2 Corinthians 10:1-18 - Congregational Critics Answered with Ministerial Authority
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.2 Corinthians 10:4-6 (NKJV)
2 Corinthians 10-13: Self-Defense against False Apostles
We have come, in our study of this epistle, to an important turning point in the apostle's writing. Chapters 10-13 are tied together by the common thread of apostolic self-defense. Careful reading will alert us to the charges being leveled against Paul and to his responses, both forthright and subtle. Patient study will repay us with rich biblical insights about ministerial identity and leadership expectations.
Because a study like this cannot spend time explaining choices of interpretation, we must suffice with a brief characterization of Paul's opponents in the Corinthian congregation. These people were, first, not native to the church, but outsiders, something strongly hinted in 10:13-15, 11:4, and 12:11. They were latecomers, intruders, leaders who had gained prominence and authority in part by dragging down the authority and leadership of Paul. Second, it is clear from 2 Corinthians 11:22 that these misleaders were Jews, probably Judaizers trying to seduce Gentile and Jewish believers back under the yoke of Old Testament ritual.
Meeting Opposition with Christ-Like Meekness (Read 10:1-2)
With more than a bit of irony Paul takes up the charge being circulated among the Corinthians. Their criticism? Paul was an inconsistent minister. His detractors were spreading the idea that, although from a distance he could write letters that stung with rebuke, in person he was weak and ineffectual.
Part of this irony lies in the apostle's style. Instead of blasting away with commands ringing with apostolic authority (as his critics would have expected), this pastor-apostle appeals on the basis of the meekness and gentleness of Christ. The words 'of Christ' are crucial here. The Corinthians had been confusing Paul's personal meekness with weakness, his gentleness with spinelessness. By responding in terms of the character and teaching of Christ, the apostle suggests that his opponents have no grasp of these fundamental Christian virtues of meekness and gentleness, which our Lord demonstrated in His own ministry. Instead of meekness, they emphasized oratorical prowess; in place of gentleness, worldly shrewdness and manipulation. (Question 1)
Paul's appeal contains a warning (v.2): when the occasion called for it, he could be bold in person. There are 'some' in the congregation who, if they do not repent, will experience the apostle's boldness full force. Their sin is an unwarranted, incorrect opinion about Paul's ministry. They talk him down as if he 'walked according to the flesh,' governed by self-interest and concerned only for his position among the Corinthians.
Destroying Opposition with Spiritual Weapons (Read 10:3-6)
Apostolic, Christ-like meekness should never be equated with wimpiness. For in the very next section, Paul warns these Corinthians, to whom he had just appealed with the gentleness of Christ, that he has been sent out on a search-and-destroy mission. Look here: pastoral kindness can be coupled with spiritual aggression!
Although the 'flesh' is Paul's sphere of activity, that does not mean that his methods are dictated by the 'flesh.' In the New Testament, 'flesh' can mean:
the physical flesh covering our bones;
the old way of life, or sinful nature, as a controlling principle (Romans 8:9);
worldly standards of behavior.
Here, in 2 Corinthians 10:2-4, Paul defends himself against the charge of following a worldly spirituality in his ministry.
Notice the easy shift of metaphors, from walking to making war. Not only is the Christian life a battle (see Ephesians 6:11ff., 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3ff.; 4:7; and 2 Corinthians 6:7), but so too is the Christian ministry!
How dangerous it is, in wartime, to pick up and use the wrong weapons! The church and her leaders are always tempted to counter the world's persistent challenges by using weapons forged in the world's foundries — weapons like wisdom, eloquence, entertainment, efficiency, and so on. None of these is wrong in itself, but all are unusable as weapons to accomplish the apostle's spiritual purpose. He wants to pull down strongholds, to cast down arguments, to take every thought prisoner for Christ, to punish all disobedience.
His military objective is that the gospel of Christ overpower rebellious human intellect and will. The weapons of his ministry are designed to demolish the way people think, their sinful thought patterns and those mental structures according to which they rebel against God. These weapons destroy all those human pretensions erected to shut out the knowledge of God. Rebellion against God is sometimes disguised as intellectual doubt and skepticism, and often surfaces as an intellectual independence that is so full of itself as to be unable to bend in worship.
How well-suited, then, are the minister's weapons: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer. All are bestowed in and with the gospel of Christ crucified; none is dependent on human gimmickry or ingenuity. (Question 2)
The apostle is unwilling to stop halfway. So 'wound up' is he in the calling to preach and make war with the gospel, that he warns of the impending punishment of disobedience in the congregation. Competent military leaders know that no war is really won until the cause that occasioned the fighting is removed. The inability, or unwillingness, to root out the cause of fighting (through proper discipline) renders the church susceptible to continued attack and disruption by the gospel's enemies.
