Servants and Stewards

1 Corinthians 4:1–5Darin's Online Photo Small

The old lady approached the king, carrying a stack of ancient books. She offered to sell the books at a fantastic price. The king scoffed at her, declaring that the price was far too high for such worthless items. The next day, the woman approached the king again, again offering to sell the books. However, she had destroyed one-third of the books while demanding the same price. Again the king refused to buy the books. But when the woman returned the next day with even fewer books, the king realized he had made a mistake and agreed to the asking price. He purchased the books before the old lady could destroy any more of these precious repositories of knowledge and wisdom.

Such is the legend of the Sibylline books as told by the ancient Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (with my artistic license). The story of the origin of the Sibylline books captures our imagination, even though it is probably fictitious. However, the existence of the books themselves seems likely. The historical record indicates that there was a group of noblemen in ancient Roman, known as the college of the quindecimviri, whose role included consulting the Sibylline books in times of national crisis. Members of the college were not allowed to read the books at their own whim; the Senate had to vote their approval first. Only after the Senate’s action could the quindecimviri open the books. We might say, therefore, that the quindecimviri were servants of the Senate and stewards of the mysteries of the Sibyl.

In today’s passage, Paul says that he and Apollos are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (v. 1). Like the quindecimviri, Paul and Apollos were in possession of books of inestimable value (the Sibylline books, in the case of the quindecimviri; the Word of God for Paul and Apollos). As stewards of these mysteries, they had to handle the books with special care. As Paul says, it is required of stewards that they are faithful (v. 2). If a member of the quindecimviri allowed the Sibylline books to be stolen or destroyed, image the repercussions. How much more for Paul and Apollos, who were entrusted with something even more precious than the Sibylline books!

Also like the quindecimviri, Paul and Apollos were subject to a wider community, not vice versa (as we saw last week). The quindecimviri couldn’t even open their books without the Senate’s say-so. Paul and Apollos were not as restricted. Nevertheless, they were still under community control. As emphasized in 1 Cor 3:22, the teachers belonged to the community. They worked at the Church’s request, much like the quindecimviri worked under Senate order. Moreover, Christian teachers were under the authority of the Church in that their teaching would have been censured if it moved too far beyond the bounds of community norms. Yes, the teachers could challenge the thoughts and actions of the community. But if they went too far, the community would have rejected them. Thus, the authority of the teachers was a two-way street.

Like Paul and Apollos, we, too, are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries. To the extent that we are teachers—and nearly all of us are in one capacity or another—we must remember that our teaching should align with the faith community. We are not free to make the Bible say anything of our own choosing, despite the fact that we can and must challenge the Church when its beliefs and practices contradict the Word of God. Conversely, when we are the recipients of spiritual teaching, we dare not abdicate our responsibility to hold teachers accountable. It is our duty, as “owners” of the teachers, to listen to their teaching with readiness to discern conformity to the Word of God and to reject teaching that fails the test. In sum, regardless of whether we are teachers or students, as servants and stewards we must remain faithful (v. 2).

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