What we boast about offers clues to our character.
This summer brings change in leadership for many congregations and for our whole denomination. We are the ones selecting most of this change, for better or for worse.
The church always resides at the crossroads between heaven and earth, between God’s ways and man’s ways, between life and death. The distinction between them is not always obvious, and often times the church must back up and make the decision again. This is what happened in Corinth when they accepted leadership that was appealing but not godly. It will serve us to ponder this as we consider leadership change.
Paul and his fellow laborers were the first to this city in the Roman Empire and raised up many righteous men and women in the heart of pagan culture. Soon immorality, divisions, and pride infiltrated Corinth’s young congregation. Around them were many philosophers, rhetoricians, and leaders. As the congregation’s memory of Paul and his love faded into an unflattering portrait, the appeal of these ungodly leaders grew in the Corinthians’ hearts.
The philosophers of that era would go to the public market, gather a crowd, and expound upon their doctrine. If they were good, they would get coins from their audience. But if they were uninteresting or unpersuasive, they would leave, unpaid. When Paul first came to Corinth, he would’ve struck those in the market place as just another philosopher or rhetorician.
But something was different about him. Paul would not accept money from the people. He would not talk about himself or his qualifications but about Jesus, His salvation, and His foolish cross. Paul’s lowly, less than eloquent speech was not easy on the ears (1 Corinthians 1:17). All of this was on purpose in order that he might decrease in his hearers’ eyes and that Christ might increase.
The Corinthian church slowly began to view Paul as sub-par when compared to other church leaders who were more like their surrounding cultural leaders. They wanted a more impressive apostle, or at least for Paul to come with letters of recommendation and commend himself to Corinth by telling of his powerful exploits.
Paul plays the fool and boasts (2 Corinthians 11:18), but not in what the Corinthians want. He tells of his sufferings. He says he’s a better servant of Christ than they because of how many times he labored like a slave, was imprisoned like a slave, was beaten like a slave, and was in constant danger like a slave (v. 23). He “boasts” that God did not protect him from being shipwrecked three times, nor did He keep him from sleepless nights, hunger, and thirst. His relationship with God was not worry free but constantly plagued by anxiety, especially for all the churches that Paul loved.
Next, Paul mimics the highest military honor for the Romans, the corona moralis. It was a golden crown made to resemble city walls, and was awarded to the brave soldier who first made it over the enemy’s fortress. Here is how Paul applies for this reward.
In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands (2 Corinthians 11:32, 33).
Far from being the first up-and-over the wall into harm’s way, Paul was the first to be let down to escape from danger. In an ironic twist on Roman courage, Paul applies for godly cowardice.
Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that he has had visions (12:1-6). “Finally,” they might say. “Something he can impress us with.” But Paul remains silent. He says, “I know a man” who had a vision, thus distancing himself from his own experience. He tells us that he doesn’t know whether he was in his body or not. Furthermore, he can’t even tell us what he heard there. What looked like a promising aspect of Paul’s ministry is done away with by Paul’s humility.
This humility didn’t happen by accident, but Paul says that in order to keep him “from being too elated” (v. 7) over his visions, he received a thorn in the flesh that prayer could not remove. He cried out on three separate occasions for God to get rid of the thorn. The answer came, and the answer was “no.” God told him that His power is made perfect in weakness and that the thorn would remain in order to glorify Him.
Paul has played the fool. He has boasted like the Corinthians wanted him to do, but in all the wrong things. Paul is not protected but in constant danger. He is not one who can tell about visions but must remain distant from them and silent about them. He is not one God always responds positively to but is told “no” regarding his heart’s desire. If anyone is weak, it is Paul. But “for the sake of Christ, then,” he says, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).
By saying that he is not an apostle because it gets him power, amenities, and status, Paul proves his apostleship. No, he is an apostle by Jesus’ calling. And just as Jesus went to the cross, Paul took to the mission.
Criteria for leaders
The Corinthians had chosen to follow leaders who reflected the world’s ideals: strong, wise, and articulate. But Paul says that God’s plan for leaders is different. God intends His leaders to demonstrate “cross strength” and “cross wisdom.” “Cross strength” flies in the face of worldly strength and is not used to overpower but to serve and withstand persecution. “Cross wisdom” looks like foolishness from the lens of worldly wisdom, because it is the wisdom by which Jesus took on frailty, was beaten, and was killed.
The Corinthians had to back up and reevaluate what God’s leadership was all about. We should heed their example as we pick our leaders.
Do they have a love for the Church and the world that persists through suffering, or do they speak well? Do their weaknesses exalt God, or did their own strength elevate them to where they are? Are they here only by God’s grace, or are they “super leaders”?
As we go about selecting leaders this summer, let’s choose the “weak” ones — those the world would not want but whom God works so powerfully through.BA