In 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul uses an organic metaphor to describe Apollos’ and his ministries.
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field (NIV).
The Corinthians have accommodated their community to the corrupted cultural patterns around them. They’ve lined up behind various church leaders (Peter, Paul, Apollos, etc.), turned them into celebrities, and divided into cliques.
Paul seeks to correct this by speaking of God’s ultimacy and of the servant-shaped character of apostolic ministry. Each minister has a role to play, they are co-workers together with the same purpose (so don’t make them competitors!), and God is the one who causes growth (so don’t credit any one minister over any other!).
Paul uses another ministry metaphor as the passage proceeds, but it seems to me that his agricultural metaphor is one that confronts some contemporary ministry assumptions that are idolatrous.
Farmers go about their task with great care, preparing the soil, cultivating plants, feeding them, carefully pulling weeds, doing whatever it takes to provide the right environment for growth.
But they are also subject to other factors—weather, parasites, and animals looking for food, among others. This makes farmers pretty sober people, appropriately anxious, always on the lookout for threats.
And there’s great mystery about the growth of a seed into a fruit-bearing plant. There is much that we don’t control. We do our part, but much of it is in God’s hands.
Our location in a post-industrial technological age has affected how we view ministry. It seems that we are tempted to think more in terms of guaranteed results. Churches and ministries are more like machines. We tinker a bit here and there, add this factor, run the numbers, and produce results. Growth in Christ can be plotted on a chart. If you do this, you get this result. If not, something in the process was wrong.
It seems to me that the way Paul speaks of ministry, there is much that is our responsibility. Ministers are called to care for people, to pray for them, to get to know them, to spend time listening and learning, to teach and model for them the ways of God in Christ, and to cultivate communities of mutual care.
We must also remember that there are many things that out of our control. We cannot guarantee results. We may minister faithfully for a long time but see less fruit than we expect. We cannot be arrogant or presumptuous and expect that following the formula will produce the desired outcome. Like modern industrial farming, the predicted fruit may be scientifically marvelous, but a bizarre, unhealthy, and unnatural thing.
Paul’s metaphor should also bring relief. We’re not doing something wrong if our church isn’t growing exponentially like the one across town. Ministers must evaluate their own faithfulness before God and consider whether they are tending properly the field entrusted to them.
Our cultural location affects how we think about ministry. We’d do well to consider how Paul’s metaphors configure how we should be conceiving of our task.