“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (1 Corinthians 4:1)
The apostle Paul was neither afflicted with false modesty nor with any sort of apostolic pomposity. He understood his role and his office in the household of God. At times we find him needing to assert his apostolic office to the end that his readers would heed him as they would the Lord. On other occasions we find him passionately putting himself in place. He strove valiantly with the Corinthians to maintain their firm grasp of his apostolicity that they might obey his charge to regard him rightly as a man, a servant, and a steward, and most certainly not a king, a deity, or a little messiah.
As we read between the lines of Paul’s letters, attempting to become more intimately acquainted with our beloved older brother in the faith, we come away with the impression that he hated the celebrity that seemed so often to accompany his office, and one thing is abundantly clear from what we read here in chapter four, considering the Corinthians’ borderline deification of the apostles, Paul saw himself as nothing more, and nothing less, than a steward.
In the first century, a steward was one who served a family and an entire household by managing its affairs. From the same word as the English cognate economy, a steward was not the master, or head, of the household but was the master’s entrusted manager of his entire household. In order for the master to be successful in his work, in society, and in the broader community, the steward of the master’s household must be the greatest of servants as he carried the great-but-oft-confounding burden of actively leading in the master’s absence and responsively serving in the master’s presence.
Having been a Pharisee, Paul knew well what it was to set himself up above the law of God as he zealously sought to keep man’s laws above and beyond God’s laws in order to ensure God was abundantly satisfied with him and blessed him. Attempting to be faithful rulers, Paul and the Pharisees established themselves as masters of the house, lords of God’s household, not as faithful stewards.
I’ve often said to those with whom I serve most intimately that the greatest servants make the greatest leaders, that all great leaders were once great servants, and that if they prove to be good leaders at life’s end it’s only because they have remained faithful servants. The faithful servant will never allow himself to rise to the place of master, even if the household should clamor for such. When the dear and immature Corinthians clamored, Paul put himself in his place. However, he didn’t simply state the case of his role and how people should regard him as a steward and servant and then move on to something else; rather, in classic Pauline fashion, he qualified his role with a rejoinder, saying, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” At the end of the day, when the master comes home, the steward must be found faithful. If not, he wasn’t simply proven to be a bad steward but no steward at all. In fact, if he was found unfaithful the steward could be discharged, imprisoned, or even executed (similar to what Joseph experienced in Genesis 39, though, of course, falsely accused). A steward is, by necessity, faithful. If he is found to be unfaithful, he will find himself a steward no longer. A “bad steward” is oxymoronic. A bad steward is no steward at all.
A “bad steward” is oxymoronic. A bad steward is no steward at all.
In his letter to Titus, Paul writes concerning the qualification of elders: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7). In the same breath and with no further explication, Paul enjoins the elder’s office as “overseer” and his role as “steward.” The language of “overseer” suggests the elder’s appropriate role of authority, and the language of “steward” suggests his role of responsibility as an entrusted servant of the only Master and Head, Jesus Christ whose kingly authority is not merely titular but in every way real, active, and necessarily guarded.
John Calvin aids us in getting right to the heart of the matter of the elder’s authority and stewardship: “Now the medium observed by Paul consists in this, that he calls them stewards of Christ; by which he intimates, that they ought to apply themselves not to their own work but to that of the Lord, who has hired them as his servants, and that they are not appointed to bear rule in an authoritative manner in the Church, but are subject to Christ’s authority—in short, that they are servants, not masters.”
No one can better and more appropriately grasp the role of elder than a faithful, biblically qualified elder in the household of God. Few things, if anything, in life can bring more constant fulfillment and more confounding heartache. And while we as elders must never suffer the devilish affliction of false modesty in making less of our office than Christ does, neither should we make more of our station than Christ does, even when his household comes flattering, deifying, and making us into celebrities. We must daily put ourselves in our right places by the daily aid of the always-faithful Spirit who daily pricks us and convicts us to the end that we would hate our celebrity as much as Paul and be as amused by our supposed celebrity as Christ is.
To be a steward we must be faithful, and such faithfulness begins with the regular reminder to ourselves first and then to the household of God that we are not lords, but stewards, entrusted by God with His Gospel, not ours—and if it’s His, we ought not trifle with it knowing well that if we do we will not simply be found bad stewards but not stewards at all, deserving not only discharge from our office but a mill-stone around our necks.