Paul described the church at Corinth as being enriched with all spiritual gifts and with a great deal of theological knowledge and other good things but also as being divided over loyalty to one leader or another within the church. There were people who said, “We follow Paul.” There were others who said, “We follow Peter,” and still others who said, “We follow Christ.” The central point Paul makes as he deals with this problem is that ministers are servants of the church and that such divisions are foolish.
From Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians, it is clear that the problem was among the people. Paul is trying to overcome that erroneous and unnecessary condition of divisions.
Now, in chapter 4 Paul adds a further dimension to what he has already said in chapter 3. He says, “Yes, ministers are servants of the people, but above all they are servants of Jesus Christ.” What he is going to develop from that is that he ultimately is answerable to Jesus. It is before Jesus and his standards that the ministry of Paul stands or falls. He says, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.”
It is marvelous how he keeps a balance. He says clearly here that he is a servant of Christ and he is responsible to Christ. But as he says it, notice that he says he is a servant of Christ and a minister, one entrusted with the mysteries of God. We suffer from a weak translation at this point. In ancient times, they did not have servants – at least not in the sense that we use the word. What they had were slaves. When you read in the New Testament that somebody is a servant, the word has usually been translated from the Greek word that means slave. That certainly has a stronger meaning than what we generally get when we read the word servant. But in this case, the word servant is not translated from the word for slave. The word used is actually much stronger even than that. It means not only “slave,” but “underslave.” It has the idea of the assistant to the slave who is in charge of the other slaves. The word actually means “an under-rower.” The way people got around in those days, over water, was by means of slave or galley ships. The big ones were called “triremes” because they had three rows of oars. Given the context I would think an “under-rower” must be the rower who operates on the lowest tier, down just about as far as you can get.
What Paul is actually saying here is, “I am an under-rower in the galley that is bringing men the Gospel of life.” That is pretty strong. While it is true that Paul, speaking of himself as a minister, is saying clearly that he is a servant of Christ, the point he is trying to make is that he is responsible to Christ. He is, nevertheless, at the same time not giving himself some exalted position as if, among all those servants of Christ, he sees himself as the pinnacle Christian among Christians. No, he is saying, “I am an under-rower in this galley of the Gospel.”