The Real Deal
2 Corinthians – A Balm for the Leader’s Soul
Have you heard of the “Soho Grifter?” Recently, I watched “Inventing Anna” on Netflix. The show is based on the true story of Anna Sorkin, a woman who moved to New York presenting as a German Heiress with money to burn. She moved amongst the elite socialites of NYC and scammed hundreds of thousands of dollars by convincing people she was a wealthy entrepreneur with grand plans. She used Instagram as a platform for self-promotion and appeared to be the real deal. In an age focused on image and celebrity Anna’s story isn’t the only one like it.1
We live in an image and status obsessed world and the church is not immune to falling for its allure. I wonder about the temptations particularly for leaders in such a setting. In a culture of social media “influencers” what does it mean to be “Christ’s ambassadors” as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5? What does genuine Christian leadership look like in contrast to simply “having the appearance of Godliness.”2 I believe that one of the biggest challenges for Christian leaders in our current cultural moment is to be people of integrity - for our character and our calling to have coherence.
Where can we turn as leaders for an example of genuine Christian leadership? For me, over the past couple of years one of the most helpful places has been Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. This letter is full of lessons for navigating the complex social dynamics and personal struggles of leadership.
This is for Paul a highly personal letter. It contains self-disclosure and elements of Paul’s own story as a follower of Jesus. We see Paul talk about his role as an apostle. At the outset Paul seeks to defend himself because his leadership has been questioned by the Corinthians. He has suffered deeply as a leader, and this suffering is seen by some in the church in Corinth as a sign that he is a failure or a fraud. Paul flips this whole narrative on its head in 2 Corinthians and one key theme is how in his weakness the strength of God is at work. Paul even lists his sufferings and losses as a kind of curriculum vitae for his apostleship.
Paul’s sparring partners in this letter are a group he sarcastically calls “the super apostles.” This group are eloquent and strong, and they appear to be successful. I wonder if they had Instagram back then if these would be the people with lots of followers. These “super apostles” are preaching a message that isn’t in line with the good news of Jesus and yet seemed to gain some traction amongst the Corinthians.
Corinth was a place of great opportunity. It was booming economically. It hosted tourists for the Isthmian games, second only to the Olympics. Corinth beckoned entrepreneurs with new opportunities. It was a deeply competitive and ambitious place which valued strength. Tom Holland in his recent book on the history of Christianity says this about the Graeco-Roman world’s view of weakness and strength:
“The heroes of the Iliad, favourites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden. So too, for all the honour that Julian paid them, had philosophers. The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control. Only fellow citizens of good character who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on evil days might conceivably merit assistance.”3
For people who love winning and esteem strength, the gospel news of a crucified Messiah who had rescued the world through an act of self-giving love was shocking and outrageous. No wonder many considered Paul’s message “foolishness.”4
The early church had to work out how to live and lead like Jesus rather than with the cultural assumptions of Graeco-Roman society. Paul in 2 Corinthians highlights many distinctives of Christian leadership, but consistently brings it all back to one image – the image of Jesus Christ crucified. He builds an argument for Christian leadership that is cruciform (cross shaped). What does it mean to be a genuine Christian leader? First and foremost, it means to lead like Jesus. What does this look like? Four examples from 2 Corinthians stand out to me:
- Paul has deep love for the people at Corinth and meaningful relationship with them (2 Cor 2:4).
- Paul exercises humility in his dealing with the Corinthians. His confidence isn’t in his own abilities but rather in the good news of Jesus. Paul uses the image of being like clay jars which hold treasure to illustrate this (2 Cor 4).
- Paul sees suffering as part of his vocation as a leader. He doesn’t deny it or try to explain it. Rather he understands that he follows a crucified Messiah and seeks to live a life of steadfast and self-giving love rather than comfort and self-interest (2 Cor 11).
- Paul embraces his weakness as an opportunity for God’s strength to be accentuated. He doesn’t posture or flex.
2 Corinthians is a letter to be studied by Christian leaders today. It gives us a picture of genuine Christian leadership lived out in the gritty struggle of faithfulness. It pushes back against an image obsessed culture which promotes status and shallow forms of influence. I have found 2 Corinthians a balm for my soul. It reminds me that as a leader I will come face to face with my weaknesses and failings and yet somehow God will use all of that to let the good news shine through.
1 Other recent examples of scams based on image include Netflix films such as the “Tinder Swindler” and the “Fyre Festival” documentary. Each of these stories attests to the power of image in our society.
2 2 Timothy 3
3 Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 138.
4 1 Corinthians 1:18
(Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash)
Joshua Taylor is an Anglican Priest from the Diocese of Christchurch. Currently he is based at St John's in Auckland working on his PhD in theology. He has experience in youth ministry & several years as a Vicar in Timaru, and is also a qualified spiritual director.
Joshua completed the Arrow Leadership programme in 2018. He is passionate about theology grounded in the context of the church, particularly practical theology and the formation of Christian leaders. Joshua is married to Jo and they have three children.
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