What does God value in ministers?

This post draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").

"St. Paul" by Lievens (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


In 1 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul tells us what God values in his church. Now in chapter 4, he tells us what God values in his ministers. Sadly, many Corinthian believers valued in ministers superficial things like eloquence, secular wisdom and social standing. These false values pitted one minister against another, causing factions and division. Paul corrects them by pointing out that ministry is not about popularity but about service. And he tells them that they need to value in their ministers what God values: faithfulness, humility and love. Let’s look at each one.


1 Cor. 4:1–6

The Greek word for servants is “under-rowers”—the slaves who rowed the Roman galleys. Is one slave considered better than another? “Nonsense!” replies Paul—ministers are “entrusted” with particular assignments, yet they are all slaves (servants) of one Master. The Greek word here translated “entrusted” refers to slaves who were assigned to be stewards of their master’s households. Ministers are stewards in God’s “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10, KJV), entrusted to steward the church’s wealth (Matt. 13:52) which is principally the gospel—God’s “secret things” or “mystery” (1 Cor. 2).  In this stewardship, ministers are responsible to God himself. Thus a minister’s goal is not popularity with members or fellow ministers, but faithfulness to God and to his gospel. So Paul warns ministers not to be pressured in ways that would divert them from that focus. Pressure comes in the form of judgment (evaluation) from three sources: other people, themselves, and God. Ministers must not be swayed by the first two, but should be responsive to the third.

1. Man’s judgment

1 Cor. 4:3a 

Ministers are always being evaluated by others. But Paul says that this is not the evaluation that counts. Ministry is not a popularity contest and is not to be conducted by human standards.

2. Self-judgment 

1 Cor. 4:3b-4a 

Ministers are often wracked by self-doubt; some to the point where they are frozen in inaction. But Paul says not to be burdened down this way. Ministers should look not to men or to self.  They must look elsewhere…

3. God’s judgment 

1 Cor. 4:4b 

Only God’s judgment counts. And that evaluation is always grounded in his Word and is expressive of his redeeming love. Of course, his evaluation may come, at least in part, through other believers (Matt. 18:15–17). Thus ministers must never stand aloof with a self-righteous, independent spirit. But ultimately, ministers are accountable to God. Thus it is ludicrous when one minister is preferred over another on the basis of human standards. In showing such favoritism we make presumptuous judgments that Paul says are dead wrong in three ways:

• Wrong timing (1 Cor. 4:5) 

The Lord will give final evaluation at the end of the story—and the story is still being written!  Moreover, only God can peer into a person’s heart.  So in passing judgment we’re “playing God.”  So be patient and let God do his work.

• Wrong standards (1 Cor. 4:6a) 

The Corinthians were measuring ministers by human standards. But the only true standards for rightly evaluating a minister are God’s standards revealed in God’s word. And Scripture (and here Paul is alluding to the Old Testament) says a lot about what God values in his servants. We should value the same things.  

• Wrong motives (1 Cor. 4:6b) 

If we embrace God’s standards for ministers we will not show preference for one minister over another based on other standards (such as eloquence, appearance, social standing, education, etc.). When we show preference according to merely human distinctions, it is evident that our motive is pride, not God’s love. And pride causes division. 

So let’s value faithfulness in God’s ministers.  And then there is humility...


1 Cor. 4:7–13

In verse 9 Paul refers to ministers as a “spectacle to the whole universe.”  That may sound a bit odd to us, but it was a familiar idea to people in the Roman Empire. The government kept the people pacified by presenting “spectacles” (entertainments) in amphitheaters and other arenas in different cities where men competed in games and prisoners fought with wild beasts (the Greek word translated spectacle gives us our English word “theater”). When the “main events” of such entertainments ended, the poorest and weakest prisoners were brought in (“at the end of the procession”) to fight with the wild beasts. Nobody expected much from them. And now Paul compares ministers of Christ with these humble slaves, contrasting their humility with the wrong-headed view that some Corinthians held concerning God’s ministers.

1. Prisoners, not Kings 

1 Cor. 4:7-9 

The questions in verse 7 ought to make us stop and think: “Who regards you as superior?” (NASB translation). Why would anybody feel superior to anyone else? Perhaps it is their inflated opinion of themselves. The best commentary on 1 Cor. 4:7 is the witness of John the Baptist, “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.... He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:27, 30). 

In verse 8 Paul says in effect: “I wish I could reign with you and be important! But instead, I must go into the arena and suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ. You are first in men’s eyes, but we apostles are last.” Paul’s point is that there is no place for pride within ministers themselves and toward ministers. If Paul considered himself “on display at the end of the procession” where does this leave the rest of us? As church members we are wrong if we measure ministers by standards other than the ones that God values. We are also wrong when we boast about a favorite preacher. This is not to say that faithful servants should not be recognized and honored, but in all things, God must be glorified (1 Thes. 5:12–13). 

