First Corinthians 4:1–21 . . . Bible Study Summary with Photos

Attitudes “of” and “toward” Church Leadership

The Corinthian church has a leadership crisis that we might call "Follow the Leader." Small cliques have attached themselves to leaders in whom they take pride. Highly regarded in the secular world, these leaders are chosen because of their message and their methods. Their content is thought to be the essence of wisdom. Their methods are powerful. Viewed simply from the standpoint of numbers, the church may be experiencing significant growth.

From Paul's statements in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, one would suppose that each clique is a personal following of one of the apostles, of Paul, Apollos, or Peter. We should already have concluded that the apostles themselves are not the problem; they're not competing with one another for positions of power and prominence. If we think the rivalry at Corinth is between the followers of certain apostles like Paul or Apollos or Peter, then Paul has a surprise for us here in chapter 4. Meanwhile, in verse 6, Paul indicates that the real cliques have been established around personal allegiance to certain unnamed men who are not apostles. As Paul's two epistles to the Corinthians continue to unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that some of these leaders are spiritual (1 Corinthians 14:37–38 NIV) while some aren't even believers, but rather "false apostles" (2 Corinthians 11:12–15).

We are fools for Christ's sake (1 Corinthians 4:10).

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In contrast to the "leadership" of these cult-like leaders, enter Apostle Paul. In chapter 4, Paul speaks of himself, along with his fellow-apostles, informing the Corinthians of the way in which he and his colleagues should be regarded (vv. 1–5, see below). He then exposes the real leadership problem at Corinth, outlining the dramatic contrast between the way the Corinthians view themselves and the way they view Paul (vv. 6-13). Verses 14–17 express Paul's emotional appeal to the Corinthians to heed his instruction and follow his leadership. The final verses (vv. 18–21) contain a warning for those who won't repent of their error. Paul will come to them; if need be, he'll come with "a rod."

It Makes You Wonder . . . .

  • Q. 1  Corinthian factions judged one another by the reputation of the leader they followed. What then does Paul mean by the proverb in verse 6? How should they apply it?
  • Q. 2  Read verse 7. What do you have today that you did not receive from God? Of everything that God has given you, what do you tend to take credit for yourself?
  • Q. 3  What contrasts does Paul make between himself and the Corinthians in verses 8–13? What point is he making?

This Week's Passage
1 Corinthians 4:1–21

New International Version (NIV) [You can view it in a different version by clicking here; you can also listen to this chapter.]

The Nature of True Apostleship

1This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

6Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, "Do not go beyond what is written." Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 7For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

8Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign — and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 9For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world — right up to this moment.

Paul's Appeal and Warning

Jesus exhorts you to be imitators of Him (1 Corinthians 4:16).

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14I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?