Part 4 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. In Part 2, we saw in 2 Corinthians that Paul repeats the phrase “commend ourselves,” to identify key criteria that he uses to demonstrate that his ministry is credible and successful. In Part 3, we explored Paul’s first criterion of successful ministry, that of clearly proclaiming the Gospel.
The church’s existence is proof that I am successful
Besides reminding the Corinthians that he clearly and even simply proclaimed the Gospel, Paul argues that the very presence of a Corinthian church was ample evidence that he was, in fact, a successful apostle and missionary.
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. – 2 Corinthians 3:1–3
Paul didn’t need to update his resume and send it to the Corinthian church. His resume or letter of introduction was already there, staring them in the face. His resume was the church itself. The believers in Corinth were proof positive that the Spirit was working through Paul.
Imperfect yet transformed.
Yes, the Corinthian church was far from perfect. But it was made up of people who were being transformed by the Spirit of God. Formerly they had practiced idolatry, adultery, and homosexuality. Some of them had been known as thieves, drunks, and swindlers (1 Cor. 6:9-11) Now they were God’s holy people, worshiping God with a whole variety of the gifts of the Spirit clearly evident in their worship services (1 Cor. 1:5-7, 14:26). The evidence of changed lives was clear to everyone. Paul says that their testimony is “known and read by everyone.” (2 Cor 3:2)
The immaturity of the Corinthian church was evident from the way they tolerated immorality among their members (1 Cor 5), to the court cases between members (1 Cor 6), to the way they segregated themselves during the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11). Maybe most seriously, their immaturity was evident in the way they elevated their own worldly wisdom and criticized the apostle who had brought them the Gospel. But it was also evident that the Spirit was at work in them, bringing them to repentance (2 Cor 7:9-11).
That this church was a church that Paul loved is evident throughout the Corinthian epistles. The church was written on his heart (2 Cor. 3:2). He had opened his heart to them and had displayed amazing transparent in his affection and vulnerability with this church (2 Cor 6:11-12, 7:3-4). Because he was so emotionally attached to this church, he was torn up inside, as he heard about the many conflicts and much immaturity (2 Cor. 2:12-13, 7:5). The church gave him heart pains.
Proud of his accomplishments
But in Paul’s mind, there was no question about the genuineness of their faith. Twenty-three times he calls them “brothers” (or “brothers and sisters” in the NIV). He calls them justified and sanctified, and a residence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:11, 3:16).
So, despite his frustration with their immaturity, Paul took pride in this church (2 Cor. 7:4). The existence of the church and their personal transformation was the result of his work. Of course, God had done the saving and Christ had built the church, but Paul had been God’s chosen instrument. He had planted the seed that had sprung to life (1 Cor 3:6), and built the foundation of the temple that was now indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 3:10, 16). He had taught them, sought to convince them (2 Cor 5:11), rebuked them, prayed for them (2 Cor 13:7).
Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
1 Corinthians 9:1–2
We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.
2 Corinthians 10:13
Paul could legitimately boast in what God had accomplished through him in Corinth. This was the field to which God had assigned him, and he had faithfully proclaimed the Gospel there, and now there were people there who had been transformed because of his ministry.
Paul’s definition of success is intimately tied up with the existence of a new church that he and his missionary team planted. His sense of God’s approval is not dependent on whether the church is strong, large or mature. All that matters is that this is God’s church, and God is at work in it. God used his missionary preaching, plain and simple as it was, to bring spiritual life to these former immoral, deceitful idolaters, and that meant that he could be proud of his work.
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, David Garland says,
Paul insists that his boasting in his authority over them (2 Cor 10:8) is not out of bounds but is based on the work that he has done in Christ in the region that God assigned him. Corinth is God’s field (1 Cor 3:9), and God assigned him to work there as God’s servant. He planted; God gave the growth (1 Cor 3:6). Therefore, Paul appeals to the indisputable fact that he founded the church in Corinth. His rivals could not claim this. In fulfilling this divine assignment as apostle to the Gentiles he came to Corinth, “and the success there of his missionary work in calling a church into being was proof that God had approved of his work.” … The reason he can boast is that his ministry to the Gentiles and its success is not his own doing but “the work of God’s grace in his life.” The rivals might point to their letters of commendation and exhibitions of spiritual power and rhetorical wizardry to corroborate their claims to divine authority. Paul appeals to the incontrovertible existence of the church in Corinthians, a church founded by his missionary preaching. Their boasts are based on evidence manufactured from their own fantasies about themselves. What objectivity is there when they simply cite their own accomplishments as the norm? Paul’s boast is based on undeniable fact.
