The Apostle Paul faced a tough task in writing to the wayward Corinthian church, bringing them back to the Lord while they assailed him. In a time when leadership is under fire across the globe, Paul can shed some light.
By Mark D. Harris
Corinth was a hotbed of scum and villainy in the first century Roman Empire. Located on a narrow strip of land between the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, Corinth grew rich and fat on the wares of merchantmen passing between the east and west of the Empire. In the AD 40s, God used Paul and his companions to plant a church in Corinth (Acts 18). Though it grew, the church stumbled from sin to sin and heresy to heresy. Writing from Ephesus in about AD 55, Paul confronted his wayward church in 1 Corinthians. The list of sins was long:
- The Corinthians abandoned Christian unity and were riven with internal strife (Acts 1).
- They were competing for status among themselves (Acts 1).
- They were abandoning godly wisdom in favor of worldly wisdom (Acts 1).
- They were denying the work of the Spirit (Acts 2).
- They were boasting in men (Acts 3)
- They were judging each other harshly at times and weakly at other times (Acts 4)
- They were tolerating blatant sexual sin (Acts 5).
- They were suing each other in secular courts (Acts 6).
- They were denying intimacy to their spouses, divorcing, committing adultery, and simultaneously emphasizing marriage over mission (Acts 7).
- They were using their Christian freedom without care for how their conduct harmed others (Acts 8).
Paul spent half of his letter itemizing the iniquities of his recipients, calling them out in a way sure to provoke their ire. Not only had Paul laid out the sins of the church in a public letter, but he also addressed the unofficial reports of the friends of a church member (Chloe) before getting around to the questions of the elders. The proud, wealthy, cosmopolitan Corinthians would have no love for the source of these attacks, even though Paul was a primary leader in founding the church to begin with.
Restated, Paul laid the cornerstone of the church in Corinth, so much so that a faction had grown up around him. Yet the responsibilities of leadership forced him to tell the people, even his supporters, some unpleasant truths. Even worse, he told them to change what they were doing. Backlash against his leadership, and even the man himself, was inevitable.
Charges against Paul, and His Defense
The Apostle Paul knew his audience and expected push back from the people he was trying to help. So in chapter 9, Paul defended himself from the charges that he knew were coming. As is wont, the expected attacks are ad hominem (against the man) rather than about points of doctrine or practice. As such, they were emotional and personal rather than rational and objective. Paul’s accusers would try to prove that he did not live in accordance with his words.
V1 – Paul commanded his readers to limit their freedom for the benefit of others, an unpopular message. Anticipating the attack that he was not practicing what he preached, Paul first reminded his readers that he had the same freedom that they did. Second, not only was Paul free, but he was also an apostle, an eyewitness to the glory of God in Christ. None of his Corinthian critics could boast the same. Third, Paul founded the very church which these leaders now led, so the very positions which they strove to defend came from Paul’s hand.
Unspoken, but inevitably in the minds of all, were two other powerful evidences of Paul’s authority. First, he had suffered for the gospel in a way that they had not. Paul’s travels, his beatings, his imprisonments, and his other sacrifices were incontrovertible proofs of his authority in the church. Paul, then Saul, had once had a bright future as a wealthy and respected Pharisee, undoubtedly including a wife and children. He gave it all up for Jesus. Second, God worked mighty miracles through Paul.
When I taught this passage in Sunday School, a member said that if she was in a similar situation as the Corinthians, the identity of the author would determine whether she heeded the letter or not. If the sender was her trusted pastor with a long record of faithful service, she would. If not, she would not. This astute woman makes Paul’s point. Since the identity of the author determined or at least influenced how the letter would be received, Paul was forced to remind them of his identity, his credibility, so that the Corinthian Christians would do what he told them to do.
V2 – Even if others rejected his authority, the Corinthians could not, for they themselves were proof of his apostleship.
Why did Paul insist on defending himself? Paul needed no approbation from the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), but he wanted them to believe his message. He reminded them of his authority so that they would do what he told them to do. Paul really cared about his readers…it was not some cynical show. Paul incurred the wrath of some in the Corinthian church to try to benefit them all.
