Big Idea: Don’t look for a flashy ministry, but for gentle leaders, a church that helps you overcome the lies the world is telling you, and that boasts only in Jesus.
In a podcast interview last year, I told someone that our church isn’t that impressive. He laughed nervously. I said, “No, really, it’s not that impressive!” I went on to explain: I know some impressive churches in the area. In fact, I can give you a list. They have the fancy audiovisual systems and smoke machines. They make the list of Toronto Life’s hippest churches. Nobody comes to Liberty Grace for that! As I explained in the interview, we have other things going for us, but being impressive isn’t one of them.
And that’s not a problem — except that sometimes we feel that maybe we should be impressive. What if we did have a smoke machine? What if we got a cooler, hipper pastor? What if I got better shoes? Should we be playing that game?
That is exactly the issue that this passage confronts.
The Corinthian church knew the power of charismatic leadership. A group of leaders had come to the church, and they were very impressive. They were powerful and prestigious. They were well-connected. They had letters of recommendation endorsing their ministries (3:1). They had enjoyed visionary experiences with God (5:13). They had come a long way to be with the Corinthian church. They were skilled speakers. In the next chapter Paul calls them super-apostles (11:5). They were powerful and successful.
And then there was Paul. Here’s what people were saying about Paul: that he’s humble when face-to-face but bold when away (10:1). He roars like a lion in a letters but is pitiful in person. The Corinthians were far more impressed with the powerful leaders than with someone ordinary like Paul.
Here’s their problem, and it’s our problem too.
In short, the Corinthians were quick to seize every emphasis in Christianity that spoke (or seemed to speak) of spiritual power, of exaltation with Christ, of freedom, of triumph, of victorious Christian living, of leadership, of religious success; but they neglected or suppressed those accents in Christianity that stressed meekness, servanthood, obedience, humility, and the need to follow Christ in his suffering if one is to follow him in his crown. They glimpsed what Christ had done, yet failed to contemplate what remains to be done; they understood that D-day had arrived, but mistook it for V-day. They loved Christian triumphalism, but they did not know how to live under the sign of the cross. (D.A. Carson)
Here’s the real issue: What do we look for in looking for a good church? It’s one of the most important questions we can answer.
And I’m glad Paul helps us in this passage. In this passage Paul gives us three qualities to look for in a church.
I’m giving these to you today because I want this to shape the kind of church that we are.
- Some of you are looking for a church. You may have wandered in here today to check us out. Today’s passage may help you, because it will give you some things to think about as you search for a church to join.
- Some of you are part of this church, and I love that you are. I love this church. I can’t believe I get to be part of it. If you’re part of this church, then this passage will help keep us on track so that we know what to emphasize and what to ignore.
- All of us will probably move on to other churches at some point. One of the realities is that we are in a very transient area. At some point most of you will probably end up moving to a different area, and you’ll be looking for a new church.
So this passage is relevant to all of us. Here’s what Paul tells us: Don’t look for a flashy ministry. Instead, look for three qualities:
First, look for leaders who are gentle like Jesus.
One of the criticisms against Paul was that he was too humble in person. He wasn’t overbearing. In his first letter he wrote that he was with them “in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:3-4).
Contrast this with the super-apostles who seemed to have it all together. You’ve probably met someone like this. I remember a friend of mine who pastored a large church at the time. When he entered the room you could tell. He had a presence that could fill the room. He was a charismatic presence.
In this passage, Paul makes it clear: meekness and gentleness matter more than charisma. When you’re looking for a church, look for leaders who are meek and gentle. Look at verse 1: “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” He’s not gentle by temperament. He’s gentle because he models his ministry after Jesus.
Don’t get the wrong idea about Paul. Paul knew how to be bold in person too. He just wants to avoid that. He would much rather be gentle in his tone with them. “I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 10:2). Paul wasn’t scared to confront. He wasn’t afraid of people. But that was
Contrast this with the powerful leaders. In chapter 11 we read of some of the abusive practices they employed:
For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! (2 Corinthians 11:19-21)
I have to admit that I could never understand this. Why would anyone put up with leaders who treat them this way?
