Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Whenever we come across the pronoun “we” in the epistles — any of the New Testament epistles, not just the Apostle Paul’s — it is helpful to ask who is included when “we” is used.
Often, “we” refers to all followers of Christ or to humanity in general. In 2 Corinthians, however, a letter in which Paul is significantly at odds with the Corinthian community, it tends to refer to Paul and a small group of fellow travelers and leaders. It typically sets “we” and “us” against “you,” the people with whom Paul is in conflict. In this letter, “we” generally is a term of distinction, including only Paul and Timothy (1:1); or Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus (1:19); or perhaps adding Titus and “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news” (6:16-22).
This use of “we” plays an important teaching role in this letter, where Paul holds himself and a few others up as distinctively good role models for the Corinthians (and other readers/hearers of this letter) to imitate. In the rhetoric of this letter, not all followers of Christ are equal. In fact, in this pericope in particular (also in 2 Corinthians 4:1-12) Paul points to a list of the afflictions he has suffered for the sake of the gospel in order to distinguish himself and his group from opponents in the community who criticize and attack him without cause.
He acknowledges the risk of doing this — being seen as self-righteous, boastful, and foolish — but sees that course as the only way to demonstrate that he is not enduring hardships and sufferings for his own sake, but for the sake of others and the gospel (2 Corinthians 10-12). As a side note, although Paul’s words here and in other places lead people today to criticize him for being too full of himself, in first century Greco-Roman culture, leaders were expected to be able to point to themselves as role models.
Making distinctions between ourselves (the good guys) and others (the bad guys) in the body of Christ can, indeed, be risky and destructive. We (all of us) are so prone to self-deception and self-justification that we must always guard against thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). At the same time, not all power struggles are created equal. As was true in first century Corinth, it remains true today, that sometimes within the body of Christ — locally in a congregation or nationally in a church body — people try to sway the beliefs and practices of the church on the basis of their own twisted understandings or their own raw desire for influence and power. People can lock into opposing camps for the worst possible reasons, motivated by the basest of motives.
During conflicts such as these, one can only find the best ways to go, the truest paths to resolution and faithfulness by examining the actual lives and character of those seeking to lead. Paul in his day and we in ours can find ourselves or our communities pushed to the point where we cannot argue on the basis of doctrine, adherence to tradition, theology, philosophy, ideology, reason, or official policies but only on the testimony of character and the cumulative witness of people’s lives. In these times, we find guidance and direction, almost always, not in the seats of power, influence, and money.
We find guidance and direction by attending to the wisdom of those who have endured and learned from “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). And we test the validity of everyone’s guidance and so-called wisdom by examining their words and lives in light of “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (6:6-7).
The farther away anyone’s words and actions lie from those guiding lights, the farther those people are from the truth, and the smaller the likelihood that they will lead us anywhere close to where God desires us to go. This holds true when we assess leaders both inside the church and outside the church.
This pericope lines up with a theme found throughout scripture — in the Psalms (Psalm 40:3-4; 118:8-9; 146:3-7), the prophets (Jeremiah 17:5; Isaiah 31:1, Zechariah 4:6), the histories (1 Samuel 8:10-20), the gospels (Luke 1:51-53, Mark 13:1-2 and parallels) and the epistles (1 Timothy 6:10, 17, James 5:1-6, Hebrews 13:5): do not put your faith in rulers, in money, in the powerful, in the mighty. Almost inevitably, money, power, and might become ends in themselves, with their benefits accruing to those who already have them far more than finding their way into the lives of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, and the oppressed.
These views on where the source of life, truth, and trustworthy leadership lies — in God, not in money, power, or might — call for extended consideration during the season of Lent. Lent stands as a season of reflection, a time for relentless honesty about ourselves and what actually motivates our daily lives and actions, seeking also the same honesty about what actually motivates the daily life of our faith communities.
As Paul says, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). “Now” is always the time for reflection on who we have been, who we have become, and who we might become. Now, during this Lenten season, is the time for assuring that “we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry” (6:3).
As so many individuals and faith communities seek to find their way forward in the midst of competing claims for guidance and leadership, we do ourselves and those we serve the greatest service when we argue along the lines of Paul. Do not look to power, money, might, and influence. Seek “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” for ourselves, our communities, and for those we serve.