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Issues Facing Missions Today 20: ‘Power’ as Service in Paul’s Apostolic Role

Issues Facing Missions Today 20: ‘Power’ as Service in Paul’s Apostolic Role

Pressing still further the critique of an understanding of ministry as leadership, explored earlier, I intend to illustrate Paul’s own rejection of the notion of power located in skills and offices.  He instead favours a notion of functional power as itself service. To do so, I will venture three theses: (1) Paul is self-denigrating in regard to his status of an apostle; (2) Paul locates power in his ministry in the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit; and (3) Paul’s understanding of his ministry is cruciform (cross-centred).  These theses seem to me to undermine thinking of ministry as 'leadership'.

Paul’s Self-Denigration of His Status as an Apostle

In perhaps Paul’s earliest letter, Paul finds himself in the awkward position of having to defend his authority as an apostle to a church that he had himself established.  The Galatian church had, to some extent, been persuaded by teachers of a works righteousness theology that placed Jewish legal requirements upon Gentile believers, requirements to be circumcised and follow the calendar for Jewish holy days (Gal. 4.10; 6.12-13).  Paul sees this as a threat to the Gospel, ‘for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing’ (Gal. 2.20).

Beyond the theological error per se, Paul sees in this situation that status and office can be problematic for the Gospel.  He insists that his Gospel is derived from Jesus, not from Jerusalem authorities (Gal. 1.10-2.14).  He also insists that his authority as an apostle—and even the authority of angels!—lies not in any status associated with office but in a service of the Gospel.  Thus, if anyone comes with a different Gospel—even an angel—let him be accursed (Gal. 1.6-9).  Being an apostle means to be a servant of Christ (v. 10), and what one serves others is the Gospel.  Thus apostolic authority lies not in the appointment to an office (as Judas found out!) but in a service for Christ of the Gospel.

On one occasion in Paul’s dealing with a status-minded congregation, the Corinthians, he threatens them outright:

1 Corinthians 4:19-21   19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.  20 For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.  21 What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

Paul’s threat of the use of power is precisely used to undermine the very idea in favour of love and a spirit of gentleness as the grounds for ministry.  His asking whether they would like a stick does not mean that he will do so but that this is the understanding that the Corinthians have of authority.  Over against this, Paul sets a radically different concept of Christian ministry.

Later in the same epistle, Paul speaks of his ‘rights’ as an apostle.  On several occasions in this epistle, Paul undermines an ethic of ‘rights’ by appealing to a Christian way that prioritizes Christian fellowship and mutual service.  If there is any right, it is the right to serve others.  Freedom is not for self-gain but for service: Christian freedom is freedom to serve.  Thus, Paul entertains the notion of the rights of office for apostles in 1 Corinthians 9 only to deny them for himself.  He says that he has certain rights because he is ‘free’ (suggesting rights that come with being a Christian), is an apostle (suggesting rights of status), has seen Jesus (suggesting rights based on credentials), and has established the church in Corinth (suggesting rights of foundational leadership) (1 Cor. 9.1).  He states that, on these grounds, an apostle has the right to be paid for his ministry and to have expenses paid (so it seems) for travelling with a wife (1 Cor. 9.4-5).

Yet Paul refuses to advance his relationship with this church on these grounds.  His basis for ministry is mission-focussed.  He does not wish to place any obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 9.12).  He understands his ministry as an obligation, not a right (1 Cor. 9.16).  This means that he is under authority to his calling, not that he has authority because of his calling to apostleship.  He refuses to make full use of his rights in the Gospel as an apostle (1 Cor. 9.18).  He has chosen slavery to serve others rather than freedom to exercise his rights among others (1 Cor. 9.19).

Paul’s Location of Power in the Work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit

On another occasion when addressing the Corinthians, Paul threatens to come to deal with their errors in the power of Jesus Christ.  He says,

2 Corinthians 13:2-4   2 I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient--  3 since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you.  4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

Paul says this over against certain ‘superapostles’ that the Corinthians have received on the very basis of their claims to personal authority.  They exalted themselves over others, wielded power, and received financial support from the congregation they had come to lead.  Paul says of them,

2 Corinthians 11:20  For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face.

Paul finds ministry on the grounds of personal or credentialed authority to operate over against divine empowerment for ministry.  He undermines any rhetorical skills he might have, for these undermine the power of the Gospel when people are persuaded to follow Christ by words instead of the message (2 Cor. 11.6).  In an earlier letter, Paul contrasted his entry into Thessalonica and his public speech to that of the Greek orators, who sought fame and gain and prided themselves in their rhetorical skills of persuasion.  Instead, Paul says,

1 Thessalonians 2:5-9   5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;  6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,  7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.  9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

  Similarly, he says to the Corinthians,

1 Corinthians 2:1-5  When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,  5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Paul’s accomplishments in ministry are rather understood as the accomplishments of Christ in him and as works done by the power of the Spirit of God, as he says to the Roman Christians:

Romans 15:18-19   18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed,  19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ.

