This short passage, concerning the servants of Christ and their work, falls within the opening section of Paul's letter, a section which addresses the divisions in the church and also serves as a defence of Paul's standing as an apostle.
v1. Paul's opening statement can be expressed as a rhetorical question. "How should the church regard its ministers?" The answer is, "as servants of Christ", servants who minister to the church on Christ's behalf. These ministers are "stewards", or "administrators", serving under the Master's authority. They are stewards of "the secret things" (literally, "the mysteries"). Paul has used the term "mystery" before to describe something hidden, now revealed. The "mystery" is the secret of God's intentions revealed in the gospel.
v2. What then is required of God's ministers? Rather than running their own agenda, a minister is to do the Master's bidding; they are to "prove faithful" - be trustworthy.
v3. As for the business of assessing the worth of a person's ministry, no human has the capacity to determine the worth of one of Christ's servants. Paul is not even willing to judge the worth of his own ministry. He will leave that to the Lord.
v4. Even so, Paul is not aware of any major flaws in his ministry, but then his own assessment is not necessarily worth much since a good conscience is an invention of the devil. Plato was overly hopeful when he said, "to him who has no sin on his conscience, sweet hope is present." Paul, well aware of human frailty, leaves the business of judgment in the hands of a merciful God.
v5. For the present, believers should be careful how they assess the worth, or otherwise, of someone's ministry. The day will come when we will all stand before the Lord Jesus. In that day our secret acts and thoughts will be revealed. So, when it comes to the praise, or otherwise, of a person's ministry, let it be done by a merciful judge.
Often, when there is a change in ministry, relationship problems develop within a congregation. There are many factors which can work against a new ministry and sometimes these factors compound to produce major problems. Some of the factors are the minister's doing, others relate to the congregation, personalities, the former minister, etc.
Each Christian denomination has its own way of setting the ground for a minister's relationship with their new congregation. For Anglicans, the Prayer Book, and particularly the Ordinal, lays the groundwork for that relationship. An Anglican minister is to study and teach the Bible, minister according to the Prayer Book, care for the congregation, strive to live according to its truths, promote love within the church and obey the Bishop in all "godly counsel". This an Anglican minister promises to do, and as long as ministers keep their promise, then there can be no ground for complaint.
What we see in our passage for study is Paul again facing criticism over his ministry. The Corinthians are judging the worth of his ministry. So, what Paul sets out to do is explain the function of a Christian minister, and encourage the Corinthians to think twice before they get into judging him, or any minister.
i] Servants of Christ. Often ministers are seen as servants of the congregation, or the denomination, but they are primarily servants of Christ to the congregation. Paul actually uses another word along with servants, namely, "stewards" (NIV "those entrusted"). The steward serves the Master by caring for his household.
ii] Ministering the secret things. The "mystery" is the gospel of the kingdom of God. Ministers are to proclaim the kingdom to the world, and teach its truths to God's people.
iii] Faithfulness. The minister must be faithful to Christ in serving him rather than self, the congregation, or the denomination.
There is much that can be said on the role of the congregation, but Paul stresses what not to do - critical destructive judgement. Paul's advice is, let Christ handle the business of judging.
1. List the perceived functions of a Christian minister that abound today and compare these with Paul's understanding of the function of ministry.
2. Obviously, a thoughtful critique of a person's ministry can be helpful, but at what point does it become unhelpful criticism?