2  Corinthians 11:16-21a – I Can’t Believe You Put Up With . . .

Since the beginning of chapter eleven, Paul has been promising to boast if only for the sake of the Corinthians and his care for the church. The “super-apostles” have created a climate of boasting. This is quite suited to Greco-Roman culture where boasting is often how one announces their credentials and explains why they should be heard. The “super-apostles” have boasted that they are superior to Paul, and Paul feels the pressure to respond to their boasts.

But Paul is not quite ready to begin his boast. “I say again,” he writes, and repeats his point from verses 1-2. He thinks the whole project is foolish. The sort of boasting in which he will engage to satisfy the Corinthians is to play the fool, and since some already think he is a fool, he will “boast a little.”

In fact, the sort of boasting required by the Corinthians, and which Paul will do, is not “according to the Lord” (kata kurion) but “according to the flesh” (kata sarka). Paul’s “boastful confidence,” that is, his endeavor, undertaking, or substance, is not the sort of boast that “boasts in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17-18) but boasts in the flesh (or, “human standards,” NRSV).

Paul’s boast, in some sense, is going to follow the pattern (according to the flesh) of the “super-apostles” which accords well with the Corinthian (and Greco-Roman) expectations of traveling teachers or preachers. Boasting in external credentials (rhetoric, success, education, prosperity, etc.) is, to Paul’s mind, foolish boasting, but the Corinthians think it is wise and perhaps necessary. Indeed, they “gladly put up with fools” who boast according to the flesh because they think they are wise. This wisdom, however, is according to the flesh; it is the wisdom of human failings, Greco-Roman expectations, and the power-brokers of decision-making governance. It is boasting according to human standards.

Nevertheless, for their sake, Paul will proceed with this kind of foolish boasting, though his particulars diverge from the “super-apostles” as he will ultimately and most importantly boast in his weakness rather than his strengths.

Yet, before he begins his boast, Paul reminds them of who the “super-apostles” are. They have revealed their internal motives through their behaviors and demands. If the Corinthians were truly wise and strong, they would recognize their Satanic strategies and practices. But, unfortunately, the Corinthians have been deceived like Eve was by the serpent, and they have been played like weak fools.

In 2 Corinthians 11:20, Paul describes how the Corinthians have been played with five verbs which, in fact, draw a contrast between Paul and the “super-apostles.” In their supposed wisdom, the Corinthians have put up with the foolishness of the “super-apostles,” and have, therefore, put up with oppressive behaviors: enslavement (“makes slaves of you”), predatorial practices (“preys upon you”), exploitation (“takes advantage of you”), haughtiness (“puts on airs”), and abuse (“gives you a slap in the face”).

These verbs, which characterize the “super-apostles,” also draw a dramatic contrast with Paul’s own approach to the Corinthians, as he describes himself in 2 Corinthians.  The below chart identifies the contrast; the chart is adapted from Frank Materia, II Corinthians: A Commentary (p. 258).

Behavior of the  “Super-Apostles”Paul’s Behavior
Domineering EnslavementDoes not exercise authority over their faith (1:24)
Predatorial PracticesNot a Burden to the Corinthians (11:9; 12:14)
ExploitationNot crafty or cunning (4:2; 12:16)
HaughtyHumbles himself to work with his own hands (11:7)
AbusiveActs as their father (6:13; 12:14)

The contrast is stark. The intruders employ practices that seek to control and manipulate the Corinthians for the sake of their own gain and power. Paul’s practices arise from his passion for the gospel and its truth, and his practices conform to the ministry of Jesus himself who suffered and died for the gospel. Paul lives among the Corinthians as a co-worker, who earns his own keep, cares for them with the love of a father, and does not domineer over them like a master over a slave. This language reveals the hearts of the “super-apostles” in contrast to Paul’s own care and anxiety for the Corinthians.

Apparently, to use the barbs of the super-apostles or Corinthians themselves, Paul was “too week” to treat the Corinthians with the oppressive practices of legitimately credentialed so-called apostles. Paul’s passion for the Corinthians shines through his sarcasm but also his disappointment with some of them who have been taken in by these intruders.

Many today are disappointed with the church, just as Paul was disappointed with this Corinthian weakness. I, too, am disappointed with domineering leadership, ministers who exploit their position for financial gain, prideful power-moves, predatory practices in control and sexuality, and other abusive practices ranging from emotional manipulation to neglect to marginalization. While most have their own experiences of these sorts of practices, one only need to listen to the Mars Hill podcast by Christianity Today to hear the story of a contemporary “super-apostle” played out in the public square.

Nevertheless, Paul loved the church. He groaned over them, wept over them, and yearned for them like a loving father does for his children. He pursued the Corinthians in love and hope. And, at the same time, his pursuit included the confrontational style of 2 Corinthians 10-13. Paul does not avoid conflict. He neither excuses nor condones their practices, and neither does he ignore them. He identifies the predatory and exploitative practices of the super-apostles and calls the Corinthians to renewed service to the gospel of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah.

Paul, as may we, loved the church with a passion that confronted its abusive practices while also calling them into more Christ-like patterns of behavior. The two are not mutually exclusive. Love will confront abuse, and love will also welcome the abused—and even the abusers as long as they bear the fruit of repentance.

Leave a Reply