Conflict, Argument, 2 Corinthians, competition
When I receive critical letters I try not to respond immediately. My first instinct is to strike back and give the writer a piece of my mind I really can’t afford to surrender. I tend to say things that are more inflammatory than helpful. By taking a little time and prayerfully considering my response (If I make one) I find I respond in a way that is more productive.
Paul began his letter in a conciliatory fashion. He was trying to build bridges to protect the church in Corinth and the Lord they represented. The conflict that had existed had largely been overcome. Paul talked about trials and Heaven and being a new Creation. Then he pointed to some practical matters related to helping the church in Jerusalem. As we move to the last chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul addressed his comments to the opponents and false teachers who remained in the congregation.
Paul could have shrugged and assumed they would go away. But to do that is like ignoring cancer that you find in your body. If you continue to ignore it, it will eventually overwhelm you. So it is with false teaching and people who cause division.
Understand that Paul is not concerned about what people say about him. However, he does feel a need to defend the truth of the gospel which these men were distorting.
How to Defend Yourself in a Godly Manner (10:1-6)
We can learn some very practical things from Paul about how to defend yourself. First we must have the right demeanor.
Now I, Paul, appeal to you with the gentleness and kindness of Christ—though I realize you think I am timid in person and bold only when I write from far away. 2 Well, I am begging you now so that when I come I won’t have to be bold with those who think we act from human motives.
Paul says we should look to Jesus to learn how to deal with those who seek to slander and destroy us. We should be kind, gentle, and if need be, firm just like he was. People were saying Paul was being selfish. He could have really blasted away at them but he was concerned about teaching them and bringing them to a point of repentance.
Paul says we have two choices.
We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. 4 We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. 5 We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. 6 And after you have become fully obedient, we will punish everyone who remains disobedient.
Paul said there are two approaches to solving problem and leading people. There is the worldly way and the Christlike way. The world’s way involves power, influence, and coercion. It is about rank and who controls the purse strings. It is competitive, manipulative, and often heartless.
We see this illustrated in many areas. The government uses coercion (laws, fines, tax penalties) to get people to conform. This is necessary, but it does not change people, it just gets them to do what you want. Many businesses work the same way. They put policies in place that coerce people to do what they require. And most of the time these requirements are all about money.
People who function in the way of the world tend to become more arrogant, self-absorbed, and less compassionate, as they grow in power. They believe it is all about power. Power does go to people’s heads. People with power like to remind people that they have power by exercising their authority whenever they can.
People who follow the way of Christ however are different. They become more humble in a crisis. Jesus said we were to serve others not use or manipulate them. The way of Christ is to use God’s mighty weapons. In other words, the godly leader relies on God’s power, God’s truth, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to carefully destroy false arguments. This is not simply about being well studied . . . it is about learning to rely on the Lord not our own abilities.
We Should Have the Right Purpose in defending ourselves. Paul says his goal is to “destroy all that keeps people from knowing God”. Now compare that with the purpose that we often have in defending ourselves,
- I’ll show them they can’t push me around
- I am going to show them who is boss
- I will make them feel as bad as they have made me feel
- I am going to destroy them so they can never do this to me again
Paul was not concerned about “winning”. It was not about him. His primary concern was about the Kingdom of God. He was concerned that people be brought to the true God through the true gospel. He knew he was merely a servant of God seeking to bring others to the Lord.
The problem is that we have been trained to fight according to the pattern of the world. We start out wanting to honor Christ, but as soon as we meet resistance, as soon as someone offends us, we resort to the old ways of the world. We put up our fists and fight. We attack rather than discuss. That is not the way of Christ.
The Specifics of the Attack
There was an attack on Paul’s authority. It appears that false teachers were claiming that Paul lacked God’s authority in their teaching. They probably picked at his teaching, twisted what he said, and tried to make him look weak and inadequate (as we will see shortly). We see this all the time when people say, “You have no right to say this to me.”
This was a big issue. If the authority of Paul (as one speaking the Word of God) is diminished or destroyed, that has a huge impact on the Christian faith. After all, Paul wrote half of the New Testament! This matters to us also because our arguments and corrections should be based on the word of God.
7 Look at the obvious facts. Those who say they belong to Christ must recognize that we belong to Christ as much as they do. 8 I may seem to be boasting too much about the authority given to us by the Lord. But our authority builds you up; it doesn’t tear you down. So I will not be ashamed of using my authority.
Paul’s authority was not self-proclaimed (like the false teachers). Paul was commissioned by Christ Himself on the road to Damascus and this authority was recognized by the apostles.
Paul does not use his authority as a club, he uses it to guide and build up the church. Paul was trying to use His authority to build up the church and to train leaders and followers of Christ. These so-called “authorities” were destroying the church. They were creating trouble not bringing unity.
The second charge was that Paul was two-faced. Paul actually quoted his adversaries, “Paul’s letters are demanding and forceful, but in person he is weak, and his speeches are worthless!” In other words, these false teachers were saying Paul is like a parent who talks tough but never carries through on what he threatens. As a result, that parent can talk all they want and it won’t make any difference because the child knows it is just talk!
Paul replied: Think what you want but when I arrive, you will find out that I am just as forceful in person as in writing. It doesn’t take much thought to realize Paul was speaking the truth. Remember, this same man, before he was converted, went around executing Christians! Paul knew how to apply pressure. He was choosing to act in love with patience. However, if these men continued to resist he would do what he had to do to remove them from the church. Paul was consistent.
