The Cost of Control
Robert Wurtz II
For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. To our shame I say that we were too weak for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Corinthians 11:20–29 NKJV)
It is hard to read these passages, especially the first few verses, and not think of the countless women around the world who choose to live in dangerously abusive relationships. In fact, the problem has been given the technical term “Battered woman syndrome” or the acronym BWS. Some states are passing legislation that recognize this “mental state” as a possible mitigating circumstance in certain criminal court cases. I wound this definition at findlaw.com:
“Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a mental disorder that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, long-term abuse. BWS is dangerous primarily because it leads to “learned helplessness” – or psychological paralysis – where the victim becomes so depressed, defeated, and passive that she believes she is incapable of leaving the abusive situation. Though it may seem like an irrational fear, it feels absolutely real to the victim. Feeling fearful and weak, and sometimes even still holding onto the hope that her abuser will stop hurting her, the victim remains with her abuser, continuing the cycle of domestic violence and strengthening her existing BWS.”
Could it be that people could be subject to such abusive church leadership that they were living with what I might call “spiritual BWS.” We have some clues in our text. Paul told the church at Corinth that they “suffered fools gladly.” That is to say, they tolerate things they shouldn’t. Their leaders were behaving badly and they were letting it go on. Paul then adds, For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. Note the verb with each of the five conditional clauses (enslaves, devours, takes captive, exalteth himself, smites on the face). The climax of insult, smiting on the face (A. T. Robertson). This apparently came to be the Corinthians preferred type of minister! They suffered fools gladly (2 Cor. 11:19). This word “gladly” in Greek is fairly strong and means “with pleasure.” They welcomed those who abused them while at the same time criticizing Paul who truly loved them. They saw him as “weak.” He informed them that he was too weak to make such a display of despicable overbearing authoritarianism. (IVP-NBC 1994)
What were the Corinthian’s criteria for ministry?
1. One who brought the people under bondages to laws and rules that God never intended. This could include man made forms of church government; unbiblical bylaws, etc. These are the laws and rules that give “teeth” to the control mechanisms that enabled heavy-handed “leaders” to exert authority over the congregation. Sadly, the Corinthians enjoyed being under it.
2. One who devoured them. This word is used of the Pharisees who “devoured widows houses” in Matthew 23:14. These are people whose covetousness and obstructiveness led Jesus to pronounce what A.T. Robertson called a “thunderbolt of wrath” and Francis Wright Beare called a “masterpiece of vituperation” (see NIBC and Robert Mounce on Matthew 23:14).
3. One who “takes from you.” This is akin to “devour.” False ministers seek the property, not the souls of those of whom they minister. This is why they have little time for people who have little or no resources. They are not satisfied with what may be termed “maintenance” they work to obtain as much as possible from the people (See Barnes on 2 Cor. P.233). Like the sons of Eli they “take” what they want, viewing themselves as worthy of the first fruits and best portions.
4. If the exalt themselves. Simply put, they preferred arrogant ministers to humble ones — a common preference in modern times. They may not say it, but it is evident.
5. If one strikes you on the face. This could be either literal or figurative. In other words, the Corinthians seemed to prefer being offended in various ways that amounted to a “slap in the face” to being treated with love and decency.
After listing all the things he had gone through as a minister of the Gospel he concludes with this, Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? Of all of Paul’s “credentials” I suggest that these were the greatest. First, he was touched by the feeling of the saints infirmities. When they were weak — he was weak. When they were hurting — he was hurting. There was no trembling timorous soul, no scrupulous conscience, in all the communities he had founded, whose timidity and weakness did not put a limit to his strength: he condescended to their intelligence, feeding them with milk, and not with meat; he measured his liberty, not in principle, but in practice, by their bondage; his heart thrilled with their fears; in the fullness of his Christ-like strength he lived a hundred feeble lives. (Expositors Commentary)
Then he adds this final bit… Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? Paul’s love individualized Christian people, and made him one with them. And when spiritual harm came to one of them-when the very least was made to stumble, and was caught in the snare of falsehood or sin-the pain in his heart was like burning fire. The sorrow that pierced the soul of Christ pierced his soul also; the indignation that glowed in the Master’s breast, as He pronounced woe on the man by whom occasions of stumbling come, glowed again in him. This is the fire that Christ came to cast on the earth, and that He longed to see kindled-this prompt intense sympathy with all that is of God in men’s souls, this readiness to be weak with the weak, this pain and indignation when the selfishness or pride of men leads the weak astray, and imperils the work for which Christ died. And this is indeed the Apostle’s last line of defense. Nowhere could boasting be less in place than when a man speaks of the lessons he has learned at the Cross: yet these only give him a title to glory as “a minister of Christ.” (Expositors Commentary)
A Battered Bride
Paul seemed to be dealing with a “Battered Bride” who had lost her sense of normal and acceptable treatment. They may have even reached the place that it did not trouble them when a saint was stumbled by the actions of the minister or others in the church. He had already addressed the destructive actions of people in his first letter when he wrote, If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:17 ESV)
Under the Old Covenant the outward temple (and tabernacle) was merely a picture of the church — the place where God’s presence was found. Under the New Covenant God makes his home his people individually and the church collectively at any given place like Corinth. It is unconscionable and diabolic to “destroy” a church or a living — breathing temple of God (saint). This verb for destroy is phtheiroœ and it means to corrupt, to deprave, to destroy. This has been an ongoing danger in the churches of God since the beginning. This is why Jesus and Paul warned about it and employed different pictures to make the point.
It is a gross sin to be what the world would call a “home-wrecker” but a “church-wrecker” is on a different level. When saints are being destroyed along with churches the wrath of God and the saints is kindled. As Paul said, Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? There are actually a few preachers who leave behind them ruin like a tornado in their path. Him shall God destroy (phtherei touton ho theos). There is a solemn repetition of the same verb in the future active indicative. The condition is the first class and is assumed to be true. Then the punishment is certain and equally effective. The church-wrecker God will wreck. What does Paul mean by “will destroy”? Does he mean punishment here or hereafter? May it not be both? (A. T. Robertson)
A cursory reading of the Corinthians letters reveals many disturbing things. We need to ask, why did God record these things? Do we really need to know that the Corinthians leaders were heavy-handed and mistreated the people? Did Paul have to point it out to them or did they already know deep down that it was going on? This is the terrible thing. We have these accounts because of Christ’s concern for his Bride. There is no wonder Paul was burdened with the care of the churches.