Spiritual Leadership and Humble Relationships: Part 4

Note: This is Part 4 of a blog mini-series asking, “How does Paul relate and respond to the Corinthians who criticize him, and what can we apply to our lives as leaders?” Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.  

So Far…

In responding to criticism, Paul has: 

  • Affirmed those who criticize him by calling them holy and sanctified, thanking God for them, and by declaring them enriched in Christ and spiritually gifted! 
  • Focused his concern on the unity of the Body of Christ, the glory of Christ, and the goal of Christlikeness. 
  • Grounded his identity not in what his critics say about him, not in his own sense of self, but in who he is in Christ and to Christ. 

Truth for Life

Please stop. Reread that list. Think about someone criticizing you. How would your response to their criticism and your relationship to the person(s) change if you did what Paul did? 

Now, stop again. Think about a spiritual leader you or someone you know shared a concern with. How would this leader’s response have been more godly, more humble, had he or she responded like Paul? I don’t raise this question to stir trouble or pick on spiritual leaders. I raise it to remind us all, myself included, how easily we move from humble Christ-centered spirituality to arrogant, self-centered spiritual abuse. 

We talk and write so much about conflict resolution. Paul lived conflict resolution; he embodied it. That’s why he says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

 As a Fair Exchange

Rather than prolong this series unnecessarily, I’ll wrap it up with two thoughts: 

  • If we gleaned this much truth for life from a brief running commentary on four chapters, just think what we could learn about conflict resolution and humble spiritual leadership from all of God’s sufficient, relevant Word! 
  • Conflict resolution requires a humble mindset of equality in Christ: equal status and equal sacrifice (2 Cor. 6:11-13). 

In a moment when you read 2 Corinthians 6:11-13, let it sink in. Picture yourself in a disagreement with a spiritual friend. How could these words impact the two of you? 

“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.” 

I long for interactions like this where we can share concerns brother to brother without defensiveness and with humble openness. 

Paul has this unique way of seeing others as his spiritual children in the faith, and yet treating them as his spiritual equals—as adult children

Here’s what I think happens in our lives as spiritual leaders. We start out with good intentions. But then someone confronts us, even in love. In the flesh our default response is defensiveness where we pull rank and use our position as a bully pulpit to demean others and squash their spirit. 

Paul does exactly the opposite. He speaks freely to them and opens his heart wide to them. He becomes vulnerable to them. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 he admits that he despaired of life and felt the sentence of death. He further acknowledges that he would not have made it without the help, comfort, support, and prayers of the Corinthians. How many of us as spiritual leaders today are that vulnerable? 

Instead of closing ranks and pulling rank, he refuses to withhold his affection. Picture it like this: 

  • When I’m defensive as a spiritual leader, I use a stiff arm to keep you at bay. And, I simultaneously wrap both arms around myself in self-protective defensiveness. I refuse to let you in, refuse to be receptive to you and responsive to your feedback. It becomes all about you and your problem/issue. In fact, you become the problem because I’m too weak to face my spiritual neediness. 
  • When I’m humble and open as a spiritual leader, I give you a high-five (or a fist bump). I affirm you. I also open both arms wide to invite you into an intimate embrace. 

What a difference: a stiff arm or a high five. 

What a difference: two arms wrapped around myself in a cocoon of self-protection, or two arms opened wide inviting you into an embrace. 

Paul’s almost done, but not quite. Recall how he finishes. “…but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.” 

He’s not saying, “I’m good and spiritual and above challenge and confrontation, but you are immature and unspiritual and in need of one-sided confrontation.”

 Instead, he’s saying, “I’m open to your loving feedback. I so believe in your maturity in Christ, that I am challenging you in love to be open to my loving feedback. It’s a fair exchange. I’ve opened my heart wide to you, please open your heart wide to me.” 

One Final Summation

In responding to criticism, Paul has: 

  • Affirmed those who criticize him by calling them holy and sanctified, thanking God for them, and by declaring them enriched in Christ and spiritually gifted! 
  • Focused his concern on the unity of the Body of Christ, the glory of Christ, and the goal of Christlikeness. 
  • Grounded his identity not in what his critics say about him, not in his own sense of self, but in who he is in Christ and to Christ.
  • Maintained a humble mindset of equality in Christ: equal status and equal sacrifice; equal openness to loving confrontation and equal willingness to be challenged to grow in Christ. 

Join the Conversation

Which principle of humble spiritual response to criticism do you most need to apply to your life and relationships?

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