What kind of church? A Discerning Church (1 Corinthians 4)

Discernment is about making judgements about people and plans.  How we do it?  Well, contemporary society tells us that “the consumer is king.” It’s for us as customers to decide what is best for us, what we are worth, whether that’s about objects (cars, houses, TVs. Tablets etc), relationships or entertainment.  Saturday night TV invites us to sit back on our sofas and judge as an line up of singers, comedians, dancers and the occasional performing dog are paraded in front of us for us to judge like gladiators before the Emperor. There’s nothing new under The Sun and we see something of this consumerism in the church in Corinth. “I am of Paul” “I belong to Apollos” “I follow Peter”  the different factions announce as they pick and choose the celebrity leader who will best meet their spiritual needs.

In the face of this, Paul offers a different type of discernment. What is it? Well, we’re going to ask three questions as we look at this passage will give us three clues as to what it means to be a discerning church.

  1. What’s our attitude to leaders and teachers?

Paul and Apollos are servants and stewards (v1-2)

This means

  1. Humility
  2. Accountability

They understand their status is not about power and position. Rather, they’ve been entrusted with the Gospel.  This comes with a call to be faithful.  Leaders in the church should see this as a great responsibility to accurately and patiently share the good news.

However, notice that human judgement has its limitations and constraints (v 3-5).  First of all, as we see in the Corinthians attitude towards Paul, we can be so quick to judge on image and appearance.  Secondly we can quickly judge people’s motives and think the worst of them, hunting out hidden agendas and assuming that they don’t’ really care etc.

Even our own consciences are not fully reliable.  Paul says that he has a clear conscience about his work and his motives.  However, true judgement is Christ’s not ours. He is the one who knows and reveals our hearts. He will do this on judgement day (cf 1 Cor 3:12-15).

The good news is that  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”


Tracking In

The role of good and godly Bible teachers and leaders will be to help us grow in our relationship with Christ.  True discernment requires an openness and trust if this is to happen.

Tracking out

This will also mark out our relationship to others including family, church, work etc.  We should model healthy accountability in our relationships be encouraging truthfulness, accuracy, transparency and loyalty, etc. We should also display charitable view of motives and not judge by outward appearances.

  1. What’s our view of our own status and situation? (v 6-13)

Paul says that he has been using him and Apollos as examples to challenge the church in Corinth. Paul and Apollos are actually friends, brothers, partners in the Gospel? It was foolish to try and create rival camps around them (v6).


  1. It is possible that Paul has intentionally swapped the names of church leaders in Corinth for famous names like Paul, Apollos and Peter to show how silly the rivalries were without embarrassing local leaders. However, Paul isn’t afraid elsewhere to call people out by name so I’m not personally convinced that this is what is happening here. It is also possible that there is a mixture of local rivalries and rivalries based on perceived differences between apostles and big name leaders.
  2. The NLT says “pay attention to what I have quoted from Scriptures.” Literally Paul says “don’t go beyond what is written.” This might have the same idea of “stay within the lines.”  I think the point here is that we should let Scripture do the job of assessing how we are doing and of convicting rather than creating our own standards and rules to judge people by
  3. The NLT says “You won’t be proud of one of your leaders over the other” Literally this bit says “you will not puff/inflate/blow up one over the other” and could mean “exalt one leader over another” or “Exalt yourself over others.”  I think that both are linked given that their own status would be linked to their leaders’ status.

This pride that causes them to judge others harshly and inflate their own egos came from

  1. Forgetfulness about previous grace (v 7)

Paul asks a series of questions:

“Who discerned/distinguished you”

“What do you have that you didn’t receive”

“If you received it – why do you act as though you didn’t”

In other words, what makes you stand out as special, what gives you the right to judge?  They are proud of their status, gifts, abilities, knowledge – they think that those things set them apart as special. They have forgotten that everything they have is what they have received by God’s grace.

  1. Short sightedness about future grace (v 8)

Notice the attitude of the Corinthian believers.  They think that they have already made it to perfection.  They are full (spiritually), rich and ruling. The sense is that they are acting as though they already have all the things that we will all receive together when Christ comes back.  Paul says “I wish that you had those things because it means we all would”

Notice this is selfishness. It’s about “me” and “now” without a desire to share in the joy of God’s grace together with all believers.

I wonder if you’ve picked up  a little theme that has come up from time to time recently. John Piper calls it “Future Grace.” It’s the New Testament idea that believers don’t just look back in gratitude to what we have already received by grace (our salvation) but also look forward to the grace we will receive when Christ returns. This grace means that we will receive resurrection bodies and a home in the New Creation.  We will reign with Christ and enjoy the restored and renewed creation together.  We will know the joy of being with Christ and also the delight of sharing together with all of God’s family.

