(This is an edited version of the sermon at the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge on Sunday February 14th)
Imagine a vicar one day decides to do a survey in his local community including members of his congregation to ask people what they would like him to say in his sermons. He says he’s wanting to find out where people are at and so he’s canvassing opinions. Sounds lovely – bottom up rather than top down. But wouldn’t one honestly have to suspect his motives for doing that?
He’s called to serve the Lord, to bring the Lord Jesus’s truth to people whether they like it or not. If he’s out for popularity, how can he be serving the Lord? It look as if his motives in ministry are wrong.
As Dr Mike Ovey, the Principal of Oak Hill College, put it in Evangelicals Now: ‘Is it possible that our (understandable) emphasis on numbers leads us as local churches and especially as pastors into sins of pride and envy, notably as we have an informal pecking order between churches, which seems to me to revolve often around size of congregation, staff, buildings and budget? Yet as one of my Australian friends acidly commented: ‘we all know how to get a big congregation. Put on a barrel of beer and a stripper.’ Characteristically blunt but it makes the point!” (EN, November 2015)
Now we have seen so far in our series in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians the underlying problem in the church at Corinth. They were spiritually immature. That’s why Paul is very blunt with them in chapter 3 verse 1: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ” (NIV).
The symptom of their underlying spiritual immaturity was that they divided around Christian leaders: “My man is better than yours – he’s a better speaker, he’s more charismatic, he’s got the ‘It’ factor, he’s got the leadership, he’s got the brains.”
Paul insists in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 that these arguments over who had the best leader were downright worldly. The Corinthians were behaving like non-Christians, because that’s what non-Christians do. They fall out over who’s got the best leader. In verse 3, Paul says: “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?” They were behaving like people who had not been converted to Christ.
So Paul puts them right by teaching them about Christian leadership, the right way of thinking about Christian leaders. He relates these lessons to his own leadership as the Apostle who under God planted the church in Corinth and to the leadership of Apollos who preached and taught the Word of God in Corinth after Paul.
Christian leaders, Paul teaches, are servants. They are servants of the Lord and they are servants of the church. In verses 6 & 7, Paul says: “What after all is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants – through whom you came to believe – as the Lord assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it but God made it grow.”
Christian leaders are primarily servants of the Lord Jesus – they are ministers of Christ, for the word ‘minister’ means servant. It is Christ who assigns to each minister a particular task as he – the Lord – supervises the growth of his church. The ministers’ calling is to teach the Lord’s Word of truth and as they do that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus brings about spiritual growth in his church: “I planted the seed (of the Word, of the gospel of the Lord Jesus), Apollos watered it (i.e. taught the Corinthians further about the Lord Jesus and what it means to follow him) but God made it grow.”
Christian leaders are servants of the Lord Jesus whom he calls to serve his church. The church matters to the Lord Jesus, so woe betide anyone who destroys the Lord Jesus’ people by teaching them wrong things and thus leading them away from the Lord. In verses 16 & 17, Paul says: “Don’t you know that you yourselves (the church family) are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him: for God’s temple is sacred and you are that temple.”
Growing Christians realise that their ministers are servants of the Lord Jesus and servants of his church. Ministers have an important role to play in teaching God’s Word in God’s church but they are not in a special elevated spiritual class above the church. They serve the Lord primarily and as they do that faithfully they serve the church.