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Christians have a tendency to put their leaders on pedestals and then bemoan the fact that they have feet of clay. We see this tendency at work in Corinth, where many Christians idolized Apollos but scrutinized Paul. In Apollos, they saw only fine points; in Paul, only flaws.
In 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul corrected the Corinthian tendency by portraying both Apollos and himself in the proper perspective.
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Paul’s perspective consisted of three crucial insights about Christian leadership.
First, leaders are servants. In Greek, the word Paul uses is diakonoi, from which we get the English word deacons. It probably derived from the obsolete verb diako, meaning to run an errand, and was used for waiters (cf. Acts 6:2). I don’t know about you, but I have never put a waiter on a pedestal. The waiter is there to serve me food. If he does a good job, he has only done his duty (cf. Luke 17:7-10). As a pastor, Paul’s description of Christian leaders as waiters is a humbling one. Do I really serve others? But as a parishioner, it’s also a helpful one. Is my evaluation of Christian leaders a projection of my own need for importance? Christian leaders are servants—no more, no less.
Second, different leaders do different things. After describing Christian leaders as servants or waiters, Paul switches metaphors. Now Christian leaders are farmers. Farmers perform a variety of tasks. They till ground, plant seed, fertilize soil, and reap a harvest. In the Corinthian church’s experience, “[Paul] planted the seed, Apollos watered it.” In other words, Paul evangelized and Apollos discipled. Just as farmers must both plant and water, so Christian leaders must both evangelize and disciple. The Corinthians wanted either/or. They needed both/and. Growing, healthy churches unite for service by dividing the labor.
Third, God gets all the credit. The fundamental problem at Corinth was a desire to get credit rather than give it. The Corinthians wanted to be important, so they inflated their favorite leader’s importance. For Paul, the only Person of real importance was God. Sure, Paul and Apollos did their part, but “God….makes things grow.” Notice how Paul describes himself, Apollos, and the Corinthians: “we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are God’s. He gets the credit.
These insights are crucial for both Christian leaders and followers. Imagine what we could do if we served others, worked together, and kept our focus on God.