2. Fools, not wise 

1 Cor. 4:10a

Paul was a fool according to human standards. Had he remained a Jewish rabbi, he could have attained great heights in the Jewish religion (Gal. 1:14). Or had he sided with the Jewish legalists in the Jerusalem church and not ministered to the Gentiles, he could have avoided a great deal of persecution (Acts 15; 21:17ff). But when Paul asked the Lord, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6, KJV) he really meant it. The Corinthians were wise in their own eyes, but by depending on the wisdom and the standards of the world, they were acting like fools. The way to be spiritually wise is to become a fool in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 3:18).  

3. Weak, not strong 

1 Cor. 4:10b

There was a time when Paul gloried in his strengths; but then he met Jesus and discovered that what he thought were assets were liabilities (Phil. 3). It was through his own suffering that Paul discovered that his spiritual strength was the result of personal weakness (2 Cor. 12:7–10). In contrast, the Corinthians were proud of their spiritual achievements. Their factions were proud of their favorite ministers. But this was only weakness. There is strength only when God gets the glory: “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). 

4. Despised, not honored 

1 Cor. 4:10-13

The Corinthian Christians were seeking honor from men, not the honor that comes from God. They were trying to “borrow” glory by associating with “great men.” Paul answers in effect: “If you associate with us, you had better be ready to suffer. We apostles are not held in honor—we are despised!” Paul then describes the suffering that he personally endured as God’s servant. The fact that he worked with his own hands as a tentmaker would have lowered him in the eyes of many, because the Greeks despised manual labor. 

Paul also describes how he responded to the way people treated him; and this helped make him truly great. When Paul was cursed, he blessed—just as Jesus commanded (Matt. 5:44). When he was persecuted, he endured it by God’s grace and did not retaliate. When he was slandered, Paul tried to conciliate. In all things, he sought to respond in love. The result? Men treated him as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” Paul and the other apostles were treated just as Jesus was treated; but God vindicated them and brought glory to his name. 

So now Paul has told us that faithfulness in service and humility of mind are what God values in ministers. They must be willing to work and to suffer. It’s one thing to be faithful and quite another to be popular. And now Paul gives us a third characteristic: love…


1 Cor. 4:14–21

Paul has already compared the local church to a family (1 Cor. 3:1–4). And now he tells us that ministers serve this family like loving parents. In developing this analogy, he discusses three ways he played a fatherly role in the church in Corinth.  

1. Founding father 

1 Cor. 4:14–15

Paul viewed the Corinthians as his beloved children in the faith. This does not mean that he took credit for their conversion. Their spiritual birth was in Christ and through the gospel. Paul was the father who stood by and assisted. In this role, Paul had a special relationship with them. He founded the church in Corinth and Apollos followed him and taught the people. Peter, or perhaps his representatives, also apparently ministered there. Indeed, God’s children need many “fathers” and many “mothers” to nurture them in the faith. 

2. Fatherly example 

1 Cor. 4:16–17

When Paul pastored in Corinth, like a parent, he set the example before them in love, devotion to Christ, sacrifice, and service. “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, KJV). Paul was a good example because he was expressing the love and life of the Lord, Jesus Christ. And Paul was a good teacher. It takes both example and instruction to bring a child to maturity. Paul sent Timothy (one of his spiritual children) to remind the church of the doctrines and practices that Paul always taught.  

Note here that God does not have one standard for one church and a different standard for another. He may work out his will in different ways (Phil. 2:12–13), but the doctrines and principles are the same. Sadly, the church in Corinth had embraced human “wisdom,” going “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) and this was causing division in the church. 

3. Fatherly disciplinarian 

1 Cor. 4:18–21

Arrogance (pride), like yeast, was “puffing up” the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:6–8). Like a loving father, Paul was patient with them. But now he realizes that in love he must take action. The arrogant Corinthians were big talkers, but had little power to back it up. In contrast, Paul was reserved and patient in his speech, but now, if need be, he will act with a demonstration of God’s refining power.  

Paul continues to give the Corinthians opportunity to set their household in order. In the following chapters, he explains what they should do. Unfortunately, history shows they did not immediately respond and Paul followed up with a personal visit. His experience during that visit were painful (2 Cor. 2:1; 12:14; 13:1) and he followed up with a very strong letter (1 Cor. 7:8–12). Fortunately the issues seem to have been eventually resolved, though some “mopping up” remained to be done (2 Cor. 12:20–13:5). 


True ministers in the church are faithful, humble and loving men and women who are first and foremost servants of God. Note that these are characteristics of Jesus himself. Indeed, ministry is active participation in Jesus’ loving and living in our world. And note that all Christians are called to this ministry—a “ministry of all believers.” So we all need to both value and exhibit these Christ-like qualities. As we do, our churches and homes will be strengthened in Christ. To him be all glory in the church!