Only God can judge me. That is essentially Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5. The Corinthians have been judging Paul. More specifically, they have judged Paul as inadequate to be their leader and teacher in the faith. They believe that they have outgrown his weak preaching and humble presence. In these verses, Paul scolds them for this attitude. He tells the Corinthians that their judgments mean very little to him because he is not their servant. He is God's servant and as a result it is only God who can judge him as to whether or not he is a trustworthy servant. Paul says that even his own judgments of himself don't mean much because even if he considers himself to be guiltless, what is that before the judgment of almighty God?
But wait a second. Isn't Paul judging the Corinthians? Isn't that what he has been doing throughout this whole letter; judging their behavior? And doesn't he actually encourage them to judge one another? In the very next chapter of the letter when Paul urges the Corinthians to remove the sexually immoral from their midst, isn't he urging them to make a judgment about that person's behavior? Is Paul just encouraging a double standard here where he judges the Corinthians and encourages them to judge one another but they are not allowed to say one bad word about him since he is their father and leader in the faith?
I think it is often tempting for us as Christians to take precisely that attitude where we want to tell other people what they are doing wrong but as soon as anyone speaks to us about something our attitude becomes "You can't judge me. Only God can judge me." Or "That's between me and Jesus." Obviously, there is some truth to that idea. If there wasn't, Paul wouldn't have spoken of it here. There is a very real sense in which we will one day be judged only by God and no one else. Perhaps some of us could even use a little more of that kind of attitude; that is, we could care a little more about what God thinks of us and a little less what others think about us. After all, who among us hasn't failed to proclaim the gospel in one way or another at some point in our lives because we were afraid of what someone else might think?
But we can only fully understand what Paul is saying here by reading it along side his larger body of writing and the rest of scripture as a whole. Paul does constantly exhort, not only the Corinthians, but all the churches to which he writes concerning their behavior. In fact, that is usually the very purpose of his writing; to correct something he sees as an error in their life together as a community. Of course, Paul is not alone in this. The other letters in the New Testament carry much the same task. Jesus himself condemns the entire religious establishment of his day and in doing so stood in a long line of Israel's prophets who called upon the people of God to correct their ways and turn back to God. So we can be sure that when Paul says "only God can judge me" he is not saying that brothers and sisters in Christ can not correct each other in the faith.
Instead, what we must recognize is that there is a difference between accountability and correction on the one hand and the kind of judgment that Paul is talking about on the other hand. Accountability and correction are absolutely essential aspects of the Christian life and what it means to be the Church. We must be willing to speak the truth in love to one another, pointing out our sins and weaknesses to one another within the Church as the Spirit leads us. And if we use an attitude of "only God can judge me" as a shield against our brothers and sisters holding us accountable in the faith, then we have deeply misunderstood what Paul is saying and the nature of our faith as a whole. Such an attitude will certainly lead us away from Christ.
The Corinthians, however, were not calling Paul to account for a specific behavior that they regarded as sinful. Instead, they had simply judged Paul himself as inadequate and irrelevant. They had judged him as too weak and lowly to be their teacher and leader. They were ready to toss him aside so that they could move on to bigger and better things. This is evident not only from what we have seen earlier in the letter but even in what Paul says in these verses. In v.5 Paul says "Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes...". It seems that the Corinthians were not merely calling Paul a lousy preacher. Instead, they were trying to pronounce God's judgment on Paul in God's place as if Jesus had already returned, God's kingdom had already come, and Paul had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
It is that attitude that causes Paul to say that only God can judge him. Paul is, in effect, saying "I don't care what you think of me as a preacher and spiritual leader. My task isn't to impress you. Instead, God has entrusted me with proclaiming the mystery of the Gospel and I am going to do that even if it doesn't win me any popularity contests. And in the end, only God can judge whether or not I have been faithful to the task that God himself gave me as his servant and steward."
As the Church, we are called to what can be a difficult and sometimes awkward task. We are undoubtedly called to hold each other accountable. We must point out to our brothers and sisters what we see as sin in their lives. God wants us to help each other grow in righteousness and holiness by correcting one another. But nowhere in Scripture are we ever called to make a judgment about someone's eternal standing before God. That is an attempt to be God ourselves, to take God's place and make judgments that only God is entitled to make. On the flip side, we also must be willing to be held accountable ourselves for our own sin. We must have the humility and love that allows others to correct us where we have gone wrong. We can not use these verses as a shield for our own un-Christ-like behavior. To say that only God can judge us is not an excuse to turn a deaf ear to the prophetic voices around us. But neither should we be held captive by mere popular opinion. We must imitate Paul in his robust confidence, proclaiming the Gospel even if we are regarded by others as weak and lowly in the process.