This hope enables us to live through testing times now.

  1. Ignorance of the true calling for Christ’s followers at this time (v9-13)

Note the contrast Paul makes between their view of themselves and the real experience of the apostles.

They thought they were wise, powerful, honoured.  Maybe were getting that status from other Christians who formed groups and factions around individual leaders.  Perhaps as well there’ the sense that they were gaining respect and honour from the  World around them  (worldly wisdom will get you worldly acceptance).

On the other hand, The apostles were: fools, weak, ridiculed, hungry and thirsty, treated as garbage, lowest of the low, scum.

Roman generals would have victory parades. They would parade their triumphant army followed by all the booty they had captured and then their captives who would eventually be put on display at the circus, made to fight as gladiators or fed to the lions. Paul uses this image to describe his own status.  He and the other apostles were a public theatre or spectacle. facing certain death. By the way, for many believers, this was and is literal not just metaphorical. But the main point here is that their calling and ours is about being ready to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to become servants, to be ready to face persecution but to persevere with the Gospel.


This is what happens when a church – and Christians lose sight of grace.  What are the warning signs that I am doing that?  Here are a few suggestions.

–          I compare myself with others -favourably or unfavourably

–          I start to see something as “my ministry”

–          I find myself becoming hyper-critical of the church and other believers.

–          I expect the church to meet certain felt needs – I may even use spiritual language to describe them (to be fed, to enable me to use my gifts).  I discover that the church simply isn’t filling them.

–          Other Christians are normally discouraged rather than encouraged by spending time with me

Please note that sometimes this is about sheer unadulterated arrogance but the same things can come with weariness, exhaustion, discouragement from the continual sense of battle.  And that’s a risk for church leaders because we can be quick to judge harshly if we think it is about arrogance. Not only that, but we can become defensive, seeing any questioning, challenge or uncertainty as an attack or at least as faithlessness.  Well at that point aren’t we falling into exactly the same trap.

The good news is that there is an antidote to this. It comes when we rediscover that sense of deep spiritual hunger, our need for Christ alone. It comes when we are reminded again that He is the one who loves us, who has forgiven us, who calls us.

It comes when we discover future grace. When we once again are able to lift up our eyes and look to the horizon and see that there is this wonderful future. There is a battle now, a struggle but it is worth it.

Future Grace reminds me that when I talk about seeing the church as Christ sees it -as his beautiful bride that he loves, that I am part of that bride. He loves me.

  1. How do we respond to challenge and correction? (v14-23)


Paul says “I am not writing these things to shame you” (v 14)

Now, there is a right place for shame. It comes with conviction of guilt that brings us to the foot of the Cross (cf ch 5) But as we’ve seen a lot this year, the aim of Gospel hearted discipleship is not to create shame and despair. It’s not about Paul manipulating the church so he can reassert authority and control over them. This is a family thing, Paul, the spiritual father, cares about them. This is about a special relationship between him and them. He distinguishes this from the “guardian,” a slave appointed to look after a child and ensure they are educated.  They might have many guardians (“10000 others to teach you”) but just one spiritual father (i.e. one who had brought the Gospel to them led, them to Christ and has that particular relationship with them).

It’s a father’s love, a father’s discipline.

It comes with an instruction to “Imitate me” or to show the family likeness. This is specifically imitating Christlikeness, a willing to serve, suffer, even die for the Gospel.  To help them do this, Timothy is being sent to teach, instruct, encourage challenge (v17).

And then, Paul calls them to respond to his letter and to Timothy’s visit.  It’s a call  to allow God’s kingdom to work in their life.  Stop talking, and start letting God work in you (a kingdom of power not talk).

Note the arrogant ones saying “Oh Paul isn’t really coming anyway”, there’s complacency and ignorance again. They think they are okay. They are deaf to God speaking to them.

Paul warns them not to ignore what God is saying. Failure to respond will result in discipline. But   Paul’s desire is to come in love and encouragement.


How do I respond when I’m challenged and corrected – does it hurt my pride? Do I seek to protect myself -fight back even? Or do I welcome loving concern for my spiritual wellbeing. Am I accountable and teachable?


True discernment starts with self -discernment.

Who I was

I was lost but Jesus found me, dead but he brought me to life, an enemy but he forgave me

Who I am

My calling now is to follow Christ’s example of sacrificial love and service as I seek to witness

Who I will be

I see the wonder of future grace. I am part of the church, part of the bride one day I will be with Christ

True Discernment comes when I learn to see Christ for all he is in all his beauty and glory.