What are the most important jobs in the church? We know the answer — no job is more important than another. Do we act that way though?
B.T. Roberts is remembered today as the father of Free Methodism. This man followed the wisdom of God even when he lost all respectability in his original denomination. William Kendall was a friend of his, no less faithful, no less wise in God’s Spirit. They encouraged each other through difficult times. But those in charge shuffled Kendall off to an out-of-the-way church. He preached there for about a year. People’s lives were changed. Then he caught a fever and died. His name is in some history books, but he is not especially well remembered. He never got to see the results of his faithfulness.
So — am I willing to be a William Kendall? Of course, most of us would be willing to be a B.T. Roberts if God asked us to. We would be willing to suffer for a while if we would eventually see our work have a lasting impact in God’s kingdom. But what if I die and nobody remembers what I did? Even today, what if nobody notices my faithfulness? Do I want to look important, or at least be attached to someone else who is? In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul corrects this desire by putting leadership in the proper perspective: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe” (3:5a).
When Paul calls himself and Apollos “servants,” he is not using a term of respect. Plutarch, writing in the first and early second centuries, believed that working “with one’s own hands on lowly tasks” shows “one’s own indifference to higher things.”
Although manual laborers such as servants were not respected by some of the elite, Paul uses these terms for the leaders of the community. In the 21st century, we might imagine Paul calling our church leaders waiters, busboys and clerks. Paul wanted the Corinthians to rethink the way they valued their leaders.
We already know that leaders should be servants. In fact, for us, the title “servant of the Lord” actually brings a certain amount of respect. Paul goes on, though, to point away from them to the one standing behind them: “The Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it” (3:5b–6a).
This means that the leaders can’t be judged according to usual criteria. They can only be judged by God, since He is the one who appointed them to their tasks. Since Paul shows here that he values the work of Apollos, the two men were probably not in competition with each other. They were able to see their ministries as complementary and to identify themselves as servants of God living in Christ. But the Corinthians needed God’s wisdom to evaluate their leaders correctly and to think of themselves as belonging to God rather than as members of a certain leader’s circle.
Furthermore, although the servants planted the seed, “God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (3:6b–7). Both here and in verse 5 (where he mentions the time that the Corinthians “came to believe”), Paul reminds the Corinthians of the planting of the community when they committed themselves to living life in Christ. He also turns their attention away from their leaders and toward God whose power was there at the beginning and continues to keep them growing. This connects the Corinthians with each other, but in an identity based on God rather than based on a human leader. After all, the purpose of farm work is to make things grow, and only God can provide the power for that.
This common purpose pulls everybody together. Each has a task, a mission given by God. If God has assigned a specific task to someone else, who am I to criticize? How would I know what God asked her to do? If his ministry isn’t growing as fast as I think it should, how can I judge? Maybe God has appointed him to plant rather than to water.
God has assigned jobs as He sees fit; God is in charge of the outcome, and He will judge His workers. We need to identify ourselves as part of the people who belong to God, following leaders who are responsible to Him. The field and its workers belong to God.
1. What jobs are invisible or less valued in your church?
2. Can you imagine your church leaders doing the invisible or less valued tasks?
LAURA J. HUNT is a Free Methodist elder. This article is a condensed excerpt from her book “The Not-Very-Persecuted Church: Paul at the Intersection of Church and Culture” (fmchr.ch/nvpchunt).0