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Learning to Lead like Paul (2 Cor. 7:2-4)

Books, seminars, and conferences on principles of leadership are in abundant supply today. Equally popular are those which focus more specifically on pastoral ministry. Sadly, many of these are governed by assumptions and values more suitable to the Wall Street board room or to the office of a typical CEO than to the local church.

When I'm asked to recommend resources on the training up of pastors or for wisdom in shaping the future leaders of this or the next generation, I instinctively say, 2 Corinthians! Many respond with a nod and a condescending, "Yeah, yeah," before asking for something more substantive, more up-to-date, more in touch with contemporary culture and prevailing trends in the market place.

I'm pretty stubborn. "Yes, I understand what you are asking for," is my response. "And my recommendation is still 2 Corinthians." This is the point at which they realize I'm not trying to be cute or disrespectful towards the vast array of more recent approaches to leadership and pastoral development. They get the point, I hope, that I seriously believe what we read in 2 Corinthians about Paul and the people from that ancient city is the most insightful, practical, wise, and edifying advice for how to lead and be led available in this or any age of the church.

The passage before us is a case in point. It's brief, but densely packed with pastoral wisdom. Read it carefully:

"Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy" (2 Cor. 7:2-4).

Perhaps the best way to approach this issue is simply to identify several principles that governed Paul's relationship with these believers.

The first thing that stands out is Paul's determination to do everything within his power to facilitate reconciliation with the Corinthians. "Make room in your hearts for us," he pleads with them. This is a resumption of his earlier appeal in 6:13, "In return (I speak as to [my] children), widen your hearts also."

Paul refused to settle for the status quo. It wasn't enough that he had deep affection for them (2 Cor. 6:11-12). He labored to persuade them that there was no good reason to close their hearts to him. Mutual love and mutual commitment was the goal. How tragic is it when leaders and their people become entrenched in long term grudges, which are, more times than not, based on misunderstanding and miscommunication that could easily be resolved if humility were prized. How tragic, and unnecessary, when Christians feed off of relational wounds and simply assume that reconciliation is either too difficult, not worth the effort, or completely beyond the realm of possibility. Paul won't have it, and neither should we.

To prove that the rift was groundless, and that he was deserving of a place in their hearts, he insists that he has "wronged" no one, "corrupted" no one, nor "taken advantage" of anyone. Pastors and Elders, take note of the moral and spiritual integrity that is foundational to all levels and expressions of leadership.

Paul insists he had "wronged" no one, a possible response to the charge that he had been unduly harsh in dealing with the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5 or the offender mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.

In saying he had "corrupted" no one, he may have in mind either financial indiscretions or matters of morality or doctrine. There is obviously, here, an invitation to anyone in Corinth to investigate Paul's behavior. "You'll find no grounds," says the apostle, "to justify your mistrust of me or the closing of your heart to my position as your leader."

The words "take advantage" might also mean exploit or defraud (cf. its use in 12:17-18). It's possible that some suspected he manipulated for his own benefit the collection taken up for the Jerusalem church (2 Cor. 8:20-21). Nothing could be further from the truth, says Paul.

I also find it instructive how careful Paul is about his use of words. He knows how prone people are to twist things to their own advantage, so he quickly qualifies his words in v. 2 with his affirmation of love in v. 3. Nothing in what he has just said should be interpreted as condemnation or criticism or rejection of them. In fact, Paul was not only willing to live with them, but to die with them as well (v. 3b)!

What a marvelous affirmation of the depth and sincerity of his commitment to them. "Paul is declaring that his destiny, now and always, will be interwoven with that of the Corinthians. Neither the arrival of death nor the vicissitudes of life could divorce them from his affection" (Harris, 519).

There are, moreover, two important consequences to this devotion. Would that all leaders might imitate Paul's example.

In the first place, he was determined to be utterly and altogether open in his speech with them. This is the force of the words translated, "I am acting with great boldness toward you" (v. 4a). His words are not a cloak for some self-serving agenda or a means to protect a wounded ego. He speaks his mind candidly, fearlessly, and without regard to what consequences might befall him personally. He will not hide his intentions or his feelings or his beliefs about what is right and wrong in the church. Whether his words encourage or rebuke, they are the accurate expression of what's in his heart.

Second, he boasts to others about them. "I have great pride in you" (v. 4b), he virtually shouts aloud. Perhaps some had thought he was speaking positively to them, when in their presence, but negatively about them to others. Can you imagine what might transpire in our churches if we were honest with and about one another, both in private and public? I dare say half the disputes that split churches and most that destroy personal relationships would never occur.

He is not simply comforted upon hearing good news of these Christians (2 Cor. 7:7), he is "filled with comfort" (v. 4c). Paul's language is consciously effusive and over the top. He wants no lingering suspicions about his true feelings for them.

Finally, "in all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy" (v. 4d). Whether his afflictions are the cause of his joy or, more likely, that in the midst of them he yet finds reason to rejoice, he wants them to know that whatever he endured to bring them the gospel, whatever he suffered to see Christ formed in them, whatever pain and deprivation he incurred so that Christ might look good in his life, and thus become the treasure in theirs, he did it joyfully.

In a day when self-appointed and self-serving "Pastors" and so-called "Leaders" fleece their flocks and burden them with the responsibility of providing for a lavish and opulent lifestyle, Paul joyfully embraced whatever hardship might come his way if only it yielded a rich spiritual harvest in the lives of those entrusted to his care.

This is the calling and character of those entrusted with the oversight of God's people. You probably won't read about it in any of the New York Times bestsellers or hear of it in the more fashionable leadership seminars. But thanks be to God for his timeless and true revelation of what makes for godly pastors and the people they serve.