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Leadership Amid Troubled Waters: Paul’s Example with the Church at Corinth

Updated: Apr 27, 2019

by Jessica Scott, #NPLOKC Church Planting Resident

Purpose of the Study

The epistles to the Corinthians are beloved by most within the Church for their rich encouragement, correction, and teaching.  Some of the most well-known verses expositing the identity of the church are found within these works. Today, however, we will approach the familiar text at a slightly different slant than what is typical.  Our purpose is to examine a portion of Paul’s work to learn about biblical leadership of the Church amid troubled waters – namely, the mess which is broken humanity. Through Paul’s example of leadership to the church at Corinth, we learn that true leaders from God are filled and led by the Holy Spirit, point to the authority of God’s Word, and direct those under their influence to the centrality of the Gospel.  

Establishing Grounds

Our focus will be on 1 Corinthians 1-4, in which Paul begins his letter to the church by lovingly addressing one of the key problems within their community.  Our study will be guided by three driving questions:

  1. What is the issue?  

  2. Who is involved?  

  3. What commands are given to solve the issue?  

Additionally, we will use a model called the Church Circle to observe which commands are given by Paul.  The Church Circle is a helpful guide based on Acts 2:36-47 that establishes the characteristics of a healthy, biblical church.  Included are the following characteristics: proclamation of the Gospel, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit, devotion to God’s Word, fellowship, breaking bread together, prayer, signs and wonders, giving, praising God, and multiplication.  This tool can be depicted as a unified image using simple symbols. I will demonstrate it and then you can practice drawing it yourself.

Using these questions and the Church Circle will provide a focused scope through which we can examine this word from God and by which we can glean great insight about godly leadership.  Let’s start by getting ourselves familiar with this letter.

Finding the Context

As previously stated, the books of first and second Corinthians are letters from the apostle Paul to the church at a place called Corinth.  If you flip back to Acts 18, we find the origin of the church.

  • {What do we learn about the formation of the Corinthian church?}

  • {Who founded it?  Who was a part of it?}

  • {Are there any other key characters mentioned?}

  • {How long was Paul in Corinth?}

  • {Looking at the end of chapter 18 and beginning of 19, who was left to care for this church?}

  • {What do we learn about Apollos?}

So, we see that Paul founded the church at Corinth during one of his missionary journeys.  Being opposed by many Jews, he began to go to the Gentiles; however, we see both Gentiles and Jews came to believe.  Apollos, a fervent teacher of God’s word, was left to teach the body after Paul had left, having received corrective explanation from Paul’s partners Priscilla and Aquila.  Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians were written later to encourage the church to claim the truths of God’s Word and to correct them in areas in which they were failing.

The opening of the first letter, our focus for this study, begins with an obvious expression of Paul’s love and gratitude for this church.  He establishes an important foundation for all that will be said: he is writing to saints who have been called as God’s children into fellowship with Jesus.  With this identity in mind, the apostle is then able to correct his brothers and sisters sternly in love and in truth.

Getting to the Meat

Let’s start by reading 1:1-9.

  •  {Have somebody read aloud.}

Remember our three key questions?  We can already answer one.

  • {Who is involved in this passage and letter?  What are we told about them?}

Paul and his partner Sosthenes are writing to the church at Corinth.  All are identified as saints in the Lord Jesus.

Continuing, somebody read the remainder of chapter 1.  

  • {Read aloud.}

  • {What is the issue at hand?}

The primary concern here is the church’s quarreling over who they should listen to as their leader.  There was a stark division: some submitted to Paul’s authority, some to Apollos, some to Peter, and some to Christ.  Earlier we learned that Apollos was the one trusted to teach this church, and we will later see that the primary split was over loyalty to him or Paul.  

  • {What commands are given to solve this issue?}

The prominent commands so far are God’s Word and the Gospel.  By setting these before the Corinthians, Paul asserts that authority of the church does not come from people; the authority is the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

  • {How does Paul describe God’s methods and Gospel?  How does that relate to human leaders?}

The Lord does not work in ways that make sense to humans.  He uses what is foolish and weak to shame the wise and strong.  Jesus, the source of salvation, is God’s wisdom and strength. By using what the world would consider foolish, God demonstrates that He is the power behind the work; He is the true authority.  

