Appearances matter (part 1)

“Just do what you know to be right. It doesn’t matter what other people think.”

That’s a common moral sentiment in a highly individualistic society such as our own in America. Be your own person. Follow your own path. March to the beat of your own drummer.

And there is a partial truth in there: if, in fact, you know the right thing to do, you shouldn’t let social pressure knock you off course.

But that doesn’t mean that what other people think doesn’t matter. As Paul writes, “We care about doing the right thing, not only in the Lord’s eyes but also in the eyes of other people” (2 Cor 8:21, CEB).

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul was keen on getting the relatively well-to-do Corinthians to contribute to the collection he had been taking up for the poor in Jerusalem. The collection served a dual purpose. The financial need, of course, was great, but Paul also hoped that the generosity of the Gentiles would help knit them together with the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, as a clear indication of God’s new covenant.

But Paul’s opponents kept spreading the rumor that something fishy was going on. Paul was thus prompted to write, “We are trying to avoid being blamed by anyone for the way we take care of this large amount of money” (2 Cor 8:20, CEB), and to come up with an appropriate strategy that would allay suspicion.

The plan was essentially this. Paul himself would not be directly involved. Titus was the one who had previously carried Paul’s “severe letter” to the Corinthians, and was surprised at how warmly he was received; God thus changed his heart so that he was actually excited to go back to Corinth to coordinate the collection (8:16-17).

Titus was to be accompanied by two other men of good reputation (for some unknown reason, Paul doesn’t name them). One, in particular, was “chosen by the churches” (8:19). The word Paul used suggests that the man was elected by a show of hands — meaning that he couldn’t be accused of being Paul’s stooge. And tellingly, Paul actually called these latter two men “the churches’ apostles and an honor to Christ” (8:23, CEB). The Corinthians were urged to respond accordingly, because the other churches would be watching (8:24).

Appearances mattered, because the collection had the larger purpose of demonstrating the reality of the new covenant. Obviously, Paul didn’t want to give his detractors reason to question what he was doing, and so devised a strategy to keep everything above-board.

But it wasn’t just a matter of appeasing his opponents. The Corinthians had already committed to the collection a year before, and Paul had bragged about this to the Macedonians. Indeed, that was one of the reasons the Macedonians had dug so deeply into their own pockets to give (9:1-2).

But what if the Macedonians, after all Paul had told them, were to see the Corinthians ambivalently dilly-dallying about the collection? What if the Corinthian attitude was not generosity, but only grudging compliance (9:5 — Paul’s word suggests the greediness of the giver)? It would be an embarrassment to everyone (9:4), and a disillusionment to the Macedonians.

When the reputation of the church and the gospel are on the line, appearances matter. More on this in the next post.