Monday, February 18, 2013

209. Apostolic Ministry and Legitimacy Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at the dilemma Paul faced in Corinth when it came to legitimizing his apostolic ministry. Without the conventional letters of recommendation from toher organizations, Paul faced a significant challenge of how to legitimize his ministry in the face of criticism and insult. 

Paul works with several metaphors in II Corinthians to bring clarity to what legitimate apostolic ministry looks like. However, before we look at those metaphors, it would be helpful to start with the work of Jeffrey Corfton. In his book The Agency of the Apostle, Crofton provides us with an initial framework to orient ourselves around the metaphors Paul uses to describe the nature of his ministry in 2 Corinthians. He makes the careful distinction between the concepts of “agent” and “agency.”

“An agent is one who acts; an agency is a means through which another acts. To name the apostolic ministry through the role of agent is to direct attention to the apostles themselves as actors; to name the apostolic ministry through the role of agency is to focus on the means by which God works through the apostle. An agent orientation assumes that apostles are the actors; that they are essentially in control as distinct entities. An agency orientation assumes that God acts through the apostle, that God determines the parameters, the scope, the purpose, the means of that ministry; it diverts attention away from the apostle as an individual to apostle as channel, a vessel, a window upon the divine character.”[1]

In this understanding of apostolic ministry(and ministry in general), God is the Agent and apostles are the agency. Apostles are merely the conduit, the empty tunnel that serves as a connection point between a powerful source and an open recipient. 

This role of agency is what causes the unique experience of feeling very weak and inadequate, and yet at the same time feeling a sense of powerful and authority. Paul frames his own apostolic experience with the similar metaphor of “treasure in earthen vessels.” In this metaphor it's important to recognize that the content is separate from the container. That is, the treasure is separate from the clay jar, but it is that very same fragile, weak, vulnerable container that provides the vehicle for the transformative power of the gospel to become mobile and accessible to others. So in this sense, authentic apostolic ministry is characterized not just by power, but by power in weakness, life in death, and victory in defeat (2 Cor. 4).[2] 

Paul introduces this metaphor of “treasure in clay pots” because there were “super-apostles” (the word super is 'hyper' in the text...a thought worth pondering) in Corinth that thought apostolic ministry was legitimized by the form and appearance of the container rather than the power of it's content.[3] Paul’s hang up is primarily with the super apostle’s style of leadership and ministry. 

To catch the surge of Paul's polemical discourse on the super-apostles, you actually have to reboot back to chapter 3 where Paul introduces the topic of legitimacy. This chapter is often a riddle for commentators. Contrary to the conventional understanding of this passage, Paul is not giving us an introductory lesson on the difference between the Old and New Covenants. He is making a contrast between two styles of ministry. In a typically rabbinical form of midrash, Paul levies his weightiest argument against the  hyper-apostles by correlating their style of ministry with the ministry of Moses!

In drawing attention to their written letters of recommendation, superior rhetoric and their supposed manifestations of spiritual power, the ministry of the hyper-apostles were essentially functioning like an Agent, the source of power and transformation. In effect, they were concealing the true nature of the gospel and obstructing the community from beholding the transformative power of the glory of the Lord. In essence, their style of apostolic ministry was diverting attention away from Jesus and onto their own "weighty" credentials.  Paul says that this style of ministry has more in common with the ministry of Moses than the gospel. It has an effervescent quality that is sensational at first, but fades over time and produces no lasting effect.

Paul is sharply critical of this style of ministry because it diverts the attention of the community away from the Lord and onto the apostle, obstructing their view. This essentially conceals, or as Paul would say, it veils, the transformative power of the gospel. When leaders draw more attention to themselves and their pedigrees, it is flashy and exciting on the front end. But just give it some time. Eventually, the people will become disenchanted with that leader. As the community begins to see their all too human weaknesses and deficiencies, the glory will fade and the people will begin to search for another leader who can dazzle them with their rhetoric and charisma. 

In Part 3, we will look at a framework for how Paul frames his relationship to the gospel and the community. 

[1] Agency of the Apostle by Jeffrey Crofton p. 61
[2] For an in depth discussion on how Paul’s Apostolic ministry mirrors the gospel, see Death in Us, Life in You: The Apostolic Medium by Steven J. Kraftchick in Pauline Theology Vol. 2 1& 2 Coritnhians p 156-181
[3] It is interesting to notice that Paul’s main beef with the super-apostles is not with their doctrine. “Looking back at the evidence overall, one is struck in particular by the fact that there is no direct information about the ‘doctrinal’ stance of the opponents, not even in 11:4. Whatever doctrinal basis the actions and attitudes of Paul’s rivals may have had, the actions and attitudes themselves are what Paul attacks, so the personal dimensions of the conflict are much more apparent than the doctrinal aspects of it.” II Corinthians Anchor Bible Commentary Series Victor Paul Furnish p. 53 

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