1 Corinthians 4:14-21

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? [1]

Paul has concluded the argument he began in 1:10 when he wrote:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.[2]

Paul used the metaphors of agriculture and architecture in chapter three. In 4:1-13, he used the metaphor of a trustworthy steward of a household in order to get the Corinthians to evaluate their judginess. The Corinthians, like you and I, saw themselves as amateur critics with an unimpeachable perspective on everything from food to arts, athletics to aesthetics, and politics to polemics. Why are we critics? And why are we such harsh critics? We are critics because human flesh is naturally, sinfully hardwired to want to be God. That makes us particularly fond of evaluating other people in our innate quest for godlike superiority. We judge people over their opinions and their social media posts. We judge them for their successes and their failures. Of course, Jesus plainly told us that judging another as foolish is murdering them in your heart and an act worthy of hell (Matt. 5:22). We murder with our words, and murder is the ultimate act of playing God.

He has written to them of how they have mistakenly combined right-side up wisdom of the world, the flesh, and the devil with the utterly upside-down nature of the gospel to appoint themselves as critics. The worldly, fleshly thinking is about winning, achieving, earning, self-improvement, and self-promotion. It is the meritocracy of Corinthian culture. But the upside-down nature of the gospel means the way down is the way up. The way of weakness is the way of strength. The way of poverty is the way of riches. The way of true wisdom is foolishness. To be first you must be last, leaders must follow, to gain glory you must and shall suffer, to be elevated you must become humble. God picks nobodies to be somebodies in front of everybody without consulting anybody. This is the theology of the cross, not the worldly theology of glory.

Though he’s concluded this three-and-a-half-chapter argument, the most delicate issue still remains. In light of all he’s written to them so far, how is he to re-establish his apostolic authority over them? The letter itself is an expression of authority. But since his status seems to have been called into question by the self-appointed Corinthian critics (1:1; 4:3; 9:1–3), and is a part of the strife itself, he needs to address the matter directly. How can he do that without losing the force of the argument he’s carefully crafted? Paul does it with another change of metaphors. The imagery of father and children has all the needed ingredients. It continues the important motif of his having founded the church (3:6, 10); and the inherent authority of the father/child relationship allows him alternately to “admonish” (v. 14), to “urge” behavioral change (vv. 16–17), and, if all else fails, to threaten discipline (vv. 18–21).[3]

In our culture, the word authority raises suspicion and mistrust. We tend to think of authority as something to be grimly endured or overthrown. There was a popular bumper sticker many decades ago that said, “Question Authority.” It’s certainly hard to imagine anyone sporting a bumper sticker that reads, “Never Question Authority.” Yet, there is no such thing as a state of non-authority. There is never an authority vacuum. Even if a person or a movement is able to overthrow an authority, that person or movement would become the new authority. If you were to escape all society and live entirely by yourself in the bush, you would still be subject to your own authority and to the laws of nature.

Nevertheless, our tendency to bristle against any authority is very real. This is why the modern Western reader can become uncomfortable reading the Apostle Paul in this passage. He claims the position of a father (v. 15), calls on the Corinthians to imitate him (v. 16), and warns them about the possibility of being disciplined (v. 21). To avoid a knee jerk reaction against Paul’s claim of authority, we need to understand what authority is not. It is NOT authoritarianism. Authority is the ability to influence others with the goal being their good and social flourishing. Authoritarianism is enforcing strict adherence to controlling power at the expense of personal freedom. It lacks concern for the wishes or opinions of others and is domineering and dictatorial. Social domination, not flourishing is its goal.

If we read the Bible as an authoritative document, we will delight in it because we see it as being for us and for our flourishing. The same is true of this passage. We can either wrongly view Paul as a dictator or correctly see him as a God given authority for the Corinthians. The Corinthians are rebelling. But Paul comes to them with fatherly care. He wants them to respond to his warnings and follow his example to prevent having to use his authority to discipline them. Discipline is not inherently wrong or authoritarian when carried out properly. It is for the good of the individuals and the community.


Paul begins by telling them, “14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” In light of the irony and sarcasm of the preceding paragraph, how can Paul now deny that he was intending to “shame” them? The very fact of this denial is evidence that he realized they should have been ashamed; they would seem beyond hope if they were not. But that was not the reason for what he’s written so far. Moments will come when their behavior will be so distressing, he will openly admit to trying to shame them into gospel sanity. In speaking of their resorting to pagan law courts to resolve disputes he writes, in 6:5, “I say this to your shame.[4] In 15:34 he will write, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.[5]

In Pauline writings, the verb “to admonish” means trying to have a corrective influence on someone, a gentle statement designed to correct while not provoking or embittering. Such correction may include “warning,” but it also implies counsel and appeal. It is a fitting word for the imagery “as my dear children.[6] Why does Paul choose to not shame the bombastic Corinthians over this most fundamental error of applying worldly principles to their gospel community? Every other egregious error Paul will address flows out of this fundamental misapplication of the gospel as a door one walks through on the road to self-improvement instead of as a pattern and encouragement and attitude for one’s entire life.