What does Paul say to us as missionaries?
Is God pleased even if the flaws are plain to see?
If we have been used by God to start a new church, regardless of how immature or small that church might be, we can be assured that God is pleased with our work. That is such a radical statement that I can hardly believe it myself! Of course, we should qualify the statement by saying that if the immaturity or lack of growth is because we did not faithfully teach the Scriptures, then we could be numbered among those who build with wood, hay or straw (1 Cor 3:12-15), and therefore will not receive a reward. If we talked a lot but didn’t love the people to whom we spoke, we also have no reason to boast (1 Cor 8:1, 13:1-3).
But if we have taught the Word and loved the people, and a few people have come to faith, experienced regeneration, and are now meeting regularly, we can be assured of heaven’s applause.
But what about support roles?
Not all of us can say that we have planted a church. Some of us serve in a support role for those who are church planters. Others have come alongside an existing church in a discipling or teaching ministry, building on the foundation of others.
But we don’t have to be the pioneering church planter and team leader for this criterion to work for us. Paul’s team included Silas and Timothy as “expatriates” and Priscilla and Aquilla as local believers (Acts 18:1-5).
Paul says that Timothy, despite his timidity, his lack of experience and his “intern status”, had been faithful (1 Cor 4:17), was carrying on the work of the Lord, JUST AS Paul did (1 Cor 16:10) and was included in those who proclaimed the Gospel to the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:19).
Priscilla and Aquilla did not have an upfront ministry, but had more of a discipling ministry, supporting Paul’s church planting efforts. They partnered with Paul in a small business in Corinth that enabled Paul to support himself as a tentmaker (Acts 18:2-4) in the early stages of the church plant. Later this couple privately mentored Apollos so that his preaching would be more Gospel-centered. Still, later they hosted a church in their home in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19) and then again in Rome (Rom 16:3-5).
All of them played a valuable part, using the different gifts that God had given them (1 Cor 12:18-26). All of them rejoiced together at what God was doing through their team.
Building on someone else’s foundation is good.
Paul unequivocally stated his ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was unknown and to not build on someone else’s foundation (Rom 15:20, 2 Cor 10:16). But he values those who faithfully build on the foundation that he laid (1 Cor 3:6-8, 10-14). Paul wants Apollos to return to Corinth (1 Cor 16:12) and values his ministry, even though he was more of a teacher than a church planter (Acts 18:24-28, 1 Cor 3:5-6). If we faithfully water the seed, we also will receive our reward and heaven’s applause.
The bottom line
Does our ministry result in people being transformed, regardless of what role we play in the ministry team or how much our ministry profile is in the public eye? Can we point to specific people that have changed, that have become useful servants in the Kingdom, as a result of their interaction with us? Is it clear to everyone who knows them that they are not the same people that they used to be, and that the change is moving them toward greater Christlikeness?
We are not talking about numbers here. What is important is not how many converts we can list, but that the life change is evident and undeniable, even if only a few people have experienced the change. God’s work must be evident in the hearts and lives of the people we have taught. We are not talking about people being plastered with a Christian label but staying pretty much the same. We are talking about a change that only God can do, a regeneration of the heart.
Yes, it must be a change that God brings about. If the change is only due to our persuasive powers and winsome charm, God is not about to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” If the change is primarily in that they now speak English, and like pizza, heaven is not clapping. But if the change is something that can only be explained because the Spirit of God has given them a new heart, and somehow we had a part in bringing about that change, we can consider ourselves successful as missionaries.
Then we have a resume that heaven approves!
Would you agree? Why or why not?