I Corinthians 4 - "Fools for Christ" or Just Foolish?

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

Click below to:

Return to menu of Bible studies available here.

Return to menu of articles available here.

Return to The American Night Watch home page.

Writing to the undisciplined but arrogant Christians of ancient Corinth, Paul makes a statement that has often been poorly understood and even more poorly applied, declaring in I Corinthians 4:10 that Paul and those who minister with him are "fools for Christ." The reason for this statement becomes clear in the context of this letter. Paul is contrasting the way he is seen by the world with the way the Corinthians see themselves.

When Paul authored his first letter to the Corinthians, the Corinthian Christians exhibited an arrogant, self-important attitude. Paul sought to bring them back to reality by pointing out that they acted "superior" (4:7), that they thought of themselves as "rich" (4:8). "kings" (4:8), "prudent" (4:10), "strong" (4:10), and "distinguished" (4:10). This is in contrast to Paul and his fellow ministers, who were seen as "fools," "weak," and "without honor" by most people (4:10). In fact, Paul goes on to say that he and his coworkers "have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things" (4:13).

These harsh accusations against Paul and his fellows are "slander" (4:13), they do not represent the truth. Even Paul's statement that they are "fools for Christ's sake" (4:10) is what the world thinks of Paul and his fellow servants of Christ, not what is true. Paul has mentioned "foolishness" a number of times before in this epistle. In 1:18 he writes that "the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness." The Gospel appears foolish and incomprehensible to those who do not believe (2:14). It is this appearance of "foolishness" that makes the Gospel a stumbling block to those who do not open themselves to the message of God's Word.

However, this is not because the Gospel is, in itself, foolish. On the contrary, Paul writes that "we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away" (2:6); "because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1:25, cf. 2:9, Isaiah 64:4, 65:17). So when Paul speaks of himself and other ministers of Christ, and their message, as being "foolish," he is talking about the judgment of the unbelieving world, not reality. For the reality is that both the Gospel and Paul's ministry represent the very highest intelligence and wisdom - that which comes from God - and which unbelievers refuse to recognize.

A good example of this comes from Paul's appearance before Porcius Festus when Festus was the newly appointed Roman procurator of Judea. Paul related his conversion on the road to Damascus when he was traveling to persecute Christians. Paul went on to describe how Jesus Christ fulfilled what had been predicted in Old Testament Scripture. At this point, ". . . while Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, 'Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.' But Paul said, 'I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth'" (Acts 26:24-25). Paul was speaking rationally, and explaining his experience and beliefs in an logical, orderly manner. However, Festus did not want to hear it, so he accused Paul of being insane. Interestingly, Festus did not question Paul's learning. In fact, he claimed that it was Paul's "great learning" that was the source of Paul's "madness." Paul's "great learning" was, in fact, his knowledge of revealed truth. It was Paul's sound explanation of Divine truth that caused Festus to call Paul insane.

As was the case with Paul, those who live close to Christ will often be avoided and condemned by those who have no interest in serving God (John 15:18-21, II Timothy 3:12, John 3:19-21). The situation in Corinth was very much like the situation in the church at Laodicea as described in Revelation 3:17-18, where arrogance prevented the Laodicean Christians from recognizing their deep spiritual need. Paul was trying to help the Corinthians see how far away from true spirituality they really were. His argument in I Corinthians 4, then, is something like this, "If you are held in such high esteem by people who are not believers, and we, your spiritual teachers, are held in such low esteem by the these same people, then you should ask yourselves why there is such a difference, and conclude that it is because you are not walking as close to Christ as we are" (cf. the argument of Jesus in John 7:7). If Paul were writing in modern English, he might put quotation marks around the word "foolishness" whenever he uses it to indicate that this is not what he believes but what his critics believe. What Paul is definitely not communicating here is that people who are truly spiritual act in an irrational manner. Yet there are those who interpret this verse to mean that the more spiritual one is, the more irrationally he or she will behave, that to act in a truly foolish manner is to be truly spiritual. Some people actually glory in ignorance and folly, something Scripture never teaches them to do.

