“Hardening of the Categories”
1 Corinthians 4:1-21
April 23, 2006
A Christlike church seeks to be soft-hearted and humble.
I. Avoiding Judgment (1 Cor. 4:1-6)
II. Assessing Status (1 Cor 4:7-13)
III. Accepting Correction (1 Cor 4:14-21)
MessageAll our lives we have been warned of the dangers of hardening of the arteries. These days doctors prefer to call it atherosclerosis or more generally coronary artery disease, but its the same phenomenon. One website says Coronary artery disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to buildup of a material called plaque on their inner walls. As the plaque increases, the insides of the coronary arteries narrow and less blood can flow through them. Eventually, blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced, and, because blood carries much-needed oxygen, the heart muscle is not able to receive all that it needs. Reduced blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart muscle causes chest pain or discomfort called angina, or ultimately a heart attack. When a blood clot develops at the site of plaque in a coronary artery, it suddenly cuts off most or all blood supply to that part of the heart muscle. Cells in the heart muscle begin to die, causing permanent or catastrophic damage to the heart muscle. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States in both men and women.
So hardening of the arteries is a very serious danger. But Howard Hendricks has often identified a perhaps even more dangerous disease which he calls hardening of the categories. This is what happens when believers allow themselves to become hard hearted or closed minded. It describes those who are judgmental toward others, or satisfied with what they see as their own success, or who cannot accept correction. As such hardening of the categories describes something dangerous going on in the church at Corinth, and a similar danger that can threaten any church, including our own. In 1st Corinthians 4, where we pick up our study today, Paul diagnoses this condition, and shows us that a Christlike church needs to be soft-hearted and humble. The evidence of this will be found in the ways they avoid judging, in the ways they assess status, and in the ways they accept criticism. In all these things a Christlike church seeks to be soft-hearted and humble.
I. Avoiding Judgment (1 Cor. 4:1-6)
We begin with the issue of avoiding judgmentalism. 1 Cor. 4:1-6. So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 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 till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. 6Now, brothers, 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 take pride in one man over against another.
In the first chapters of this letter Paul focused on godly wisdom verses worldly wisdom. Now he shares some godly wisdom about church leaders: men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. The word translated servants here is not the common diakonai, but that other Greek word that literally meant an under-rower, one who rowed in the lower part of a large ship. From this it came to be mean any lowly service. The other word, those entrusted is the common word for stewards, slaves who managed the affairs of a household. Paul says that teachers and leaders are stewards of the mysteries of God, those things which were not evident to man through reason or senses, but which God revealed as his sovereign plan of salvation. Paul and the other leaders are responsible for the wise use of these truths. And this is a serious responsibility. Verse 2: Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. Remember, a steward was trusted to handle household affairs. The prime requirement on him was trustworthiness. Paul says leaders in the church are held to this same standard. Elsewhere its clear that all Christians are stewards, and God holds all to a standard of faithfulness. Think of the parable of the talents: Jesus commends the ten talent stewards: well done, good and faithful servant.
But the point Paul wants to make is that we cannot use Gods high standards in this area as a excuse to judge and dismiss our leaders. Verse 3: I 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. Paul says its really not important how you judge me, or even how I judge myself - its Gods evaluation that counts. Even if my conscience does not accuse me of wrongdoing, thats not what makes me righteous. Paul implies, in fact, that righteousness brings a clear conscience: when were declared righteous or innocent, by God though the work of his Son, we are forgiven, and our consciences no longer have to accuse us. The letter to the Hebrews says the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, will cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
So Gods judgement always trumps human judgement. But its very easy to fall into this trap: hardness of heart that passes judgment on others. Verse 5: Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. By the way, before we talk about judging, notice that Paul is perfectly happy to ground his argument in the expected coming of the Lord Jesus as judge. This millennial or at least futurist point of view pervades his writing, and when we study eschatology as we have been in Sunday School, we should not take statements like this lightly.
But the main point of these verses is the simple command: dont judge, at least not too soon. Judgement will come - God will expose the secret motives of peoples hearts, and he will recognize and reward faithful service.
But believers are not to judge others, especially before all the evidence is in. And thats exactly what the Corinthians were doing. Remember, they were saying I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Christ; they rated and ranked Gods servants and split into factions promoting one and putting down the others. Its almost like the Corinthians were running an American Idol program focused on selecting the best Christian leader. And the Simons among them were having a field day dissing the ones they didnt like. Now Im not saying we should never discern between good teaching and poor teaching, between Biblical thought and heresy. Paul isnt saying that either. But we cross a line when we begin to judge based on qualities such as popularity, personality, polish or success. We cross the line when we put people down for lack of these things. Paul says Dont go beyond what is written: if you havent got a Scriptural reason for judging someone you havent got a reason at all: matters of style, personality and emphasis are not Scriptural reasons for judging.
