Jesus and Paul on ministry and discipleship

cracked-clay-urn-photo-by-harold-the-hereticDuring his address to the New Wine Leaders Conference in Harrogate this week, Justin Welby focussed on Paul’s defence of his ministry in 1 Cor 4.1–9 as part of his challenge to embrace the cost of ministry: we should be willing to suffer as Paul did. This was given particular poignancy by reference to the example of Thomas à Becket, whose death is remembered each year in an act where the current Archbishop stands on the spot in Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas was assassinated.

The passage comes at an interesting point in Paul’s rhetorical duel with the Corinthian Christians. In chapter 1, Paul has tackled head on the issue of party factions in the church, and located this in the radical bifurcation between the ways of the world and the ways of God as shown by the divergent approaches to the question of wisdom. This moves into a more theological reflection on the inter-relation between the work of the Spirit and the gift of wisdom in chapter 2, which provides resources for Paul’s later exploration of what it means to be spiritual and the work of the Spirit amongst the members of the church in chapter 12. Chapter 3 then includes a reflective sketch of the work of Paul and Apollos in establishing the church in Corinth, connecting this with theological language of the people as the new temple of God.

Chapter 4 then forms something of a rhetorical flourish, prior to the direct challenges of chapters 5 and 6, and the move into debate and discussion ‘concerning the things about which you wrote’ from chapter 7 onwards. In this section, Paul reaches his first peak of irony, as he rather sarcastically contrasts the great heights attained by the Corinthian Christians and the poverty and weakness of Paul and the other apostles, an ironic contrast Paul will deploy again in 2 Corinthians in his contrast with the ‘so-called super apostles.’ Some commentators see this kind of language as a rather manipulative power play by Paul, but locating it within first-century rhetoric, and noticing Paul’s insistence on continued pastoral relationship with those he is writing to (e.g. in 1 Cor 4.14 ‘I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you…’) make this less suspect and encourage us to read it less sceptically.

But as I read through Paul’s argument, I was struck by the things he uses as points of reference when characterising his ministry, and the connections with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel. First, consider Paul’s list of hardships in 1 Cor 4.11 compared with Jesus’ teaching about ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ in Matt 25.35–40.

Paul’s hardshipSuffering in Matt 25.35–36
Poorly clothedStranger
Brutally treatedNaked

It’s worth reflecting on the correlation here. The first two terms clearly match; Paul’s third term, despite modern translations (‘dressed in rags’ TNIV), is actually the verb ‘to be naked’ which is obscured by most modern translations though fearlessly expressed by the AV, and so matches the fourth in Jesus’ list. Paul’s fifth term astateo corresponds quite closely to the idea of being a ‘stranger’ xenos, though there is no verbal link, and being ‘brutally treated’ is perhaps only loosely connected to the idea of being imprisoned.

Paul’s list lacks the poetic structure of Jesus’, the latter being in three pairs of related terms (hungry/thirsty, stranger/naked, sick/imprisoned). Paul has in fact been imprisoned (in Acts 16) so it is interesting that he does not use this term. This rules out the possibility of any literary dependence between the lists, and of course Paul’s letter is earlier than the earliest plausible date for the writing of Matthew’s gospel. But there is a striking correspondence between the terms, and it suggests Paul’s familiarity with Jesus’ teaching in some form or other.

(You will, of course, dear reader, know very well that in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the ‘least of these my brothers’ are Jesus’ disciples, not the poor in general.)

Second, Paul’s description of his responses to others in the follow verse matches Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount following the beatitudes:

When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. (1 Cor 4.12–13)

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborg and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5.38–44)

It’s worth comparing this with Paul’s instructions in Romans 12.14 f:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath…

Out of all this, there are two important things to note. First, Jesus and Paul are much closer than is often claimed. At it’s extreme, the differences between them are described as Jesus offering simple teaching for life, and Paul creating a new religion which Jesus never intended. But here is yet more evidence that, whether through direct citation of Jesus’ teaching or not, Paul’s understanding of ministry and discipleship is very close to Jesus at some important points. This includes his attitude to the poor.

Secondly, it is striking that, in his defence of his ministry, Paul reaches for things that should characterise all Christians in their discipleship and following of Jesus. In other words, there aren’t special criteria to be met by those in ministry; authentic ministry just looks like authentic discipleship writ large, and the standard for those who are in leadership is not some separate list as if leaders are set apart from ‘ordinary’ Christians. This is entirely consistent with Paul’s description elsewhere of the church as the body of Christ, a differentiate unity where each has a distinct role and contribution but all are one.

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1 thought on “Jesus and Paul on ministry and discipleship”

  1. Great post but I thought “gymniteoumen” (“naked” in 1 Cor 4:11) meant any degree of undress — not necessarily nude or “in rags” see e.g. John 21:7 (which I would translated – “stripped” as in “took of his clothes to do a hard / hot / heavy job”)


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