I believe he does not shame them at this point because he recognizes this to be every believer’s fundamental struggle in this sin-cursed world. He knows we all wake up every morning with the desire to apply our own fleshly skills and fleshly wisdom to control the outcome of our daily lives. We wake up under our own authority rather than recognizing God’s sovereign reign and rule over all things. We boot up with the pressure to pretend and perform – to manage our flesh— and achieve our own ideas of what is good, rather than resting in God’s upside-down goodness to us.

When Paul calls himself their “father,” he is not usurping God’s authority. He has already made it clear several times that he works only out of the grace given to him by God. He is speaking metaphorically to drive home the point that God used him to introduce the members of the Corinthian congregation to Jesus. Paul could have been much more arrogant and simply demanded that everyone submit to him as the founder and master builder of the congregation. From a merely human perspective, he had every right to do just that. But doing so would undermine his attempt to show the Corinthians the upside-down nature of God’s wisdom. Instead, he writes humbly out of love to those who have individually and corporately reviled him. As he wrote in 4:12-13, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.[7]

We could use the metaphor of a professional orchestra to understand the Corinthian situation. Gifted members are wonderfully talented and totally free in their creativity. They can play anything they want. But if they want to play together, they will have to submit themselves to the composer’s authority in the score and the authority of the conductor. Any number of interpretations of the score are possible, so all the musicians must freely submit to the conductor’s interpretation. When they do, the musical community flourishes both as individuals and as a collective because their authority seeks to leverage power for each individual’s good as well as for the common good. Paul sees the Corinthians playing from the score, but there is a cacophony of messy relationships and individual interpretations. He is calling them to relocate their vision where it belongs. He is using his authority to bring them back to a state of flourishing in relationship to God and one another.[8]

Everyone depends on others being in roles of authority and leveraging their influence for the greater good — whether those authority roles are in government, public service, education, professional mentoring, or (at the most basic level) parents. There is no such thing as a state of non-authority. There is either good authority or bad authority. Humans are hardwired to believe in authority structures. The question is whether we believe in an internal, intrinsic authority or some kind of external, extrinsic authority. This is why Paul can be uncomfortable in this passage when he writes “15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul is asserting his Apostolic authority and his authority as the one who founded and planted the church. They have only one spiritual father. His relationship to them is unique.

He says they have countless guides. The word carries a slightly stronger meaning, best translated guardians. Gordon Fee explains the use of the word:

The “guardian” was ordinarily a trusted slave, distinguished from a “teacher,” to whom a father turned over his children (usually sons), whom the guardian was to conduct to and from school and whose conduct in general he was to oversee. This is not intended to be a putdown of their other teachers, of whom Paul has thus far spoken favorably. Rather, the metaphor intends simply to distinguish his own relationship to them from that of all others, including of course Apollos and Peter, but also those within their community who are currently exercising influence, not to mention all others who ever would. His unique relationship to them was that of “father,” and that gave him a special authority over and responsibility toward them. With this language, therefore, he is both reasserting his authority and appealing to their loyalty, which had obviously eroded in this church.[9]

Paul’s emphasis is on the more significant relationship brought about by their birth that took place in Christ Jesus. Paul’s concern from beginning to end is the gospel. That is why he can move so easily from verses 11–13 to this passage, without losing stride. Everything has been said and done for Christ Jesus. He has “fathered” them so that they might be in Christ Jesus. He has sent Timothy, who is also his son in the Lord, so that they might learn to walk in Christ Jesus (4:17). [10] Timothy was to function as a surrogate father, a teacher, and a guardian over the guardians to ensure they all returned to the upside-down gospel from which they had begun to stray. Paul is not demanding that they maintain a brand loyalty to him. Rather, he is asking them to maintain their brand loyalty to their humble and gentle and lowly savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Because the Apostle Paul is all about the Lord Jesus Christ, he asks the Corinthians to imitate him. “16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” In 11:1, he will repeat this command. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.[11] Being their spiritual father, he wants them to act as he acts. One might read this and conclude that Paul simply wants his spiritual children to imitate him in some generic way. That interpretation is reflective of our culture, a ruggedly individualistic culture where independence is a badge of honor. However, in many parts of the world today and in Paul’s culture, the child was expected to imitate the father because the child would essentially adopt the father’s vocation. If the father were a baker, the child would be a baker. If the father were a carpenter, the child would be a carpenter. So, Paul’s analogy communicates a much stronger idea to the Corinthian culture than it would ordinarily do to us.

