What irritates our sensibilities more? The claim that we are accountable to God, and therefore God will judge us? Or, the insistence that people not judge one another because judgment is God's prerogative?
The notion of divine judgment carries more than its share of religious baggage, thanks to those who enjoy using it to break the backs of prospective converts. At the same time, many of us consider it our inalienable right to judge others, to be the arbiters of commendation and degradation--especially when we can find a chance to approve ourselves and reprehend our neighbors.
In this passage full of judicial language, Paul speaks positively abut God's judgment and warns those who would judge others within the Christian community. Behind Paul's comments lies a strong concern for unity. Paul emphasizes that Christian ministry and corporate existence must reflect a unity formed by the gospel, a unity threatened by an atmosphere in which people usurp or deny God's right to judge. Keep in mind that Paul's comments come in a letter that tries to mend divisions and call Christians back to a proper understanding of their place in God's scheme. The Corinthian church was beset by petty rivalries and widening divisions (see 1:10--11; 3:1--4), and one of the ways in which disunity manifested itself was through the distinctions that the Corinthians were drawing among themselves. Moreover, from 1 Corinthians 4:1--5 it also seems that some in Corinth were dismissive toward Paul and all too eager to make judgments of their worth relative to him (see also 9:3). In response, Paul defends himself from their attacks and also attempts to reorient the Corinthians' views of themselves.
Although Paul expresses palpable frustration with the Corinthians in the rest of this chapter, restraint characterizes the first five verses. In naming his and Apollos's identity as "servants" (hypēretēs) and "stewards" (oikonomos), he avoids more forceful terminology that might have reasserted their authority. Paul regards himself and Apollos as models or exemplars for the Corinthians (see 4:6, 15b--16); by extension, then, he declares all Christians to be in the service of another. A hypēretēs was a general term designating one who assisted or provided service to someone else. The word oikonomos usually referred to the top-ranking slave (in some cases, a freedman) in a Greco-Roman household, one typically responsible for such administrative matters as managing finances, procuring goods, and overseeing the work of other slaves. Both words imply a subordinate role, and Paul understands them specifically to indicate service provided in relationship to Christ and "God's mysteries" (by this he means what God has disclosed, generally speaking, through Christ and the message of the gospel; see 2:1, 7; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51).
Life as a servant or steward implies accountability, and such people are measured by the degree to which they are "trustworthy" (or "faithful," translating the adjective pistos) in carrying out their responsibilities. Responsibilities can be executed in a variety of ways according to one's creativity and capacities, but faithfulness stands as the only basis or criterion for assessing it. The only judgment that matters is that which is given by the master whom a servant serves. Paul expresses confidence in his own fidelity to God as a laborer for the sake of the gospel. Such confidence leaves him relatively impervious to the Corinthians' personal attacks, but it does not allow him to presume God's prerogative to judge him. Paul accepts only God's judgment.
Paul's primary points, then, are these:
It is important that we hear these words in their context, as part of Paul's attempt to reign in the striving, self-promotion, and backbiting that plagued the Corinthian church and hindered its ability to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. We do well to keep in mind that Paul was addressing a fellowship of believers and attempting to get them to re-embrace their understanding of themselves as a community bearing a unified witness. His comments do not offer a comprehensive account of God's judgment or the means by which God calls people to become servants of Christ.
This passage continues to speak to churches that have lost sight of their purpose and whose members have turned against themselves. Those congregations do well to note that Paul roots what he says, not in a belief that judging other people is not a nice thing to do, but in the theological conviction that we all belong to God through Christ and share a unified, corporate existence as Christ's body. This idea weaves its way throughout 1 Corinthians and is what makes Paul's comments here distinctively Christian. (For more on the theological foundation of Paul's appeals for unity among the Corinthians, see my commentary on this website from two weeks ago, the Day of Pentecost, on 1 Corinthians 12:3b--13.)
This passage also has implications for others in the audience. Even as Paul directed admonishments toward many in Corinth, certainly others in that church needed words of comfort. When people create hierarchies, others end up at the bottom. When people engage in wars of judgment, some end up being judged and diminished. Paul's words imply good news for those people, the ones who have been the targets of attacks. A sermon on this passage can remind them that God sees, and that God's judgment is about disclosing the truth, shining a light that executes justice for those who will be found faithful, no matter what the degree of that faithfulness.