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Spiritual Leaders and Their Followers: Lessons from 1 Corinthians 4

Lesson ▪ 2010
Tags: 1 Corinthians 4; Leadership; Followership; Ministry; Church at Corinth
Related Resources: Introduction to 1 Corinthians: A Book Cover Approach Leadership Principles in 2 Corinthians Paul on Ministry: Lessons from 2 Corinthians Biblical Qualifications of Church Officers: Overseers and Deacons


  • Project a slide containing pictures of prominent evangelical leaders—pastors, teachers, broadcasters, authors, and musicians. Point to each picture on the slide and ask the class to identify the leader portrayed there.
  • Ask if anyone present “knows” any of the leaders. If so, inquire to learn if they have a personal relationship with those leaders. (The answer will likely be negative.) Point out that it is easy to fall prey to a celebrity culture wherein we “follow” leaders whom we have little chance of knowing personally, and look negatively at someone who “follows” another leader.
  • Observe that the early chapters of 1 Corinthians describe an ancient situation that sheds light on ours.



Chapter 4 is situated within an extended discussion about wisdom and divisions within the church (1:10-4:21). The argument of chapter 4 cannot be separated from the rest of the discussion—especially that of 3:5-23.

“Scholars are unanimous in their opinion that 1 Cor. 1:10-4:21 forms a rounded and coherent unit within the first letter of Paul to the church at Corinth. Upon further consideration of the coherence of this much-discussed passage they all go their various ways” (Smit 231).

The Corinthian church had divided into parties that professed allegiance to various spiritual leaders—most notably, Paul and Apollos, but also Peter/Cephas and “Christ” (1:12-13; 3:4-6; 3:22; 4:6).

The context from chapter 3 includes the following:

  • Spiritual leaders as servants in the Lord’s work
  • Imagery of building and field
  • Multiple workers involved in planting and reaping a harvest
  • Divine blessing the key to growth
  • Jesus as foundation of temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit
  • Quality of building materials tested by fire
  • Rejection of worldly wisdom
  • Christian heritage extending far beyond the reach of any Christian leader

The discussion has applications for Christians in their personal lives and in their interactions outside the local church. However, strictly speaking, it addresses the relationship between spiritual leaders and members of local churches. At issue is the Corinthian church’s partisan loyalty to various spiritual leaders.

“The schema in I Corinthians 1:18-2:16 excludes any confrontation with these two co-missionaries [Cephas and Apollos], but at the same time it enables Paul to argue against the party disorder. . . . In the text’s background disguised by the schema, Paul argues against the Corinthian parties which absolutize the wisdom of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas; however, thanks to the schema, he manages to avoid stepping openly on the toes of these two other apostles. In other words, criticizing the Corinthians’ praise of Apollos and Cephas, Paul nevertheless avoids hurting the feelings of these two with any direct statement—a genuine masterpiece” (Lampe 130).

As we examine chapter 4, we will see that Paul describes spiritual leaders in three key ways. Each of these descriptions can help us to understand how spiritual leaders and followers should relate to one another.


Spiritual Leaders as Servant-Managers (vv. 1-5)

Spiritual leaders should . . .

  • Be faithful (v. 2)
  • Be more conscious of divine judgment than of self-concept or followers’ criticism (vv. 3-5)

Followers should . . .

  • Refrain from judging leaders’ motives (v. 5)

Verse 1 refers to spiritual leaders as huperetes and oikonomos. Huperetes is commonly translated as officer (NET, KJV), minister (KJV), servant (NET, KJV), and guard (NET). In the New Testament it is used to denote someone who serves a judge (Matt. 5:25) and those who assist religious leaders in any of several ways (e.g., Matt. 26:58; Luke 4:20, John 7:32; 18:3). It is often used of Christian ministers (Luke 1:2; John 18:36; Acts 13:5; 26:16; and, of course, 1 Cor. 4:1)

“Though hyperetas (‘servants’) may once have had a more etymological meaning relating to ‘a rower’ on board ship, its more general meaning was ‘servant’ or ‘attendant.’ Here it means a subordinate servant functioning as a free man, not as a slave (doulos). Thus, Paul and Apollos were free servants of Christ, fully responsible to him, and not to the Corinthians” (Mare, comments on 4:1).

Oikonomos (4:1) is commonly translated as steward (NET, KJV) and manager (NET). The New Testament uses this term in reference to a slave entrusted with management of the affairs of a household (Luke 12:42; Gal. 4:2); a manager of a rich man’s goods (Luke 16:1, 3, 8); a city official (Rom. 16:23); Christians in general as trustees of spiritual gifts (1 Peter 4:10); and spiritual leaders (1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Titus 1:7).

“‘Those entrusted with’ (oikonomous, ‘house stewards’) refers to a position often held by a slave (Joseph, Gen 39:2-19), who managed the affairs of the household entrusted to him” (Mare, comments on 4:1).

A different word for servant, diakonos, appears in 3:5. It is commonly translated servant (NET, KJV), minister (KJV), and deacon (NET, KJV).

“1249 [diakonos] represents the servant in his activity for the work; not in his relation, either servile, as that of that 1402 [douloo], or more voluntary, as in the case of 2324 [therapon], to a person. 1402 opp. To 1249 denotes a bondman, one who sustains a permanent servile relation to another. 2324 is the voluntary performer of services, whether as a freeman or a slave; it is a nobler tenderer word than 1402. 5257 [huperetes] suggests subordination” (NET Bible).

When Paul says that spiritual leaders are servants and stewards, he is emphasizing the fact that God has appointed them to their position and will ultimately judge their work. This calls for the leaders to demonstrate faithfulness and not to pander.