In Plato's Phaedrus, there is a discussion of the types of human "madness" (mania) that were believed to be beneficial to mankind. But such an elevation of madness is not characteristic of the teaching of Paul or of other Scripture, where rationality and sobriety are seen as essential to true spirituality. The Gospels show Jesus exhibiting human emotions, but show His actions and speech as fully rational and consistent with Scripture. It is Paul who prays ceaselessly for the Colossians to "be filled with the knowledge of His (God's) will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (Colossians 1:9) and who tells the Ephesians, "do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 4:14). In the fourteenth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul warns the Corinthians that if they act as madmen, they will be perceived as madmen by unbelievers, and thus be rendered unable to communicate the Gospel to those people - even, presumably, to those pagans who "buy" Plato's arguments as to the value of some kinds of madness!

Paul's teachings are completely consistent with the truths presented in the Old Testament. The book of Proverbs portrays wisdom and folly as two women. Wisdom is portrayed as a desirable woman, one who will always remain faithful and who brings life and peace. Folly is portrayed as an adulterer, an unfaithful woman who promises pleasure but, whose ways lead to suffering and death. "His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin. He will die for lack of instruction, and in the greatness of his folly he will go astray" (Proverbs 22-23).

The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament presents a definite and uncomplimentary view of the "fool," both from the perspective of daily life and from the perspective of spirituality. The fool does not seek the counsel of those who are wiser, but rushes ahead on the basis of his own feelings and conception of the world (Proverbs 15:22), and therefore often speaks without thinking (Proverbs 14:3, Ecclesiastes 10:12-14). The fool does not recognize the danger of sin (Proverbs 15:21), in fact, the fool does not let danger hinder him from pursuing a chosen path of action (Proverbs 22:3). The fool thus drinks to excess but never thinks that he will become an alcoholic, gambles but does not expect to lose, participates in unhealthy activities, but never expects to get sick or die, even when he sees many others facing these consequences from similar actions. The fool always stupidly sees him or herself as an exception to the rule. We might also say that the fool seeks his own brand of spirituality without considering what is really true or what guidance God is trying to give. Ultimately, the fool is a reckless person because of his stubborn disregard of God (Psalms 14:1, 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, 15:33) and as a result brings troubles and judgment upon himself (Proverbs 10:13, 19:3).

One of the basic truths about mankind taught in Proverbs is that "all the ways of a man are clean in his own sight" (Proverbs 16:2). In fact, "there is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 16:25). A marked illustration of this is the adulteress described in Proverbs 30:20 who "eats and wipes her mouth, and says, 'I have done no wrong.'" The human ability to rationalize all manner of sin is the underlying reason for the foolishness, the madness, of the fool; and it makes little difference if the person who commits the sin does so out of involuntary or willful ignorance of God's Law, the result is the same. The fool isn't wise enough to understand that what seems to be true isn't necessarily true, and therefore, one's own opinions and desires need to be humbly subordinated to the superior wisdom of God as revealed in God's Word, the Scriptures (Proverbs 2:1ff.). Nor do those who choose to be foolish in order to feel spiritual consider that they are misrepresenting a wise, intelligent, all-knowing God who does not will His children to live without using the mental faculties He gave them; subordinated to Him, of course.

In many of Christ's parables and in the teaching of Paul, spiritual growth is compared to farming. In our fast-paced contemporary culture, as with the fast-paced metropolitan culture of ancient Corinth, people tend to look for shortcuts to spiritual growth. However, there is no substitute for a disciplined life over a period of time, one that includes the "means of grace:" the reading of Scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship, worship, participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, abstaining from evil, and performing good works to the glory of Christ. Just as the good farmer creates the conditions for growth by clearing the soil, placing seeds at the right depth and distance apart, and fertilizing and irrigating as necessary in order to create conditions for the seeds to grow; the wise Christian provides those conditions that enable growth in faith and holiness. The growth itself, however, is not spectacular. Both plants and spirituality grow over a period of time and as a result of many days of day-by-day care.

