Can I Trust Paul? Pauline Theology of Ministry

If you are losing the game, change the rules. – Unknown

Next to Jesus himself no one has impacted Christianity as much as Paul. The prolific missionary’s conversion from lover of the Law to the Jewish Christian apostle to the Gentiles brought with it more than one paradox and conflict. As a result, New Testament readers meet a very human and, at times, the very raw Paul. Pauline theology of ministry literally began, if we accept Acts, by being knocked down. Although Paul’s humble and Christ-like model for ministry is no doubt correct, Paul’s articulated theology of ministry represents a one-sided dialogue with more impressive adversaries. He was losing a debate, so he changed the rules.

From material in the book of Acts and autobiographical allusions in his letters, we know Paul felt commissioned by a mystical encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. After which he set out to teach the outpouring of the Love of God revealed in Christ, “and nothing would be allowed to stand in the way” (1Cor 9:21-22). However, something does. Paul’s insecurities surface almost immediately in his missionary activity. In addition to his admission of being untrained in speech (2Cor 11:6) and being afflicted by a chronic physical illness (2Cor 12:7b-9), non-canonical documents describe Paul as small, bald and with deformed legs.[1] Pardon the insensitive analogy, but Paul would have likely been picked last in gym class every time. By this I mean Paul’s anger may have come from a very real struggle to be seen and be successful. Further, Romans chapter 7:7-25 seems to imply that Paul’s characterization of the Law as bondage was a reflection of his feelings of failure trying to live perfectly according to its tenets. If this is true, Jesus solved his religious problems. Paul succeeded in this freedom. However, even in his most affectionate letter to the Philippians, Paul warns his community about what seems in his mind an inevitable visit by more qualified missionaries (Phil 1:15; 3:2-3). In 2Corintians, Paul’s worry is realized. Rather than risking another ‘painful visit’ where he could again be perceived as weak and ineffective, Paul wrote a letter (2Cor 2:5-6;7:12).

Whether or not the ‘super apostles’ mocked Paul for being a poor public speaker, having no demonstrable power or no external credentials we do not know for certain, but we must presume that Paul mentions these weaknesses because these preachers had the opposite strengths – and that the Corinthians noticed (2Cor 11:5; 12:11, 10:10; 11:6; 3:1;5:12). ‘Gym class’ all over again. In previous encounters with the ‘super apostles,’ Paul kept his argument either theological or purely personal. However, in 2 Corinthians Paul synthesizes his Christo-centric Gospel with his personal defense applying it to the vocation of minister in the Church. Paul uses the powerful image of earthen vessels to draw a clear contrast between the glory of the message of the Gospel and its messengers (1Cor 4:5). The Gospel is an invaluable treasure. The minister is merely its clay pot. The weaknesses of the vessels serve to demonstrate that it is God’s work not human prowess that give it value (2 Cor 4:7-12). This pastoral instruction directly relates Paul’s conversion experience of the wounded and risen Jesus, and Paul’s sense of self.

In the very bodies of weak and suffering ministers the paradox of Jesus’ death and new life find expression. Like the earthen, ‘fleshy’ pots they are afflicted and rejected but not crushed (2Cor 4:8). According to Paul, the source of his apostolic authority and the glory of his message do not come from worldly wisdom or performance, but God’s power working through him. Paul stresses his weaknesses as proof of his authority as a minister. Although this kenotic dimension of ministry is directly related to the heart of Pauline theology, can we trust it?  Due to Paul’s insecurities, irascible reputation and the nature of the threat we detect in 2 Corinthians one might expect an emotional argument rather than thoughtful doctrine.

As anyone who has worked as a pastor or missionary can attest, it is hard to not take some things personally. In the context of this conflict, it makes perfect sense that a confrontational Paul with his back against a wall would need to change the rules of the debate to his advantage. He does precisely that by subverting the image of power to fit his own experience and identity. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30). Paul’s rhetoric repositioned himself in an untenable contest. In likely equal parts emotion and inspiration, the small, bald and crooked legged Paul delivers what would have been a disarming blow to any Christian opponent: “I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecution and calamity for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor 12:10). From this position of strength in weakness, Paul points to himself as the ideal image of a Christian minister. The problematic reality of his weaknesses turns out to be the heart of his theology of ministry.

If Paul was an isolated instance in salvation history, we might concede that the source of this Biblical theology of ministry was a physically weak, ego-driven, less than competent preacher who was losing an argument. However, unlikely messengers appear to be a divine pattern. Paul is not the first unexpected source of prophetic wisdom in the Biblical tradition. Moses had a stutter. Jeremiah was too young. Ezekiel was a little odd. And Hosea married a whore. Similarly, Paul’s greatest contribution to the theology of ministry is his lesson of the impossible ideal of perfection. The messenger is made competent through the power and grace of God. The cracks are how the light gets through – Paul’s provoked and insecure ego being one such illuminating flaw.

As much as I enjoy my hermeneutic of suspicion, I do not believe Paul’ s defense was solely motivated by self-interest. His zeal appears to have also included a sincere desire for others to incarnate the Gospel, as he believed he had (2Cor 6:3). Paul, with all his weaknesses acknowledged, clearly believed this was his vocation. Paul’s Christology was a mirror through which he understood himself.[2] Even if insecurity and ego are hard to erase, he was free to try and no longer bound to fail: “All of us with veiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2Cor 3:18). Paul could boast because in Jesus he saw his own humanness and weaknesses. This theological starting point represents an inner-integrity at the heart of what at times can be an inconsistent Paul.  With that said, I believe there is another more persuasive argument to trust Paul – what the Roman Curia calls sensus fidelium

Even with the flawed Paul in plain view, and the possible prevaricating circumstances, one finds it difficult to oppose Paul’s conclusion of authentic ministry. There is power in weakness. This is the reversal of expectations that Christ embodied and all ministers should also bear in their own bodies. This fundamental significance of Pauline pastoral theology has been proven by its ability to transcend its controversial context and lend itself to ever-new interpretations. Paul’s definition of authentic ministry could be dismissed as a rhetorical maneuver to undermine the authority of his better rivals except for the consistent response of its readers, this ‘sense of the faithful.’ Ministry is a self-emptying exercise. This is true. We just know it.


[1] Acts of Paul and Thecla 3. See M.R. James’  The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1924

[2] Hooker, Morna D.(2009)  On Becoming the Righteousness of God: Another Look at 2 Cor 5:21. Novum Testamentum, Oct2008, Vol. 50 Issue 4


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