Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
Because this is Ordination Sunday, the day when we ordain and install men and women God has called to serve here at Faith as elders and deacons, I want us to look together at a text from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which has a great deal to say to us about the nature of leadership in the church.
As you may know, Paul is writing to a church in Corinth which is deeply divided. This is, of course, not a unique problem. How many of you have ever heard of or been in a church that was divided? Some of us know first hand how painfully destructive division in the church can be. Frankly, it’s unnatural. As Paul writes later in this letter, the church is meant to be like a body that is knit together by the Holy Spirit. That means that when one part of the church is divided from another part of the church, it’s as if an arm or a leg has been torn off a body. It’s not natural and it’s horribly painful.
Nonetheless, division has happened at First Presbyterian Church of Corinth and one of the issues which has divided the church is the issue of leadership. Specifically, one segment of the church is partial to following Paul, the apostle who first founded the church, while another segment is partial to following Apollos, a leader who had gained great notoriety and influence in the church because he was a tremendous communicator. Essentially, people were fighting over who was their favorite pastor. We want to follow Senior Pastor Paul because he’s the one in authority. Well, we want to follow Associate Pastor Apollos because he’s such a dynamic preacher. If things don’t get resolved, there are going to be fireworks at the next church potluck!
With all this in mind, listen carefully now to what Paul writes in response to this growing division within the church.
1And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 3:1-11, NRSV)
Over the years has anybody ever told you to act your age? You’re ten years old and you kick and scream in the grocery store because your mom won’t buy you your favorite breakfast cereal. You’re sixteen years old and your dad still has to remind you every day to do your chores. You’re a 46-year-old man with a wife and kids and a full-time job and, okay every once in a while you throw a fit after you’ve had a long, hard day because somebody selfishly ate the last piece of apple pie that you were hoping to enjoy when you got home last Tuesday night. These are, of course, all hypotheticals.
In the first verses of this passage, Paul is scolding the Corinthian church by telling them, essentially, “Act your age!” As Christians, these people have been saved by the grace of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, a Spirit which is in them and among them to shape them, and guide them, and unite them, a Spirit which is there to help them transcend the petty thinking and divisiveness of this world. And yet they are refusing to be guided by the Spirit and instead allowing the ways of the world to infect their community as they pit one leader in the church against another leader.
Paul is saying, “Knock it off. Act your age. Grow up. You’re acting like babies. You know better than this. You are better than this. As long as you fight and quarrel about these sorts of things you are demonstrating that you are following your own human inclinations rather than following the Holy Spirit.”
In verse 4 Paul gets specific. “When one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?” Then Paul asks, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” It’s a brilliant question, designed to show just how radically misguided these people are when it comes to the nature of leadership in the church.
What is Paul? What is Apollos? Paul answers his own question. Servants. That’s what Apollos and Paul are, servants. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The Greek word for “servant” which Paul uses here is the word diakonos. If it sounds familiar it’s because this is where we get our English word deacon. In those days, diakonos referred literally to people who waited on tables. Read Acts 6:1-7 where the early church was trying to figure out how food was to be properly distributed to those who were hungry and you see how those chosen for this task, chosen to serve those in need, were first called “deacons” or, literally, “table waiters.” Paul is saying, therefore, “You know what I am? You know what Apollos is? We’re simply table waiters. That’s it. We’re just the ones assigned to bring you your dinner.”
Let’s run with this analogy for a moment. Think about your favorite restaurant in Sacramento. Why is that your favorite restaurant? It’s the food, right? The setting may be wonderful; maybe it’s right on the river, or the artwork and décor inside has been tastefully chosen. Maybe the service is wonderful; the waiters are patient, and friendly and attentive. All these things certainly add to the dining experience, but if a restaurant has all this but the food is lousy, you’re not going back. Right?
Nobody ever says, “Listen, you have just got to try that new place down in mid-town. The food is horrible but the service is to die for.” Nobody ever says that. On the contrary, I have heard it said before, “You’ve got to try this place. The service is not great but you can put up with it because the food is out of this world.” There are, in fact, restaurants where the food is so good that they actually pride themselves on their lousy service. They know the food is so good that place will be packed no matter what. Some of you remember Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi!
Now, when you enjoy a terrific meal in a restaurant, what is it that you say afterwards? You say to the waiter, “My compliments to the chef.” You do not go back into the kitchen to say to the chef, “My compliments to the waiter.” Again, while ambiance and good service can certainly enhance a meal, the main reason you go to a restaurant is to eat good food. And the person most responsible for the food being good is the chef.
Let me show then you how this applies to the church.
Like all leaders in this church, I believe I have been given some gifts from God and a calling to use those gifts here at Faith. There are certainly many gifts I do not have, but I do believe that I have been gifted and called to preach and teach. And while I don’t want to diminish those gifts, or the gifts other leaders here have been given in any way because they are valuable and important to the life of this church, at the same time those gifts do need to be kept in perspective.
