God’s Fellow Workers
The apostle Paul was not known for his diplomacy. While most of us are constrained to carefully veil our criticism of others, Paul wastes no time diagnosing the problems within the church at Corinth. He says to them, “I could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not able, for you are still carnal”(3:1-3).
Not the best way to endear yourself to a group of people, is it? Imagine me getting up here and saying to you, ‘Good morning everyone. Glad you could make it here today. Now you know you are a bunch of babies, don’t you? I wanted to preach on 1Corinthians today, but I highly doubt that you have the capacity to understand such a message, so we’re simply going to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ a few times and go to lunch.’
There is no way for me to candy-coat the frankness with which Paul delivers his message. I imagined Paul writing this criticism to a church in 2003, and I wondered about what kind of response he would engender. If his message was sent by email, I suspect that this is the kind of letter that would land Paul on the church’s ‘block sender’s list’. Paul’s criticism is harsh. He calls them a bunch of babies, too immature to handle difficult doctrine.
The fact that this harsh message made it into the pages of Holy Scripture, makes me conclude that what Paul is about to write is of paramount importance. And while we may question the manner Paul employs to rebuke the Corinthians, we must not miss the significance of what follows his rebuke.
Paul tells the Corinthians that their divisions, based on misplaced allegiances, are childish. Their divisions reveal that they have not yet understood how the Christian church is to be built up.
Some were saying, “I am of Paul”, others, “I am of Apollos”, and still others, “I am of Peter”(1:12). And Paul’s response to these divisions is, ‘What am I that you should follow me?’, and ‘What is Apollos?’
Good question Paul. How should we regard leaders in the Christian Church? How should we view ordained ministers and elders? ‘I tell you,’ verse 5, “servants through whom you believed”.
Now the Greek can also be translated as “ministers through whom you believed”. But, what is important to note is that, either way, the meaning is the same. ‘Minister’ was never meant connote ‘an office of lofty status’. Admittedly, if you look up ‘minister’ in the dictionary you will see that one of the definitions given is ‘high officer of the state’. But that is NOT what Paul meant by the word. Minister, servant, waiter, attendant are all suitable translations of the Greek, diakonos (dee-ak-on-os).
Beloved, my standing before you is that of diakonos—a servant. And it’s not simply the case that I’m a diakonos—a servant—in relation to God, but I’m also a diakonos in relation to all of you.
From time to time you have the occasion of introducing me to your friends, and when you do, you often say, ‘This is my minister’. It would be interesting to note the reaction of your friends if, next time, you introduced me by saying, ‘This is my servant’—because there is a real sense in which I am your servant.
The Corinthians had a skewed view of church leadership. They had an exalted view of church leaders, which Paul deemed inappropriate. And the point that Paul is attempting to hammer home is that church leadership is synonymous with being a servant. Our Lord Jesus, making the same point, girded Himself with a towel and washed His disciples’ feet (John 13:3-5).
Paul goes on to say, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth”(3:6). Here, Paul acknowledges his own labour, and the efforts of his colleague, Apollos, but he rightly gives credit to God for the growth in the church.
And here, Paul employs a helpful analogy, comparing ministry to farming. Like farming, ministry involves individual responsibilities, yet these responsibilities are interdependent and ultimately dependent on God (Quast, Reading The Corinthian Correspondence, 38).
Paul, bordering on self-deprecation, insists that “the one who plants” and “the one who waters is nothing, but God who causes the growth (is everything)”(3:7). I say that Paul only borders on self-deprecation because there is something quite right about Paul’s assessment. God is deserving of the credit. God is everything and, in comparison, we are nothing. Apart from God’s help, we have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the growth of the church.
Jesus taught much the same when He described Himself as “the true vine” and identified that the key to bearing good fruit was abiding in Him. In that same passage Jesus warns “apart from Me you can do nothing”(Jn. 15:1-8).
This is precisely Paul’s point. And what should be our corporate response to this instruction? How should St. Giles Kingsway respond to Paul’s teaching? This teaching should drive us to our knees. Since we are nothing without God, since growth is impossible apart from Divine favour, let us pray earnestly to the One who is capable of turning our meager efforts into fruitful service for the kingdom.
There is much reason for optimism in regard to the progress of the Christian church. And the reason why I am optimistic about progress is because progress is ultimately up to God. This does not mean that we sit back and do nothing—we are called to “plant” and “water”—we are called to labour, but we are also told that the results of that labour depend on God, and not on us.
Paul goes on to say, “we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (3:9). Notice the statement about ownership here. We are not independent agents; we are described as working for God and with one another. And the church, which is likened here to a field and a building, is described as “God’s field” and “God’s building”. That is to say that St. Giles Kingsway is not the property of its members. St. Giles Kingsway is not free to do as we see fit. St. Giles Kingsway, like every other Christian church, belongs to God. And if God is going to cause growth here, it is imperative that we plant and water according to His design.
This same principle is carried into the analogy of the church as a building. Paul says that he “laid a foundation” and that foundation “is Jesus Christ” (3:10,11). Paul also warns that we are not free to build on that foundation as we see fit, “let each man be careful how he builds upon it”, Paul warns.
It was pointed out to me that the shape of a building must, to a very large extent, be determined by its foundation. The foundation provides parameters for how the rest of the building is constructed. As a congregation then, we must always have in our mind the shape of Christ’s ministry; we must always bear in mind the nature of Christ’s character. For everything we build must be in keeping with the shape of our foundation, which is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
I don’t know what thoughts come to your mind as you think about the analogies of a field and a building, but for me, these analogies help me put complaints into perspective. In every congregation there will be occasion for criticism. Criticism is sometimes justified, and even necessary. There are times when church leadership sows in the wrong field; there are times when church leadership builds inappropriately upon the foundation of Christ. There are times when criticism is fair and needed.
Yet, as I hear Paul say that we are “God’s fellow workers” in this His “field”, in this His “building”, it seems to me that there is a preferable alternative to criticism. As you look upon this congregation, do you see imperfections? Of course you do. Then you must put on your work boots. You must put on your works gloves. As God’s fellow workers, we can labour together in God’s field; we can labour together to build appropriately upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.
The church in Corinth was struggling. They had begun to lineup behind different human leaders. Paul needed to remind them of the church’s one foundation: Jesus Christ the Lord. He had to remind them to build carefully upon this foundation, and that in this undertaking there was no hierarchy, “We are God’s fellow workers”, Paul tells them.
Paul also told them that it was a matter of great consequence how they built upon the foundation of Christ. Paul employs the image of fire to explain that their work will ultimately be refined or destroyed. And depending on whether their work remained or was destroyed would determine whether they would receive a reward or suffer loss (3:13-15).
Beloved, how are we doing? Are your work boots on? Are we building appropriately upon the foundation of Christ? Are we building according to His design or are we building according to our own? Will our efforts survive the refining fire or will we suffer loss?
This is God’s church. From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
God’s church, God’s holy bride, deserves our very best. And we must not labour in isolation; “he who plants and he who waters are one . . . we are God’s fellow workers”(3:8,9). Let us then labour together, let us be diligent to “plant” and to “water”, and let us trust in God to cause the growth He promises.
To Him who shed His blood for the church, be all glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, forever and ever. Amen.