The Apostle Paul on Authority and Abuse (Jan-Feb 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Catherine Clark-Kroeger
January – February, 2008

Power struggles were far from rare in the early church.

News of one of the most acrimonious contentions reaches us from the pen of John the Elder. He writes bitterly of Diotrephes who spreads slander about the godly elder, refuses to receive John’s envoys and even evicts those from the church who wish to welcome them and hear their message (3 John 9-10). The great Apostle to the Gentiles had to bear remarkably similar burdens: slander, repudiation and rejection. We are given the most powerful glimpse in his second letter to the Corinthians.

St. Paul seems to have been able to bear his own personal problems and misfortunes with a considerable degree of equanimity, but he found it far more difficult to retain his composure when there were internal disputes within his beloved churches. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his second epistle to the Corinthian congregation.

It is not possible to reconstruct with complete accuracy the unhappy circumstances that occasioned the writing of this letter. It is clear that St. Paul had paid a visit to Corinth in which he had met active resistance and found himself unwelcome. After his precipitate departure, he was now considering a conciliatory visit but concluded that it would be best to send a delegate with written communication instead (2 Cor.1:23). Then as now, re-establishing a ruptured relationship requires considerable finesse.

An Assessment of the Damage

The Corinthian congregation had become enamored of certain “pseudo-apostles” who possessed impressive credentials and persuasive platform performance. Their dazzling manners won them speedy attention, and they were quick to express their superiority to Paul the tent maker. He lacked their glitter, was rough and ready in appearance, and could not deliver a polished speech. He retorted to their charges “I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (2 Corinthians 11:6). He observes satirically, “I wouldn’t dare to say that I am as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are!” (10:12) Apparently a majority of the church no longer supported his leadership (2 Corinthians 7:6-13). The newcomers had seriously eroded the confidence that the church had previously felt in Paul. How was he to regain their trust in both him and in the gospel that he brought?

He had to state his case in terms that they could understand. He said, in effect, “We are giving you a reason to be proud of us, so you can answer those who brag about having a spectacular ministry rather than having a sincere heart before God” (5:12). Then he warned them, “Don’t worry; I wouldn’t dare say that I am as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, and measuring themselves by themselves” (10:12).

So here’s the rub: Who is to be believed? Whose authority is to be recognized?

How can the Corinthians discern the difference between the false and the genuine?

Naming the abuse

Paul pointed out the manipulation from the false apostles who claimed superior authority. Actually they were heaping abuse upon God’s people.

“You put up with it when they enslave you, take everything you have, exploit you, demean you and hit you in the face” (2 Corinthians 11:20).

Like many other abusers, the self-proclaimed apostles exuded a charm that convinced the new believers of their rectitude and piety. In short, although the people in the church were being abused, they could not recognize it. Perhaps they felt that they were being called to a higher realm of spiritual experience, but they had been betrayed where they were most vulnerable. Just as Eve had been deceived by high-sounding phrases and brilliant rhetoric, they had been misled by those who appeared the most enlightened, by “proud arguments that keep people from knowing God” (10:5; 11:4). The Corinthians had become the willing listeners of those who worked them ill (11:19). The “super apostles” had brought the credulous flock a cruel aftermath (2 Corinthians 11:3), a different spirit and a different gospel (11:4) and a spiritual servitude.

The stance of these leaders was not much different from leaders in some contemporary cults who exercise total control over their adherents. Under the cloak of supreme holiness and sanctification is hidden a terrifying pattern of abuse. There can be not only beatings and physical abuse but mind control, deprivation, vituperation, intimidation, public shaming and humiliation.

As one expert noted of such a group:

The breaking down, forcing people to do behaviors that are denigrating. The language, the control of behavior, that if you’re not doing what the group wants, you’re violating God’s will. It’s certainly abusive personality control.

Like Satan, the leaders (ancient or modern) may appear as shining angels of light, but there is an appalling exercise of absolute authority (2 Corinthians 11:14). As is so often true in cases of abusive mind control, the victims can no longer acknowledge the abuse or nor are they able to defend themselves. Whether the abuse is in a religious community or a family, victims can become pathologically conditioned into acceptance, as a director of a battered women’s project notes:

Victims of domestic violence are in an altered state. Up seems down. It’s important to understand that if someone is a victim all these years, it’s sort of like she’s been brainwashed. You are in essence a prisoner.

A woman at the shelter added, “They break you down. You feel less than human. They isolate you. They say, ‘No one cares about you. Only I love you.’ And you start to believe it. Then it builds to the physical. It’s worse for people with higher social status. Society puts more pressure on them. It’s more embarrassing.

Evaluating Legitimate Authority

Wrongful use of power – whether over an individual or a group, at home or in a community of faith – brings devastating results. Here we may profitably glean from Paul’s efforts to bring the Corinthian congregation to a position of healthy spiritual attitudes. He must establish his own credibility and call them to freedom from those who have so oppressed them.

We reject all shameful and underhanded methods. We do not try to trick anyone, and we do no distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know that . . . We don’t go around preaching about ourselves; we preach Christ Jesus, the Lord. All we say about ourselves is that we are your servants because of what Jesus has done for us (4:2, 5).

There must be a definition of true authority from that which is fraudulent. Paul will argue three points in defense of the leadership that he can give the church.

    • His service, both past and present.

 

  • The sacrifice and suffering that he has undergone in order to propagate the Gospel.