You see, the purpose of preaching and teaching in the church is to provide spiritual food to the people of the church. The Word of God, when it is faithfully proclaimed, nourishes our faith and our spirits. My role in this spiritual banquet, however, is simply that of a table waiter. God is the chef, the one who has prepared the meal for our souls, the one who makes it nourishing, the one who uses his Word to make us grow. That means that my job is simply to get the food from the chef’s kitchen to the table without dropping too much of it on the floor along the way.
A pastor named John Piper puts it this way, “[Pastors and teachers in the church] are not saviors. They are not the gospel. They are not the Holy Spirit. They are not the source of power. They are not God. They are table-waiters. And the faith that happens when the food of God’s word is served, happens [merely] through them, like a canal, not from them like a spring. So don’t think of them as originators. They don’t originate. They deliver. They serve.” That’s it.
Again, this is not to diminish the role of the preacher and the gifts and calling given to him or her. Even a waiter has an important role in the overall dining experience and a skilled waiter can greatly enhance a meal. At the same time, when a diner is nourished with good food, the real credit always goes to the chef. In the same way, if anything good and soul-nourishing comes out of this pulpit, let us never give the preacher, no matter who it is, too much credit. Ultimately, it must be credited to God who works through the scriptures, through the preacher, through our minds and hearts, to reveal grace and truth to us which help us grow in faith as disciples.
In the same way that it’s helpful to picture myself and the others pastors in aprons and not chef’s hats, it’s also helpful to picture our other leaders in the same way. When elders lead the church with wisdom and courage and faith, we can certainly celebrate the gifts they have been given but ultimately we must give glory to God as the one who leads through these men and women. When deacons come alongside the church with compassion and mercy, bringing encouragement and comfort, it is right that we are grateful for the gifts God has given them to do so but also right that we recognize it is ultimately the Holy Spirit working through them which makes the real difference. Pastor, elders, deacons, all who are called to lead and serve, are merely table waiters. The apron is our uniform, not the chef’s hat.
Here is where the Corinthians made a crucial mistake. Some of them were saying, essentially, “Well, we really prefer the way Paul brings the food to the table. He’s the head waiter, after all, the one with the most experience. We want him to serve us.” At the same time others were saying, “No way, Apollos serves with such flair! Who cares if Paul has more experience, we like Apollos’ style and we want him to bring us dinner.” The church is being divided by preferences over different table waiters who are serving the exact same food. He and Apollos are merely servants, Paul says, “though whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.”
In verse 6 Paul then uses his own analogy to drive home this truth. “I planted,” Paul says,” Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
The goal of a garden is to produce healthy plants, especially plants that provide fruit and vegetables. To that end, while lots of things are important in a garden like sunshine, fertilizer, water, and weeding, nothing is nearly as important as growth. If a person plants, waters and fertilizes a garden but nothing ultimately grows that garden can hardly be called a success. Those of you who have tried to have gardens at home know that you can do a lot of things to promote growth in your tomato plants but you cannot make tomatoes grow. As William Barclay once wrote, “Humans can do many things but they have never yet created life.” When it comes to both physical and spiritual growth, God is the only one who can really make things happen.
Remember, there are lots of things that people can do in a church apart from God. We can raise money, build buildings, use technology, communicate in captivating ways, even fill the pews with people and the calendar with programs. The thing is, lots of organizations besides churches do these things without even any belief in God and so, on their own these things are merely planting and watering. Ultimately, it’s the things that really matter in a lasting way which only God can do in the church. Only God can save. Only God can forgive. Only God can enlighten a mind that has been darkened. Only God can soften a human heart that has grown hard. Only God can release people from the prison of shame and guilt. Only God can create love between enemies. Only God can transform the human soul. Only God can raise dead people to life. As His servants, we may get to have a hand in delivering these things to people, but God alone is the chef in the kitchen cooking all these things up.
If you don’t see them already, let me show you a couple of reasons why all this is extraordinarily good news, good news both for leaders in this church and for this church as a whole.
First for leaders. Those of you who are called to be leaders in this church, even those who are being ordained and installed today, recognize that Paul here is lifting a tremendous weight off our shoulders. Ultimately, it is not up to us to make things happen in the church. We cannot make people believe. We cannot make people forgive, or trust, or love. We cannot make people follow Jesus. We cannot heal people, in their bodies or in their spirits.
There are lots of things we can do, of course. We can pray, we can teach, we can lead, we can encourage, we can challenge, we can love. But in the end, spiritual growth in the human heart and spiritual transformation in the human life are not ultimately our responsibility. We are simply called to do our best, and then to leave God with the rest.
All this is to say that if you step into a leadership role here at Faith, or any ministry role for that matter, and don’t feel worthy to the task, that’s not such a bad thing. After all, you’re not worthy. That’s the point. You have been given gifts and have been called, that’s true. You have a job, an important job, to plant and water. Still, it’s good to remember that on your own you can’t make a single thing grow. That’s God’s job, which sort of makes it seem like prayer might just be the most important thing we do around here.
