A glance and reflection of the Apostle Paul's two letters to the Corinthians. We ask some questions: Is weakness truly a strength? How might Paul's leadership/disciple images inform contemporary ministry? Is suffering true spirituality?
Paul, in 1 Corinthians, centers his discussion around spiritual gifts, the Corinthians’ incorrect perspective of them and the proper use of them while he uses a series of paradoxes and contrasting statements in order to rid the Corinthians of their boastfulness ...
At a Glance: 1 Corinthians
Paul pens down a series of words that are important for our study of his letter, they include: “members" (e.i.- 12:12-27), “love” (e.i. - 13:1-4,13: 14:1), “wisdom” or “knowledge,” (1:19-25; 2:1,4, 6-9; 8:1,7, 10,11; 13:2, 8; 14, 6); “foolish” or “arrogant” (1:20, 21,25; 3:18, 19; 4:6, 18, 19; 8:1), “boast(ing)” (1:31, 5:5, 9:15), “examine" (2:14-15; 4:3; 11:28); “judge(ment)” (1:10; 4:5; 5:1, 12-13: 6:2-3, 9:8), and “conscience” (8:12; 10:25,27, 28,29). Paul shares with us some important phrases and concepts as well: “the same” (e.i. - mind and judgment [1:10], Lord and Spirit [12:4,5,8,9]), “the body” (12:14, 16, 20, 22, 23, 25); “spiritual gifts” (12:1,14:1), and “self-control” (7:5, 9). Major doctrines include: sanctification (1:30; 6:11; 7:14), the God-head (or Trinity) (1:1-10; etc.), dichotomy (15:44-49), and the resurrection of the dead (15:13, 52). Paul points out that the Corinthians’ boastfulness of their worldly wisdom is really a dangerous sign that the Spirit was not found at work in them (1:10, 2:11-16; 3:11-15) and that their disunity had been created by their fixation upon loyalty to men rather than to God (3:3-15; 4:5, etc.) or knowledge rather than love (3:22-23, 4:6, 19-12, etc.). Our culture today is relatively the same, therefore, we need to teach inside our churches that knowledge is not salvation and that our knowledge should led us to obedience (obedience in keeping with God’s work inside of us individually) for the common good of Christ’s body (for its up-building) (4:6; 6:12-20; 7:18-24). In other words, we need to secure un-distracted devotion to the Lord, learn to know that we know nothing, and shift our teaching focus inside the Church from “knowledge” to “love” (7:35-8:1-3).
At a Glance: 2 Corinthians
Having his authority as an Apostle questioned due to his weakness, Paul must provide an example for the Corinthians to follow by defending why the glory of his ministry must be contained in his weakness. Paul pens down a series of words that are import for our study of his letter, they include: “affliction” (1:4,5,6, 8,9; 2:4, 6; 4:17; 6:4, 11; 7:4; 8:13), “confidence” (1:12; 3:4, 7:4; 16; 8:22; 9:4; 11:17), “grace of God” (1:12; 8:1; 9:8, 13:14); “glory of God” (or “of Christ”)(1:20; 3:7-11, 18; 4:4, 15, 17; 9:13 ), “manifested” (3:3; 4:10-11; 5:11); “weakness" or “weak” (11:20, 29: 12:5, 9-10; 13:4, 9), “adequacy” (2:16; 3:5-6); “reconciled” (5:18-20), “comforted” (7:6,7,13), “ministry” (6:2, 9:1, 12, 13), and earnest(ness) (8:7, 16-17). Paul focuses on paradoxes of “strength in weakness” and “life in death” (or transitions from earthly to heavenly) (1:9, 2:16, 3:6, 4:17, 12:9) and contrasts between the worthlessness of the flesh and God’s power (or the “eternal and temporary”) (3:11-18; 5:15, 13:4, 9). Paul compares himself with an average, weak, and temporary jar of clay holding the treasures of heaven, by which he shows his ministry to be of value (4:1-18). Among people who preach a counterfeit gospel of “health and wealth” in a materialistic culture, we are to show with confidence Christ’s gospel to be of eternal value. This is done by disciples carrying Christ’s sacrifice around in our bodies (dying to self daily, enduring suffering [physically, emotionally and spiritually], etc.) with great urgency in order to show God’s glory and authenticate God’s message (4:10,-14; 5:11, 12; 8:7). As religion becomes more “personal” (self-seeking) in our culture, preachers must point towards their message (that being the gospel) and their weaknesses in comparison (11:18-21).
