The Gospel and Famous Leaders

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 3:5-7

But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely men?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are fellow workers for God; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9, rsv

I want to think with you today about famous leaders and the attitudes we take toward them. Especially I want to look at that issue in the light of the gospel. That’s what the apostle Paul does here in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3. He wants to help people to look at their leaders in the light of Jesus Christ.


His first observation is that exclusive attachment to any human leader is a sign of spiritual immaturity. The apostle is reflecting here on his past experience with these Corinthian believers. When he had been with them earlier, he had needed to deal with them as with babes in Christ. He had to feed them milk instead of meat. They were Christians at the time, no doubt about that, but they were raw beginners in the Christian way. They lacked the capacity to take in all that Paul wanted to communicate to them.

Now for Paul there had been nothing blameworthy in that. He had needed to treat them as spiritual infants because that is precisely what they were. They had only recently come to Christ. He could not have expected them, at that point, to display maturity. They had a lot of living and growing to do. It was not surprising then that their lives were not yet fully governed by the Spirit. They were still accustomed to their former ways of thinking.

But now they are at a different point in their Christian experience. They have been longer in the faith. They’ve had the benefit of more Christian teaching. But they still seem to lack the maturity the apostle longs to see in them. After considerable time for growth, they still act like spiritual infants. They still need milk instead of strong meat. They are still carnal or fleshly in their attitudes and outlook, instead of spiritual. To illustrate this situation in their lives, the apostle points to the way in which they describe themselves. One says, “I am of Paul”; another, “I am of Apollos.” There was another party that apparently said, “I am of Peter.” The congregation, in other words, was divided into rival factions. And, characteristic of each group was attachment to a famous leader. Paul asks pointedly, when they act that way, “Are you not merely men?”

The question seems puzzling at first. Of course, they are men and women! What else would you expect, Paul? People don’t cease to be human just because they become religious, just because they profess faith in Jesus Christ. But Paul is saying here that the new life people find in Christ, the work of His Spirit in their lives, leads to a change in attitude and outlook. People who are growing in Christ, whose lives are governed by the Holy Spirit, do not think and speak in the same old way. They are not governed any longer by merely human considerations. These Corinthians, in the way they talked about belonging to Paul or to Apollos or to Cephas, were displaying a sadly common human tendency. They were acting just like everyone else.

Their problem doesn’t lie in appreciating their leaders or in valuing the contributions they make; rather, it’s the exclusive attachment to them that is dangerous. It’s the tendency to exalt them as individuals and to compare them very favorably with others. Something in our makeup leads us to do that. We place human leaders on a kind of pedestal. We make them larger than life. We tend toward hero-worship, toward a cult of personality. We seek security, self-esteem, and worst of all, a kind of superiority to others, by identifying ourselves with this or that famous leader. Because we are one of his followers, or hers, we think that we somehow constitute an in-group, an elite, a breed apart. And all of this, Paul sees as displaying immaturity.


What is a mature way, a Christian way of looking at these outstanding leaders in the life of the church? Listen to Paul: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” By the way he asks the question, you might anticipate the answer, “Nothing. They don’t amount to much at all.” But that isn’t what the apostle says. He gives us three insights about them, three things to remember when we think of them. First, they are servants. That’s fundamental to know. They are not independent operators, not superstars, not lords of the church. They are servants, and the term Paul uses here to describe them does not imply high status. Literally, he says, they are like those who serve tables. They are waiters and waitresses in the employ of another. Their work is to do His bidding, to tend to the needs of those whom they serve. To their master alone they owe whatever dignity and authority they have.

Part of our problem with famous leaders, I suppose, is that they sometimes do not project this kind of image by their bearing, their attitude toward others, their reactions to criticism, their lifestyle. They seem rather to see themselves as persons of privilege, those born to rule, deserving admiration, expecting service. They want to be considered great.

Paul says that’s all right, that aspiration for greatness. But remember that in the light of Christ, we know that greatness consists not in being served, but in serving; not in being catered to, but in waiting on others. The true leader is the servant of God who gives himself or herself to meet the needs of others.

Further, these various leaders are not to be compared with one another or ranked in importance because, Paul points out, their contributions are so different. The apostle Paul has one set of gifts, and Apollos another. Paul is first on the scene and plants the seed; Apollos waters it and encourages its growth. Who is to say that one of these functions is more significant than the other?