V3 – Paul lays out his defense against the accusations he knew would come. His leadership in Corinth was under fire, and he had to respond.
V4 – Paul ate and drank as a normal person, not as an ascetic (cf. Matthew 11:19). Yet in his eating and drinking, he did not do things which caused others to stumble, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. Furthermore, he did not eat and drink at the expense of the church. As an apostle, he had more right to claim perks for himself from the church, but he did not.
V5 – As was the state at the time, the majority of the members of the Corinthian church were married. Likewise, other church leaders and apostles, even Peter, took along believing wives. Yet Paul gave up intimate female companionship and help in his zeal for Christ. He did not have to, and had more authority than his attackers did.
VV 6-10 – Barnabas and Paul worked outside the church to support themselves so that the churches did not have to support them. This situation violated common experience (V6) but even violated the Law of Moses (VV 8-10). For the church to not support its pastors was a serious infraction of God’s plan. As an apostle, Paul had even more reason to insist on financial support, but he did not.
In the case of eating, marrying, and being paid for their Christian work, Paul and Barnabas were not only blameless but went above and beyond the call of duty. Their opponents in Corinth had no evidence for the hypocrisy that they were trying to find. Thus, they could not credibly attack Paul’s leadership, and had no reason to refuse to do what he said. Had Paul not come out so forcefully, Christians in Corinth who did not know the apostle would have been deceived. The would not have changed their behavior, and the whole ministry in Corinth would have suffered.
V11 – Paul and Barnabas had given the Corinthians spiritual truths, things that would last forever, not just temporal things. In light of what Paul gave them, treasures of love and power, how much should they want to give him whatever they could.
V12 – Paul and his companions had the right to request a lot from the Corinthians, but they did not. The men choose to forego their rights, and endure suffering and hardship, for the sake of the gospel.
VV 13-14 – The Apostle repeats his point, this time referring to the Old Testament practices in Israel.
V15 – Paul did not insist on his prerogatives, but made his body endure lack so that his message would not be compromised. Paul conducted himself above reproach and taught Timothy to do the same.
VV 16-17 – Why did Paul do this? Why did he give up so much and receive so little from those he was trying to help? Why did Paul tolerate attacks from his children in the faith? Why did he love them so much, despite what they were doing?
Paul’s motivation was the same as that of Jesus. The Apostle was compelled by God to preach the gospel. The truth of Christ was indeed the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), the most beautiful, wonderful, and powerful thing in the universe. Paul had that more than his Corinthian opponents, and probably his friends, ever would. Paul, like Jesus, “endured the cross and despised the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2).
V18 – Paul’s affirmed that his reward was the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone.
Paul’s prescription for leaders under fire
- Let your motivation be always eternal, rather than the temporal trash which so often propels our actions.
- Expect your primary reward to come in the next life, not in this one.
- Love those you lead, and let them see it.
- Work harder and sacrifice more than anyone else.
- Give up the nonessentials but stand firm on the essentials of the faith.
- Remember that no matter how good you are, some people will reject you. People can withhold respect even when it is earned.
- Rebuke the opinions of the wicked.
- Defend yourself when you must for the benefit of those around you, and not for your own pride or other purposes.
No leader endures long who is in it for himself. No leader persists if he needs the applause of others to carry on. No perk or position from the hand of man can sustain labor for a lifetime. The only power to persist in life is found in the afterlife. Paul’s rock-solid belief in Jesus and His work propelled him through trials that we soft moderns can only imagine. A world today without a world to come can only end in despair and death. But Paul did not only tolerate the pain, he truly loved the people who were inflicting it. How did he do that? In the same way that Jesus did.
Leaders are continually under fire. Years ago, when I was a clinic commander in Germany, a general told me, “the higher you climb up the flagpole, the more exposed your behind is to those who want to shoot at it.” It is also true, however, that the higher you climb, the closer you get to the One who moves you, empowers you, and loves you.