Proximity to power has a way of skewing our perception. This is especially true when it comes to the task of leadership. And even more so when it comes to starting new communities centered on the gospel and mission. Confusing one’s role as a steward of power with being the actual source of power is possibly the most fundamental vice that leaders flirt with.
Every apostolic leader needs to be rooted in healthy metaphors and paradigms that can help them differentiate the power of the gospel from their own role as a representative of that gospel. The power in the gospel can be focused towards a particular goal through leadership, rhetoric, and even charisma. However, let's be crystal clear about this, that power does not originate in the leader. No, the leader merely focuses the power by functioning as a conduit through which it can travel. There is a difference between stewarding power and being the source of power, and this distinction weighs heavily in Paul’s mind as he writes to a church where his legitimacy as an apostle has been called into question.
II Corinthians provides us a window into a complex dilemma that Paul was confronted with in his ministry. Paul essentially broke ties with the Antioch church after his confrontation with Peter about table fellowship with the Jews. The ramifications of this incident in Antioch reached far into the future and across geographical boundaries. It would ripple outward all the way to Corinth and pose quite a challenge for Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle.
Once Paul essentially branched off from Antioch, he also made himself suspect in relation to the church in Jerusalem. This may not sound all that important, but it had social and political consequences or Paul’s mission. Without the Antioch or Jerusalem church, he was suddenly on his own. There were no institutions willing to sponsor or vouch for him.
This was not that big of a problem for Paul seeing he was breaking new ground in most places with the gospel. The nature of his message and the signs and wonders of his ministry afforded him a level of legitimacy on the front end of his apostolic endeavors that funded his initial leadership role in the communities he planted.
But what about when he left that new community and other people came in behind him, calling into question his legitimacy? Those looking to exploit a newly formed community as a platform for their own power base and agenda would either have to align with Paul’s pre-established role, or de-legitimize him as a leader.
This is exactly what happened in Corinth. Leaders came in behind Paul with letters from other churches vouching for their legitimacy as apostles. They were superior in rhetoric, and according to their letters, they were superior in their organizational pedigrees. They came highly recommended by the leading churches of their region. These leaders were highly qualified, well networked, and had the resumes to prove it. They were sporting the “high pro glow” of organizational legitimacy, and were quick to point out that Paul had some serious deficits in this weighty area of leadership credentials. Their central claim was that Paul is not a legitimate apostle because he has no organizational legitimacy...no one would vouch for him (his style of ministry had no flare either, and this did not help matters). In short Paul's opponents said he is incompetent in almost every category of leadership that counts.
Paul writes II Corinthians with the aim of legitimizing his apostleship. He cleverly frames an apostle’s relationship not only to the gospel, but to the community as well. In doing so, he provides a framework by which all legitimate apostolic ministry is to be tested and weighed.
In Part 2, we will look into this framework and explore some of its implications.