The key phrase is then you will not take pride in one over another, literally then you will not be puffed up. Its too easy for a church or individuals to find things to be proud of: our growth, teaching, personal choices, the unique character of our body or our families - and it is okay to enjoy those things but when we become puffed up over them and make them central, and judge others who dont share them, then we are guilty of pride and sick with hardening of the categories. Ninfas restaurants serve a puff tostada with chile con queso, which is great except theres nothing there: the brittle puffed up outside contains only empty space. Thus it is with pride and hardness of heart -its a brittle attempt to protect emptiness. To be Christ-like we need to see ourselves as servants, under-rowers, and stewards of Gods truth. We need to remain soft hearted and humble, especially in the area of passing judgment. When we begin to judge our leaders for reasons not clear in Scripture, or when we begin to get proud of differences in us that do not reflect on Biblical absolutes, we are in danger of heart disease: our hearts puff up but contain nothing.
II. Assessing Status (1 Cor 4:7-13)
The Corinthians exhibited a second symptom of hard-heartedness: an improper measure of success. Verses 7 to 13 For 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 become kings--and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! 9For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. 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. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
Paul now turns his attention to the status the Corinthians thought they had achieved compared to the actual status enjoyed or endured by the Apostles. One of his points is that the hard-hearted think that they have arrived, probably by their own merit, while those who are soft-hearted and humble recognize that all that they have is a gift from God. Verse 7: For 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? Paul uses three rhetorical questions. First, are you better than anyone else? Do you think of yourself as somehow more deserving of Gods blessing than others? Im afraid this is a frequent heart condition. Just as coronary artery disease can be a silent and undiagnosed killer, so also this subtle mistake in self-assessment can be a danger to our Christian life. Let me be clear - the attitude here is that somehow God is lucky to have me on his team. Most Christians leave a lot to be desired, but in me Gods got a better caliber of player. Well, OK, Paul says, this caliber - did you create that yourself? I mean, point to some quality in your life, physical, mental or spiritual, that isnt ultimately from God. So what are you puffed up about? A gift youve received? If who you are and what you have are gifts from the creator God and the redeemer Jesus there is no place for boasting.
But at least some of the Corinthians were convinced theyd arrived, and Paul addresses them with some sarcasm: Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings--and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! Oh yea, youve arrived, congratulations: I only wish we apostles had gotten as far with as much blessing as you have. The already, repeated twice in this verse, seems to imply that a certain kind of richness and of kingship were expected for believers, but they will come as part of the return of Christ and the fulfillment of his promises. And though Pauls words may reflect a longing, that return hasnt happened yet.
Instead, verse 9 It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. The end of the procession is where prisoners from the last campaign or criminals condemned to die came into the arena, to be jeered by the crowd before death. Paul is saying that real ministry does not include worldly honor, riches, or spiritual kingship. Real ministry involves worldly shame and utter dependence on God, just as it did for Jesus. 1 Peter 2:21 to this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. Believers should expect to be treated the same way. Paul says: We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! Hes already shown how the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. Hed rather be a fool for God than have wisdom in the worlds estimation. We are weak, he says, but you are strong. Again, Paul has learned that Gods strength is made perfect in weakness.
You are honored, we are dishonored. The world gives no honor to those who preach the foolishness of the cross - if you are being honored and recognized its probably a bad sign. So these contrasts bring out that Gods way of doing things is opposite mans. To 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. Paul is not thinking of the distant past, but of what happens to this very hour. Hes probably writing from Ephesus, in the midst of suffering. The apostles lacked food, drink and clothing, while the Corinthians have all they want. The apostles were brutally treated, a word used about the ill treatment of Jesus in Matthew 26. They worked with their hands, but the Greeks despised all manual labor, thinking it fit only for slaves. Believers return blessing for cursing, endurance for persecution, and kindness for slander. Again, such conduct did not commend itself to the Greeks, for whom it was evidence of weakness. But for the sake of the gospel, Paul is even willing to be regarded as scum and refuse. Both of these are cleaning words - the yuck you wiped off a scummy surface. But they came to mean an offering, specifically human sacrifice, apparently because at least in Greek religion the humans thus offered were the dregs of society. Paul is saying that from a human point of view believers were often seen as mere sacrificial scum.
