Who has the right to judge whether a servant of the Lord has been faithful? There are two answers to that question, depending on what we are evaluating. Ultimately, only God Himself can judge whether a servant of Christ has been faithful both in the objective duties of his work and in the subjective motivations for those labors (1 Cor. 4:1–4). However, the church can evaluate the faithfulness of a servant in his objective duties, particularly the faithfulness of teachers, elders, and ministers. Servants of the Lord have many duties that can be evaluated by the church objectively. For example, Christ commissions His servants to preach the biblical gospel (Gal. 1:8–9). The church can weigh the content of a person’s teaching to know whether he is a false teacher or a true teacher, for his teaching is objectively available to our eyes and ears.
However, there is also a subjective nature to faithfulness. We can do all the right things outwardly, according to what the Lord has commanded, but we are not truly faithful to the Lord if we have the wrong motives. We can even say that doing the right things outwardly, such as proclaiming the right content of the gospel, is in some sense a good thing even when one’s motives are wrong. Paul says as much in Philippians 1:15–18. But the Lord will look to or approve the service of only those who are “humble and contrite in spirit” (Isa. 66:1–2). Only God can truly judge the subjective aspects of faithfulness, for only God can see the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). As Charles Hodge comments: “Whether a man is sincere or insincere in his professions, whether his experience is genuine or spurious, God only can decide. The church can only judge of what is outward.”
Apparently, the first-century Corinthians questioned Paul’s authority and judged his service, even trying to evaluate his motives. The Apostle’s point in 1 Corinthians 4:1–5 is that they cannot do that. Even Paul could not judge his own subjective faithfulness. He could only note that he was unaware of anything lacking, but that was not enough to commend his service before God (v. 4). Now, Paul did not truly think his service might have been inadequately faithful; he was simply making the point that only the Lord can see the heart.
Therefore, the church must be careful not to judge motives. The time for that judgment lies ahead, when the Lord, who alone can see the heart, will evaluate His servants and issue the appropriate commendation (v. 5).