Which do you want? Should I come to you with a big stick to punish you, or with love and a gentle spirit?
Umm…is that a trick question?
Thus wrote Paul to the church in Corinth at the end of the letter’s opening section (1 Cor 4:21, CEB). He had apparently not visited the city in some time, and in his absence, people were undermining his authority. Not to worry, he says: Lord willing, I’ll be there soon, and then we’ll see what’s what (vss. 18-19).
In several previous posts, we’ve seen how Paul has dealt sharply with the situation in Corinth: the divisiveness of the believers, their arrogance toward him. Some of what he wrote was bitingly sarcastic, puncturing their inflated self-concept, pointing them back to a theology of the cross and what it means to follow a crucified Savior.
We shouldn’t interpret his stridency in simple emotional terms, as if he just needed to get something off his chest. Paul was a skillful writer who carefully measured his words for rhetorical effect. He probably believed sarcasm to be just what they needed to bring them to their senses. And indeed, if he had grossly miscalculated on that score, the letter would probably never have survived.
Paul had ministered among them for a year and a half (Acts 18:11). Despite the seeming harshness of his words and the divisions that had grown up in his wake, despite his frustration with their skewed theology, he still had a genuine affection for them. Thus he was being neither sarcastic nor ironic when he finally reached out to them in fatherly terms:
I’m not writing these things to make you ashamed but to warn you, since you are my loved children. You may have ten thousand mentors in Christ, but you don’t have many fathers. I gave birth to you in Christ Jesus through the gospel, so I encourage you to follow my example. (1 Cor 4:14-16, CEB)
True, having heard his words on the Paul vs. Apollos debacle, many of the Corinthians may have felt ashamed. But such is the nature of parental admonishment. Shame may be a consequence, but it’s not the goal: repentance is. Given a choice, he’d rather accomplish that through gentle conversation than through a spanking.
Thus, Paul appeals to them in love, calling them back to the uniqueness of their relationship. They could have a million mentors and thousands of teachers–but fathers are different. They were reborn in Christ through his preaching; he feels a special responsibility toward them, and they should respect his authority. (Given what he must say in the rest of the letter, he’ll need every ounce of that authority.)
And because he is their father, they should follow his example. “Become imitators of me,” he says, literally. To our ears, that may sound inappropriately egotistical. Who among us would dare to say such a thing?
We’ll take a separate post to think that through.