A Deeper Look:
1. In many ways this letter is about ministry. Paul depicts the character of ministry in a series of images (e.g., apostle, one who ‘dies’ to bring life to others, ambassador, etc.). How might these images inform, or not inform, contemporary ministry?
These images in 2 Corinthians inform contemporary ministry quite thoroughly through a series of meanings which are interconnected and bound to the very essence of Christian ministry. Firstly, by Paul’s definition of an “apostle,” we can see that the purpose of a minister/leader within Christian ministry is to bring others a message of reconciliation. This calls for us to make every opportunity to bring the Gospel (however so inconvenient [Paul's ministry to the Corinthians was just that]). It also calls for us, personally, to be reconciled to God ourselves. Secondly, Paul’s image of “the one who ‘dies’ to bring life to others” defines how the message of reconciliation is to be communicated. That which is the mode of suffering or rejection. Suffering/rejection is, in essence, is the very rejection or renouncing of “self” by which an individual is in a continual state of continuing death by choice in order to provoke a continuing conversation of Christ’s death. Thirdly, Paul’s image of being an ambassador renders the means by which we are to carry out contemporary ministry. We are representatives not of ourselves, not of our kingdom (or nation), not of our beliefs or even of our knowledge but representatives of the Kingdom of God alone.
2. How can a believer or church that does not suffer — such as most in the Western world — fully understand, appreciate, and affirm the promise of glory (resurrection and being with Christ after death)?
I am not fully confident that those who do not suffer can not fully ascertain, appreciate, and affirm the promise of glory (that being the resurrection and being with Christ after death). What continues my suspicion is the call to suffering which is found in the pattern seen in the ministry of Christ and His terminology/imagery about being a true disciple in Luke 9:22-24. Christ puts forth a chronological order of his ministry and his coming substitutionary death: rejected, slain, raised. In the same fashion, Christ puts forth a chronological order that is essential for our redemption in His substitutionary death: rejected (renouncement of self), slain (death to self), raised (made alive for Christ). Suffering (both physical and spiritual) is a major key in the order of true spirituality.
3. What are some of the actual or potential contemporary manifestations of cruciform ministry in parallel to Paul’s self-support and general practice of ‘spending and being spent’ for others? What difficulties and/or potential dangers might exist in a theology and practice of cruciform ministry?
Paul confidently concludes that the Corinth Christians have a commitment to contribute to the collection of the church as it is a channel of relief to other Christians who are in collection with them in the body of Christ. In reflection to 2 Corinthians 8-9, I can confidently claim that we (Christians) are called to be a committed collection of believers through our contribution to faith-based famine relief efforts (especially those efforts towards other Christians). This was the reality for the Corinthians who were called to contribute to the collection going to Jerusalem for famine relief. This can present some financial difficulties for some who are being a resource for others. This can also present some physical and logistical difficulties to those who which to organize a collection. Contributing to a greater church fund requires faith, which may cause some conflicts within churches. Although Paul was only a vehicle of such a collection by consequence, I think it is important to keep in mind Paul’s relationship to his churches and the mother churches of Jerusalem. Paul’s manifestations of a “cruciform ministry" is directly seen in his sufferings as he was a missionary who’s purpose was about: reporting the message of the gospel to Gentles while reporting the growth of the church to other churches. This all was done at Paul’s expense. To carry the gospel is never convenient and requires that we become vulnerable and available as we create a network or organization with which we can work in. Since suffering is the cost which is closely related to the Gospel of the Suffering Servant (that being Christ), a series of potential dangers might exist in a theology and practice of cruciform ministry. Today, suffering for a “cruciform ministry" might look like being self supported while forming an organization which others criticize as an un-biblical institution. Taking up trade other than ministry is prone to collapse at a later time or, even worst yet, provide an inconsistent income. Even more of a danger is the theology of cruciform ministry which calls us to be constantly given over to those who do not want to die to self: the law-givers and the lovers of flesh (like those of a “health and wealth” gospel).