Impatient Christians look for dramatic evidence that they are developing spiritually and greedy Christians look for evidence that they have received more from God than others have. This encourages the search for a super-spirituality. Often the search is couched in terms of concern for the success of God's work, but its origin and goals are deeply selfish. Success-oriented pastors and lay people look for a way to indicate that they are closer to God and so deserve a larger following. But, in doing so they often leave out God and His plan for our spiritual growth. Just as children cannot will themselves into adulthood, they must mature over the years, so, too, Christian growth requires time, and Christians cannot simply will themselves to be spiritually mature. But that does not stop many from trying!

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that one of the most common forms of fanaticism was to "expect the end without the means." This is as dangerous in spiritual life as it is in daily life. Jesus spoke of a man who went out to build a tower and of a general who went out to war. In each case, careful planning needed to be done. The builder would be ridiculed if he could not complete the tower, and the king would lose his kingdom if his army was not strong enough to win over the enemy in battle. Jesus used these as examples of how Christians needed to prepare themselves to follow Him (Luke 14:27-35). The dedication to follow Christ could not be paid out all at once, but would require a consistent daily commitment, placing Christ ahead of every other association, and counting all possessions to be at the disposal of the Master.

In the early years of Christendom, zeal for the Lord was proved by the willingness to endure suffering and martyrdom to be faithful to Christ. When persecution ended, Christians looked for other ways to show their zeal, and many turned to asceticism, abusing their bodies in order to show their dedication to the Lord. In Ephesians 5:29 Paul says that no one hates his own body, but nourishes and cares for it. In saying this Paul recognized that it is abnormal for people to abuse their bodies. Those who embraced asceticism deliberately deprived their bodies of rest, shelter, food, and water in their attempt to be spiritual, in other words, they took part in foolishness in order to seek spiritual growth. As a result of depriving themselves of needed food and rest, many experienced hallucinations and strange dreams. They then took these as an indication of their advanced spirituality! Some also exhibited strange behaviors regarding housing, diet, and dress. Others believed that to behave strangely was an indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Although modern Christians don't generally tend toward asceticism, many believe that the more strangely they behave the more certainly the Holy Spirit is influencing them, that to bring the disapproval of others is always an indication of their closeness to God.

There are some cases, of course, where this is true, but always when the higher wisdom of God's leadership is submitted to. When Jesus was before Pontius Pilate, Pilate was amused that Jesus brought up the subject of "truth." Certainly, Pilate viewed Jesus as an ignorant peasant, while viewing himself as a cultured Roman leader. Scripture teaches us that Pilate and Herod became strong friends as they shared a joke with each other, encouraging the soldiers to mock Jesus with a crown of thorns and robe and sending Jesus back and forth between them.

At that time, Pilate and Herod appeared wise to the world, and Jesus appeared to be defeated. But, in retrospect, it was Pilate and Herod who were the fools, and Jesus who has had the greatest impact upon mankind. Shortly afterwards, at Pentecost, a movement, Christianity, would arise in the world that would be many times more powerful than the Roman empire. Because Jesus allowed Himself to be put to death according to God's plan, His death was a sacrifice, not a suicide (Acts 2:22-23), Divine business, not human foolishness. In the same manner, those who are faithful to God will often appear foolish to unbelievers, not because they are acting in a foolish manner, but because unbelievers fail to recognize the wisdom of God that every follower of Christ strives to live by.

In his first letter, the apostle Peter exhorts Christians to be patient when they are falsely accused of wrongdoing (I Peter 2:12, 19-24, 4:12-19). By bearing these false accusations patiently, and continuing to do well, Christians insure that sooner or later their critics will be shown to be wrong. However, if Christians act in an immoral manner, then their critics will be proved correct and the witnesses of these Christians to Christ will be discredited. Therefore, Peter writes, "By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God" (I Peter 4:15-16).

By the same reasoning, while Christians may often be counted "fools for Christ," they should strive to never be foolish, but to serve their Master soberly and diligently; the One whose wisdom is never truly foolish, but a fountain of life directed to all mankind.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

Return to top of page.

Return to menu of Bible studies available here.

Return to menu of articles available here.

Return to The American Night Watch home page.

Click here for Sterling Durgy's e-mail address.

This page was last updated October 22, 1999.