It is an understatement to say that the Corinthian church was a tangled mess of splits and splinters. As Paul details their struggle in the first chapter of the first letter, he reveals the part that had to do with preachers. Their preacher preference had become so pronounced that they were dividing their church over it. One of the preachers that some of them exalted to the point of division was Paul himself.
Paul’s reaction was to downplay his role; fail to remember exactly everyone he had personally baptized; and reject their notion of dividing over those who proclaim Christ. “Is Christ divided?” he would pointedly ask.
Unsurprisingly, Paul would have none of this. He could have seized this moment to bask in the admiration of his following, but he was not about to go there. A few sentences later he would recall Jeremiah 9:24 and remark:
Therefore as it is written: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord. (vs. 31)
He would reference Jeremiah again in 2 Corinthians 10:17 in the midst of a text in which he found qualified “boasting” necessary to defend himself against personal attacks and threats to this apostolic ministry and authority. Even then he thought the whole affair to be “foolishness” (11:1).
I have often wondered how I would have handled this Corinthian situation. My tendency might well have been to compare myself to the other preachers in play, and decide that; yeah, I agree—I am the better preacher. Follow me.
Of course, I probably would not have admitted it.
I don’t think I am going out-on-a-limb to say that for many of us preacher-types, ego is a secret, hidden struggle. I am not speaking of the type of healthy ego we all need, but rather that driven by pride and/or insecurity, which needs to be fueled by recognition and reward.
Again let me qualify: Everyone needs encouragement; an occasional “atta-boy:” Every preacher needs to know his work is appreciated and find consistent support within his congregation. Preaching is not necessarily the best job in the world to boost self-esteem. So love, pray for, and encourage your preacher. He needs it.
The secret struggle I speak of goes beyond the natural human desire for affirmation, however. Perhaps it can be illustrated by John’s reference of Diotrephes in 3 John 9 as one who “loves to be first.” Granted this is extreme, but it gets to my point.
I can say this because I, as a preacher, have been on the front line of the secret struggle. Like James and John I have desired to sit in the chief seats (see Matthew 20). And I know I am not alone.
I have witnessed some really ugly expressions of hungry egos among my preaching brothers. But there is no place for arrogance or empire building in God’s kingdom. Whatever good may be accomplished through an ego-centered approach to ministry does not justify the means.
Back to Matthew 20: Jesus corrected the egocentric vision of James and John. He pointed out that this has no place in his kingdom. “The last will be first and the first will be last” is the kingdom ideal.
But almost everything that is within me does not want to be last. I want recognition. I want to be that keynote speaker. I want people boasting about my preaching. Herein is the hidden struggle.
I continue to learn from Paul, though. Here is what he told that Corinthian church about his preaching:
I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is, then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2 MSG)
Now this is no diatribe against the most gifted among us, or those who bless us through their exceptional preaching ministry. I have been lifted up often through the eloquence and the plain and simple teaching of many preachers.
The key for me—and indeed for us all—is to keep “Jesus crucified” at the center of all we preach and do; and when we do have an occasion to boast, boast only in the Lord.
That need to fill up our ego? God’s got that.