1 Corinthians 4:1–6
One of the most influential books in my intellectual and theological development is The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires (now out of print, except in a reprint edition available from Regent College). Blamires makes the important point that it is possible to think Christianly or unChristianly about anything. In other words, it is not the topic that makes thinking Christian, but the process. For instance, thinking about automobile traffic problems ought to be different for the Christian and the secular thinker. The Christian thinker, among other things, should be concerned about fairness and the effect on the personal dignity of all who are impacted by a proposed solution to traffic problems.
One of the considerations that Blamires emphasizes as characteristic of the Christian way of thinking is an eternal perspective. The Christian thinker asks, for example, what are the forever consequences of the choices under consideration. To return to the above illustration of traffic problems, an eternal perspective asks what difference proposed solutions will have on people’s eternal destiny, not merely how much time they will save on the daily commute. Indeed, traffic can impact eternity in countless ways, such as consequences of the premature death of a parent due to inadequate traffic signals left uncorrected in order to save a little money.
Paul takes an eternal perspective in today’s passage. In v. 5 he says “Judge nothing before the appointed time” (TNIV). He quickly adds, “Wait till the Lord comes” (TNIV). The Lord’s coming, of course, will mark the end of time as we know it, the passing from time into eternity. Paul says that one’s commendation at the Lord’s coming is from the Lord Himself (v. 5). He insists that he doesn’t even judge himself (v. 3). It is helpful to consider how radical this idea would have been when it was first written. In an honor-driven culture, people were constantly judging and commending themselves and others. It was an ingrained cultural imperative to assess whether someone was honorable or shameful. Were any given words or deeds praiseworthy, and therefore increasing the honor or commendation of the speaker or doer; or were they despicable, with the opposite effect?
But notice that Paul is not discussing these things “out of the blue.” As he says in v. 6, “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit” (TNIV). In other words, the primary reason that judging is under discussion here is that judging has been a problem for the Corinthian believers. Earlier in 1 Corinthians we learn that the people had been dividing into factions and quarreling over which faction was better. The logic in today’s passage is that the Corinthians were judging their teachers and one another, and Paul appeals to them to judge nothing before the right time. Which teacher is the best is for God to decide, not for the Corinthians to divide over.
I have found it very helpful to adopt such a stance in everyday life. Frequently we encounter someone who does something that offends us, that hurts us, or that simply bothers us. It is perfectly natural to assign evil or malicious motives to that person, judging their motives as if they intended to offend or hurt or bother. Paul’s message to us is to suspend judgment until the appointed time. We do this by assuming that the other person—so often a brother or sister in Christ—is operating out of pure motives. When we approach people in this way, we are prepared to see the best in them. Assuming the best often produces the best. Refusing to judge people before we have all the facts is a way of taking an eternal perspective—a long view.