Christian leaders are ultimately servants, stewards entrusted with divine mysteries—not celebrities. Since their faithfulness is subject to God’s evaluation, we should avoid the extremes of criticizing them or putting them on a pedestal.

“[N]o Christian worker is ever to be idolized. Indeed, those who are idolized can become instruments for fragmenting the work of God. Believers are to realize that Christian workers are simply God’s servants (diakonoi)—agents through whom people believe in Christ” (Mare, comments on 3:5).

We would do well to remember and apply Paul’s rhetorical question: “Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant?” (Rom. 14:4).

Spiritual Leaders as Endurers of Suffering (vv. 6-13)

Spiritual leaders should . . .

Followers should . . .

  • Think of leaders in biblical terms (v. 6)
  • Avoid the pride of partisanship (v. 6)
  • Accept that blessings are gifts from God (v. 7)
  • Refuse to associate ministry with glamour (vv. 8-12)

The Corinthians thought too highly of their favored leaders and of themselves as well. Paul confronted them for their pride, aiming to convey to them a more accurate view of himself and Apollos (v. 6).

“The saying ‘Do not go beyond what is written’—since it contains in it the familiar gegraptai, ‘it is written,’ used often to introduce OT quotations—seems to be a general statement advising the Corinthians not to go beyond any written doctrine in the OT. . . . If they learn not to go beyond the teaching of the Scripture about how they should treat God’s teachers and all of God’s people, then the result will be that they will not be conceited in taking a stand for one teacher or person over against another” (Mare, comments on 4:6).

Everything that we have comes from God, so it is pointless for us boast about how we may differ from others (v. 7).

Paul displays an ironic tone in vv. 8-13. He contrasts the experience of the apostles—death, folly, suffering, dishonor, and need—with that of the Corinthians—victory, wisdom, strength, and honor. Whether the Corinthians actually had experienced such blessings, or merely thought themselves to have done so, it is clear that the apostles had been called to persist through hardship.

“The irony is that the Corinthians were trying to ‘reign,’ while their spiritual fathers and examples were far from ‘reigning.’ Actually, Paul goes on to explain that God has publicly displayed the apostles as humble, despised men—men worthy of death. . . . He pictures those of the apostolic band as condemned to death and led forth by a conqueror. By his use of theatron (‘spectacle’) he seems to be alluding to the figure of condemned men tortured and exposed to the wild animals in the colosseum” (Mare, comments on 4:9).

The experience of the apostles argues against the success theory of leadership. Both spiritual leaders and followers need to grasp this concept. Difficult circumstances may provide just the sort of context in which God can best use a minister.

Spiritual Leaders as Parent Figures (vv. 14-21)

Spiritual leaders should . . .

  • Provide a parental example for followers (vv. 14-17)
  • Find a balance between sternness and meekness (vv. 18-21)

Followers should . . .

  • Distinguish between spiritual parents and mere teachers (vv. 14-16)
  • Accept “parental” guidance (vv. 16-21)

Paul wrote these words of confrontation—not so he could bring shame on the Corinthians, but out of a heart of parental concern (v. 14). And it was in this regard that he set himself apart from other leaders who might have claimed the Corinthians’ allegiance. He was responsible for imparting spiritual life to them, and that was something that no other teacher could legitimately claim (v. 15). Therefore, he called on them to imitate his own example (v. 16) and to pay particular attention to Timothy, whom he had sent to the Corinthians (v. 17). Furthermore, he assured them of his intent to return to Corinth for a visit (vv. 18-19)—if necessary, to carry out the discipline of a father (vv. 19-21).

“In speaking of the leaders of the Corinthians as paidagogoi (‘guardians’), the apostle is calling attention to the distinction between himself, their spiritual father, and those leaders, many of whom could be called ‘guardians,’ or ‘guides.’ In the ancient Roman Empire, paidagogoi indicated ‘slave-guides,’ who escorted the boys to and from school and were in charge of their general conduct. So, in a sense, they could be called instructors (cf. Gal 3:24)” (Mare, comments on 4:14-17).



  • Spiritual leaders should put their focus on honoring Christ rather than pleasing their audiences.
  • Followers should position themselves first in relation to Christ, and only secondarily in relation to human leaders.
  • Spiritual leaders are servants above all else. We should beware of those who claim to provide spiritual guidance but seem interested in self-promotion.
  • Followers should avoid the extremes of idolizing and criticizing spiritual leaders.
  • We should not expect spiritual leaders’ lives to be comfortable, but rather difficult.
  • As followers, we should not allow our affiliation with a given spiritual leader to divide us from faithful brothers and sisters who happen to “follow” another leader. Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
  • We should value leader-follower relationships that result in spiritual growth, giving preference to those that allow for reciprocal relationship.

“. . . the Corinthian problems have resurfaced in the general human tendency to line up behind favorite leaders—in convention rallies behind candidates who express the “right” view in the “right words,” in the local church where members pit one pastor or staff member against another, in the individual minister who seeks to emulate the style of some popular preacher or preaches only from the sermons of some homiletical patriarch of a day long past. It is easy to substitute a human leader or human style or human idea for the gospel. When this happens factions develop, and the wisdom of this world is substituted for the gospel” (Polhill 338).



Lampe, Peter. “Theological Wisdom and the ‘Word about the Cross’: The Rhetorical Scheme in I Corinthians 1-4.” Interpretation 44 (1990): 117-31.

Mare, W. Harold. “1 Corinthians.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Vol. 10. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.

NET Bible.

Polhill, John B. “The Wisdom of God and Factionalism: 1 Corinthians 1-4.” Review and Expositor 80 (1983): 325-39.

Smit, Joop F. M. “‘What Is Apollos? What Is Paul?’ In Search for the Coherence of First Corinthians 1:10-4:21.” Novum Testamentum 44 (2002): 231-51.

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