2 Corinthians 11:5-15 – When Patronage Goes Awry

Paul is jealous for the purity of the Corinthian church just like a father is for his engaged daughter. He intends to protect the church from those who proclaim another Jesus with a different Spirit and a different gospel.

Paul now turns his specific attention to the group that threatens the purity of the Corinthian church. He calls them “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5) but also “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13). These designations tell us something about their identity and how dangerous the situation has become. They have come to Corinth with a different gospel, preaching another Jesus with a different spirit.

Since the “super-apostles” are also “false apostles,” Paul’s description is sarcastic. They are not really “super-apostles” except in their own eyes as they think they are better than Paul. They are “hyper-apostles” in the sense that they presume they have credentials Paul, who himself is an apostle of Christ, does not have. But Paul does not think of himself as at all inferior to these so-called apostles; indeed, his credentials—about which he will shortly boast—are more shaped by the gospel than theirs. He is not only not inferior, but he is, in fact, authentic whereas these “hyper-apostles” are not.

Paul concedes he is not like them in at least one respect, that is, he is “untrained (idiotes) in speech.” He is not a speech professional, a trained rhetorician or orator. We might surmise that some, if not all, the “super-apostles” were. This is their advantage, it seems. But it is no advantage at all since Paul’s ministry is not rooted in the style and ability of speech-making but in “knowledge.” Paul knows the mystery of Christ; he knows the gospel. He knows it, not simply in a cognitive sense, but through his ministry as an ambassador of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation. He has suffered for the gospel, just as Jesus did, and the Corinthians know this about him. Paul’s ministry is not one of outward show but of continual suffering for the sake of the gospel.

As trained rhetoricians, the “super-apostles” enjoyed and perhaps requested (maybe demanded) patronage. They expected, as was the case in Greco-Roman culture, to be rewarded for their skills and efforts, and Corinthians expected to provide patronage. This involved a sort of patron-client relationship where there were expectations due to an agreed financial exchange. In other words, the “super-apostles” expected to be paid, and the Corinthians expected to pay.

Paul addresses this situation in 2 Corinthians 11:7-11. The Corinthians so valued the patronage relationship that they appear to have been offended by Paul’s lack of interest. “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself?,” Paul asks. As we know from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul made a deliberate decision to live among the Corinthians without patronage and live by his own means. He did this so that he would not “burden” the Corinthians.

What does Paul mean by “burden?” It certainly includes a financial burden as Paul “robbed other churches by accepting” their support, as he did, for example, from Macedonia. But it seems it is more than financial.

The “burden” of patronage involves mutual obligations. Paul is willing to receive help and financial support from other places, both congregations and individuals. We know he received support from Philippi in Macedonia, for example, on at least one occasion (cf. Philippians 4:15-16). So, it is not that Paul opposes financial support per se. Rather, it has something to do with expectations and the obligations connected with patronage.

Patronage was, in fact, a hierarchical relationship, though the obligations were mutual. The patron—the one who provided financial support—was owed a certain honor and respect, including attending to the directives of the patron. Clients, then, served the patron, often lived in their household, and were loyal to the patron.

Perhaps Paul wants to avoid enmeshment in this cultural world of patronage because of the relationship it assumes and expects. Paul does not want the Corinthian support while living in Corinth because he does not want that kind of relationship with the church. He refuses patronage so that he is free to preach the gospel of Christ in loyalty to the kingdom of God rather than out of loyalty to a patron.

This is Paul’s boast. While the “super-apostles” may have boasted in their rhetoric and the patronage they received, Paul will boast in his relationship with the Corinthians that is not conditioned or shaped by patronage. Rather, he wants a relationship of family rather than patronage. He is a father to the Corinthians, and they are his children. He will not burden them with support, and neither will he permit the Corinthians to leverage his gospel by their patronage. In other words, Paul loves the Corinthians. They are not a pawn in his search for financial support but family whom he loves and seeks what is best for them. That love means he will not accept Corinthian patronage.

This is one particular in which Paul is different from the “super-apostles.” They accept patronage, and they have apparently used this as one ploy to say that they are equal, if not superior, to Paul. Indeed, they boast in their patronage, and they use Paul’s lack of it as a weapon against him or at least to exacerbate the tension between Paul and the Corinthians.

Their sly use of patronage illustrates, according to Paul, that they are “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” They are not truly interested in the gospel of Christ. They deceive others and hide their true motives. Like Satan himself, they disguise their selfish ambitions with angelic appearances. They disguise themselves as apostolic “ministers of righteousness” when they themselves are “false apostles.” The “super-apostles” are really “false apostles.”

Such weighty descriptions of the “super-apostles” are not merely a function of patronage and financial support. Rather, the more fundamental problem is they preach “another Jesus” with a “different Spirit” and a “different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4). The gospel is at stake.

Patronage is not inherently evil. Paul willingly receives financial support from some. The problem with patronage in Roman Corinth is that it created cultural expectations and obligations. Paul did not want to be bound to these cultural commitments. He wanted to preach the gospel freely.

Perhaps at times full-time, salaried ministers and pastors endanger both themselves and the congregation by living under analogous patronage relationships with relation to congregational leadership. When the financial relationship is such that the free preaching of the gospel is hindered, as Paul feared it might in Corinth, perhaps another path must be chosen. Or, at a minimum, the congregational leadership and its ministers must clarify the relationship so that the gospel might have space to breath freely and fully.

There is nothing inappropriate about salaried ministers; indeed, there is an obligation for the receivers of spiritual blessings to share their material resources (1 Corinthians 9:7-14; Galatians 6:6). But the environment must encourage the preaching of the full gospel in freedom. Otherwise, the gospel becomes a commodity and is hindered by the sort of patronage that Paul wanted to avoid in Corinth.

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