 

 

  • His eagerness to share, rather than to control.

 

To be sure, he was aware that he was not as eloquent or as handsome as his rivals. He knew full well the charges that were being made against him: “his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10).

Stung by the unkind criticism, he launched out in his own defense and gave us a remarkable biographical portrait of his own experience and trials in ministry. He can supply credentials aplenty. He has endured hardships, beatings, shipwreck, intimidation, and life-threatening peril. Indeed the Corinthians themselves are a letter of recommendation for the integrity of his labors. He is validated as the founding father of the church, one who had “harmed no one and corrupted no one” (2 Corinthians 7:2).

It is in this context, as one who had faithfully served, that he addresses issues of abuse and authority. He had started his letter with the assertion that he did not want to lord it over their faith but rather to work collaboratively with them so that they might stand firm in their faith (2 Corinthians 1:24).

“I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith; rather, we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith (2 Corinthians 1:24).

Now it was precisely this “lording it over” that was to distinguish Paul from those who now sought to dominate the Corinthian flock. Jesus had made it clear that true followers do not “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25-26; Mark 10:42-43; Luke 22:25-26), a theme St. Peter was also to use (1 Peter 5:3). While the super apostles sought to gain control over faith and thought patterns, Paul’s purpose was to work collaboratively with the flock “to die together and to live together (7:3).

Power Gained by Deception

In contrast, the others have a seductive stratagem to gain power over the congregation. They tout themselves in a way that Paul, a loyal follower of Jesus will not countenance. “These people are false apostles. They have fooled you by disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).

They were seeking to deceive believers just as Eve had been deceived (11:4). Here Paul appears to be referring to an ancient tradition that she had been seduced by Satan disguised as the serpent. Actually, the element of seduction, deceit and disguise was a popular one in classical antiquity. Again and again pagan gods in disguise approached trusting maidens and impregnated them through devious stratagems. Zeus had impregnated Leda in the shape of a swan, Europa in that of a bull, Danae as a shower of gold, Antiope as a dancing satyr. The maidens had been betrayed by the wiles of the gods. The offspring, the products of these seductions, then became the founders of cities, the heroes and heroines of ancient myth.

But Paul sought another path. Not that of trickery and deception but of honesty and integrity. As founding father of the church, he had wished to bring the church to Christ “as a chaste virgin” (11:2). He loved the image of the church as bride of Christ, a motif that he had drawn from the ancient prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea had all spoke of God as reconciling husband to errant Israel, often with promises to rebuild the nation and the land. Jeremiah declared God’s promise to those who should return “I will build them up and not tear them down” (Jeremiah 24:6). Paul reworks this theme to restore his own relationship to the Corinthians as he seeks to win back the erring bride.

Authority to build up rather than to tear down

The central issue is one of authority. He wrote of the appropriate restriction of the power that he had been given:

We will not boast of authority we do not have. Our goal is to stay within the boundaries of God’s plan for us, and this plan includes our working there with you. We are not going too far when we claim authority over you, for we were the first to travel all the way to you with the Good news of Christ (10:13-14).

Paul needed only to refer to his own track record. The Corinthians must reflect not only upon past performance but upon his present application for their confidence. His claim is that he has authority to work with them rather than to exercise authority over them. The authority that he had received from God is not for control but for constructive cooperation. He has repeatedly claimed for himself only weakness, (12:5, 9-10; 13:4-9). But there is strength in Christ.

I may seem to be boasting too much about the authority given to us by the Lord. But this authority is to build you up, not to tear you down” (10:8).

Here we are made to understand Paul’s essential view of apostolic authority. In point of fact, he twice declares that the authority given him by the Lord was to build up believers up rather than to tear them down (2 Corinthians. 10:8; 13:10).

I will give you all the proof you want that Christ speaks through me. Christ is not weak in his dealings with you; he is a mighty power among you. Although he died on the cross in weakness, he now lives by the mighty power of God. We, too, are weak, but we live in him and have God’s power – the power we use in dealing with you (2 Corinthians. 13:3-4).

Paul’s understanding of power and authority as it was to be used in human relationships is based upon his understanding of the power and authority of Christ.

As head of the church, Christ too causes the church, his body to grow, to be built up in love. Paul’s understanding of the head’s function is not of dominance but of the promotion of growth. “From the head the entire body grows with the growth of God as it is supplied by the head and held together by every ligament and sinew” (Colossians 2:19).

What a difference it would make in Christian homes if faithful followers of Jesus were to understand authority in terms of the head as building up, of causing growth, of empowerment and encouragement.

Here then, is Paul’s essential analysis of power and authority: it is given to build up and not to tear down; its purpose is not self aggrandizement or to have one’s own way; it is to be used in sharing rather than in dominating; it stems from service developed within a context of humility and voluntary restriction of power. He says, “Let us grow up in all things unto Him who is Christ, the Head. He causes the body to build itself up in love as the head provides empowerment according to the proportion appropriate for each member as they are bound and supported by every sinew (Ephesians 4:15-16).

May God grant us an understanding of authority that will build such attitudes in our own homes.
New Wineskins

Catherine Clark KroegerCatherine Clark-Kroeger is a New Testament scholar and advocate for abused women. She combines classic textual scholarship with a practical application to violence, power, control, and peace. She is a vibrant woman with an endless amount of energy for bringing peace and safety in the Christian home.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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