Second, there is good news here not just for leaders but for the whole church, good news and a challenge. The health and life of this congregation is dependent on one person and one person alone and that person is never the pastor or any other person here at Faith. That person is Christ. It all depends on Christ. That means, among other things, that the human leadership here at Faith can change without the true and real leadership ever needing to change. Pastors and other leaders come and go but all the while, Christ remains.
Now, that doesn’t mean, of course, that we just put anybody into positions of leadership. We don’t. Again, we ought to have high regard for the specific gifts given by God to certain individuals called to lead. At the same time, the real foundation of the church is not our leaders, gifted and called as they may be. The real foundation is always Christ, and Christ alone.
Imagine that you find out that there was a staff change at your favorite restaurant. What would be your first concern? You might be disappointed if your favorite waiter was let go, but you’d be much more disappointed if your favorite chef was let go. Restaurants rarely go under when a waiter leaves. The business can be devastated, however, when the popular chef quits.
Again, the human leaders in this church will come and go. New elders and deacons are elected every three years. New people are called into teaching positions all the time. Even pastors are eventually called away, just like is happening with Patrick and Quinn in a few weeks. Ten years from now, as God will have it, much of the leadership of this church will likely be different then it is now, just like it is different now than it was ten years ago. And yet, as long as Jesus remains the foundation, people will still be fed and grow in this place no matter who the leaders are. If the chef remains in the kitchen, the table waiters can come and go and the people will still be served great food!
Tragically, people too often miss this truth and that can cause undue damage to churches when they go through leadership transitions. Some years ago when I was called to a church in Omaha, there were people who immediately left the church because they loved and preferred the pastor before me and if Troy wasn’t going to be their pastor any more they just couldn’t see staying at the church. When it was my turn to leave eight years later, I was saddened to hear that the same thing happened as a number of people left without sticking around to see how Christ was going to continue to work through the pastor who followed me. This phenomenon is so common in churches today that I meet people all the time who are leaving a church for the simple reason that their favorite pastor is no longer there. I hope you can just how misguided that really is.
Here’s another game that I watched people play in my last church. Whenever I would preach, which was about every two months or so, there would be some people who would literally skip church that day because the Senior Pastor wasn’t preaching and other people who would come only on those Sundays because they preferred the style that I had in the pulpit. Sadly, these people came based on who was waiting tables that particular day and had simply forgotten that the same chef was in the kitchen every Sunday cooking up the same marvelous food regardless of who was bringing it to the table.
Now, I don’t think these things happen regularly here at Faith and I pray they never do, because when they happen Christians demonstrate just how misguided they really are by tying their devotion to one or another particular leader in the church. Again, who is Paul, really? Who is Apollos? Who is Jeff? Who is Jim? Who is Patrick? Who is this elder or that elder, this deacon or that deacon? That church leader you wish were still leading, who is he? Who is she?
Who is Peter? Who is James? Who is Martin Luther or John Calvin? Who is Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Who is Billy Graham? Who is Pope Francis? Who is _______________ (fill in the blank with the name of a Christian leader who has influenced your life)? Who is he? Who is she? Ordinary servants, every single one of them, mere table waiters simply trying to bring food from the chef’s kitchen to your table without spilling too much of it along the way.
I love how this passage ends. It’s a good place for us to end. Using yet another analogy, that of a building, Paul brings it all into focus when he writes, in verses 10-11, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”
The church is God’s church. This church is God’s church. Christ is the foundation, the source, the leader, the life, the head. This church is 100% God’s church and all aspects of this church – our buildings, finances, our attitudes, our processes, our decisions, our nature of ministry, all of it! – should flow out of this singular realization.
Christ is the foundation. Our leaders are a gift, just as all of us are a gift, but Christ is the one who makes things happen and this reality brings us great humility and, at the same time, great freedom.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read I Corinthians 3:1-11. What stands out to you?
What is Paul saying when he writes that “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything but only God who gives the growth”?
What do you think about the Bible’s comparison to church leaders as “table waiters”? How is this helpful for you when you think about your own ministry?
Have you ever been tempted to leave a church because your favorite leader or pastor left? What did you do?
Should it matter who is preaching on Sunday morning as long as God’s Word is being faithfully proclaimed?
What can we do at Faith to make sure our devotion is rooted in Christ alone as our leader and not in one human leader or another?
Do you think that you would ever be called by God to be a leader in the church? Why or why not? What sorts of people are called to be leaders?
What does it mean to you when Paul says that Jesus Christ is the “foundation” of the church?
Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.
Monday: Psalm 108 ~ John 17:20-24
Tuesday: Psalm 109 ~ I John 5:9-13
Wednesday: Psalm 110 ~ Hebrews 9:11-14
Thursday: Psalm 111 ~ Hebrews 9:24-28
Friday: Psalm 112 ~ Hebrews 12:18-24
Saturday: Psalm 113 ~ Joel 2:28-32
Sunday: Psalm 114 ~ Acts 2:1-12
 Taken from a sermon found at https://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/i-planted-apollos-watered-but-god-gave-the-growth
 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Letters to the Corinthians, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), p. 35.
 Emphasis mine.