Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Corinthians 11
by Raymond (Randy) Blacketer
Pastor Heath Mooneyham thinks that many churches are too wimpy, and that’s why so few men come to church. So his congregation, the aptly-named Ignite Church in Joplin, Missouri, started giving away military-style rifles to attract men to their testosterone-fueled services. Mooneyham enticed seekers with the promise that they could “double tap a zombie in style” with their grand prize, a high end military rifle.
This brand of brawny faith is not merely a modern, fringe phenomenon. The phenomenon called “muscular Christianity” arose in Victorian England, and emphasized bodybuilding, chivalry, aggressive defense of women and children, and generally baptized Victorian ideals of manliness. This reflected less the Pauline athletic metaphors to which its proponents appealed than the spirit of the British Empire and paternalistic colonialism, which was imposed on ostensibly less advanced, less civilized peoples.
Today, even more mainstream preachers are proclaiming a manly gospel. A Christian Post story reports:
“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother,” [Baptist pastor John] Piper said at this year’s annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry. “Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male.” He continued, “God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head. …Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel.” (http://www.christianpost.com/news/john-piper-god-gave-christianity-a-masculine-feel-68385/)
As a pastor with two daughters, I am glad that they have zero exposure to this kind of paternalistic, perhaps even misogynist slant on the gospel. Muscular Christianity is a way of lording it over women and anyone else who doesn’t measure up to its macho and grace-deprived standards.
Lording it over other Christians is what the false teachers were doing in Corinth (2 Cor. 1:24). These “super-apostles” claimed that the Apostle Paul preached a wimpy gospel, a foolish, rhetorically unappealing, unpolished message. Paul was a spiritual weakling. By contrast, the New and Improved Apostles had a message that was much more attractive and appealing to at least many of the Corinthian Christians.
Except that their gospel was no gospel at all. The Christ they preached was no true Christ. The Spirit that inspired them was not the Holy Spirit of God (2 Cor. 11:4). The Apostle Paul had the unenviable experience of watching, from afar, the ministry work that he had invested into the Corinthian church go awry after he has moved on to do the work of evangelism in another region (likely Macedonia). After Paul’s departure, abusive leaders took over and brought the congregation into a state of spiritual sickness. Some pastors (including myself) know this feeling all too well. It is very difficult not to take it personally, and in fact Paul does take it personally—not because of his own ego, but for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ which is being distorted and obscured, and for the sake of the Corinthian believers whom he personally discipled and pastored, who were apparently quite susceptible to being swayed by spiritual bullies. They are being led astray, and their spiritual health, perhaps even their salvation, is at stake.
These “super apostles,” as Paul refers to them (v. 5), had apparently trashed Paul’s reputation among the Corinthian believers. Paul didn’t keep his promises, they said; namely, his promise to return to Corinth (see chapter 1). So they tried to paint him as a leader who didn’t care, a shepherd who abandoned his flock, and moved on to greener pastures, and maybe more lucrative posts, perhaps implying that Paul was in this work for the money.
Here in 2 Corinthians 11 Paul defends his ministry against the attacks of the false apostles who have actively sought to undermine his authority. In this chapter, Paul admits his own foolishness, his weakness, and his lack of rhetorical ability. Please put up with my poor attempt at an argument, Paul says (v. 1).
Don’t believe a word of it.
All of this is part of Paul’s very well-crafted rhetorical demolition of the super-apostles, one that demonstrates true spiritual strength rather than the bullying and spiritual abuse of the usurpers in the church, and a much deeper wisdom than the learned foolishness of their false doctrine. Paul lays on the irony and sarcasm, and so the preacher must be careful not to take him literally when the apostle is actually employing an intentionally false modesty. This technique, by the way, is itself a sophisticated rhetorical move, worthy of Cicero or Quintillian, and ironically undermines the charges of the super-apostles. The connection between wisdom and eloquence one that Cicero points out in his handbook of rhetoric De Inventione (1.1), where he states his opinion that “wisdom without eloquence is but of little advantage to states, but that eloquence without wisdom is often most mischievous, and is never advantageous to them.” Paul may very well have this principle in mind.
The Corinthians loved powerful speakers…way too much. And Paul had specifically avoided using ostentatious rhetoric with them to communicate the gospel, because the content was much more important than any verbal adornment (see 1 Cor. 1:17ff.) The super-apostles are well-spoken fools, while Paul speaks with the unadorned wisdom of the gospel. But the Corinthians seem to prefer the former.
It’s no different today. Television evangelists skilled at the art of persuasion, or of telling people what they want to hear, or convincing their listeners that God wants them to have fat bank accounts, never fail to draw a crowd. And many a pastor knows the frustration of seeing parishioners being drawn away from the nourishing victuals of the gospel to the junk food of narcissistic, self-help religion. As St. Augustine warned, “we must beware of the man who abounds in eloquent nonsense, and so much the more if the hearer is pleased with what is not worth listening to, and thinks that because the speaker is eloquent what he says must be true”
(On Christian Doctrine, 4.5).
The rhetoric of the super-apostles is like the cunning of the serpent in the garden, who used his ostensibly innocent questions to deceive Eve and facilitate the fall of the human race. By the way, Paul uses a similar illustration in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the controversial text where he says he does not permit women to teach or exercise authority over a man. Many believe that Paul is referencing Eve’s deception not to claim that women are inherently and perpetually more susceptible to deception, but because certain women in Ephesus, like the super-apostles in Corinth, were undermining the authentic gospel with deceptive teachings and lording it over other church members.
The apostle dispenses with the insinuation that he preached the gospel in Corinth to enrich himself. In fact, he asked for no financial support from the Corinthians. His ministry in Corinth was supported by other congregations (vv. 7-10). So much for that argument!
Paul continues to “cut the ground from under” the false apostles who boast about their qualifications to lead and instruct the Corinthian believers. But his “boasting” is also very ironic, in contrast to the “worldly” boasting of his detractors. He brags about his sufferings and his sacrifices on behalf of believers, all for the sake of bringing them the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Paul brags about how “weak” he is (v. 30). This long litany of the apostle’s ostensible “fails” really demonstrate his strength, his selfless commitment, and ultimately, his integrity, and thus they constitute the reason why the Corinthians should listen to Paul and the authentic gospel. A further irony is that this piling up of evidence is a typical form of rhetorical copiousness and amplification, which demonstrates that Paul knows more about classical oratory than his opponents admit.
Yet the Corinthians “suffer fools gladly.” Paul sarcastically rebukes the Corinthians for their lack of discernment in tolerating false teachers and deceivers—soul-endangering fools. But the King James translation of v. 19 has entered the English language as an idiom that has almost the opposite meaning from that intended by the apostle. David Brooks (in an article well-worth consulting before preaching on this text) writes:
“Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks.” (“Suffering Fools Gladly,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/opinion/brooks-suffering-fools-gladly.html )
Here is an important point of clarification and application. It is one thing to “suffer fools gladly” when it comes to a person who is struggling with the faith, or clinging to erroneous views. To be gentle with such a person is a Christ-like virtue, and example of grace and charity. To praise an expert of some kind for not suffering fools gladly, by contrast, often betrays an ugly arrogance and self-important impatience. To suffer fools gladly when the foolishness is displayed by persons who are usurping authority in the church and denying the authentic gospel, however, is no virtue. Therefore the need to cultivate in the Body of Christ a thoughtful, prayerful, scripture-informed spirit of discernment.