But God Gave the Growth

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But God Gave the Growth

I Cor 3:7

When John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, preached at the first General Assembly meeting in Philadelphia May 21 1789  he chose this passage from first I Corinthians 3:7: “I planted, Apollos watered the plants; it was not we, however, but God who made them grow.”

Since I could not find a copy of Witherspoon’s sermon of that day,  I can only speculate on what he said.   I would like to think that Witherspoon, was conscious that a new church, like the new nation, the United States of America, faced its greatest threat not from external enemies, but from internal enmity.  That is to say, the Presbyterian Church of 200 years ago, as it launched out into the frontier to carry the gospel message, needed unity of the spirit and unity in the spirit.

So that’s why I would wager that  Witherspoon chose this text.  For Witherspoon knew that the problems the Presbyterian church would face were the same problems Paul faced in Corinth.

Someone said that reading lst Corinthians is like taking the roof off a first century church and looking in.

And when we take the roof off what we see is the most incredible contentiousness you can imagine.  Things had gotten so out of hand that people in the church had brought law suits against each other.  Paul must have worked overtime to keep this congregation from fracturing.   Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians was for unity.  Paul could say, “Diversity in the church, yes; division, never.  Candor in the church, yes, but cantakerousness, never;  frankness with each other, yes, but fractiousness, never.

People who can’t stand each other are always seeking an opening for a new round of the battle.  And so the Corinthians choose sides in support of the leadership of the church.  Some side with Paul, who is the founder of the church.  And some side with Apollos, the eloquent and intellectual preacher from Alexandria, who has succeeded Paul.  With different personalities and styles and approaches, Paul and Apollos come at the Corinthian church from different angles.   The Corinthians seize on these differences by saying, “I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos.”  Yet Paul and Paul and Apollos themselves always have a warm and cordial relationship.  They were allies, not rivals.  To have the church split over the personalities of the leaders was the last things either of them wanted.

“I planted,” Paul writes, meaning that he was the first evangelist to arrive in Corinth, “Apollos watered,” meaning that Apollos took up where I left off, “but”  and here’s the important point, “God gave the growth.”

But God gave the growth.  Paul separates here what is primary and what is secondary, not only in church life but in all of life.  I planted, Apollos watered–human efforts, human achievement, and no doubt important.   But it is God who gave the growth.  The creation and nurturing of the faith is not the work of the preacher, or even the hearer, but is the gift of God.  The only significance of planter and waterer is that God accepts their labor and works through them; independently, they have no importance.

Look very quickly with me what this means practically, and I think the lesson applies equally in church, in politics, in business, and in the home.


First off, a lot can be accomplished by those who don’t care who gets the credit.  We have the situation in the church of what I call “Altar Egos”, pastors who must take all the credit.  Many of you must see the equivalent of it in the business world.  Such altar egos seem starved for recognition.  As Woody Allen quipped, such people must have been breast fed with falsies, so insecure they are, so hungry for recognition they are, so needing to be affirmed, to be center of the universe.

Barbara and I visited a large Presbyterian Church in a distant city some years ago.  The church had over 3000 members with five pastors.  The senior minister of the church was clearly in charge of everything.  During worship, he led the entire liturgy, gave the announcements, the pastoral prayer, and the sermon.  The only other staff member who had a word in the service was a woman who gave a brief children’s message.  That very style told me everything about that pastor and that church I needed to know. Had I been church shopping that morning, I would have never returned.  For my philosophy of leadership is that it’s extremely important to give staff public recognition, to give them every opportunity to make use of the gifts they have.  In every church there needs to be a competent staff all of whom have a vit  play in building up the church.

I get as much satisfaction in seeing one of our staff succeed in something as I might had I done it myself.  Someone in Portland, commenting on something our associate pastor did which was a stunning success, said to me, “Yea, but really, you had the good sense to hire her,” implying that the credit of what she had done finally rebounded to me.”

I replied, “It’s true, I was instrumental in hiring her, but honestly, I’m happy when she is affirmed and when our church is affirmed.  That means more than anything else to me.”

Do you remember  Peter Falk  deceptively bumbling detective, Lt. Colombo.  A few years ago, the t.v. program “Colombo” won an Emmy award for best t.v. series.  Peter Falk stood up to make the acceptance speech.  He said, “It takes a lot of people to produce a winning television series.  Producers, directors, stage hands, writers.  But when the show wins an Emmy, the star gets all the credit.  This is a very sensible system, and I wouldn’t want anyone to change it.”

