Second Corinthians is a highly personal piece of writing in which the apostle Paul strips himself bare. Throughout this letter, Paul is on the defensive. As New Testament scholar Ralph Martin explains, Paul is here dealing with severe criticisms of himself and his ministry:
The first part of the letter reflects what must have been one of the most distressing experiences of Paul’s life. He had personally been opposed and insulted by an individual or a group in the church at Corinth, which taunted him with insincerity and duplicity…. He was accused of vacillation (1:17), pride and boasting (3:1), lack of success in preaching (4:3), physical weakness (10:10), “rudeness” of speech, deficiency in rhetorical skill (11:6), being an ungifted person (4:7-10), dishonesty (12:16-19), posing as a “fool” (5:13), and lack of apostolic standing (11:5). Above all he is held to be a deceiver (4:8) and a charlatan (10:1), a blatant denial of the power of the Christian message (13:2-9). (Second Corinthians, pages lxi-lxii)
Wow! That’s some ministerial evaluation!
The God of comfort
Yet perhaps because Paul is passing through the crucible with those pesky Corinthians, this letter also contains some of the richest spiritual teaching Paul ever penned. It is in this letter that we read of the God of all comfort, believers as the fragrance of Christ, the spirit of liberty, a new creation, faith — not sight, ambassadors for Christ, the ministry of reconciliation, God’s indescribable gift, power perfected through weakness.
A powerful two-beat rhythm persists throughout as Paul contrasts vital principles — death/life, distress/consolation, present affliction/future glory, weakness/strength, sow abundantly/reap abundantly. In short, 2 Corinthians is what we could call today, an emotional roller-coaster. Why this emotion-etched epistle? Scholar James Dunn put it succinctly: “[Paul] experiences Christ as the Crucified as well as the Exalted; indeed it is only when he experiences Christ as crucified that it is possible for him to experience Christ as exalted, that it is possible to experience the risen life of Christ” (Jesus and the Spirit, 334).
In this epistle, Paul gives the New Testament’s best expose of life as a minister, a candid and personal revelation that Paul wanted members to know about.
The perils of Paul
Paul knew this: Millions want Christ’s crown, but few want his cross. It grieved Paul that his beloved Corinthians (he planted the church there, after all) couldn’t see that some were out for advantage, building themselves up at the expense of Paul’s concern for his flock (2 Corinthians 11:18-19).
It is a familiar pattern. Would-be pastors crave power over people to make up for their own shortcomings. The self-anointed (who often get their way, incidentally) want prestige, forgetting the call to duty, to faithfulness unto death. Paul was richly experienced with those who enter ministry to manipulate men and women or as mere hirelings (11:20-21).
But Paul had been through this before. The slings and arrows of criticism, blame placing, negative projection, misunderstanding and willful misinterpretation that are often the minister’s lot soon drive the ministerial wannabes away, sometimes, however, only after much damage has been done to the flock.
Formal, full-time service in ministry, Paul knew, is no place to build wounded self-esteem or release frustrated power urges. That’s why his words inspire today’s pastors. His catalogue of battle scars in 11:23-29 have their modern parallels. G. Lloyd Rediger writes:
Abuse of pastors by congregations and the breakdown of pastors due to inadequate support are now tragic realities. This worst-case scenario, one that is increasing in epidemic proportions, is not a misinterpretation by a few discontented clergy. Rather, it is a phenomenon that is verified by both research and experience…. Pastors have become more vulnerable, parishioners more confused and less courageous, denominational offices more political, and our whole society more numb to abuse and conflict. Together these factors create opportunity for abuse of spiritual leaders and even encourage its development. (Clergy Killers, 1)
There was a time in America, especially small-town America, that if a person needed a loan from a bank, the financial officers would often check with a pastor or a teacher to “verify a person’s good character.” No more. As Rediger points out, today the expectations for pastors are far higher. “Megapastoring” is the measure of all things:
This is the expectation on the part of both the congregation and the pastor that the pastor must be a charismatic personality who can be up front at all church activities, make them successful, and continually draw new members. The goal, of course, is for the congregation to become a megachurch, with hundreds of enthusiastic members, dozens of thriving programs and an expanding budget that allows for regular additions to building facilities…. The congregation and pastor who do not function like a megachurch are suspected of being in decline. The pastor, of course, is blamed and punished. (23)
These realities help explain why so many pastors find great comfort in 2 Corinthians. From the opening chapter we sense it will be a barnburner. “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. ” (1:8-9). It is full of candid disclosures: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (5:8). The last verses contain a heartfelt plea: “Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong” (13:7).