I think I get it now. I have friends — smart friends — who worked under abusive leaders for a long time before they got out. Why did they put up with it? Because the abusive leaders got things done. They overlooked a lot of warning signs because the abusive leaders were successful.
One observer, Scot McKnight, says:
“Leaders matter, period. Leaders matter because they become embodied in the culture they lead, and the bigger the culture, the more significant the leader.
“Let’s face it,” agrees McKnight, “in some of these megachurches, the celebrity factor is so powerful that without them the place collapses.”
“I’ve been in a megachurch in Pennsylvania,” says McKnight, “where the pastor was a gentle, loving, caring, godly leader. It was a big church that was healthy as it could be—because that pastor knew what he was doing in creating a culture of grace.
“And I’ve been in other churches, of course, where it was a controlling pastor with a controlling church culture. I do not think that it is at all taking a cheap shot to say that this is what happened with X. I think he had elements of toxicity in his character that were amplified as the system grew bigger.
“This is going to be a great lesson for church leadership during the next 20 to 30 years.”
That’s the first quality to look for: look for leaders who are gentle like Jesus, because the way they lead will become embodied in the culture.
Second, look for a church that helps you overcome the lies the world tells you.
This is so important and counter-intuitive.
It’s easy for a church to follow culture. If we’re not careful, churches can become mirrors of culture. We can value the same things that culture does. But when the church follows culture, it never transforms culture.
Let me give you an example. Right now our culture preaches a very religious message: radical individualism. The message: be true to yourself. You must get in touch with yourself, find yourself, and live a life that’s authentically you. Live however you’d like as long as you don’t interfere with anyone else’s right to live as they please. You be you.
It’s easy for churches to copy this message. Churches then echo the false gospel of culture rather than the gospel of Jesus. But as one recent writer observes, it’s not working: “Our society has become a conspiracy against joy … We’ve seen a shocking rise of mental illness, suicide, and distrust.” The answers our society gives “take all the difficulties of living…and make them worse…They are floundering in a formless desert. Not only do we not give them a compass, we take a bucket of sand and throw it all over their heads!” (David Brooks, The Second Mountain)
What’s the alternative? Paul says:
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Corinthians 10:5-6)
Paul’s challenging the way that the Corinthian church has been coopted by the world’s values. He’s gentle, but he says that he is going to fight to destroy the opinions and thoughts that are against the knowledge of God, so that the Corinthian church takes every thought captive to obey Christ.
Don’t look for charismatic leaders; look for gentle ones. And don’t look for a church that mimics culture; look for a church that helps you spot the lies that the world is telling you so that you can believe the truth about Jesus.
Finally, look for a church that boasts in the right things.
Boasting in itself isn’t wrong. What matters is what you boast about.
The super-apostles boasted about the wrong things, says Paul. They’re all about measuring and comparing themselves to others (10:12). In verses 13 to 16, they seem to be boasting about how far they’d traveled to come to Corinth. They had set up “their own subjective standards of excellence (training in rhetoric, speaking fees, ecstatic experiences, commendations, awards, and so on) and then judged themselves by conformity to those standards!” (R. Kent Hughes). They knew how to market themselves and their successes.
Not Paul. Paul’s going to spend a lot of time talking about boasting in the rest of this letter, so we’ll return to this. But we get a hint of what he’s going to say in today’s passage: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. (2 Corinthians 10:17–18)
Here’s the bottom line for a church. The only thing that a church has to boast about is Jesus. A good church never boasts about how cool or great they are. That is so lame. We are nothing but a bunch of imperfect, sinful people who need God desperately.
We have one thing going for us: Jesus. We have one message to talk about: Jesus. We are not the big deal. He is. Our only hope is what Jesus has done for us at the cross.
Do you want to brag about something? Brag about Jesus. Don’t brag about your looks or your career or anything like that. Don’t build your life on what you accomplish and what you achieve. Build your life on Jesus. Put your hope in him and boast only about him.
And friends: stay far away from churches that make their message anything about themselves. Find and stay with a church that makes its boast only about Jesus.
For God’s sake and yours: Don’t look for a flashy ministry, but for gentle leaders, a church that helps you overcome the lies the world is telling you, and that boasts only in Jesus.