Read 1 Corinthians 4 here.
Continuing on with our study of 1 Corinthians, our passage today wraps up (so to speak) the first part of Paul’s letter. What I mean by that is that in the first part of the letter, Paul has been talking a lot about his authority as an apostle. And that is in light of the apparent perspective of the Corinthians which has led them to align themselves with other leaders – or perhaps more accurately, align themselves with other values. And to clarify, Paul’s desire is not that the Corinthians follow him, but rather that they stand on a firm foundation of the message and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Paul warns the Corinthians not to follow other leaders or teachers inasmuch as those arise out of their worldly inclinations, but rather to follow only the crucified Jesus.
Now I should also point out that, while Paul will move on to other issues after this point, it would be a mistake to not recognize that what follows is intimately connected to the previous four chapters (including today’s passage). But chapter 4 does seem to serve, for us, as a sort of logical wrapping-up point (at least structurally speaking) to this series of argument.
So, our passage today is 1 Corinthians chapter 4.
As you can see, Paul is continuing to assert his apostolic authority, but this is particularly in light of the Corinthians’ distorting of the gospel, and especially because of their position that they have gone beyond Paul (or the true, Christological gospel that Paul teaches), believing that they have surpassed Paul’s message and achieved superior or “truly enlightened” spirituality. Now we’ve already discussed some of that, and some of it we will look at in more depth in later passages. But for now, it’s sufficient to note that Paul is calling them to examine themselves and practice true humility.
We won’t go into detailed analysis of this passage, but I do want to pick up a few points that Paul emphasizes.
Firstly, in vv. 1-5, Paul again emphasizes that he, and the other apostles or messengers to the Corinthians, are merely servants of God. This picks up a point that he addressed in last week’s passage: that there is no cause for the Corinthians’ aligning themselves with other, “superior” leaders, because everyone (inasmuch as they are truly called by God) is merely God’s servant. It is to God alone, Christ alone, that the Corinthians must cling.
Therefore, as God’s servant, Paul’s responsibility is to God and God’s message. That is, he is not interested in impressing the Corinthians nor fulfilling their worldly expectations. Paul is not in the business of religious entertainment or providing religious goods. Rather, he is solely interested in and committed to proclaiming Jesus.
Now I feel like there’s something to say here about the influence of capitalism and consumerism on Christianity in North America (and wherever else). However, I will leave that with you for the moment.
In vv. 6-7, there are a few elements of interest. We aren’t going to get into these in any kind of detail. But briefly, firstly, Paul seems to be saying that the issue of “Paul vs. Apollos, etc.” is being framed that way for the sake of illustration. That is, the true issue among the Corinthians is not the leaders, per se, but the members’ attitudes around it (that is, simply, that they are picking and choosing which one suits them best). Secondly, Paul’s use of the phrase, “Do not go beyond what is written,” is unclear. That is, it’s not clear from the text what Paul is referring to, and therefore what he means. There are various opinions on this, with no apparent consensus (that I could locate). So again, there is more to say about both of these things, but we will leave that for now.
Most important for our purposes, Paul seems to be saying that the Corinthians can or should take no pride (presumably in selecting or following the “right leader” or “right theology/philosophy.” That is, the Corinthians have not discovered anything or achieved anything (like superior wisdom or spirituality). Because every one of them has received what they have (which is to say, salvation or belonging to the kingdom of God) because of God’s grace alone. It is all a gift – and who can boast for receiving a gift?
And this brings us to what is probably the crux of this passage. In vv. 8-13, Paul goes on a bit of a rant. Ironically, Paul congratulates the Corinthians on everything they have achieved (which, again, is nothing). The Corinthians (or at least some of them) are so accomplished, mature, and enlightened, says Paul sarcastically. And equally ironically, in contrast, he and the apostles are poor and pitiful.
And through this rhetoric device, Paul again highlights the difference between the things that the world values, that the world honours, and the way of the kingdom. Here, once again, we see that the economy of the kingdom does not make sense to the world. But by preferring the ways of the world, the Corinthians not only dishonour and disregard Paul as their teacher, they dishonour and disregard the very gospel that Paul has been sent to preach. They dishonour and disregard the kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ who has made it possible.
The final couple of paragraphs of chapter 4 could easily be seen as the beginning of the next literary section (which takes us through chapter 5). But in short, Paul seems to be encouraging the Corinthians to return to his teaching (which again, is taken to be the right teaching, focussed on the foundation of Jesus and His work alone). And this sets the stage for the next section in which Paul tackles some specific failures or shortcomings in the Corinthians living.
However, remaining with the focus of our passage today, it may be difficult to relate to what Paul is saying. Because we take it for granted (I think) that we do indeed remain focussed on the true gospel alone, on Jesus alone. We recognize, as we’ve talked about a lot, that Christianity has to avoid syncretism, or even being influenced by the ways, values, and expectations of the world. But certainly we are not like that – I am not like that. We can certainly and easily point out how others are doing that – how Paul’s words apply to other Christians. But that is not me. Or so we think.
Now of course I don’t believe that we are all wretched heretics and that all our theology needs to be drastically corrected. But I do believe that we all need to constantly examine ourselves.
