Spiritual Leaders and Humble Relationships, Part 1: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
There’s been a great deal in the Christian blogosphere lately about “spiritually abusive pastors” and “pastors who bully.” It started me pondering, “How does the Apostle Paul respond to those who disagree with him and criticize him?”
I understand that the correlation is not one-to-one: Paul was an apostle, not a pastor. Of course, that’s all the more reason to ponder the question. As pastors and ministry leaders today, we should respond exponentially more humbly than Paul did.
I also understand the vital hermeneutic issue of the original intent of the author. In other words, I can’t “cherry pick” a topic or theme and force it onto Paul’s writings, if that theme was not a part of his original purpose. That would be like reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and seeking to apply it to the American political issues of 2011—it’s totally out of context. However, in the Corinthian epistles, Paul is clearly focused on “body life,” “apostolic authority,” “divisions in the church,” and the relationship between shepherds and sheep.
As I begin to explore this question, I don’t have any “target” or “agenda” or “end game” I’m trying to prove. I’m simply opening 1 and 2 Corinthians and asking section by section, in a running commentary, “How is Paul relating and responding to the Corinthians who are complaining about him, and what can we apply to our lives today?”
1. Paul identifies them as holy and sanctified (1:1-2).
Wow! How different Paul is from us. As spiritual leaders today, if we’re not careful we can succumb to the temptation to label those who disagree with us: “rebellious, ungodly, arrogant, disrespectful of authority…”
Later Paul will “call a spade a spade”—he’s not afraid to confront sin. However, he doesn’t label people as sinners, but as saints. He’s both a good theologian and a godly leader.
If we’re immature leaders, we are terrified of dissent. We use labels against others as a way to put them down, put them in their place, intimidate them, and shame them. “You questioned me. Obviously you are immature and arrogant.” “I see a pattern of anger and a critical spirit that you must repent of.” Such labels heap shame and condemnation on the recipient, rather than offering wise counsel and constructive feedback.
Picture yourself called into a meeting with Paul after you’ve voice some concern or disagreement. You’re expecting to be put down and shut up. He begins, “First, I want you to know that you are sanctified and holy.”
Instead of pulling rank, Paul ranks his critics above himself (compare Philippians 2:1-5). Instead of choosing condemning labels, Paul chooses grace conversations (compare Ephesians 4:15-16; 4:29; Colossians 4:3-6).
2. Paul gives thanks for them (1:3-4).
Another wow! Paul’s thanking the Corinthians—yeah, those dudes who could be rude and crude toward him.
When we act as spiritually abusive leaders, we use our spiritual position to control or dominate others. We override the feelings and opinions of others, without regard to what will result in the other person’s life, emotions, or spiritual well-being. Spiritual authority is used defensively and abused to bolster our position and needs, over and above the person who comes to us in need or with a concern.
Not Paul. Your jaw is still on the table after Paul said you were a sanctified saint. Now Paul continues. “Second, I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ.” Paul bolsters others up in Christ instead of boasting about himself.
3. Paul affirms them (1:5-9).
A hallmark of a spiritually abusive and immature leader is the need to demean those who disagree with us. We act defensively—building ourselves up by tearing others down.
Not so Paul. Imagine the conversation continuing. You’ve been ripping Paul, and you’re sure he’s ready to rip you, to put you in your place, to put himself above you. Then he says, “Third, you’ve been enriched in Christ in every way—in all your speaking and knowledge. You don’t lack any spiritual gift. Christ will keep you strong and blameless to the end.”
If we’re immature leaders, we’re terrified of that type of scenario because it tips the balance of the scales of power. We consider ourselves above questioning. We interpret our position of authority to mean that our thoughts are supreme and our perspective is totally unbiased. We then assume that any questions come from a wrong spirit, not simply from an honest attempt to have give-and-take dialogue. The worst is assumed of the other; the best is assumed of oneself.
Paul is so confident of who he is in Christ that he affirms who others are in Christ—even those who criticize him! Paul assumes the best of the Corinthians—because he knows who they are in Christ. They are enriched, spiritually gifted, and called into fellowship with Jesus Christ.
The Rest of the Story
In Part 2, I’ll look ahead in the running commentary to 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 to ask, “Where does Paul find the power and perspective to respond in such a humble way?”
Join the Conversation
What principles can we apply to our lives from Paul’s humble spiritual leadership?