1 Corinthians 4:8–14
“Power corrupts…and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This common saying is at the heart of many people’s thinking about the role of power in politics, whether national, institutional, or interpersonal. The saying has an element of truth, which explains its prevalence. However, not all uses of power are negative. As one of my professors noted, God gives each of us some degree of power, and He expects us to use that power to influence others to live a life more pleasing to Him.
In today’s passage, we find Paul addressing a related issue. He addresses the Corinthians as rich kings (v. 8), but he contrasts their “rule” with the lifestyle of himself and the other apostles (vv. 9–13). Their lifestyle is the very epitome of non-ruling; yet God has chosen them to be the ones to carry His message. There is, then, an alignment between the message (the message of the cross) and the messengers (the scum of the earth [v. 13]).
The passage opens in v. 8 with a series of clauses that may be variously understood. They could be rhetorical questions (Do you already have all you want? Have you already become rich? Have you become kings without us?), they could be ironic statements (they think they are rich rulers, but they are not), or they could be non-ironic statements (they really are rich rulers). If the clauses are rhetorical questions, then the implied answer to each is no. If they are statements with irony, then the Corinthian believers do not rule but have acted as though they do. If the clauses are statements without irony, then the Corinthians do reign, but in the wrong way.
Interestingly, this last scenario pertains regardless of which way we understand the clauses of v. 8. Whether the clauses are questions or statements, Paul is critiquing the mindset conveyed by the image of rich rulers. Thus, although we can’t hear Paul’s actual tone of voice in order to clarify whether he is asking a question or making a statement with or without irony, his meaning is nevertheless clear: there are right and wrong ways to enjoy wealth and power. Wealth and power are not wrong per se; but they are surely wrong if they are obtained or exercised outside the purposes of God.
Moreover, the relative destitution of the apostles (vv. 9–13) demonstrates that there is a kind of power that comes through apparent powerlessness. Paul and the other apostles lacked all the trappings of worldly power, yet they had been selected by God to spread the Gospel. This should remind us of Paul’s earlier discussion about the foolishness of God, which Paul insists is wiser than the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:25). The foolishness that Paul discussed there was the foolishness of the Cross. The seeming weakness of the apostles becomes their strength because by following the way of the Cross, they become conduits of God’s power.
In sum, to the extent that the Corinthians either actually had all they wanted or merely aspired to possess all they desired, for Paul they were on the wrong side of the ledger. They were following the world’s pattern, not God’s. Better to be the scum of the earth like the apostles, than the toast of the world like the Corinthian wannabes, for only those who follow the approach of the former operate according to God’s will as revealed in Christ.
God has given each one of us some power, since we are His children. But God’s kingship is one of foolishness and suffering, and His charge to His children is to follow His path. Paradoxically, we are to wield power in the lives of others by empowering them, not by forcing our will upon them. We are to exert influence on others by allowing them to outshine us. Ultimately, we bring the light of wholeness into their lives by so magnifying Christ that we become almost invisible. This is what it means to be children of the heavenly King.