Well, we all have the star system instincts.  But blessed is the organization that has leaders who are secure enough and mature enough to share the glory, who know that the building up of any organization is a team effort.  A lot of good can be done in any organization when no one cares who gets the credit.


And the second truth which grows out of Paul’s experience in Corinth is is a corollary of the first.  We are not nearly as important as we think.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  I was in Corinth for a while, Apollos took over, but God is the one who responsible for the harvest.

Senior pastors have many personality quirks, but all of us share one thing in common: we need to be in control.  I never realized it so fully as when I resigned in Lake Forest.   I had about six weeks left from the time I resigned until my last Sunday.  After 8 years on the job, everyone was used to checking with me before anything of significance happened in the church.

I felt my last responsibility to the church was to help the leadership prepare for the interim between my leaving and the calling of a new permanent pastor.  So I made suggestions of what would work and what wouldn’t.  The same people who listened to my advice and counsel a month before totally ignored me.  It was maddening.  It was frustrating.  It was infuriating.  I was trying to save the church from some terrible errors.  Nobody listened. I realized once again how much I needed to be in control, and how hard it was for me to see something I loved take a wrong tack.

I saw a cute bumper sticker: “Death is God’s way of saying ‘You’re not indispensable’.”    And yet some of us think we are.  We think the company can’t do without us, and we slave for the company until that day there’s a reorganization, and we’re out on the streets.  We think that our children can’t survive without our guidance and advice, and are crushed when they reject our overtures.

Martin Marty speaks of parenting in his little book on Friendship.

“Parents who make exhausting demands for the affection of their children have not learned that a family is not exclusive or permanent.  A couple comes on stage; they are to reveal the family as an art form.  It is not an art like architecture or painting, finished and there for ages.  Their art is like the ballet, to be danced when the curtain goes up and the stage lights on.  Soon the footlights will dim, the house lights will go up, the curtain will fall.  The dance is over and the dancers move on, with memories, snapshots, and other stages ahead.  Parents who do not learn ow to let go are doing a disservice to family relations.  But if parents and children are friends, they will have been learning how to bid good-byes.”


It’s a liberating thought really, when you think about it, that you’re not as needed as you think you are–that when you submit your resignation as Managing Director of the Universe, the sun still comes up in the morning, the stars still move in their courses, and God still cares about everything you care about.  You don’t have to get as uptight over things, you can relax a little more, and what God wants accomplished, God will find some avenue through which to do it.


And now one last thought, and this is a thrilling thought to me.  When we faithfully plant and faithfully water our little garden in some corner of God’s kingdom, God promises to give the growth.  Maybe it’s not growth according to our time-table.  Maybe it’s not the kind of plants we had in mind.  But when we are faithful on our end, God is faithful on God’s end.

And as I said, that’s a thrilling–and comforting thought to me.  For surely you’ve had days like I’ve had when I’ve said, “Where is this all leading.  I’ve invested myself in this church, with these people, and nothing is happening.”  In the soul’s dark night, and the heart’s deep winter, I get discouraged, and I ask myself, “Why didn’t I choose some other vocation, some other field.”  And at times like this we need to be reminded that the final outcome is not in our hands.   We must work as if everything depended on us, but we must pray as if everything depended upon God.

What Paul is saying that when we totally dedicate ourselves to God’s kingdom, God will use us for a greater glory and greater purpose than we can even imagine.   But what’s so hard for all of us is that we may not see, even in our life time, the results of our efforts.  And that’s very tough for us, immersed in a bottom line oriented society.

A final story.  When George Smith was a little boy, he was filled with a burning desire to be a missionary to Africa.  For long years he sacrificed and studied and prepared.  High school.  College. Seminary.  Language courses.  Finally, he was sent out by the MOravian Church.  But he was in Africa only a few months when the government changed hands, and he was expelled.  He left behind only one covert, an old woman.  He came back home, contracted tuberculosis, and soon died, literally dying on his knees praying for Africa, praying for the people he had come to love.

Think of it.  All his life focused upon a dream, a life time of preparing…then he went there, spent a few months, returned home a young man, and died, feeling he was a failure.

But one hundred years later that mission of one old woman who had been converted by George Smith had grown and grown and grown to a community of 13,000 African Christians.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

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