Having worked through the basic problems in the church at Corinth, Paul begins in 1 Corinthians 4 to build the correction necessary. As he starts that process, though, he has to address one other aspect of the existing problem. Since he has addressed, rather sternly, the factions rising among the church at Corinth, how does he address the problem without adding to it?
After all, one of the “factions” follows Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12), so if everyone listens to Paul, then doesn’t that faction “win” the dispute? Paul recognizes that there are no winners in church conflict—if everyone is on Biblical grounds or if no one is, then “winning” is not the end. He is advocating for unity and forward work by the church not on the grounds of his faction being right, but on the grounds of being good stewards of God’s truth.
That is the opening of this chapter: follow the Word of God and let God be the judge, not the people. God will, after all, bring everything to judgment in its time (1 Corinthians 4:5). He goes on to highlight that the church is where the immaturity is found, because he and Apollos are in unity together as serving Jesus. The problem is not in the heroes of the factions. It’s in the people that make up the factions themselves.
For a focus, look, though, at 1 Corinthians 4:14. Paul highlights that his goal is not to shame the people, but to warn them. He expresses that he wants to warn them, with the love of a father. The rest of that paragraph sees Paul highlight that he is not one of several teachers for that church, but is one of few fathers that church had.
His purpose, then, should be rightly understood: he has no desire to embarrass, belittle, or attack the church. He wants the church to thrive and grow, just as any father would want for his children. Please note this: Paul makes the assumption of righteous fathers, as God the Father is His template for fatherhood, not the behaviors of any specific person.
In light of Paul’s approach to the Corinthians, we should see our approach to the problems in our own churches in the same manner. First, of course, there is instruction here for church leaders. If your approach to difficulties in the church is to exert your authority and straighten out those ‘bad guys,’ no matter the results to them, you are wrong.
After all, you may not be right. But even if you are certainly right, there is a way to address the problem which is restorative and redemptive and not vicious or mean. Paul is going on from this point in Corinthians very directly and pulls no punches. Being restorative and redemptive, with the compassion of a father, does not mean neglecting correction.
It does mean remembering that, when it’s all done, you are supposed to remain in good fellowship and community with your fellow believers. So act like it.
Second, our approach to handling conflict and disagreement within the body. Every time, we should first ask if the truth is at stake or in evidence—Paul’s about to bring one of those examples to the fore in chapter 5, where someone is wrong—and if not, then be cautious. That includes being wary if our approach assumes that we are the wise one and the other person is a fool.
Doubly so if the person you are treating as a fool has been walking with Jesus longer than you have. Those who have gone before still make mistakes, but there is a difference in an error and a fool.
So, practically speaking, remember that Jesus is the only one who judges perfectly (v. 4-5) and that our evaluations are going to lack that perfection. Further, always work toward reconciliation when the disagreements are of a personality and preference nature. (True physical and spiritual dangers are another matter, one that Paul will address later.)
If we are not willing to see one another as family in need of healing instead of adversaries, we will do damage to the cause and purpose of Christ Jesus!
First nerd point: 1 Corinthians 4:15 is a statement of history in Corinth. It is NOT and should never be taken as an affront to teaching in the church. I have heard some say they would rather be a “father” than a “teacher” in the church. In that case, go plant a church and teach it, then you, like Paul, will be a “father.” He is expressing his connection. Not demoting the importance of teaching.
Second nerd point: just because someone is a servant does not entitle others to treat as low. Serving is the call of the believer.