"Super" Spirituality and a Call for Discernment (2 Cor. 10:7)August 25, 2008 Biblical Studies, Biblical Studies
The Christian world is all abuzz about leadership these days. Take a look at any list of best-selling books and you'll find at least three or four of the top ten that are concerned with some aspect of leadership, whether in identifying the essence of the good and successful sort or in warning of the bad. It's the latter that I'd like to briefly address in this meditation.
I'm sickened, as I'm sure you are, by the almost daily barrage of news concerning either the self-serving, authoritarian practices of some professed Christian leader or the moral scandal that has befallen yet another. Where do these people come from? How do they manage to attain such lofty heights of praise and power? Why do people grant them such unqualified allegiance? What accounts for their ability to amass so much wealth and fame and authority over the lives of their followers?
Don't be misled. I'm not talking about the obvious and notorious cult figures such as David Koresh or Jim Jones or the leaders of certain polygamous groups who have been much in the news of late. I have in mind local church pastors and leaders of para-church ministries as well as those who have risen to fame and fortune on the waves of "revival" movements and other sensational and supernatural spiritual happenings.
Countless theological and sociological studies have examined such folk in an effort to understand the source of their power and the secret to their allure. I've read a few of them myself and they've often been spot on target. Amidst the variety of explanations for their success, one is common to all, which brings us to our text in 2 Corinthians 10.
However, before noting Paul's comments, let me differentiate between the sort of authoritative and self-aggrandizing "shearer of the sheep" that the apostle confronted in the church at Corinth and the truly gifted and godly pastor of today's mega-church. My words that follow are not intended to indict those who, through faithful and diligent service, have built large churches and gathered zealous disciples. Not all forms of success are bad! Quite a few prominent leaders whose ministries have drawn thousands of devoted followers are to be honored and emulated. They are not the focus of my concern or the target of my criticism.
I have in mind the aggressive, self-righteous, supremely self-confident person whose alleged authority borders on legalistic control. This is the person whose flamboyant style, charismatic personality, and sheer energy of will seduce his followers into suspending their critical faculties and throwing discernment to the wind. This sort of "leader" does not humbly serve and sacrifice for the flock but expects them (without necessarily saying so) to supply him with financial blessings and a wide array of other perks and privileges. This individual is typically unaccountable and not held to the same standard that he requires of his ardent devotees.
So what explains this remarkable mystique? Why do so many fall prey to such claims? To what does this sort of "leader" appeal as the reason why he should be treated with such extraordinary respect and devotion? Look at Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 10:7 for at least one answer to our question:
"Look at what is before your eyes. If anyone is confident that he is Christ's, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ's, so also are we" (v. 7).
The NASB renders the opening words of v. 7 as a statement of fact: "You are looking at things as they are outwardly." More likely this is a command: "Look at what is before your eyes."
What they are to look at and from which they are to draw appropriate conclusions would include such things as the fact that they are themselves the fruit of Paul's labors, bearing witness to the authenticity of his calling as an apostle (see 1 Cor. 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 3:1-3); that Paul "belongs" to Christ (as do his co-workers and all believers) no less than the intruders; that his authority came from Christ and was always exercised for the building up of the Corinthians; and that his actions and words were not incompatible, as some alleged, but were always aimed at the same goals, being prompted by the same motives.
The "anyone" of v. 7 likely "points to a particular individual, the ringleader of the Judaizing intruders who expressed the viewpoint of them all" (Harris, 688). But what precisely is it that this representative figure is claiming, on the basis of which he and like-minded others are challenging Paul's authority?
This man is claiming, literally, to be "of Christ". The genitive is certainly possessive, thus suggesting that he promoted himself as one who belonged to the Lord in some unique and special way. Several suggestions have been made concerning the precise nature of this statement.
Some contend that they were claiming to be Christians and insisting Paul was not. But this is highly unlikely. As radically opposed to him as they were, there's no indication in the letter that they questioned his salvation.
Some say these opponents claimed to belong to the "Christ party" mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:12 (where some said, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ"). But would Paul have responded to such a claim by saying he is of the Christ party no less than they? Given his strong denunciations of the schismatic spirit in Corinth, he would hardly now have endorsed it!
Others suggest they were appealing to an earthly relationship with Jesus. They knew him during the time of his sojourn but Paul didn't, thus putting them at an advantage to him. But in v. 7b Paul claims to have no less a relation to Jesus, and we know he had no personal contact with the Lord until after the ascension, most likely on the road to Damascus.
Might it be a claim to have received a special commission from Jesus? But that is an assertion made only by the "super apostles" (cf. 11:5) whom Paul does not address until the next chapter. Here he is dealing with "insiders" who are critical of him because of his feeble previous visit and his frightening ("Severe") follow-up letter (cf. 10:9-11).
The most likely interpretation is that they were asserting some special, ongoing relationship with Christ, making their point with an obviously feigned humility. One can almost see a slight tilt of the head together with just the right inflection of voice: "I am Christ's man. I belong to Jesus in a way you don't. He has a higher interest in me than in you. He has a deeper affection for me than for you. I have access to his mind and heart in a way that transcends whatever claims you might make. Therefore, I and a few others have been given an authority and power and place above you and your co-workers."
In many such cases the person who stands center stage doesn't explicitly assert that he or she is the recipient of special divine favor or revelatory insights worthy of only a chosen few. They would never commit the tactical error of publicly promoting themselves as uniquely "anointed". They simply do nothing to disabuse their followers of such false perceptions. Their calculated silence is mistaken for humility and their power base grows.
Is this not precisely the grounds on which so many today build their reputations and undergird their authority? False and self-serving leadership that ultimately works to enhance the person's fame and fortune is almost always the result of allowing people to think one has a unique and privileged relationship with God, one that is unavailable to ordinary believers. It is frequently, if not most times, grounded in the claim to supernatural experiences, whether angelic visitations or third heaven translations or having heard the voice of God with a clarity and force beyond what any average Christian might experience.
Let me say it as forcefully as I can: Beware of all such claims to a superior or "super" spirituality! Beware of any suggestion that one has special knowledge or insights unavailable to others! Beware of those whose only credentials are the visions they have allegedly seen or the angels with whom they have allegedly conversed (cf. Col. 2:18)! [I say this as one who believes in the gift of prophecy, visions, and angelic encounters.]
On the other hand, genuine, godly leadership that warrants your allegiance is built on character, not charisma. It is grounded in virtue, not visions. Its appeal is the centrality of Christ, not displays of power or heightened states of ecstasy. And at the heart of such authentic authority is the faithful proclamation of a cross-centered, Christ-exalting gospel, which is to say, a preaching of "Jesus Christ as Lord" and "ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5).
All of us, at some point or other, will have to "look at what is before our eyes" (v. 7a) and pass judgment on the legitimacy of claims to spiritual authority. What criteria shall we employ? Upon reading the following words of Charles Spurgeon, I think I now know:
"I have not the slightest desire to suppose that I have advanced in the spiritual life many stages beyond my brethren. As long as I trust simply to the blood and righteousness of Christ, and think nothing of myself, I believe that I shall continue to be pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ, that this joy will be in me, and that my joy will be full" (cited by Carson, 65).