At some point, I’m sure that most of us have heard the term, cognitive biases. Cognitive biases have to do with the way we think about things, evaluate things, or evaluate the way we think about things. In short, most of us are not nearly as good at being impartial, critical, or simply evaluating information as we think. There are numerous cognitive biases, and these are just a few:
The Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency to think that one is smarter or more skilled than he or she actually is. This usually occurs when someone has some knowledge or ability but doesn’t truly understand the magnitude of what actually qualifies as expertise. We might think of it as the “you don’t know what you don’t know” syndrome (though of course this is an over-simplification).
We can see this in all sorts of ways. When someone is the best athlete in their high school, they can easily attain a high self-evaluation of their own ability. But when they step up in competition, to a college-level, semi-pro-level, or simply to a higher pool of competition, they can quickly realize that they are not nearly as skilled as they thought they were.
Or maybe someone was the smartest person in their high-school, or even their home town. But stepping into the university context, they realize that they are actually only average in comparison.
Anchoring (anchoring bias) is another type of cognitive bias. In short, this is the tendency to judge all new information by our previous knowledge. Oftentimes we will anchor according to the first piece of information we received. But anchors don’t necessarily have to be “first.” It may be the piece of information that we most prefer or resonate with. Either way, the anchor becomes the basis by which we allow or disallow any new information.
For example, most of us have eaten Chinese food at some point. And I would venture to guess that most of us first ate Chinese food in North America. Perhaps, we’ve only eaten Chinese food in North America. And you may love Chinese food. But if you were to travel to Shanghai and order Chinese food, you might be convinced that the food in Shanghai is not good. In fact, you may believe that the people in Shanghai don’t know how to make real Chinese food. Your previous experience becomes the anchor by which you are judging the new experience.
We may be committed to our anchors for a variety of reasons. Perhaps because it is somehow tied to our sense of identity; perhaps because we don’t want to do the work of adjusting or changing our worldview; or perhaps, it is simply because nobody likes to be wrong.
Confirmation Bias is one we’re probably all familiar with. Confirmation bias is similar to or related to anchoring but is different. This type of cognitive bias refers to our tendency to prefer or privilege information that already agrees with what we know or believe. So, for example, we will seek out all of the information that agrees with or supports our position, but ignore or minimize any that refutes it – we cherry pick information. Similarly, we might interpret or frame any new information in a way that agrees with what we already know or believe. We may not ignore certain information, but we’ll twist it in a way that supports our position.
So for example, we may have come to believe that Christians are judgemental, stuffy, and stuck up. Now there are all kinds of Christians with a wide variety of personalities, value systems, and relational styles. But every time we encounter a Christian who is judgemental, stuffy, and stuck up, we will use that experience as proof of “what Christians are like.” The Christians we meet who do not fit that stereotype are ignored or written off as “exceptions.” We only pay attention to the information that confirms the conclusion at which we have already arrived.
One of the issues that we’ve been talking about a lot over the past while is how we need to be aware of how we are a product of our environments – or at least how we are affected by our environments. In particular, we’ve talked a lot about the influence of the culture on our way of thinking, our assumptions. And once again, we are usually pretty good at pointing out how others are influenced by the culture, but not great at realizing how we ourselves are products of our culture. But “culture” is a pretty broad category. And culture, broadly speaking, isn’t the only thing that hinders our thinking or our understanding.
Paul is speaking to a congregation who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to accept his teaching or his discipline. And while I have no idea whether they were demonstrating any of the aforementioned cognitive biases – nor am I arguing that any of us are (though we probably all are, to some extent, vulnerable to these and other cognitive biases) – what I am suggesting is that most of us are not open to, or good at accepting, new teaching, understanding, or discipline as we might think we are.
What I am suggesting is that we constantly need to be examining ourselves, under the authority of God’s word in scripture, by the guidance and urging of the Holy Spirit, if we desire to take hold of the salvation for which Christ died.
All that is to say that I believe that what Paul is talking about in our passage today is the importance of and need for humility, the importance of being open to instruction, of having a teachable spirit. We need to constantly be subject to the spirit of God working in us and the word of God speaking to us. We need to fight against the temptation to think that we have already arrived. We need to resist the urge to think that we have nothing left to learn. And we must examine ourselves so that we might have a teachable heart.
Now in closing, I want to say that I don’t desire that this be a word of admonition or reproach (though Paul’s words to the Corinthians is certainly one of rebuke). Not least because I am no better than anyone and worse than many. Rather, I hope to be able to encourage us all. Firstly because all of this is ultimately a matter, not of our ability or achievement, but of God’s grace through Christ. To have a teachable spirit, to be humble, then, is a matter of accepting God’s grace.
And secondly, because it is a matter of God’s grace – and thus not ultimately dependent upon our successes or failures – examining ourselves as we’ve been talking about, openness to learning, to growing, to receiving deeper truth, is not a matter of self-flagellation or condemnation but rather an opportunity and invitation to more fully take hold of the life of the kingdom.
In other words, Paul’s words are not a matter of discovering how bad we are. Rather, they are an opportunity to discover how much more life there is (in Christ!). We may think we have it figured out. We may believe we have discovered the best way and the deepest truth. But how much more is there in Christ. How much deeper, how much higher, how much wider is the life of the Spirit, the life of the kingdom.
This, then, is invitation. It’s an invitation deeper in, further in. Let us not settle, but hear and respond to the call of Jesus.