Yet the dominant note throughout is one of triumphantly holding fast to a ministerial calling in the face of great pressure and misunderstandings. Paul has confidence that the spiritually mature in Christ have already accepted the correction he doled out in 1 Corinthians and that the church there is, on the whole, on the rebound.
Paul loves these troublesome members as only a pastor could! He values their good opinion. Yet he knows that in this letter he must not be afraid to lay some things on the line. “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us” (2 Corinthians 6:12).
He is not hesitant about being autobiographical in defending his call to ministry. Paul knew that Christ gives ministers authority without expecting them to turn into authoritarians (10:8-11). Yet the pastoral office was given to keep order in the church.
“It must be emphasized that Paul is not moved by self-concern,” writes Philip E. Hughes. “He willingly endures for Christ’s sake any number of affronts and indignities to his own person. But when the genuineness of his apostleship is called into question that is something he dare not endure in silence, for it is no less a challenge to the authority of Christ himself” (Second Corinthians, page 477).
Hence Paul’s references to being flogged more severely, imprisoned more frequently and exposed to death more often (11:24). Such personal declarations work both ways. Even today it is hard for ministers and pastors who feel like singing the blues not to feel a little embarrassed in reading about the perils of Paul. They help give perspective to the peculiar ministerial trials of life in the goldfish bowl.
Fools for Christ?
So, what keeps ministers going? What kept Paul going? Really, it is something other-worldly, beautiful and even slightly mystical, this sense of calling that ministers have for ministry. Ask them about it sometime. One pastor I know was told by a particularly difficult and recalcitrant parishioner: “You seem like a fool to me, hopelessly trying to persuade me to do something you know I will never do.”
Yes, what ministers attempt to do often seems, by worldly measurements, foolish. But if it is in a good cause for godly ends then they find comfort in being what Paul called a “fool for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10).
What character trait is needed for pastors to keep coming back week after week to people who quite often are not listening to what they have to say? Or to never cease reaching out to those who tune them out and then have the pastor for lunch after the sermon is over?
Can one make sense of this indescribable, relentless sense of mission that keeps pastors riveted to their post? Like the prophet Jeremiah, their emotions do often fail them (Jeremiah 15:18). Pastors do get discouraged, do feel abused and sometimes do lash out in unfortunate anger or resentment against their persecutors and critics.
But most stay the course. Their emotions may fail them, but the faith of Christ never fails them. Notice the wisdom in this note I saw on a pastor’s door: “The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea, it batters and bruises, and does not rest…. To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time and know each time you do it that you must do it again.”
So, why do pastors stay in there? What keeps them going? Two things are necessary to keep faithful ministers going, growing and abounding from year to year, and parishioners need to know this. These two essentials are a strong sense of initial calling and an unusual love and regard for members in their care. Without these it is easy to go under in the often turbulent ebb and flow of pastoral ministry. Let the ambitious beware.
Paul’s sense of calling never left him. That blinding glimpse of Christ on the Damascus road is still a classic text on ministry. Most calls are not so dramatic. They are maybe more of a growing sense of conviction over time when the pastor and those in community with him slowly sense that God has indeed selected this individual for a special work (Acts 13:1-3).
But the call — however manifested — becomes a life raft that bothered and bewildered ministers cling to in years to come. That’s when Christ’s reminder speaks most forcefully and hopefully: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).
The unusual love ministers have for members — even for those who hurt them — is sensed throughout 2 Corinthians. Even though Paul needs to reprimand this church, he still wants things to work out between him and them. “We have opened wide our hearts to you … open wide your hearts also” (6:11-13). He interjects: “I speak as to my children.” And in a magnificent short declaration he plunges to the heart of the member-minister relationship: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
That just about says it all. Paul is not in it for himself. He wants members to know that the most basic common ground between them is a mutual relationship with the risen Lord. Every true minister of Christ understands that even in corrective matters he must proceed in meekness, for he is often “instructing those that oppose themselves” (2 Timothy 2:25, King James Version). The true pastor does this with a deep Christlike sense that most people — even those who may hate him temporarily — are their own worst enemies.
Such attitudes reach the very heights of Christian love and empathy as well as Christian service. But Paul well knew that such depth and maturity of character and outlook are vital parts of any ministry that lasts. The calling is sacrificial, abiding. God takes the minister’s life and then gives it to the people after placing within his servants a godly concern for the members (8:16). That’s how ministers endure. This is why Paul could say: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (9:15).
Author: Neil Earle, 2005, 2013