Self-Defense without Self-Exaltation (Read 10:7-11)
It is quite impossible for both individual believers and Christian congregations to avoid judging — that is: evaluating teaching and conduct. How that judgment is rendered is quite important, as our Lord taught us (Matthew 7:1-6). That we must judge is beyond dispute.
If this is so, then we need to be committed to making biblical judgments biblically. The content as well as the manner of our judging must be according to standards found in God's Word.
Paul's critics in Corinth were not practicing biblical judgment.
Two criticisms about the apostle were being circulated. First, his opponents alleged that Paul did not belong to Christ in the same, superior, intimate way that they did. Second, people were saying that, like a dog that barks at a distance but cowers when confronted, Paul wielded a mighty pen, but was mousy in person. In a word: Paul was a phony.
Now, how does a minister respond to such charges? To defend himself is to contradict the very point he wishes to prove, namely: that his person is not the center of his ministry. (Question 3)
Very carefully, the apostle defends his position in Christ (just as he is Christ's, even so we are Christ's, v.7), and explains the purpose of his apostolic authority, which was given not for self-promotion, but for the edification or building up of the congregation (v.8). Yes, this building up may at times require stern rebuke, inflexible discipline, and confrontational judgment. But these are built into the very gospel itself!
Once again, the apostle places before the congregation, as a standard for judgment and evaluation of the preacher, this truth: the exercise of ministerial leadership must fit the content of the gospel.
And his leadership does. To be sure, he is flexible where the gospel permits flexibility (circumcising Timothy, but not Titus, for example). Yet, superficial observers, who will not or cannot discern the underlying principles driving his action, charge him with inconsistency. With a veiled threat, Paul declares in verse 11: 'I'm consistent, alright. Just wait til I come. Then you'll see that I can be just as bold in person as I am with the pen!'
The Core of Ministerial Identity (Read 10:12-18)
A person looking for a teaching job is frequently given to composing a long, flowery letter of self-recommendation, called a curriculum vitae (literally, 'course of life'). Details of birth, marriage and family are followed by a list of educational accomplishments, titles of books and articles written, memberships in professional organizations, and the like.
Reading verses 12-18, one quickly surmises that the apostle Paul would have refused to write a curriculum vitae.
Earlier (2 Corinthians 3:3-4), we saw that the Corinthian congregation was the only credential needed to establish the apostle's authenticity. Why? Because they were living proof of the transforming gospel of Christ! Now, Paul complains that the false teachers are using the subjective, arbitrary standard of themselves to measure and recommend themselves to the congregation. These self-promoters use one another as references, appealing to each other's abilities, pedigree and training to establish their own credibility.
For Paul, by contrast, it is living the gospel of Christ, by sharing in His sufferings and conforming to His character, that validates the minister's authenticity.
How many people in churches today fall for the same folly of applying to their minister the fickle standards of performance drawn from the arenas of politics and entertainment (not unrelated spheres, by the way!)? Like infants more fascinated with the wrapping paper than its contents, many church members seek style over substance. And how many ministers today are attempting to fashion their labor in terms of these constantly shifting standards? How can these 'professionals' end up saying so little, but saying it so well? (Question 4)
Changing to a metaphor drawn from geography (regional boundaries) or athletics (lane markings), Paul insists that because he was authorized by Christ to bring the gospel to Corinth and beyond, the false teachers in Corinth were guilty of trespassing, overrunning the boundaries divinely appointed for him. By arriving in Corinth after him and seducing people away from the gospel, these misleaders lived like parasites off the evangelistic labors of the apostle. They were ecclesiastical poachers.
Not self-commendation, but the Lord's commendation, is what gospel ministers should seek. Spiritual, ministerial boasting is a troublesome sport. It quickly degenerates into one-up-manship. Commending oneself generally diverts from praising the Lord. Of all this Paul is painfully aware. The crucial division between Paul and his opponents in Corinth was the question: Whose approval do we seek? That, of course, is the central issue in all Christian living, in every moral decision, in each church dispute. But in terms of this passage and its direct application, the answer to this question lies at the core of the minister's identity, and the congregation's expectations of the minister.
Questions for Reflection and Reply
Show from the life of Christ that meekness and firmness, love and anger, are compatible.
Read Romans 12:1-3, 2 Corinthians 10:5 and 11:3. Why does thinking have priority over feeling in the Christian scheme of things? What are some results of religion governed by or centered on feelings?
Identify and explain the biblical steps that should be followed in processing a valid criticism of a minister. And how must one who persists in voicing an invalid criticism be handled biblically?
Identify some of those fickle standards of performance drawn from politics and entertainment and applied to the minister. Why are they necessarily shifting standards? What's inherently dangerous about applause in the worship service?