Part 2 of a series on defining success for a missionary. Part 1 demonstrated that we, like Paul, can be confident in our ministry, despite all our detractors and critics. We can be assured that God is pleased with our ministry.
The Apostle Paul had a problem. His authority and credibility in the Corinthian church had been severely attacked and critics were dismissing the value of his ministry. He had been accused of deceiving people (2 Cor 4:2), of exploiting them (2 Cor 7:2), of being an impostor (2 Cor 6:8). Unless he could reestablish his credibility in this church, his ministry there was finished. More seriously, as this church turned their back on Paul, they were also turning their back on the Gospel that Paul had preached. The integrity of the church depended on Paul proving that he was in fact a faithful apostle, approved by God, or in other words, a successful missionary.
How Paul goes about demonstrating his credibility and the credibility of his ministry is very instructive for us as we seek to define what it means to be a successful missionary.
Of course, he was hurt by the idea that he, the apostle who planted the church in Corinth, would need to reestablish his credentials in the Corinthian church. They already knew him, and should have been able to trust him and even offer letters of recommendation to others on behalf of Paul. But Paul does not give up on the church, and goes about the painful, uncomfortable process of proving once more that he is an apostle worthy of commendation.
In 2 Corinthians 3:1, Paul asks, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?” This is the first of a whole series of references to the expression “commend ourselves” in this letter. It is found 6 times (2Co 3:1, 4:2, 5:12, 6:4, 10:12, 18) but nowhere else in the New Testament. Paul is referring to the common practice of their day of carrying letters of introduction when seeking to build a friendship and relationship of trust with people one did not know well (for example, see Acts 18:27). It was comparable to today’s practice of presenting or sending one’s CV or resume. Paul was not opposed to using these letters of recommendation. In a way, the book of Romans is Paul’s self-introduction to the Roman church, a church where he wanted to do some “support discovery” before he travelled on to Spain (Romans 15:24).
But in the Corinthian situation, Paul does not pull out a stack of references and testimonials from other apostles, government officials and “satisfied customers”. Instead to commend himself, he points to evidence that the Corinthian believers already had witnessed themselves. The evidence could be found in his previous ministry with them.
Later in the book, Paul refers briefly to the supernatural marks of a true apostle – miracles, signs and wonders that accompanied his ministry (2 Cor 12:12). But he prefers not to use these to establish the legitimacy of his ministry. Why not? Maybe because these sign gifts fed his pride. Maybe because he didn’t want the emphasis to be on him as the messenger, but on the message. Maybe because he wanted to establish the credibility of all true Gospel messengers, regardless of whether they had the gifts of miracles.
Neither does Paul uses numbers and statistics to prove that he is a superior missionary and apostle. Nowhere do we find Paul listing the number of churches he has started or how many people he baptized in a particular year. On the contrary, he thanks God that he did NOT baptize the vast majority of the Corinthian believers (1 Cor 1:13-17). Not once in Paul’s letters do we read how many members were in a particular plant or how many people attended worship services. It is not that Paul did not believe in counting. For example, note the numbers in his report of the persecutions he has endured (2 Cor 11:23-25). But Paul did not base his understand of success on the numbers of people who had responded to his ministry.
So what does Paul point to as proof that his ministry is commendable? What are the criteria that he uses? As I analyzed Paul’s uses of the phrase “commend ourselves” in 2 Corinthians, I saw three clear themes appearing as Paul demonstrates the credibility of his ministry. Paul’s authority and ministry is validated by:
- His clear proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:2-7, 5:18-21)
- The fact that the Corinthians believed and were changed by the Gospel he preached (2 Cor 3:1-3, 2 Cor 10:13-14)
- His joyful acceptance of the hardships of being a missionary and apostle (2 Cor. 6:4-10, 11:23-30, 12:9-10)
We will discuss these three demonstrations of Paul’s credibility in greater detail in future blog posts. But for now, let’s just think about how we determine the criteria to assess and validate our ministry. What definition of success is acceptable? Whose stamp of approval do we need? Our mission leadership’s commendation? Our home church’s blessing? Our national church partner’s praise? Or should we just look inside ourselves and base our evaluation on an inner sense of “having done our best?” Although all of these are important and valuable, I believe that only God has the right to determine what are the “right criteria.”
Paul himself says, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” (2 Corinthians 10:18)
As David Garland says in his commentary on 2 Corinthians,
“When others may criticize one’s ministry, one needs a clear measuring rod by which to appraise oneself before God. The critics will try to impose their own measuring rods to gauge the minister. If the minister is to remain faithful to God’s calling, then only God’s standards matter. In the face of the Corinthians’ challenge, Paul shows that he has a keen understanding of his place in God’s scheme of things. He knows whose he is, and consequently he knows who he is, a minister of the new covenant whom God made sufficient for his task.”
David Garland, New American Commentary: 2 Corinthians, p. 154.
One of my favourite quotations is by best-selling author, B. J. Hoff. I recently found an interview of her by Focus on Fiction. B.J. concludes the interview by saying,
I know that many of my readers are also in the ministry of “communicating Christ.” Some are writers, some are musicians or artists. Some are teachers or librarians or pastors or nurses or doctors or full-time moms and dads. Many work “behind the scenes” in the church or are part of the decision-making process in their local congregations. While a number of them are constantly in the “limelight” as they serve, most are among the “unsung heroes” as they work quietly backstage in Christian service. Whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing in their daily lives to share God’s love, I want them to have a copy of something I wrote years ago (which also appears in the front of Cadence, Book Two of the American Anthem). God pressed these words upon my heart during a time when many writing colleagues were undergoing an especially difficult struggle in their publishing experience–and I keep them always before me for my own encouragement:
“So we make it our goal to please him…”, Paul concludes in 2 Corinthians 5:9.
What is important to realize is that for Paul, this sense of divine applause is based on real-life, observable evidence, not just on a personal inner sense of satisfaction. No, it was not presented in figures and statistics, but it was nonetheless objective and verifiable by others.