Read: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1, ESV). Here is the way you should picture me and my colleagues, says Paul to the Corinthians. A Christian leader isn’t a big shot, a CEO, a spiritual celebrity, an ecclesiastical power-broker. No, we are servants of Christ, slaves really, under-rowers on the ship that is steered and captained by the Lord. A minister of Jesus Christ is nobody special; there is no reason for any of us to put on airs or lord it over others.
But that is not the whole story. For at the same time a Christian minister is someone very special, not in ourselves, but because of the importance of the task that has been entrusted to us. Yes, we are slaves of Christ. But we are also “stewards of God’s mysteries.” Here is another of the apostle Paul’s meaning-laden metaphors for Christian ministry.
The chief servant on an ancient estate, second only to the owner himself, was the steward, the oikonomos (from which we get the words “economy” and “economics”). The steward was the overseer of the master’s property, the manager or administrator of the entire estate. This word-picture balances the first one, for if the position of an “under-rower” or servant was very humble indeed, that of a steward was extremely valuable and important. As ministers of Christ we are not nothings and nobodies. God has honored us with a high calling and entrusted to us a position of vast responsibility. He has given us meaningful work, in the deepest sense of the term.
What is it, exactly, that we are responsible for? Notice what the apostle says. He doesn’t say that Christ’s ministers are stewards of the church as though our primary responsibility was to build up a religious institution. He doesn’t say that we are stewards of our resources and wealth which is the way Christians usually employ the concept of stewardship. He doesn’t say we are stewards of the world or the earth or the environment, though no one would want to deny that all Christians do have a responsibility for earth-keeping. No, what Paul says here, speaking specifically of the role of Christian ministers, is that we are stewards of the mysteries of God. The idea that Paul is getting at here is well-known to anyone familiar with his writings. The great mystery, in the Pauline sense, is the once-hidden but now openly-revealed truth about God’s plan to save the world through Jesus Christ.
So Paul speaks in various places about “the mystery of [God’s] will” which is “to unite all things in [Christ]” (Ephesians 1:9-10) and “the mystery of Christ”—namely “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body” (Ephesians 3:3-10) and “the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19) and “God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Colossians 2:2, 4:3) or “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) and finally, “the mystery of the faith” (1 Timothy 3:9).
In all these passages about the “mysteries of God,” it is the same basic message that Paul is thinking of, the gospel that he proclaimed: that God is redeeming from sin and death all those who are united to Christ by faith, and that God is creating in him the new multi-cultural community of the body of Christ, the church. To put it simply, the “mysteries of God” means the gospel, the good news about Christ’s saving work.
The Chief Requirement
Now we are told this staggering truth. God has entrusted this gospel mystery to our stewardship. We have been given the awesome responsibility of protecting, preserving and promoting the growth of the evangel, the only way of salvation for the world. And what does that trust demand from us? Well, there’s just one absolute requirement for stewards. As the key thing for a servant is obedience, so the supreme need for stewards is faithfulness. “It is required of a steward that he be found trustworthy or faithful.” That is at once both comforting and challenging. As a minister of the gospel, I don’t have to be brilliant or original, I don’t have to be impressive, I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t even have to be successful (as the world defines success). But I do have to be faithful.
So I want to think about what it means to be faithful in the stewardship of the gospel. It seems to me that two things are required of those who would be trustworthy stewards of God’s mysteries.
The first is to be faithful to the gospel message itself, that is, faithful in our doctrine or teaching of New Testament truth. The letters of Paul contain many warnings about false teachers who twist and distort the clear message that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, and for the purpose of glorifying and thanking God with lives devoted to doing good (Ephesians 2:8-10). But there is a constant tendency to chip away at this bedrock truth, to reshape the message into something more compatible with the spirit of our age. Paul warned the church in Galatia about false teachers who would proclaim “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). He told his young protégé Timothy that “in later times some will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1) and he charged Timothy solemnly to:
preach the word . . . reprove, rebuke and exhort . . . For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth… (2 Timothy 4:2-4, ESV)
Of course being faithful to the gospel doesn’t only mean holding to the truth of New Testament teaching. It also means working hard to share this truth the most effective way you know how. You will recall that the unfaithful man in Jesus’ parable of the talents was the one who didn’t try to do anything with the great treasure his Lord had entrusted to him, who just buried it in the ground instead of investing everything he was and had in multiplying the treasure.
There is a second way in which servants of Christ must be faithful, and that is in striving to lead lives that faithfully reflect the gospel values of the message that we proclaim. It’s not enough just to be able to accurately reproduce all the details of New Testament theology in our teaching if we do not also reproduce the details of Jesus’ life in our living. Listen to another of Paul’s admonitions to Timothy.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these [sins]. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Timothy 6:11-14, ESV)
As stewards of the mysteries of God, ministers of the gospel have a heavy responsibility to bear. But I don’t think your first question at this point should be, “Hmmm, I wonder how well my pastor is measuring up. Let me pass judgment on him.” Grading ministers—often with failing marks—is one of the church’s oldest customs. This is hardly a phenomenon confined to the New Testament era; it remains the common experience of every minister I know or have ever heard of.
From Paul the apostle to the most recent seminary graduate, pastors are constantly being judged by their congregations. Their preaching is criticized, their leadership ability, their pastoral care, their work habits, their social life, their families, their personal appearance—in short, everything pastors are and do becomes the subject of judgment either pro or con. And the apostle speaks here to this. Remember, everything that Paul says in this passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 4 is in response to the criticism he has been receiving from the Corinthians themselves. It is in this context that Paul writes one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. Speaking as a pastor to a congregation that had been very critical of him, Paul says, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you” (1 Corinthians 4:3)—words that I have had occasion to quote with satisfaction, at least under my breath.
But remember, our judgments don’t count for very much. None of the criticisms that are made of us really matter, not even those that tend to be the harshest, the ones we make against ourselves. “I care very little,” says Paul, “if I am judged by you or any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” (v.3). But that doesn’t let us off the hook. For there is one Judge whose opinion does matter, and we must all answer to him. One day you and I will stand before the Lord and he will ask, “What did you do with the gospel treasure I entrusted to you?” And we will have to answer him. So don’t judge before the time, Paul says (v.5).
It’s a game we play all the time. Who’s the greatest evangelist in the world? Who’s the best preacher in our city? Who’s the most faithful Christian I know? Who really knows? Only God knows, the God who “who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and who will disclose the purposes of the heart” (v.5). On that day of full disclosure only one thing will matter to you, and that’s if you can hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).