Unfortunately, Paul’s command to the Corinthians (to imitate him) is often used as a bad model of discipleship in our culture. We have often used it as an excuse for an unacceptable form of legalism. We believe, all too often, the discipleship means I must find a person newer in the faith and make them imitate me. If I get up at 4:00 AM for an hour and a half workout, my disciple must do the same. If I then proceed on to my 5:30 AM hour-and-a-half quiet time, my disciple must do the same. If I fast on a particular day, my disciple must do the same. They must be imitators of me. They must have my political and social views, they must copy my personality, they must be “a mini me.” But that is absolutely not what Paul is commanding.

Paul’s command for imitation comes only from what he has been writing to them in this letter. Listen to what he has already written:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. [12]

18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” [13]

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.[14]

Paul is telling these bombastic people they are to welcome being regarded as fools for Christ, and as weak and dishonored. They are to recognize that all they are and have comes to them as a grace-gift from God (3:10) and that they are not inherently extraordinary (4:7). They are to think of themselves as no better than menial field hands (3:5) and servants (4:1) awaiting God’s judgment to determine if they were trustworthy (4:5). They are to rid themselves of all resentments and rivalries with co-workers so that they can toil together in God’s field (3:5–9). They are to resist passing themselves off as wise or elite by using lofty words of wisdom or aligning themselves with those who do and to rely instead on the power of God that works through weakness, fear, and trembling (2:1– 4).


Because the Corinthians have merely sprinkled Jesus-language on their fleshly lives of self-promotion and self-improvement and used the Spirit’s gifts as steppingstones to personal power, Paul has sent out Timothy to come minister to them and restore their gospel sanity. It appears from 16:10 (When Timothy comes….) that Timothy will arrive when he has completed another assignment. He would have been well known to the Corinthians. He was with Paul during at least some of the mission to that city; and they would also have known that he had been something of a “trouble-shooter” for Paul.[15] But it appears Paul isn’t certain how Timothy will be received given the infighting going on in Corinth and the opposition to Paul and his apostolic authority. So, he calls Timothy “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord.”

Paul concludes this long section of the letter which began in 1:10 with a warning to the self-seeking agitators in the congregation. “Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.[16] None of us naturally seek any standard outside of us to tell us how to behave. But none of wants to be judged or disciplined either. Paul promises that he is coming back to Corinth, despite the allegations he’s abandoned them (or even afraid of them). He’s going to come and offer an authoritative decision about the Corinthians.

He is not merely coming to offer his opinion, but he is going to decide whether they are in or out. He will come jingling the keys to the Kingdom and shut the gates of heaven to the unrepentant offenders lost in the idolatry of self-worship. Every idol makes two simple and extravagant promises: you shall not surely die, and you shall be like God. But, in the end, persistent and unrepentant idolators must and shall die outside the Kingdom of Christ. Paul’s warning is somewhat mild, but his ultimate meaning is clear: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.[17] Paul’s authority carries the power of life and death because it is Jesus’ authority.

And this authority is full of love (otherwise it would be authoritarianism). The ideal authority is the subversive kingliness of the cross. The ultimate authority of the universe lays down his authority in order that others might flourish. God “plays God” in the most unexpected way imaginable at the cross. He plays God exactly in the way man does not. Whereas we grasp for power and use it against others to advance our own self-absorbed agendas, the God of the universe lays his power aside for the sake of others. His agenda is redemptive and cross-shaped.[18]

John gives us a wonderful picture of Jesus in John 13:3. It begins, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands….”[19] This means that Jesus had all authority on earth and knew that he had come from God and was going back to God. John says that Jesus knew all this— that he knew that he had received all authority and had come from God. He had all the authority, all things from God. So, what would one then expect to see in the very next verse? That he would perform some miraculous sign? That he would heal someone? That he would part the Red Sea? That there would be some act of transfiguration? That something victorious and glorious would happen?

The next two verses are utterly upside down from the way the Corinthians and you and I normally think: Jesus “rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.[20] How did Jesus wield all the authority that he had been given from the father? He laid down his life. He showed what it means to be self-giving. He showed what it means to be self-sacrificial.

Jesus lived the perfectly humble, law-keeping life we cannot live and died the shameful, humiliating blood-shedding death we deserve. He destroyed the bounds of death and was raised from the grave. But he did not immediately set out for vengeance and the destruction of the arrogant. Instead, he ascended to the father and waits patiently for those stubbornly rebellious people like the Corinthians, and you and I, to repent and turn to him for our Salvation. That is the message that gripped Paul and the only message that can change proud self-seeking hearts into humble others-serving hearts with an upside-down view of life, the universe, and everything.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 4:14–21.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 1:10.

[3] Fee, 183.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 6:5.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 15:34.

[6] Fee, 184.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 4:12–13.

[8] Um, 80-81. Kindle Edition.

[9] Fee, 185.

[10] Id., 186.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 11:1.

[12] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 2:1–5.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 3:18–23.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 4:1–3.

[15] Fee, 188.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 4:18–20.

[17] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Pr 16:25.

[18] Um, 87. Kindle Edition.

[19] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 13:3.

[20] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 13:4–5.