Who’s to judge? (part 1)

What criteria do we use when looking for a new church home?  Why join or attend services?  And when change comes–as it inevitably does–what would make us speak critically of church personnel, policies or programs?  For what reasons would we leave?

Admittedly, questions like these already assume a cultural context in which choice is the norm in the first place.  One can speak of “church shopping” in Southern California in a way that might be unthinkable elsewhere.  But there is still the matter of how congregations cope with change and criticism, and this has been an issue since the earliest days of the church.

The church in Corinth had gone through something like a pastoral transition.  Paul, their founding pastor, had been with them for a year and a half, to be succeeded by a more eloquent teacher named Apollos.  When Paul left, apparently, latent grumbling about him bubbled to the surface.

In previous posts, we’ve examined Paul’s response to the divisions between believers in Corinth: they had become name-droppers, taking personal pride in their allegiance to one spiritual leader as opposed to another.  But it wasn’t just a matter of mild preference.  Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, one senses that some Corinthians were not just pro-Apollos but harshly anti-Paul.

For example, after Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians’ worldly ways, we read this: “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny” (1 Cor 2:15, NRSV).  Implication: I, Paul, am not subject to your scrutiny.  But if that seems too subtle, Paul takes a more direct approach in chapter 4:

I couldn’t care less if I’m judged by you or by any human court; I don’t even judge myself.  I’m not aware of anything against me, but that doesn’t make me innocent, because the Lord is the one who judges me. (1 Cor 4:3-4, CEB)

“I couldn’t care less” (more literally, “it’s a very small thing”):  that could sound arrogant by itself.  But Paul quickly qualifies the statement.  If their judgment of him is irrelevant, so is any other human judgment, including his own.  In the end, only one opinion matters.

We need to be careful here.  Paul is not saying that Christians should exercise no judgment whatsoever; indeed, later in the letter he will criticize them for not being more discerning morally.  And one can easily imagine how such a text could be abused by arrogant Christian leaders looking for an excuse to avoid accountability.

Rather, in context, the question is: who ultimately gets to decide whether Paul has faithfully fulfilled his commission as a minister of the gospel, as a steward of the divine mysteries (1 Cor 4:1-2)?  Only Jesus.  Paul doesn’t completely trust even his own evaluation of his work.

What does this mean for us today?  We’ll explore some of the implications of Paul’s words in the next post.