Paul was a poor speaker. Are you beginning to see what is happening here? These attacks are not on what Paul is teaching, the attacks are not doctrinal; the attacks were designed to be critical of him personally. In logic this is called an “argument to the man”. In other words, instead of dealing with the issues, you attack or make fun of the person.
It happens all the time. A person is dismissed because of how he dresses, or the food he eats, or even the hobbies he enjoys. If you do not match the status quo you may be criticized and dismissed, not because you are not speaking truth but because of superficial things.
We see this in political ads. I remember back when George Bush Senior was running for President the first time, he ran against Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. It seemed to me like the turning point of the campaign was when the Bush campaign began using a video of the Governor trying to drive a tank with an ill-fitting helmet on his head. He looked ridiculous. The video had absolutely nothing to do with Dukakis as a leader, his abilities as Commander in Chief or his policies. The idea was that if you can make fun of him as a person, no one would care what he believed. When Vice President Dan Quayle added an “e” to potato by mistake in a school the implication was that the man was nearly illiterate. These arguments are not on point and they are not fair.
Two children will be playing outside and they begin arguing about the rules of a game or some other point. One of the children (usually the one losing the argument) says simply, “Oh yeah! Well, you are ugly”. It is a diversionary tactic. People use it all the time to avoid actually dealing with the issue at hand.
When dealing with others we must guard against attacking the person. Instead we should focus on the issue at hand. In defending ourselves we should seek to resolve conflict not destroy our opponent by any means.
Having read Paul’s letters we know that there was nothing wrong with the content of his speech. He was a brilliant man with a great understanding of the way of God. One can only assume that Paul was not a polished speaker like some of the Greek Rhetoricians. Perhaps he lacked charisma. That doesn’t make Paul a bad teacher!
Some of the finest theological writings ever written came from the writings and sermons of Jonathan Edwards. The movement known as the Great Awakening happened largely because of his ministry. Yet, accounts tell us that Edwards was not a great speaker. He read his manuscript and it is said that he held it so close to his face that he had ink on his nose.
These opponents in Corinth were dismissing the teaching of Paul because of superficial things. How often we do the same. We don’t like the clothes someone wears, or the music they listen to, or the hobbies they have. We may resent what they have or what they don’t have. These are surface issues. What really matters is truth.
Paul responds with some helpful principles. Only a Fool Makes Himself the Standard by which others are measured. Paul says,
Oh, don’t worry; we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! (12)
These trouble-makers were measuring everyone else by themselves. What would happen if every person was free to define an inch or a pound or an ounce any way they wanted? It would be absurd. They might say something was a mile away but it was really 10 miles down the road. Someone might offer a great price on 16 ounce bottles of soda and when you paid your money it came out in a shot glass. Two people who were the same height might list their heights vastly different: one might say they were two feet tall and the other 12 feet tall.
The standard of truth cannot change or it no longer is a standard. When we measure others by ourselves we only lie to ourselves. We assume that we are good and until others measure up to us they are not. But we are not good. We are sinful. We will always measure others in a way that makes us look good.
We are to Build Not Destroy. In verses 13-17 Paul reminded the Corinthians that Paul was not seeking to impose his authority on some church formed by someone other than him. Imagine some Pastor of another church coming in here to tell us all the things we are doing wrong! We would say that person is stepping beyond their authority. That person doesn’t know us. They are judging superficially and most of us would resent and be angered by such behavior.
Paul points out that this is what the troublemakers were doing. They were coming into this church that Paul helped form and they are creating discord. They are trying to create a “split” in the church that would lead people to repudiate the message and ministry of Paul.
Paul on the other hand said his purpose was to go into places that had not heard the gospel and preach the message of salvation and then organize the believers into churches. He was not trying to “steal sheep” from another congregation or insert himself into the work that others had done. Paul respected the differences between churches. He was called to build churches, his opponents were termites.
What is Important is Not What You Say About Yourself but What God Says About You. Paul concludes with these pointed words, “When people commend themselves, it doesn’t count for much. The important thing is for the Lord to commend them.” (18)
I suspect you have found like I have that people who have to keep telling you how great or how important they are, are not near as great or important as they claim to be. Likewise if you have to tell me how smart you are, you aren’t as smart as you think you are. If you are truly important, great, smart, talented and more, it should be evident. You shouldn’t have to tell anyone.
Paul takes this a step further: It doesn’t matter what you say about yourself. It doesn’t matter what others say about you. What matters is what the Lord says about us. Samuel was told by God, “Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart”.
God is not fooled by public relations firms, padded résumés, spin doctors, newspaper clippings or even stirring testimonies. The Lord looks at a person’s faithfulness, their character, and whether they are serving Him or merely serving themselves under the guise of faith.
When it all came down to it, Paul knew he played to an audience of only one: The Lord. The only opinion that matters is the Lord’s. Paul did what God called him to do and that was enough. He certainly desired that the Corinthians let him lead them, he probably even hoped they would “like” him. However Paul knew that this was not a popularity contest. His goal was to be faithful to the Lord. Period.
This is the lesson we must learn also. When we face critics, when we encounter abuse, we must first ask, “Is there any truth in what is being said?’ If so, we should gratefully make corrections in our life. If not, then remember that you and I both play to an audience of One. That applies not only to what we do, but also to how we respond to those who criticize what we do.
Rather than speak in anger, we would be better to stop and reflect before we say anything and then seek to communicate (or even defend ourselves) in a way that honors the Lord. That is much better than merely vindicating ourselves. Even though it may not feel that way at the time. But of course, it sounds a lot easier than it actually is to do. May God help us to show His love and grace even when we are under attack.