I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— 2 I ask that when I am present I need not show boldness by daring to oppose those who think we are acting according to human standards. 3 Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments 5 and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. 6 We are ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete.2 Corinthians 10:1-6
And we begin chapter 10, you’ll notice that this chapter marks a sharp break in the letter. In fact, chapter 9 ended what had been a defense of Paul’s ministry, a wonderful exposition of what it means to be a community of new creation in Christ, and closing words of exhortation to give and share in the burdens of the larger family of God. In contrast to the beautiful way Paul closes his train of thought in 9, when you read chapter 10, the words seem uncharacteristically harsh and sharp. Honestly, this chapter looks like a new defense added on to what should have been a complete letter ending with chapter 9.
There are a couple of ways to read this break. Many believe that this marks a different letter, perhaps a correspondence that was preserved and added later. Some think that this is a reply to a more immediate response by the Corinthian community to Paul’s letter once they had read what we call 2nd Corinthians, chapters 1-9. Scholars like NT Wright posit that the disjointed nature of the letter may be the product of the fact that Paul was writing on the road, and this is just a portion of the letter picked up at a later time, thus its relation to earlier points, despite the disconnects.
As the owl and the old Tootsie Pop commercials used to say, “the world may never know.” We just don’t have enough information to make an informed conclusion on how chapters 10 through 13 were meant to fit in to Second Corinthians. But Wright does give us an important clue. At the heart of these closing chapters is the looming question of power and authority. How is a Christian to understand power, especially within the church? What does it mean to have authority?
These questions land us at the intersection of ancient and contemporary obsession. At the heart of many of our what we call postmodern problems, power and authority are seen as problematic categories. Contemporary culture frames this question as, “is there such a thing as ‘authority’ that isn’t repressive, authoritarian, and regressive?”
In a society where any and all exercise of power is suspect, is it possible to imagine what a just and a loving use of power might look like? Are we doomed to inhabit what scholars sometimes refer to as a “hermeneutic of suspicion” forever? Let me translate that. Must we live under the assumptions born of the legacy of thinkers like Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, all amply expressed in our cultural moment, that appeals to standards of truth are really just attempts to wield power over others? In our race to be sophisticated — and God forbid, naïve — must we throw off all definitional standards and exercises of power in order to practice justice?
We seem committed to looking behind everything, or peeking through the veil of the pretense of truth claims and authority. Unfortunately, in the process of seeing through everything, we often walk away having seen nothing at all.
To be sure, Paul struggles along these lines with this Corinthian community, and it helps us understand our modern predicament, especially in regard to the relationship of faith and culture. There was a great deal of contention within the community over whose teachings ought to be listened to, and the standards/ordinary measures of what power and authority look like when it’s wielded. Most importantly in regard to the contention between the community and Paul, what does a person invested with authority look and sound like?
To a culture that honored free Roman citizens, landowners, men and the like as the pinnacle of power and respectability, Paul seems to embody the antithesis of authority and power. How could this sophisticated Corinthian community be content with a ragamuffin apostle like Paul, who, when he spoke in person, was clearly not as sophisticated as his fiery letters suggested, and had nothing in the way of wealth or status?
From the perspective of wealthy and influential Gentiles in the community, all of this was made worse by the fact that Paul was a Jew, and at a level they struggled to understand, so was the Christ they followed. Jews were almost universally looked down upon by their pagan/Gentile neighbors as their exclusive worship of one god threated the pax deorum, or “peace of the gods.”
In other words, the first question right off the bat that Paul takes up when dealing with this contentious bunch is what power and authority looks like and means to a Christian community who central figure is Jewish born and bred God-man who was crucified on a Roman gibbet. Thankfully, Paul does such a great job defending his position. I think he speaks across the centuries to our own day because he makes it clear that power and authority are defined by Jesus alone.
In the cross of Christ, we see God’s surrender of power in order to liberate us from the bondage of sin, all couched in the gentleness and humility of Christ. In chapter 10, verse 1, we see the truly human One who holds all authority surrender his hold on power in order to lift us into fellowship with God. As Paul goes on in verse 5, every proud obstacle, every measure of respectability, power, and authority we are likely to value within human community are destined to bend the knee to Jesus Christ in complete obedience to his love and grace.
Here we take a parting lesson, lifted up in verse three. We don’t operate by the world’s rules of the road. Our weapon against the arrogance of human pride isn’t to fight fire with fire. We are not to bend others to the truth of the Gospel by the exercise of power as traditionally defined. We are now captives to Christ, not the old order of hostility.
So, our power and our authority are exercised as Christ exercised his own. We are to live in a position of self-giving love. We are to live mutually-submitted to one another. We are to love our brothers and sisters even as we love ourselves, and certainly as God has loved us in Jesus Christ. When we do, the power and authority that is wielded is of a different sort. This kind of power (soul force/soul power as Dr. King often put it) alone has the ability to change the world. In Jesus’ own words found in Matthew 16:25: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Whatever situation or burden you may be facing, true power and authority over it can only be exercised when we surrender its burden to God alone. In the process, as we will see in chapter 12 just a little while later, God’s power is made perfect at the exact point of our greatest weakness.