Eloquence ain’t nothin’, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this question: what’s the most ridiculous sermon you ever heard?  If you’re like me, you’ve heard some doozies.  (Chances are I’ve delivered a few myself, but since I’ve been blessed with a short memory and long denial, I really can’t be sure.)

Preachers, of course, vary tremendously in style and content.  Some prefer to preach expositionally, others topically.  Some take to the pulpit with great energy and enthusiasm, others are more subdued.  A sermon might convey the conversational informality of a living room, the challenge of a lecture hall, or the showmanship of a stage performance.  We prefer some preachers to others, have convictions about what constitutes good preaching, and bring such expectations with us to a church service.  And when those expectations aren’t met, we may feel dissatisfied and even voice that dissatisfaction to each other, or to the pastor, or to the pulpit committee.  Of course, some people hate what others love, and everyone tends to think they’re right; pastors are used to being caught in the middle of such conflicting expectations.

In previous posts we’ve seen a similar dynamic in Corinth; people were lining up behind their favorite leaders, finding some reason to prefer one to another and to take pride in that preference.  They may even have begun bragging about who baptized them, as if this fact somehow conferred celebrity status.

Paul countered that his primary mission was not baptism but proclaiming the gospel in a way that was not about brilliant oratory but the power of God revealed through the weakness of the cross (1 Cor 1:17-18).  He chided them for their worldly understandings of wisdom and foolishness, strength and weakness.  He pointed them back to their humble beginnings, as if to say that they should stop trying so hard to be Somebody–a person of power, popularity, or prestige, a person with a reason to boast.

Then, as an example, Paul returns full circle to the subject of the ordinariness of his preaching:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters.  When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.  (1 Cor 2:1-5, NIV)

“Wisdom”–the Greek word is sophia, as in “philosophy”–was apparently a loaded term in Corinth, signifying something of great social value that would confer bragging rights.  Ditto for the Greek word logos, which can mean “word” or “speech” (it’s the root of the English suffix, –ology).  Earlier in the letter, he affirmed that the Corinthians had already been blessed spiritually in the area of logos (1 Cor 1:5), and the surrounding culture would have predisposed them to take pride in such gifts.

But Paul says it more than once in this passage: neither logos nor sophia, neither impressive speech nor words of wisdom were the point of his preaching.  When he speaks of his lack of “eloquence” above, he’s literally saying that he did not come to them “according to excellence of logos“–in other words, he had no interest in playing to their expectations of what a preacher should be.

That’s not to say that Paul didn’t believe in the use of persuasion, which should be obvious from even a casual reading of his letters.  But persuasiveness in the service of the gospel is one thing; persuasiveness in the service of making a good impression is another.

All of this should say something to us about how we respond to what we hear from the pulpit each Sunday.  More on that in the next post.