Weak Servants of a Powerful Christ

Reuben Bredenhof
Friday, June 11th 2021

I don’t know for sure if pastors complain more than anyone else, but from personal experience I will admit that a pastor is often tempted to grumble. He may be inclined to complain about the long hours every week spent preparing edifying sermons, about the loneliness of leadership in these trying times, or about cranky church members who need to be handled with care. Of course he knows that a complaining spirit is not pleasing to God. But a pastor also ought to remember the ultimate purpose of ministerial struggles: they are for Jesus’s sake and for the comfort of His people. Pondering this purpose can temper a pastor’s grumbling.

Boasting in Weakness

This truth resounds in 2 Corinthians, where Paul is keen to speak about his personal weaknesses and sufferings. He considered hardships not only fundamental to life in Christ, but inevitable in ministry, and in this spirit he ‘boasts’ about his difficult labors as a preacher and pastor. Now, because the notion of boasting can easily be misunderstood, Paul’s words should be seen against the backdrop of his opponents’ claims. We learn from the Corinthian correspondence that he had rivals there who loved to highlight their notable outward qualities, portraying themselves as superior to Paul in speech, spiritual experiences, and devotion to the believers. The apostle’s response is not to pride himself in the many impressive aspects of his ministry, but to exult in those things that show him to be a weak servant of the powerful Christ. His words in 2 Corinthians 11:30 are thematic for the entire letter: “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.”

And so Paul thoroughly catalogs his past and present afflictions. He relates, for instance, how “from the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one” (11:24). They also stoned him, while at other times he was beaten by mobs or Roman soldiers. Besides this, he says, “three times I was shipwrecked” (11:25). After one of these shipwrecks, he was “in the deep” for a night and a day (11:25), probably clinging to a piece of wreckage in the open water. One month of Pauline affliction would make any pastor think seriously about a career change, but the apostle endured it, year after year.

Travails like this did not highlight Paul’s courage or resilience but actually accentuated his vulnerability. Because if you are often in prison, or in bed recovering from a beating, you are not going to feel like an effective pastor. If you are regularly exhausted, hungry, and anxious, you are not going to expect much from your preaching. If you are always in peril, you likely will not be self-assured. But Paul says that in spite of all this adversity, God was using him for great things.

The Cruciform Model

When they considered his vast portfolio of tribulation, he wanted the Corinthians to say, “How could Pastor Paul ever accomplish what he did? So distressed, yet he kept going, and he kept serving.” Then the attention could not fall on him, but on the excellence of the Lord, on His equipping grace and unfailing strength. Ministry was never dependent on Paul and his abilities, for he could do nothing apart from Christ. When Paul was at his weakest, the Lord’s strength was most evident.

Paul is willing to admit that he is weak because it was also in weakness that his Savior Jesus carried out life-changing service for others: “For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God” (13:4). And from the definitive display of Jesus’s suffering Paul draws a direct line to his own weakness and hardship: “For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you” (13:4). We can call this the cruciform model of ministry: performing self-sacrificial service for the good of Christ’s people. Just as Jesus had offered Himself on the cross to accomplish redemption, so Paul seeks to be unashamedly devoted in his labors for the good of the churches.

Deep Concern for All the Believers

Despite Paul’s hopefulness throughout 2 Corinthians, this is a truth that few seminaries will include in their recruitment drives: ministry involves suffering! It is painful and uncomfortable, but true: struggling in ministry cannot be avoided. For instance, if you are a pastor, you probably have had the experience of coming home from an elders’ meeting or a pastoral visit and knowing that you’re not going to sleep very well. There is too much on your mind as you think about, agonize over, and pray for the people you are trying to help. The lack of sleep may mean a low-grade headache and bags under your eyes in the morning, but that’s not a bad thing. If someone genuinely cares about others, this is to be expected.

This is borne out in Paul’s words, for as he reaches the end of his long catalog of sufferings, he says: “Besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (11:28). He wanted to go wherever the gospel had not been preached, but this ministry model came with the anxiety of leaving behind groups of new believers in many places. These groups were often fairly unorganized, occasionally distressed, and sometimes had just an elementary grasp of the faith. Consequently, Paul wrestled with apprehensions and worries about his converts.

He describes this in 11:29: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” There were some believers who were feeble in faith, prone to periods of doubting, and unsure of God’s will in certain situations. When Paul heard about those brothers and sisters in the churches who struggled with their faith and service, he worried about them.

He continues, “Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” (11:29) One can imagine Paul receiving reports about serious sin in the congregations—of which Corinth was a prime example. The people he had once pastored were now stealing money, sneaking back to the prostitutes, and getting drunk. Hearing this, he could not shrug indifferently. He felt it sharply, as if it were his own stumbling. It made him upset, and he wanted to assist them in the battle against sin. Daily this was another suffering that tormented him: “a deep concern for all the churches.”

The apostle articulates something that many pastors can relate to, how close and regular engagement with God’s people can take its toll. It is likely that few know just how much a devoted pastor thinks of his congregation, takes on their struggles, and carries them close to his heart. When pastors do this, it is sometimes deemed to be a sign of weakness. An inability to detach oneself from people’s struggles and heartaches is considered regrettable, and a pastor might wish to become a little more emotionally detached.

A key lesson for ministry in 2 Corinthians is certainly not that pastors should avoid a whole-hearted investment in others, striving to be detached and aloof. This was the mark of the rival pastors in Corinth, men who were too sophisticated to engage with the struggles of real people and who even exploited them. If his weakness distinguished Paul from his opponents, then he was glad. So also when pastors today find themselves echoing Paul’s anguished words about a “deep concern” for the believers, it is an indicator of being engaged in a proper and God-pleasing ministry.

Tossing and Turning

In Christ’s service, a pastor can share willingly in the struggles and joys of those to whom he ministers. Paul’s words warn that it is not easy to get close to people, that it can be disturbing to hear the heart-breaking stories and see the bitter tears. Yet it is fitting for pastors to share deeply and personally in the lives of those in his congregation. It might be perceived by some as weakness, but it is a Christlike weakness. And when a pastor is tossing and turning in the early hours of the morning, when he is seeing once again his inability to change someone or his inadequacy to help them, then he is ready to depend ever more on the strong Christ.

This article has been adapted from Dr. Bredenhof’s recent book, Weak Pastor, Strong Christ: Developing a Christ-Shaped Gospel Ministry (Reformation Heritage Books, 2021). Used here with permission.

Reuben Bredenhof (PhD, St Mary’s University, Twickenham) is a transplanted Canadian, presently serving as the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Mount Nasura in Western Australia. He is the author of Wise: Living By the Ancient Words of Commandments and Proverbsand Hallowed: Echoes of the Psalms in the Lord’s Prayer. He and his wife Rebecca have four daughters.

Image: St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt. Public Domain {{PD-US}}, resized by MR.

Friday, June 11th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church