The location of power in ministry, for Paul, lies not in status or even in skill but in the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit working in and through him.  He refuses personal authority that would give him rights in ministry, a credentialed authority that would make his ministry dependent on leadership skills, such as oratory, or a status authority, which could be construed to give him authority over the message, the Gospel, instead of place him under the authority of the Gospel.  He pokes fun at the superapostles that came to Corinth with their notions of human authority.  Instead, he sees the authority of a minister to be the authority of Jesus and the Holy Spirit working through the vessel of the minister.

Paul's Understanding of his Ministry as Cruciform

Paul has learned ministry from Jesus Christ, who chose the way of the cross instead of calling myriads of angels to rescue him from the power of Jewish authorities and the might of Rome.  Jesus took up the role of the servant, about whom Isaiah said, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  (Is. 42.1-4; cf. Mt. 12.17-21).  Thus, when Paul makes his appeal to the Corinthians who fancied traditional power tactics from leaders, he instead appeals to them ‘by the meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (2 Cor. 10.1).  In his earlier letter to this church, he states, ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2.2).  To the Galatian church he says that he has been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2.19) and, ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal. 6.14).

Such a perspective on ministry derives from Jesus’ own teaching in the famous passage where Jesus sets his service on the cross as an example to the disciples.  He says,

Mark 10:42-45  42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."


If we understand ministry as located in credentials acquired through the acquisition of certain skills, as the expression of certain rights due to status, or as the authority located in some office, we will find Paul pushing hard against us.  He certainly had theological training and, despite his self-denigration, very likely training in rhetoric (as any educated person would have been at the time).  He certainly had certain rights due to his status as an apostle.  He certainly had an authority in his apostolic office.  Yet he constantly and consistently stepped down from ministering out of skills, power, rights, and authority.  He was self-deprecatory regarding his own status.  He located the power of ministry in the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in and through him.  He saw the pattern of ministry for himself and others as based on the cross of Jesus Christ, not the heavenly authority of the ascended Lord.  Indeed, the heavenly Lord exercises his authority through the weakness and suffering of his ministers that the power of the Gospel might be seen over against all other powers.


This study requires an application to press the point still further.  It would be too easy a thing to point out the all too frequent abuse of authority by ministers, boards, presidents of institutions, deans of faculties, and so forth.  It would be easy to present examples of the use of Church funds for high living by certain ministers—expensive houses, expensive hotels while travelling, expensive resorts for board or faculty meetings.  It would be very easy to describe the credentialing after acquiring skills and degrees of persons for ministry that gives authority to persons who are not personally walking closely with the Lord.  All too often, the founding leader of churches or organizations holds onto personal power in his little fiefdom and demands absolute loyalty and obedience from his staff.  How easy it would be to cite examples of the cleric or bishop who opposes the very Gospel he or she was commissioned to serve because he or she claims personal authority over the message itself.

My application will be a bit more subtle, perhaps.  If power is located in service, as I argue from Paul’s writings, then bodies that function with power should understand that power as a pastoral service.  Service itself is service of the Gospel, service rendered to Jesus Christ, and service done in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Christian service is not the exercise of power to do something good but the abandonment of power in order to serve, as Christ did on the cross.  We do not take off our robes to put on robes of purple that we might do good for others out of our powerful posts; we take off our robes to put on a towel to wash the feet of others.

My example, then, would be of a body (or an administrative official) set up to oversee personnel in a church, organization, or institution.  That body has tremendous authority—they can even fire an employee.  The system of oversight might require certain annual reporting.  It might be a body voted into office by peers or appointed by a person in a position of authority.  If the body sees itself primarily as a judicial body, judging the performance of staff, it will see itself as entrusted with authority over the employment and performance of others.  It will express its authority through power over employees.  If, however, the appointed oversight body sees its authority as service, it will take a more pastoral role in the lives of those it seeks to lead.  It will see its responsibility as mentoring persons.  It will lead by example.  It will not overstep itself in placing burdensome requirements on others.  It will admonish more than reprimand, and it will only reprimand when admonishment fails.  Where problems of performance are noted it will help the person to meet the standards if at all possible rather than reprimand the person, leave the person feeling that he or she is under constant scrutiny, and even fire the person.  If helping the person succeed is not possible, it will help the person to find his or her better place to serve rather than simply fire the person from the job and leave him or her unemployed.  If a person sins, those who have received the Spirit will gently restore the person, being wary that they, too, may be tempted to sin (Gal. 6.1).

In sum, if we understand leadership as gaining skills, status, and authority to use power well, we will misunderstand Christian ministry.  Paul’s writings demonstrate an understanding of power as service.  Skills may be good to gain, but they may also press the power of the Spirit into the shadows.  In the world in which we live, status happens; but Paul would have us minister out of service rendered to Christ and for others, not status.  Authority can be wielded in halls of power, but, for Christians, it should be pastoral, an admonishing and enabling through the meekness and gentleness of Christ.