It should comfort pastors to know that even Paul faced resistance in a church he planted. You can feel his emotion: “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us,” Paul writes. “I speak as to my children; as a proper response, open your heart to us.” (2 Corinthians 6:12-13 CSB)
Some church leaders had turned against Paul, and they’d found support. A group of individuals from outside Corinth, known as super-apostles, had also entered the congregation (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). They attacked Paul’s character and had swayed even more people in the church to oppose Paul.
Paul had already written a hard letter to the church (2 Corinthians 2:4), and things had improved. But feelings still needed to heal; and the opposition, now smaller, still needed to be neutralized. As Paul plans to visit, he writes 2 Corinthians to deal with the lingering distrust.
If you’ve been in ministry long enough, you will recognize some of the patterns: simmering tension, outspoken critics, comparisons, and hurt. Expect conflict; it’s a normal part of pastoral ministry.
If you are a pastor who faces conflict, 2 Corinthians will encourage and comfort you as you face your moment of crisis.
We’re not Paul, but we can learn something from how he handled this situation. Three lessons stand out.
Address the conflict. Paul faced what’s happening honestly. He’s both forthright and tender. He looks for ways to both face the conflict and de-escalate it. “For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Corinthians 13:10).
When conflict arises within the church, it rarely goes away by itself. Generally speaking, it’s best to address issues directly, and to do so with both honesty and tenderness.
Get to the real issue. The Corinthians valued strong leaders. Paul could have played that game, but he instead chose to boast about his weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10). His “fool’s speech” was meant to expose how worldly thinking had infiltrated the church, and to show a better, more biblical way. The Corinthian church thought they faced a power struggle. Paul wanted them to see the real issue: a failure to understand the priorities and pattern of the gospel.
The presenting issue is rarely the issue. Wise pastors must surface the real issue and deal with it biblically.
Seek the wellbeing of the church. Paul wasn’t primarily concerned with defending himself. He was concerned with something deeper: the wellbeing of the church. “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.” (2 Corinthians 12:19)
Paul aimed to win their hearts, not to win an argument.
After Jonathan Edwards was fired by his congregation, he preached a final sermon. It shouldn’t surprise us that he chose to preach from 2 Corinthians. Mark Dever calls it “one of the most remarkable sermons that he — or any pastor to my knowledge — has ever preached.” In it, he says that they are his rejoicing, and he pleads with them to prepare for God’s judgment. To the end, he cares for the wellbeing of the church and the salvation of their souls.
Pastors: expect conflict. Deal with it. Get to the real issue, rather than just dealing with surface issues. Above all, seek the wellbeing of the church, even at personal cost. And read 2 Corinthians for your own comfort. You are not alone.