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Relevance is Irrelevant (Part 13)

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series

"Relevance is Irrelevant"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

I have been arguing that Paul’s method of ministry deliberately avoided attempts to be (what we would call) relevant. Paul not only says that he himself avoided relevant methods, but compels his successors to do the same. His manner of ministry is authoritative for us. If he preached Christ crucified, then we should too.

I believe that there is point of contact between the relevant tactics of contemporary American evangelical ministry and “words of eloquent wisdom” (1 Cor 1:17), what Paul identifies as “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1).

As such, the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians suggest that we move away from relevant ministry. In fact, these passages teach us that methods of ministry that incorporate “relevance” end up being largely irrelevant. What matters is not “plausible words of wisdom,” but the powerful working of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:4).

For my purposes, I want to end this study noting how 1 Cor 3:5-9 contribute to this doctrine. Paul writes,

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

The Corinthian believers were acting “as people of the flesh,” by introducing contention and strife to the assembly. This jealousy and division was driven by certain church factions’ attachment to certain spiritual leaders. By acting divisively, however, the Corinthians were actually betraying their lack of spiritual maturity.

Paul overturns their human loyalty. “Who then is Paul?” We can certainly appreciate his humility here. “I am nothing,” he is telling the believers. “Do not rally around me. I am a mere “servant,” a mere minister, a mere instrument by whom you believed.” The Lord was the one working. He had “assigned” to each of the ministers those people who would believe through their ministry.

It is important to note the continuity here with Paul’s doctrine in the earlier chapters. One of the reasons Paul gave for avoiding eloquence and preaching Christ crucified was it demonstrated God’s power (1:26-31; 2:5). He said that spiritual truth is spiritually discerned (2:14). God reveals to Christians the truth of his revelation “through the Spirit” (2:10). This speaks to the divine grace of a God who is at work in the hearts of those who believe. Here, now, in 1 Cor 3:5, Paul says that the human instruments (“Paul . . . Apollos”) are nothing. It is the Lord who assigns to each instrument those who will believe. He is the sovereign Lord of the harvest.

Paul says that he and Apollos were simply laborers in the field. On an actual farm, the farmer or field-hand does not actually produce the fruit in farming. It is our sovereign God who blesses the harvest. So it is with Christian ministry. One man plants, another man waters, but it is God who blesses. “God gave the growth.” Again, the success of Christian ministry depends upon God, not on human instruments: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7).

Moreover, the work of Paul and Apollos was united. It is “one,” and each is rewarded according to his labor. The Corinthians erred when they divided themselves up into little factions. Both Paul and Apollos were ministering Christ; they were united in this endeavor. Paul reminds them that this ministry of the Word is one ministry, with God ultimately giving the blessing.

Verse 9 only further dispels the myth of ministry depending upon human ministers. Paul and Apollos and Peter and all the others were one with God in this labor. They were simply laboring faithfully in the Word and allow God to get the increase. Look at how Paul speaks of his own disposition toward the Corinthians. He claims no part of them as his own: “You are God’s field; God’s building.” He is saying in verse 9, We are working with God, and you belong to God. Having fulfilled his ministry, Paul gives them over in this to God himself. True ministers don’t have “their church.” They labor in God’s field, for God’s building.” They are not in it for their own glory, but for God’s.1

By the way, this passage reminds us of the means God uses to provide growth. What is that? Preaching. Not the preaching of particular individuals—again, God is the one who blesses. But God uses the planting and watering—which are both pointing to the same ministry of the preaching of the Word of God—as the instrument by which he furnishes growth.

Ministers are to be continually laboring in God’s field with the Word. We are to be about spreading and watering the seed of the Word of God, waiting for God to give fruit. There is a continual need to be laboring in this ministry of the Word, continually cultivating God’s field, just as a gardener does his crops.

Just like we expect growth and fruit from the seeds we put in the ground, we ought to expect that God will bless the preaching of his Word.

But ultimately this passage reminds us that we have a job to do, but that we hang upon God’s grace for any success. John Calvin observed: “Here an extraordinary thing is said about the ministry, that, while God is able to carry things out by Himself, He takes us, insignificant men that we are, to Himself as helpers, and uses us as instruments.”

Ultimately, I fear that too many Christian pastors and leaders have lost confidence in God’s ability to use the Word to produce true Christian fruit. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why so many of us go running to attempts to be “relevant” to the culture around us.

It is not a daunting thing to rest squarely on the power of the Spirit and proclaim the Word of God? Our friends are seeing growth as they implement relevant gimmicks, broader evangelicals present themselves as very successful while using them, and our church members are scratching their ears threatening to leave if we remain unable to reach their children. Meanwhile, the world around us speeds toward ever more base debauchery and immorality. What in the world does a Jewish Messiah hanging on a Roman cross have to do with their “felt needs”?

This is exactly where God wants us to be. He wants us to acknowledge our “nothingness,” the hopelessness in ourselves. He wants us to cry out to him to be gracious, he wants us to preach Christ crucified, and he wants to use that message to “give the growth.” In fact, our situation, in its desperation and seeming impossibility, is not that much different from the first century after Christ. Given that, is it any wonder that Paul begged Christians to pray for God’s blessing on his ministry?

Yes, it is God who gives the growth. This is just one more reason that relevance is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Our job is to be faithful in preaching Christ to the world and the saints. It is in this way that we labor in his field, his building. We are God’s fellow workers when we rely on the Holy Spirit’s use of the message of the cross and allow God to give the growth.

Next week we bring this series to a conclusion.

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About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Some commentators note the connection in v. 9 between “God’s field, God’s building” and Solomon’s temple (compare 1 Cor 3:16-17). Solomon’s temple drew explicit references to the “temple” that was the Garden of Eden with its Eden-like representations of foliage and produce (see 1 Kgs 6:29, 32, 35; etc). []