Alternatively titled, “What you won’t hear the Apostle Paul say.”
I’ve been chewing on this for a little while as I work my way through Paul’s epistles. During this project, I’ve discovered a funny side effect of getting to know the biblical authors better: I get annoyed when people say things about them that I don’t think are true. In this case, I found myself chafing at a rather pervasive idea commentators seem to have have about Paul. Many of them consider him to be quite possessive of the churches he planted.
At one level, I can see how they could arrive at this conclusion. With texts like these…
Ga 4:16-17; 5:12 Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth? They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them. …I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!
2Co 10:13 We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us–a sphere which especially includes you.
2Co 11:5 For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles…
2Co 12:11 …I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles…
…it’s easy to walk away with the idea that Paul was a little jumpy about losing his ministry base.
Combining this idea with verses where Paul talks about not encroaching on someone else’s work (Romans 15:20 and 2 Corinthians 10:16), some commentators see Paul’s approach to apostleship as a very territorial one. They explain his sharp tone in Galatians and 2 Corinthians as a reaction to people butting in on his turf, which he didn’t appreciate. Paul had put in all the work to plant the church, the commentators reason, and so he should be the one with continuing influence and authority over the people there (and, not inconsequentially, be the recipient of their financial support).
That was his territory. Those were his churches. Those were his people. He was good and careful not to step on other ministers’ toes, and he resented it when people stepped on his and tried to reap all the benefits of his work. …Or so the logic goes.
Such a notion might fly in our modern capitalistic society, but I have the feeling that Paul would take exception to it. As John the Baptist put it a few decades before Paul, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom” (John 3:29). In other words, the Church is the Bride of Christ, not the property of the minister. A minister’s job is to be the “friend of the Bridegroom”, and it would be a grievous error to claim any ownership of the Bridegroom’s betrothed wife. It’s the reason John was able to say without bitterness, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
It is unthinkable that the anointed apostle to the Gentiles would fail to grasp this point. In fact, we know that Paul did understand it quite well. He wrote about it himself, though employing somewhat different language to do so.
At the beginning of 1 Corinthians — Corinth being one of the cities that Paul is supposedly so possessive of — Paul dismantles the idea of preacher loyalty. It’s the first thing he addresses after his customary opening greetings and prayers. He expresses dismay over the divisions and contentions among the Corinthian church (1:10-11), noting that they were splintering into factions to support their favorite teachers (v. 12). Some people claimed to follow Paul, some Apollos, some Cephas (Peter), and others, in an evident attempt to look more spiritual than the rest of the squabbling lot, claimed simply to follow Christ, rather than any mere human teachers. Paul points out the foolishness of such arguments:
Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1Cor 1:12-13)
Rather than commend his supporters against the rival fan clubs of Apollos and Peter, Paul corrects the very people showing most loyalty to him. He makes it blisteringly clear where their commitment should lie. Paul didn’t die for anyone’s sins. Paul had no power to baptize people into new life in his own name. He was actually grateful that he only baptized a small handful of people in Corinth (v. 14-17), giving less grounds for anyone to think that he was the be-all and end-all of Christianity.
Paul could care less about having a big following. He cared intensely that Christ should have a big following.
The apostle actually spends the next two chapters of 1 Corinthians expounding on this point, countering the believers’ pride in their own wisdom and upholding Jesus as the true wisdom and power of God. He chides the Paul/Apollos fan clubs as being carnal and immature, with the jarring statement that they are “behaving like mere men” (1Cor 3:1-4). He cinches his point with two analogies: farmers and builders.
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. (1 Cor 3:5-10a)
How… territorial? Somehow, this does not sound like a chorus of “Mine! Mine! Mine!” to me. Paul seems to be completely neutral, and even positive, to the idea of someone else building upon the work he has begun in Corinth. It’s not a reason for division or for accusations of “sheep-stealing”; it’s a sign of the unity of the Body, and ultimately, the sovereign hand of God raising up the Church by His own will and for His own purposes.
So how do we reconcile Paul’s desire to disband his groupies in 1 Corinthians with his fierce defensiveness in Galatians and his expectation to be recognized by the church in 2 Corinthians?
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Paul talks about it himself in those respective letters, and even hints at it in the next few verses of 1 Corinthians 3: “…But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (vv.10b-11).