The question we have to ask is - do we buy this? Do we really believe that a lack of human status is normal and acceptable for our leaders? Or do we look for those who are successful by the worlds standards? Paul is re-emphasizing that God uses what from the worlds point of view is foolishness and defeat to accomplish his goals. God did this in Jesus - who threw his life away for others. But are our hearts so hard we cannot value the weak? Are our categories so worldly we unconsciously reject anyone not like us, anyone weak or foolish or dishonored or hungry or thirsty or suffering? I hope were soft hearted, that in humility we regard others as better than ourselves and that we imitate the humility of Christ. The Corinthians has a hardening of the categories: they wanted their leaders to measure up in the eyes of the world; but we have to know these are not Gods standards.
III. Accepting Correction (1 Cor 4:14-21)
Finally, Paul wants this church to be open to correction. Verses 14 to 21: I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15Even though you have 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 am sending 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 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 whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?
Paul abruptly changes his tone, perhaps sensing that he was approaching harshness in this sarcasm. He says I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Paul took seriously a parents responsibility to admonish or warn, so that children stay on the right path. You can see this in all his letters, even when he gives the most drastic corrections. Verse 15: Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Its not easy to translate the word guardians; it refers to slaves who had personal responsibility for boy students. The paidagogos was the one who took the boy to school, heard him recite his lines, taught him manners and looked after him. He was important and respected, but still just a slave, not an intrinsic part of the boys life like the father. But by virtue of having brought the gospel to Corinth, Paul was the father to these believers. Naturally, he had a fathers love and concern, and no matter how much they profited from the ministry of others, they owed a special debt of gratitude and obedience to Paul.
As such, Paul was even willing to tell them to imitate him. Hes not trying to establish his own cult of personality as the dominant one - hes trying to get them to imitate his lived out example so that they might ultimately learn to imitate Christ. Later in this letter he will say Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. And even in this paragraph he says that it is in Christ Jesus that he has become their father, and that Timothy will remind them of Pauls way of life in Christ Jesus. Clearly there is a value to imitating those who imitate Christ. The whole concept of mentoring and discipleship depends on this imitation, especially the imitation of humility and compassion in the one who made himself nothing for our sake.
Thats what Paul wants for the Corinthians. Verse 17: For this reason I am sending 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. Not much is known about Timothys visit to the Corinthians, though based on the fact that his name is not in this letters greeting, it seems hes already been sent. He had instructions to remind the Corinthians about Pauls way of life - how his actions reflected his teaching, how all of it was grounded in Christ Jesus, and how it was consistent with what he taught to every church. Paul was not singling out Corinth for a higher standard or for special criticism - he simply wanted them to grow into a Christ like, Christ honoring church.
Unfortunately, verse 18: Some of you have become arrogant. This is the same word he used before puffed up, hard hearted. They would not respond to example or to parental correction. They remind me of the famous blue crab, which grows to so fill it shell that it cannot grow anymore or even move. So every few months the crabs shell splits at the back, the crab wiggles out, and it is very soft and vulnerable for a few days before a new and larger shell hardens around it. It happens that the crab is tastiest and most appealing during that time when its shell is softest.
In the same way we must remain soft and vulnerable if we are to be most pleasing to Christ - and to grow. But the Corinthians seem to have hardened themselves, taking comfort in the idea that Paul himself was not coming. They probably said if he really cared about this hed come himself. Paul says I will come very soon, if the Lord is willing. Right now Gods will constrains me to be where I am - this may have been the very moment where God assured Paul that there was much ministry still to do in Ephesus. But Paul is confident that soon God will allow a visit 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. This is a classic distinction, one that Paul has already made in this letter. Anyone can talk a good game, but is the power of God evident? Hes not referring to flashy power displays here, but of the evidence of power in the godly maturity of believers. As one commentator said The gospel does not simply tell people what they ought to do; in it God gives them power to do it. It doesnt matter whether these leaders can speak well, but it does matter whether Gods power is evident in their ministry.
Paul closes this section with what we hope is a rhetorical question: What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit? As a father, Paul promises to come to them, and when a father has been absent from his family for a time he wants to come home with love in a spirit of gentleness. But sometimes a father does have to come with a rod. If the Corinthians persist in being hard hearted, in shunning correction, in the arrogant myth that they are right and blessed and that Paul is of no account, not being the kind of polished leader they desire, he will have to come and to crack this hard shell so change and growth can happen.
The bottom line is that for any church and for any individual, there is tremendous value in being soft-hearted and humble, and real danger in being proud, hard hearted and closed to correction. For many years now Ive had a strong sense that all progress in the Christian life comes when a person is soft-hearted, even broken, and humble about his own righteousness, status and need for correction. I dont see progress in the Christian life when a person is hard-hearted, proud or unable to admit need. Paul has shown us here that the same thing is true of churches: Im convinced that to be Christlike, this body must constantly seek to be soft-hearted and humble.