In this passage, Paul offers a definitive statement of what it means to be a leader: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1). “Us” refers to the apostolic leaders through whom the Corinthians had come to faith and to whom the various factions in the church claimed allegiance (1 Cor. 4:6). Paul uses two words in this verse to elaborate what he means. The first, hypēretēs (“servants”), denotes an attendant, a servant who waits on or assists someone. In this sense, leaders attend personally to the needs of the people they lead. Leaders are not exalted, but humbled, by accepting leadership. The job requires patience, personal engagement, and individual attention to the needs of followers. The second is oikonomos (“stewards”), which describes a servant or slave who manages the affairs of a household or estate. The chief distinction in this position is trust. The steward is trusted to manage the affairs of the household for the benefit of the owner. Likewise, the leader is trusted to manage the group for the benefit of all its members, rather than the leader’s personal benefit. This quality is explicitly ascribed to Timothy (2 Cor. 4:17), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7), Paul (1 Tim. 1:12), Antipas (Rev. 2:13), and, above all, Christ (2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 2:17). These are the kinds of people God relies on to carry out his plan for his kingdom.
Modern workplaces often set up systems to reward leaders for using their teams to accomplish the organization’s objectives. This is probably a wise practice, unless it encourages leaders to attain such rewards at the expense of the people they lead. Leaders are indeed responsible to accomplish—or better yet, exceed—the work their teams are assigned to do. But it is not legitimate to sacrifice the needs of the group in order to obtain the leader’s personal rewards. Instead, leaders are called to accomplish the group’s goals by meeting the needs of the group.