Paul did not oppose other teachers simply because they were other teachers. He opposed them because they were false teachers. And by “false teachers”, it was not a matter of sprinkling or dunking in baptism, contemporary choruses versus old hymns, or whether communion was served with one loaf and real wine, as opposed to oyster crackers and grape juice.
It was a matter of whether or not Jesus’ death and resurrection really was enough to save a sinful human being.
In other words, Paul was not having a theological spat, much less a turf war. He was fighting for those churches’ salvation. It was a matter of literal spiritual life or death. Is it any wonder his tone was fiery?
Consider his explanation in 2 Corinthians 11 for his defensive boasting:
Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly — and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted–you may well put up with it! (2 Cor 11:1-4)
There is not a word said about Paul’s right to the territory. He’s not concerned about whether people regard him as the biggest name in preaching. He’s being a friend of the Bridegroom, and is fighting for the heart of the Bride to belong, not to himself, but to the Man to whom she is betrothed. His concern is not about a different preacher, but “a different spirit” and “a different gospel”. To put it bluntly, he is concerned that the church will fall away.
In fact, it is this very passion that is overriding his deep aversion to boasting. His reluctance to promote himself comes through frequently in this passage (see 10:12; 11:1, 16-18, 23; 12:1), and in the end, he ends up boasting in his weakness (11:30; 12:9), that the glory may go to Jesus. He hates having to even bring these things up, but he has a higher purpose: he is defending the Bride of Christ (11:1-4), and cutting off the opportunity of the ministers of Satan (11:12-15).
It’s a similar context in Galatians. Galatia was a province full of new believers, mostly Gentiles, who were being targeted by false teachers. The issue at stake was whether or not Gentiles must become circumcised in order to follow God — a question that would be settled very soon at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Whether or not these false teachers were even followers of Jesus is unclear, but in any case, a very current question of the day was whether or not there was any such thing as a Gentile Christian. Paul held that there was. Others were not so sure. The Galatians were caught in the crossfire of it all and extremely confused.
When Paul wrote to Galatia, it’s clear that the discussion had moved far past a robust theological debate. Straight out of the gate, his tone was sharp — and it made plain what his burden was.
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal 1:6-7)
Paul is not employing colorful rhetoric to try and out-argue his opponents. He did not villify the teachers because they were people other than himself. Note the usage of the same term as in 2 Corinthians, “a different gospel”. Paul does not see circumcision as a painful inconvenience that he would prefer the Galatians not to bother with. He sees it as a compromise of the very foundations of their faith. To embrace circumcision and the law would be to say that Jesus was not enough. They would be basing their righteousness and salvation on their own works, not on the free gift of grace.
Again, Paul is not splitting theological hairs. He is fighting for people’s lives. In 1:8-9, Paul calls for a curse on anyone who would preach a false gospel — be it any other minster, an angel from heaven, or even Paul and his ministry team themselves. Clearly the issue is not Paul defending his own ministry (otherwise he would never threaten himself with a curse). The issue is the true gospel, which would be welcomed from any voice that declared it.
Paul’s detailed autobiographical testimony in Galatians 1-2 could be interpreted as defending his own name — except that he already said what his core concerns were. He was burning up about that “different gospel” which sought to claim the hearts of these new believers. Instead of viewing this passage as his train of thought jumping the tracks, might we understand it instead as Paul demonstrating that his gospel was, in fact, the true one? It is not about Paul, but about Paul’s gospel which preached liberty in Christ for all who are saved by Him.
To expect Paul to approach this subject nicely is to expect him to be ambivalent about the eternal destiny of an entire province of churches. It is precisely because he was not wrapped up in self-preservation that he was able to speak with the boldness he does in this letter (see 1:10; 5:11; 6:12). Similar to 1 Corinthians 10-12, Paul admits that he does not like the tone he has to take with the churches he loves so tenderly (Gal 4:19-20). But the stakes were simply too high. The love of Christ compelled him to persuade the people away from the false teachers and to bring them back, not for the sake of his mailing list, but for the sake of their souls. They had lost hold of the truth of the gospel, and Paul was urgently calling them to heed it again.
If we read these passages and see more about the growth of Paul’s ministry than about the real human souls hanging in the balance, or about the real glory and honor due to Christ, then that says a lot more about our priorities than it does Paul’s.
Just sayin’. 🙂