Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Corinthians 10
by Kory Plockmeyer
In a previous church, there was an individual with whom I did not see eye-to-eye theologically. In person, we could have rousing discussions, speaking face-to-face and able to better understand one another. Our online interactions were completely different. I had written a post for a website that garnered some attention and began a conversation. One anonymous commenter accused me of abandoning Scripture. When I switched to Facebook, I was surprised to see nearly the same arguments (without the accusations that I had abandoned Scripture) by this person I knew from church. The anonymous comments were tagged with 2 Corinthians 10:4 – “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
Paul, for this person, was an example for how to behave in the world – “timid” when face to face, but “bold” in less personal interactions. Boldness means drawing clear lines and demolishing anyone in who does not toe that line. If any questions arise about the appropriateness of such an attitude, we can fall back into a spiritualized defense – we are fighting with divine power against arguments and pretensions that set themselves up against the knowledge of God.
I share this story with some hesitation. First, I pause because I know that despite my complaints of such behavior, I too am guilty of speaking more boldly under the cloak of anonymity than I would in public (though, I like to think, not necessarily than what I would say in face-to-face conversation). Second, I hesitate because many of us recognize that, were Paul alive in the internet age, anonymous and angry comments would likely not be his modus operandi.
Yet, we recognize that many Christian leaders, whether consciously or not, adopt a sort of Pauline attitude when it comes to our interactions with one another.
2 Corinthians 10 gives us a glimpse of the early church and the reality of Paul’s world in which the man whom we know as the author of much of the New Testament is one of a number of church leaders, and apparently one of the less charismatic ones at that. We are given a brief window to see Paul on the defensive, speaking on behalf of his own authority, not daring even “to classify or compare [himself] with some who commend themselves” (10:12).
Paul’s timidity, it seems, is less about the content of what he says and more about the manner in which he says it. Verse 7 suggests that the concern is about “appearances,” likely that Paul doesn’t look the part of the authority figure. In verse 11 he notes that his actions in person match the words he says in letter form. In response to such concerns, Paul grounds himself deeply in the truth of Jesus Christ.
The history of the church is full of charismatic leaders. A certain “look” often accompanies this. Where robes and suits used to be the official or unofficial uniform of the pastor, many churches today have an understood uniform of the church leader that matches a key target demographic. No matter the context, whether the pastor is wearing a suit, a robe, or skinny jeans and a graphic T-shirt, churches often have expectations of what their pastor should look like. Pastors (male and female) face scrutiny for everything from their choice of shoe to the color of any accessories they may wear, such as necklaces, earrings, or even ties. With the advent of resources such as YouTube, our congregants have the opportunity to listen to any number of pastors who may fit the look or sound of the pastor better than we do.
Paul’s defense of his ministry is an important one to remember for those of us called to preach the Gospel: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (10:17). Ministry can be more competitive than we like to admit. Those of us who minister in communities with multiple churches nearby may compare ourselves to our colleagues in town. We may look at the pastor of the biggest church in town and wonder what she or he is doing differently from us that we could do better.
Paul’s defense of his ministry comes back over and over to his record of service, to the things that God has done through him, to the Gospel that he preached in Corinth and that he hopes to continue to preach beyond Corinth. Although Paul’s authority includes discipline (10:6), Paul’s task is to build up the church: “So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing down, I will not be ashamed of it” (10:8).
This points us to a reality of life in the church and our role as preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are times when we must speak with boldness. There are times when our call is, prayerfully and humbly, to “demolish strongholds” with the words God gives us. Even at these hard moments, we always do so not with malicious intent but with the heartfelt desire that God would use us to build his church.
I remember a Sunday where I was preaching on the book of Obadiah. This was one of those sermons I was quite proud of – I had wrestled with this book and was excited to share the expression of hope we find in this little-read book. A significant chunk of the sermon was devoted to exegeting a “slippery slope of injustice,” where the people of Edom move from casual observation to complicit agents of injustice. As I gave illustrations of the ways that we continue to find ourselves on this slippery slope of injustice today, I realized that all of my examples were things that I hoped other people would recognize as continued acts of injustice. Subtly working underneath this sermon was the desire to call out others for their own participation in injustice without admitting to the ways that I too am just as guilty.
Paul’s admonishment in verse 13 helps correct this: “We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God has assigned to us, a sphere that includes you.” We operate with an acute sense of our limitations, our foibles, and our failings. Even as we seek to lead God’s people, we recognize that God speaks to us through the sermon as well as our congregations.
While it may seem that much of this passage speaks more directly to pastors than to our congregations, we can easily expand Paul’s self-description to provide guidance for interactions within our congregations. Conflict and disagreement is not something to be avoided but can be an opportunity for growth – particularly when we view our calling throughout to have the goal of building one another up, rather than tearing each other down. When we operate within that framework, we understand verse 4 differently – our weapon is not accusations and anger but loving conversation and seeking God’s will for our lives, taking “captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (10:5).
Perhaps one of the most grace-filled sentences in this passage comes in verse 7: “If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do.” The grace of that sentence is that Christ cannot be confined to any one person’s experience. The grace of that sentence is that it begins with the assumption that others have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ in their lives. This assumption is tremendously difficult to come by when it comes to theological disagreements (and liturgical, political, or any of the categories that cause division in our churches). We often assume the worst in one another. Paul here reminds the believers that our experience of the grace of Jesus Christ leads us to celebrate that experience in the lives of others, even when it may look different for them than it does for us.
This is not to say that we can never stand firm on any principles or that we have to end up with watered down theology and abandon all convictions. Paul certainly stood by his convictions and worked in the church in Corinth based on his convictions.
Our conversation takes on a different tone when we recognize that just as we are confident that we belong to Jesus Christ, so too are those brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. Our authority as believers and parts of the body of Christ may mean standing by our convictions, even gently and graciously striving to show a hard form of love to an errant loved one; yet in all things, like Paul, we recognize God’s calling for building up the body, rather than tearing it down.
In verse two, the 2011 NIV translation obscures the rather physical metaphor: “who think that we live according to the standards of this world” would more literally be translated “who think that we walk in accordance with the flesh.”
Paul’s inclusion of what some in the church of Corinth may say about him (verse 10) is an example of Paul’s training in rhetoric, setting up a straw man argument in order to emphasize his point – that Paul’s actions match his words and his authority is equal in person and absent.
In his book Grow Where You’re Planted, Kelly Crull, a church planter in Madrid, Spain, has a chapter on “redeeming conflict.” Kelly tells the story of how serious disagreement within the leadership team of their church over theology of baptism led to a deeper sense of commitment and a stronger cohesion within the ministry. Kelly goes on to describe the ways that, when approached with grace and love, conflict becomes a catalyst for growth, spiritual formation, and for building up the body of Christ.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.