It takes great strength and maturity not to respond in kind when one is slandered and maliciously maligned. If ever there were a knee-jerk reaction that feels justified, it comes in our response to those who without ground or reason spread lies about us and question our integrity behind the scenes. It seems well within our rights to give vent to the anger in our souls and to "let ‘em have it"!
No one knew this better than the apostle Paul, the victim of repeated misinformation and rumor. It appears yet again in 2 Corinthians 10:1-2. But as you read it, take careful note of his response:
"I, Paul, myself entreat 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! - I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh" (2 Cor. 10:1-2).
There's no great mystery about what was happening behind the scenes in this ancient city and church. Enemies of Paul, those envious of his influence and authority, had spread the rumor that he was two-faced, that he lacked the integrity to be himself at all times, that he adapted to his circumstances in a way that was inconsistent with his true character, that he related to people from motives that were self-serving and cared only about the preservation of his own reputation and well being.
Paul articulates this accusation in a somewhat sarcastic way, describing himself as one who is "humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away." In other words, he had heard what was being said of him in Corinth. "The rumor is fast and spreading," said Paul, "that when I'm in your presence I lack the courage to be forthright and strong about my opinions. They say I'm a weakling, that I so fear your rejection and so selfishly covet your approval that I'm careful not to say or do anything that would upset you or put my image at risk. ‘Look at Paul,' they say. ‘Such a timid man; so meek and subservient and deferential to the desires of others.' Ah, but when I'm away and out of your reach, then I let loose and exert my apostolic authority, boldly insisting on your complete obedience. When I'm far removed from your presence and feel safe, I suddenly put on a different face and assume an authoritarian posture to get my way in your midst."
What could possibly have led to such charges? Is there something in the way Paul had conducted himself that contributed to this misunderstanding? It's possible that two factors may have played a part.
You may recall the firm and unyielding position Paul took regarding the man guilty of incest (see 1 Cor. 5). Paul had insisted on the corporate discipline of this unrepentant sinner. He evidently mentioned it again in the so-called non-canonical "severe" letter he wrote to them (2 Cor. 2:3-4). It's entirely possible that some used this as an excuse to accuse him of being bold "at a distance", when he was, so to speak, out of the reach of any personal consequences for his authority.
As for the charge of being weak when present among them, this may have come as a result of his "painful visit" (2 Cor. 2:1) when he chose not to immediately discipline some who were guilty of immorality. In any case, the rumors were vicious and hurtful: "Paul, we simply don't trust you. You appear selfishly pragmatic. Your behavior leads us to believe you'll do whatever is convenient and serves your interests, regardless of how it may affect us."
One author sums it up as follows:
"It is clear that Paul has been accused of being a cowardly bully who is very good at writing domineering letters. They said that in person he was a craven weakling, an ineffectual wimp. But he had megalomaniac pretensions: a timid puppy who barked like a 'bold' rottweiler from behind the fence! 'His letters are weighty and forceful,' they said, 'but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing' (10:10)" (165).
But there was even more to their charge. They suspected Paul "of walking according to the flesh" (v. 2). This had to be just as distressing, if not more so, than the accusation that he was two-faced. Here they are questioning his relationship to the Holy Spirit, insinuating that he lived his life and made his decisions and chose his words without regard to the leading of the Spirit. Far from being a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led man, they were saying he was devoid of the Spirit's presence, relied little on the Spirit's power, and simply followed the promptings of his flesh! Ouch!
Paul was undoubtedly deeply wounded by this display of distrust on the part of the Corinthians. Anger probably also factored into his response. It would have been so very easy and natural to assume a self-defensive posture and explode in righteous rage. But note well two distinctive features in his reply.
First, despite the fact that he has been charged with being "bold" and "insistent" only in his letters (cf. v. 10), Paul refuses to take the bait and blast them with apostolic commands. Rather he appeals, using language that is deeply personal and emotional, even tender ("I, Paul, myself entreat you").
Second, instead of appealing to the majestic and irresistible authority of the risen and exalted Lord, he grounds his appeal in "the meekness and gentleness of Christ" (v. 1). He points to those two characteristics of Jesus that portray him as slow to take offense, willing to bear reproach, and self-sacrificing. These, Paul says, are my model for ministry. These, Paul says, are the spirit in which I make my appeal.
The two words summarize Jesus as gentle, gracious, not given to retaliation or malice in his relations with others, free from contentiousness or aggression. Paul probably has in mind the entire demeanor of our Lord's earthly life and especially his posture of non-retaliation during his beatings and eventual crucifixion (cf. 1 Peter 2:23).
Zechariah had long ago prophesied of the Messiah that he would be, above all things, "humble" (Zech. 9:9), something that Jesus declared of himself in Matthew 11:29. Humility and meekness and lowliness of heart were characteristics of the heart that Jesus highly valued and blessed (cf. Mt. 5:5).
Paul says, in effect, "Don't expect me to respond to your sins against me any differently than Jesus responded to those who sinned against him. If he could humble himself and choose the path of gentleness, so must I."
But let no one misunderstand the apostle or again take his words as an indication that he will abdicate the position Christ has bestowed upon him. Paul fully intends to be as "bold" as he must in order to put things right when he finally arrives. The words "with such confidence as I count on showing" could more accurately be rendered "with which I dare to be courageous." The point is this: "Far from flaunting his authority by rushing into disciplinary action, Paul envisions the prospect as a dare that cannot be avoided, not a challenge to be encountered with relish" (Carson, 36).
As Murray Harris has noted, in v. 2a "Paul is pleading with the Corinthians to avoid forcing him to act boldly . . . in a display of his confidence as an apostle having the Lord's authority (10:8). In effect he is saying, ‘Don't mistake the timidity that some people credit me with . . . for weakness and the inability or unwillingness to act with authority and dispatch'" (673).
As noted above, some had also accused Paul of walking "according to the flesh" (v. 2). The word "flesh" is generally used by Paul in one of three ways: (1) as a neutral reference to the physical body; (2) as a pejorative reference to the fallen, sinful nature; or (3) as a reference to the standards of excellence as the world judges excellence. Here he has in mind this third notion. Their calumny against Paul was that he is unimpressive, ineffective, a third-rate orator who is not sufficiently worthy to warrant remuneration, and inexperienced in visions and revelations which are the hallmark of spirituality (as they define it). He simply "does not attain to the high standards of spirituality and leadership that they claim for themselves! He lives and serves at the lowly level of this world, of flesh; they minister as dynamic, spiritual leaders whose spiritual experiences attest their superiority, and whose rhetoric demonstrates their God-given graces" (Carson, 37-8).
There is much for us to learn from this. Perhaps the greatest practical lesson is the importance of a proper balance between humility and tenderness in dealing with those who sin against us and a determination to hold our ground in accordance with whatever authority the Lord has granted. Paul was neither a bully nor would he be bullied. He took Jesus as his role model. Aggression was out of the question, but that didn't entail an abandonment of the rightful authority granted him by the risen Christ.
Oh, how easily we gravitate to one of two extremes, giving more weight than is due to one or the other of these crucial characteristics. Either we equate humility and gentleness with a cowardly withdrawal and a reluctance to draw a line in the sand, or we insensitively crack the whip of authority without regard for the welfare of the souls entrusted to our care. May Paul's godly and Christ-like example be an encouragement to us all!