Striving for Unity — 1 Corinthians Chapter 4: Traits of a Godly Servant Leader

By Jenny Fulton

Grace University, the college I attended, required all students to engage in “Servant Leadership Training.” This meant we were expected to serve in some ministry capacity with the idea that true leadership is found in putting yourself beneath others and helping them however you can.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 4, we see that a call to leadership among God’s people isn’t an easy, cushy, or opulent task. It’s hard, and it’s messy. While the world’s leaders seek power, wealth, adoration, control, and a life of ease, God’s leaders are called to be servants and caretakers. In this chapter, Paul describes spiritual leaders of God as:

  • Servants of Christ (v. 1)
  • Stewards of the mysteries of God who must show themselves faithful and trustworthy (v. 1-2)
  • Being examined and judged by God (v. 4)
  • Being put on display and watched by both angels and men (v. 9)
  • Fools for Christ’s sake (v. 10)
  • Weak (v. 10)
  • Without honor (V. 10)
  • Hardworking (v. 12)
  • Those who bless when they are cursed (v. 12)
  • Those who endure when they are persecuted (v. 12)
  • Those who answer kindly when they are slandered (v. 13)
  • The scum and garbage of the world (v. 13)

This definitely doesn’t look like an inspiring job description for those desiring to attain a lofty position with an excellent retirement plan. Whereas the Corinthians were lifting these men up to a status of kingship, were arguing over who was the best speaker and spiritual leader, and were vying among themselves for positions of prominence under their preferred pastor, Paul turned it around and described himself and the other teachers in the lowliest of terms. He followed the teachings of Jesus when He said, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26, NASB).

It follows that, if the leaders are considering themselves in such a light, their followers must do so as well. In the words of Jesus, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master.[1]

Or, as Paul puts it, “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.[2]

And later in the chapter, “For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.[3]

Take Away: A true godly leader submits himself to God’s authority and judgment and considers himself a lowly servant of those in his care.

Take Away: A person who desires material wealth, acclaim, and power should not seek or be given a position of authority within the church. If God reveals this is true about us, we should not seek out those positions.

Take Away: We should follow the example of Paul and other godly leaders in submitting ourselves to God’s judgment and authority and seeking to serve one another.

Personal Take Away: Serving others is a form of leadership and ministry. Even though it doesn’t always feel like it or look important, when I take care of my home and children, I am serving them. I’m ministering to them. I’m placing myself under God’s authority and engaging in the ministry He has given me right now, in this time and place. True godly leadership and ministry doesn’t always look the way we want it to or think it should because it often disguises itself as lowly, mundane, drudgery. It’s messy and often uninspiring. And yet, according to Paul, that’s exactly what a life lived in true service to God looks like.  

True godly leadership and ministry doesn’t always look the way we want it to or think it should because it often disguises itself as lowly, mundane, drudgery.

The Judgment of the Lord

The other major piece of this chapter that stood out to me was verses 3-5. “But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.[4]

It’s so easy for us to make fast assumptions and judgments based on those assumptions. We see an action or hear an opinion or see a news headline or a post on social media and immediately, usually without realizing we’re doing it, make a whole set of assumptions. We assign a heart motivation – why they did or said it. We state a verdict – who is guilty and who is innocent, who was right or wrong. The more prominent the figure, the more passionate our judgment. What’s interesting in these verses is:

  1. Paul doesn’t submit himself to the popular opinion and whims of the masses, but to the good, all-knowing judgment of God. Knee-jerk reactions and ill-informed assumptions don’t dictate his actions. Instead, he places himself fully under the authority of God.
  2. Paul doesn’t tell them not to judge. Instead, he tells them to wait – to hold off on passing judgment until the Lord comes or, as he references two chapters later, to not pass judgment until a case has been fully examined in a court-of-law scenario for, he says, in chapter 6, “do you not know that the saints will judge the world?[5]” and “Do you not know that we will judge angels?[6]
  3. The Lord reveals all things. He makes known what has been done in secret. He reveals the motivations of the heart. He gives praise to those whom praise is due. What is done in darkness will be revealed. The true motives of our hearts will be made known. God will affirm those whose hearts have been set on Him.

Take Away: We shouldn’t be concerned about or allow our lives to be dictated by the uninformed opinions formed against us. Instead, we should keep our eyes fixed on God, seek to please Him, do what’s right in His eyes, and be attentive to His guidance and correction.

Take Away: We need to be careful that we don’t form snap judgments about others and about situations of which we have minimal knowledge. There is always more to the story than what we can see. Instead, we can trust that God sees all and will bring eternal justice and judgment to whom it is due when it is due.

United or Divided?

In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity,  

Things That Divide Us:

  • Making fast, uninformed judgements
  • Seeking to rise to positions of power and influence within the church for the purpose of attaining material wealth, power, and acclaim

Things that Unite Us:

  • Waiting on and trusting in God’s judgment
  • Seeking to serve one another in love

What Do You Think?

  • What stands out to you from this passage?
  • What do you think should be included in a list of qualities of a godly leader?
  • In what ways have you seen godly leaders in the church serve God’s people?

In this Series


The Church in Acts 18

Overview: A Prominent City

Chapter 1: Where Unity Begins

Chapter 2: In Demonstration of the Spirit

Chapter 3: “Let No One Boast in Men”

Chapter 4: Traits of a Godly Servant Leader

Chapter 5: Addressing Immorality in the Church

Chapter 6: Concerning Lawsuits and the Body

Chapter 7: Married or Single?

Chapter 8: Disagreements, Freedom, and Stumbling

Chapter 9: Equally Allowable Differences

Chapter 10: Take Heed How You Live

Chapter 11: Headship, Coverings, and the Lord’s Supper

Chapter 12: Spiritual Gifts

Chapter 13: Love Is…

Chapter 14: Edification and Order in the Church

Chapter 15: All About the Gospel

Chapter 16: Paul’s Closing Thoughts

Women, Join In!

For the last few months, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site,, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 10:24.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 4:6.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 4:15–16.

[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 4:3–5.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 6:2.

[6] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 6:3.

_ _ _

*Image by Jaroslav Šmahel from Pixabay


    • Thank you so much for reading and responding! It does seem like the idea of servanthood is often forgotten or demeaned even among Christian communities. I have to remember the value of it as well, especially when I’m taking care of my house. 🙂


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