I sometimes hear members of a congregation describing the ministries of several former pastors in a way that seems to me mature and right. They don’t speak about liking this one and not liking that one; how this one was good and that one not so good. They rather note the specific contribution which each made: one helped to get the congregation started; another saw them through a building program, perhaps; a third gave them a vision for world evangelism; another helped them to address needs in their community; still another was skilled in helping people through times of crisis. That’s the way to look at leaders in the church: honoring the special service each has rendered, recognizing all as God-given.

Here’s one more observation that Paul makes about these leaders: “He who plants and he who waters are one.” Some translations say “equal,” some, “one in purpose.” The Greek text simply says “one.” In spite of their diversity of gifts, in spite of the different contribution which each makes, Paul, Apollos and Cephas are deeply one. The aim, the motivation, the result for each is the same. Here we see something of Paul’s generous spirit. He recognizes his colleagues in ministry as being equally dedicated, as sharing with him a singleness of Christian purpose. He models what it means to look on other leaders not as rivals but as fellow servants.

A friend of mine was talking sometime ago to the leader of another broadcast ministry. My friend mentioned knowing me and wondered if this broadcaster viewed me as a competitor. I was glad for his prompt response. “Not a competitor,” he said, “but a colleague.” I am happy that he felt that way. I want to nourish that kind of attitude in myself.

To say that Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, and other famous leaders in the church are “one” is to imply that the work of no one of them is successful or complete without that of the others. This is a joint enterprise, a shared ministry. All who serve Christ, all who proclaim the gospel, all who seek the growth and good of the church are allies, teammates, needing each other, involved together in one great work.


To have this kind of mature view of our leaders, we need to see ourselves in a certain way. Listen to Paul speaking now to all believers: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” Paul is telling his fellow Christians essentially that they are a people for whom God is concerned, and in whom He is at work. The church is God’s field. He sends people like Paul to plant the seed, Apollos to water the soil, others perhaps to cultivate and prune. But the church does not belong to these leaders; the church is God’s. He has purchased it at great price; it is precious to Him beyond words to express. The growth of the harvest, the bearing of the fruit is a matter of enormous interest to God and of tender concern.

Again, the church is God’s building: one leader lays the foundation; another raises the walls or puts down the floor, but neither owns the building. The church again belongs to God, and when it is finally complete, it will shine and endure as His handiwork. And Christians are to think of themselves accordingly, as those who belong entirely to God. Then they will have the right view of human leaders.

Here’s the heart of the apostle’s argument: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” It’s easy for us to attribute too much importance to the work of our human leaders. We watch what they do or hear about it from others. We see the church emerging and growing. People are responding to the gospel of Christ. Lives are being changed; a loving, serving community comes into being; unbelievers are awakened and attracted. We look on and find ourselves shaking our heads and saying, “What a tremendous missionary Paul is!” or, “How powerfully that Apollos preaches!” or, “Cephas, the church will never have another leader like him!” But this is to overlook the real dynamics in what is going on. Awed by the visible, by the personalities involved, we forget the unseen reality behind them all.

Paul has no inherent power; Apollos is no miracle worker. Neither has independent significance. They are instruments in the hand of another. They are servants through whom God works. The seed is God’s; Paul simply scatters it. The water is from heaven; Apollos merely spreads it around. Neither is responsible for the mystery of emerging life. Neither can produce growth – only God.

Every farmer knows that. He plows and prepares; he puts seed in the ground; he irrigates and fertilizes, but he never imagines for a moment that he makes anything grow. After toil and trouble and sometimes tears, he leaves everything in the hands of Another. He waits for a miracle.

Here, friends, is the cure for our immaturity, the antidote for our unhealthy attitudes toward famous leaders: to focus always upon the living God and His work. This is the very opposite of a fleshly outlook, of a merely human perspective. Mature Christian believers are God-centered, God-filled, God-focussed persons. They never despise human leaders or dismiss them lightly, but they never see them as independently important either. They celebrate in each the gift and work of God.

How do we see human leaders in the light of the gospel? We see them as needy persons like ourselves, for whom Christ died. We see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing with us His risen life. We see them as the Lord’s instruments through whom He carries on His marvelous, saving work. We don’t attach ourselves exclusively to any one of them because all the servants of the church belong to us and to Him. We do not exalt them because we have learned to glory only in Christ and Him crucified. And we do not demean them by odious comparisons, because whatever they have and whatever they are, is all God’s gift. We thank God for them but at the same time look to Him entirely as our salvation and our hope. We look away from every famous leader to the faithful Lord. All, all is from Him!

PRAYER: Father, give us this vision of faith, we pray, to see that all life and growth is from You and to receive our leaders as Your gift. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.