Paul fleshes out the realities of God’s wisdom in chapter 2.  Somebody read that for us.

  • {Read aloud.}

  • {Now, what commands are given to solve the issue?}

Again, the Word of God is set forth as the authority.  Paul continually redirects the people’s focus to where it should be – on the Lord.

  • {What evidence accompanies those who are “spiritual”?}

There is “a powerful demonstration by the Spirit” (2:4) with those who speak the Gospel because they speak in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, people who are truly proclaiming and leading according to Christ will be validated by the result of signs and wonders as the power of God is elevated.  Also, Paul explains that the spiritual person – the one who has the Spirit of God – will receive wisdom and understanding as the Spirit points him or her to Jesus and illuminates the Gospel.  

Chapter 3 returns the attention back to the issue.  Let’s read it.

  • {Read aloud.}

  • {Who is involved here?  What do we know about them?}

  • {What is the issue?}

At the core, the problem is jealousy and strife within the body because their focus was on man not Christ.  They bickered over who had authority over them, but Paul corrected this misdirected view.

  • {What commands are given?}

Paul follows his pattern of placing the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus at the forefront.  Yes, Paul planted by founding the church, and yes, Apollos watered by teaching, but God is the One Who brought the produce!  These men were tools used by God; He accomplishes the work, and if any work of the Church is to bear fruit it must be laid on the foundation of Jesus.  

It is interesting that Paul doesn’t directly deal with Apollos, who was serving as the leader over this people.  He maintained focus on the true Head. Paul demonstrated incredible trust in the Holy Spirit to teach and guide His people as He promised He would.  

Finally, we come to chapter 4 in which Paul wraps up his response to this first issue. Somebody read what he says for us.  

  • {Read aloud.}

  • {What commands are given?}

Paul again returns attention to the Gospel because the Church has been entrusted with this “mystery,” and leaders can only make positive impact when they come with the Gospel.  He also emphasizes the power of the Kingdom – when God is at work, big results are going to be manifested.

  • {How does Paul describe leaders within the Church?  What are their weaknesses? What is their power?}

  • {In light of verses 9-13, why does Paul go on to tell the church to imitate him in verse 16?}

Paul set himself and Apollos in their proper places: foolish, weak, nothing.  Are these really the guys they wanted to be fighting over? Paul once again proclaimed that power and wisdom come from Jesus!  

What then are we to make of these human leaders?  Paul urges them to imitate him, but why? He does so because He is imitating Christ.  Leaders follow Jesus’ authority and lead others by their faithful example. Though Paul was more than willing to confront the Corinthians with stern discipline as a “father” over them (v. 21), his objective in leadership was to direct attention to Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit to lead.  The spiritual would listen, while the fleshly would not. Paul used the authoritative Word of God and the Holy Spirit, affirmed by fruitful power which came as a result, to call this church to submit to the only One Who is worthy.

Your Turn to Respond

We’ve examined this specific, biblical example of leadership, and now it’s time to ask the big question… So what?  How do we respond to what we have learned? Let’s think about what we have just dissected.

  • {What key principles do these few chapters teach us about biblical leadership?}

We cannot overlook the centrality of God’s Word, Christ’s power, and the Spirit’s work.  Apart from these, human leadership is faulty. With these as the foundation, God’s mighty Kingdom is gloriously manifested.  Leaders must submit to Jesus and follow Him, and then call others to do the same. Furthermore, leaders must – without exception – trust the Holy Spirit to guide His people.  If leaders try to lord over the people by demanding their every choice, they are building upon a crumbling foundation. The Holy Spirit knows how to move people infinitely better than we do; leave it up to Him to bring about right change.  

  • {What are areas in which you have been entrusted to lead?  What is one way you can apply these principles?}

  • {How can you better submit to the authority of Jesus?}

  • {What is one way you will choose to lead by the example of humble submission to the Lord?}

Leadership is a messy process because we are dealing with messy humans; but praise God that the Christ we proclaim and the Spirit Who fills us are wonderfully transforming our mess.  

Words to Take to Heart

“My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)


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