that question is, "Then why are you treating me as though I myself was the messiah who gave his very life for you?"

3. Were you baptised into Paul? There can be only one answer, "No". Can you hear in that question something like, "You were baptised into Christ. Your primary relationship is with Him, not me!"

It is evident that these believers were mistaking the human channel for the divine source. Because of their confusion and ignorance, they were investing in men those responses that belong alone to God. They were treating their favourite leaders with a reverence and deference that belongs to Christ exclusively.

In 1 Cor.3:1f, Paul further identifies the cause of this confusion as ignorance and immaturity. When it came to the matter of leaders, these believers were still acting like they had in their pre-conversion days. They still had a lot of growing up to do! Paul goes on to 'de-emphasise' the place of each of these leaders by explaining their function in the overall purposes of God. Paul and Apollos were just servants through whom they had believed. (v.5). The imagery of the field and the farmer helps clarify the point. Paul plants the seed and Apollos waters it. But it is God who causes it to grow.

There are different tasks but one purpose - a harvest that is for God's glory. God is the one who should be supremely recognised, appreciated and worshipped. Paul and Apollos are but fellow-workers. It is right that their contribution should be acknowledged & appreciated but not that they should be treated as though they were virtually gods themselves.

The imagery in this chapter now changes to that of a building; a temple, in fact (Vs.10-17). Paul likens himself as a builder who lays a foundation while another builds upon it. Each workman complements the others but does not compete with them. Each has a different task and the others are dependent upon the completion of that task if the building is to be finished. The carpenter, the electrician, the bricklayer, the tiler...each has their own area of responsibility assigned to them by the Head Supervisor. One is not better than another; they each complement the other and, in that way, the building moves to completion.

Can you see how foolish it is to make comparisons between leaders in the Body of Christ? No two ministries look alike. God assigns a variety of tasks to a diverse group of individuals. Some are gifted this way and some are gifted that way. The weaknesses of one are the strengths of the others. Each leader will make a contribution that is unique in the Body of Christ. It is to be expected that people will respond variously to any one leader. In the final analysis, what is supremely important is that people respond whole-heartedly to the Head of the Church and to the leadership and guidance He is giving through those leaders He has set in the Church.

So how should we regard leaders in the Church? 1 Cor.4:1 tells us: " servants and stewards of Christ". "Servant" literally means "Under-rower" and the word has about it the sense of one under authority and subordinate to a superior. "Steward" conveys the idea of one who is empowered by the Owner to discharge a duty but who is accountable to the Owner. Leaders are not demi-gods to be exalted. They are not heroes to be paraded. Yes, let us affirm and encourage our leaders but let us not attempt to destroy them on the one hand or deify them on the other.

In so far as leaders follow Christ in word and action, we are to follow them. But we are not to become dependent on them in a way that removes Christ from the central place in our lives. We are not to invest in them an infallibility that does not belong to them. They are our brothers and sisters. They may be different in function but they are equal in status.


How are those who are being led to perceive their leaders and respond to their leadership? Keep in mind that our purpose is not to develop a theology of leadership so much as to identify some practical insights that can assist us on our journey.

In Hebrews 13 we find some simple but important principles on this matter of how we are to regard and respond to our leaders. Especially we note verses 7 and 17 (NIV)

"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.....Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."

I have heard and read of leaders who are very keen to emphasise verse 17 and especially the words "obey" and "submit"! However, when the writer speaks of leaders there are other words that he uses before he calls for obedience and submission..

* Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you
* Consider the outcome of their way of life
* Imitate their faith
* Obey your leaders
* Submit to their authority

The call to REMEMBER their leaders includes a reference to the proof of their ministry. They were those who had been instrumental in teaching God's word to the people. This would suggest that their ministry had the seal of God's blessing upon it. These were not self-appointed leaders who were seeking leadership for personal applause and advancement. They had faithfully communicated God's Truth and, to that point in time, had discharged all the duties of their ministry (2 Tim.4:5).

Next, the Hebrew believers are urged to CONSIDER or reflect upon the lifestyle of the leaders. How do the leaders live? Are their lives consistent with their teaching? This is not a search for perfection; rather the believers are encouraged to look for consistency. Are the lives of the leaders marked by attitudes consistent with being a servant and a shepherd? Are they authentic? Are they prepared to be accountable? Do you recognise in their lives an obedience and submission to the Chief Shepherd? If that consideration of their lives does not produce positive responses, then the next directive is null and void.

"IMITATE their faith". But who would want to do that if their faith was of a kind that bore no resemblance or likeness to the Chief Shepherd? Remember Paul's invitation, "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ"(1 Cor.11:1). Here is the same invitation: inasmuch as your leaders imitate the Lord Jesus, you imitate them.

Only when those truths are in place can we come to the next two words - OBEY and SUBMIT. Why? Because until the spiritual credentials of the leaders have been established by the proof of their lives, they have no derived authority which the people can obey or to which they can submit!

Any other form of authority could only be that which belongs to self-appointed dictators or manipulative lobbyists and we are nowhere commanded to submit to that kind of destructive authority!

This idea of 'obeying our leaders' does not rest easy with many in the Church because it has connotations of authoritarianism and the potential exploitation of others by those who are to be obeyed. The same is true of 'submitting to their authority'. Our hesitation is in the same class as that which has often been associated with Ephesians 5:22-24 and the submission of the wife to the husband. The long history of distorted interpretation and manipulative application of that truth has left a sour taste in our mouths when it comes to obedience and submission.

That is why the call for obedience and submission comes at the end of these directives. When we recognise in our leaders those same attitudes of obedience and submission to the ministry of Jesus in their lives, then we can respond to their example with a quiet confidence that makes obedience and submission a delight because we can see that, in reality, we are obeying and submitting to the Lord.

More: A Leader worth following....

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