“…his work will be shown for what it is…” – I Corinthians 3:13a
It’s hard to leave a ministry. I remember the feeling when I visited a church I had once pastored. I came back for a funeral, and it felt like I was sitting in the back seat of my own car with someone else driving.
The Bible has helped me gauge these emotions. The apostle Paul, on the one hand, made it clear that he preferred not to build on another’s foundation in Romans 15:20. This was said in a letter sent to a church that he’d never even been to before. But on the other hand he clearly accepted succession as part of the nature of ministry: One person moves on and the other continues with the work. This he wrote to a church he had planted, describing it in agrarian terms in I Corinthians 3:6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”
Yet he also seemed concerned about this. Just a few verses later (in 3:10b-11) he gave this caution to other ministers: “…each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” With new leadership, space needs to be made for different gifts, talents, ministry styles, etc. But some things are foundational and should never be changed.
Perhaps he wrote these words because he was concerned about some of Apollos’ deficiencies in understanding (cf. Acts 18:24-19:7). But either way, he pointed out that some kinds of ministry are of questionable quality. He described it with a construction metaphor in I Corinthians 3:12, contrasting flammable materials (wood, hay, straw) with non-flammable ones (gold, silver, precious stones).
The key for discernment is eschatological: God’s climactic moment will be revealing: “…the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire” (3:13b). In other words, Christ will come again – and His judgment will put everything in perspective.
Jesus helps us to see things as they really are. It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain: There’s a difference between what’s flashy or showy (be it impressive or frightening) and what’s of actual substance. And this is true in both Christian ministry and in global affairs. It’s true with money problems and with health problems. It’s true with daunting challenges and with golden opportunities. Jesus is Lord either way. He gives the grand discernment between what matters for the kingdom of God and what is merely a shallow or short-lived trend.
And in either case, the glory goes to God. Paul emphasized this repeatedly. God is the one who gives the growth (3:6-7) – and he’s speaking here of growth in spiritual maturity (3:1-2), with a marked absence of quarreling, jealousy, and factionalism (3:3-4), coupled with engagement in the wisdom and direction of the Holy Spirit (2:6-16).
They ask a question in politics every so often: “Are you better off than you were eight years ago?” When it comes to ministry a more pertinent one is this: “Am I closer to God than I was eight years ago?” Or, “Am I more like Jesus now than I was back then?” If you can answer in the affirmative, you know that God has done a good work in your life.
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor
First Congregational Church
The blog of Andrew McHenry, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas.