Biblical leadership is servant leadership. There is nothing more inconsistent than to separate the concept of Christian leadership from servanthood vis-à-vis the ministers of God/Christ whether in the OT or in the NT. The Bible clearly portrays leaders as servants—hence, servant leadership. This is made clearer by Jesus himself, who said: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26). Jesus himself demonstrated such servant leadership by washing the feet of his disciples to model to them the kind of leaders they should be as his disciples, called to serve the world. In the same manner, when Paul took the responsibility of a minister of the gospel of Christ, he understood the call as a call to serve (Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus—2 Cor 4:5; cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1; Tit 1:1;). Such understanding is anchored primarily in his experience of Jesus Christ. Servant leadership is rooted in the life and person of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus Christ that ministers have their identity and ministry as servant leaders. Nowhere is this portrayed clearer than in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul’s identity as an apostle, and his ministry with the Corinthians were both under attack. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5). Paul clearly understands that ministers are not just leaders; they are servant leaders, called to do the task God has given them in and through Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor 2:16).
This paper explores Paul’s concept of servant leadership in 2 Corinthians by focusing on how Paul wrestled with his identity and ministry as an apostle of Christ (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1) in response to the opposition he encountered in the church at Corinth. At the heart of the opposition was the question of leadership—his qualifications, credentials, references, messages, etc. The issue is important not only to Paul but also to the Corinthians, who might have been influenced to define leadership contrary to the gospel Paul preached to them already. Ben Witherington writes,
Social and practical matters are more to the fore than theological and ethical matters at the close of 2 Corinthians. The fundamental problem is the Corinthians’ image of Christian leadership. At least some of them had created in their minds an image, largely shaped by the values of their culture, of a leader who had honor, power, spiritual gifts, rhetorical skill, and good references and who would accept patronage. They looked, that is, for a Sophist, or at least for a rhetorically adept philosophical teacher.
Paul’s concept of servant leadership is centered on his understanding of diakonos—a term he used that defined his understanding of ministry in terms of servanthood vis-à-vis the new covenant (2 Cor 2:6). While the word diakonia is in general a reference to ‘ministry,’ used for various ways of dispensing services to people both high and low by those who have been given authority, Paul’s use of the word in his letters has taken a new meaning—one that represents the kind of service demonstrative of the ministry of Christ and the Spirit under the new covenant. Diakonia in light of the new covenant is centered on the act of giving one’s self in the spirit of doulos (slave) to serve God and others out of love in and through Christ by the Spirit. As such the word has taken a new nuance of service for the apostle and likewise the church. I will discuss below how Paul used diakonos as communicating the kind of ministers or leaders those who serve or rather the church as servant under the new covenant. Diakonos/diakonia expresses the kind of leadership ministers of the new covenant or the church must understand and undertake.
SERVANT LEADERS AS MINISTERS OF THE NEW COVENANT
Ministry has taken its new context in light of God’s new redemptive activity in and through Jesus Christ—known as the kainē diathēkē (new covenant). The new covenant Christ ushered in redefines not only the identity of men and women vis-à-vis the church, but also the nature of their service in and through the life and person of Christ himself. Diakonoi in the old covenant had served as God’s authoritative representatives or God’s official servants among the people of Israel. Hence, the title carried with it that divine authority as the servants of God or his official representatives. It is not a surprise that Paul’s opponents in Corinth were fond of calling themselves as “super-apostles” as God’s authoritative official representatives in terms of their being diakonoi of God. While Paul does not disregard the significance of the title diakonoi as God’s authoritative official representatives, he now understands it in light of the new covenant, which has provided a new context for understanding or interpreting the diakonos/diakonoi of God. Calvin J. Roetzel writes, “In verse 3 Paul’s fertile mind further improvises, summoning Jeremiah (31:33; LXX 38:33) and Ezekiel (36:26; LXX 36:26) to place an eschatological halo around and energy within the metaphorical letter written—not with “ink” but “spirit” and not on “stone” but the human “heart”—and to invoke suggestive “new covenant” language.” It is in such spirit that the new covenant now redefines the title diakonos/diakonoi not only as being God’s authoritative representatives, but along with it is the spirit of being God’s servants, as men and women who are called to serve in Christ by the Spirit. The emphasis of the latter call is more on the act of serving in Christ by the Spirit rather than on the title of being God’s authoritative representatives. Here lies the difference between the servants of God in the old covenant and the servants of God in the new covenant.
The model of diakonos to Paul is no other than Jesus himself, who is the Servant (doulos) of God. In many cases, Paul describes Jesus as the Servant of God in terms of how Jesus gave himself for men and women in obedience to the will of God, hence the title doulos: Jesus gave himself to men and women as the Servant of God. Paul understands doulos as the very spirit of the diakonos. To be God’s servant is to be God’s doulos. This is in the spirit of the new covenant, where Jesus gave Himself for the salvation of men and women. However, it is a salvation that is rooted in the giving of one’s self like a slave. This is seen clearly in Paul’s description of Jesus as the servant in Phil 2:7. Christopher L. Scott gives us this beautiful exposition,
The word slave has been examined in light of Phil 2:7 in this study. “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.” Philip Comfort provides a more poetic reading of this verse to help shed light on its meaning, “And being found among men as man he humbled himself in human servitude becoming obedient even to the point of death.” Comfort also provides a more filled out rendering of Phil 2:7,
“Rather, he emptied himself. He poured himself out into the form of a slave, a servant of divine will.” Based on the NLT translation and Comfort’s two additional translations the use of doulos in Phil 2:7 speaks of a person that did not have advantage, rights, or privileges of his own. As O’Brien notes, “Slavery pointed to the extreme deprivation of one’s rights, even relating to one’s own life and person.” In this way, when Jesus came into a human being “he displayed the nature or form of God in the nature or form of a slave.” In this way Jesus completely stripped away his rights and securities as be compared to a slave.
This is why to Paul the gospel is centered on Christ: “For we don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves as your servants” (2 Cor 4:5). Jesus as the Servant gave himself for the ransom of many (cf. Gal 1:4).
The opponents of Paul in Corinth still embrace the old covenant model and have in their minds the kind of ministry connected to Moses. They obviously anchor their authority in Moses, the giver of the Law. They lack the idea that a greater ministry, the ministry of Christ, has already superseded that of Moses. Moses represented the old covenant, while Christ represented the new covenant. Moses was a model of the servants of God in the old covenant, where authority was anchored in the Law of God. In such same spirit the Jews highly regarded Moses for being God’s authoritative representative to the nation of Israel. Jesus, however, demonstrated his being God’s servant, not simply by being God’s authoritative servant, but more so by giving himself for the salvation of men and women in obedience to the will of God and by the Spirit. This is where Moses and Jesus parted ways as God’s servants. Moses did not give himself to the people of Israel. How could he? He was God’s representative in terms of the giving of the Law. He was simply a conduit of the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, was God’s representative in terms of giving Himself in and through His life and death. He is the gift of life. And its effect is in and through the Holy Spirit. F. F. Bruce rightly says, “It is by the Spirit that the new covenant, established by the sacrifice of Christ (1 Cor 11:25), becomes effective in the lives of people.” The new covenant is anchored not in the giving of the Law, but in the giving of life through God’s Servant Jesus by the Spirit. The Law was one of letter; Jesus was of the flesh and blood. The former was written in tablets of stone, the latter is written in the hearts of men and women by the Spirit.
In the application of servant leadership today, we must anchor our understanding of ministry in light of the new covenant—a covenant of life. Leaders and people alike must, therefore, define their persons and tasks as God’s servants in the spirit of being God’s diakonoi/douloi, which demand from them the kind of service that would embody the giving of themselves for others in obedience to the will of God towards the giving of life in and through Jesus—the very gospel we preached.
SERVANT LEADERS AS MINISTERS OF GRACE
Christian ministry is one of grace. That Paul is a minister of grace is undoubtedly established in the Pauline evangelical circle of scholars. Paul understands his life and ministry in terms of grace under the new covenant. Paul’s letters all testify to the grace of God. Second Corinthians is not an exemption. It is also a letter of grace: “We then as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1). What is at stake in the attack against Paul is that very grace of God made available to all who believe. This is what Paul is trying to protect the Corinthians from and pleaded with them not to receive the grace of God in vain. In consideration to what preceded, that is, the presentation of Paul’s ministry of reconciliation,
Paul Barnett writes,
By this understanding the “grace of God” is Paul’s terse caption for the grand vista that he has just painted portraying God’s eschatological salvation by which God reconciled the guilty to himself through the death of the Innocent One (vv. 18–21; cf. 8:9). Intrinsic to God’s gracious reconciliation of the world to himself is God’s appointment of his yokefellows, the apostles to whom God entrusted the word of reconciliation.
Servant leaders protect not themselves but the very gospel they preach. What the Corinthians are in danger of losing is not the apostle Paul himself but the gospel of grace preached to them—the very gospel that was entrusted to Paul and the other apostles.
As such Paul feels the necessity to defend the gospel because it is one that God has entrusted to them. The ministry of reconciliation belongs to God. It is achieved in and through Jesus Christ and effected by the Holy Spirit. Paul and others are mainly messengers—diakonoi through whom men and women will come to the knowledge of reconciliation. Such knowledge is only available through the gospel they preached. A different gospel would not bring any reconciliation to God, even that of the old covenant, which was only preparatory for the gospel of Jesus Christ. As servants of the gospel of reconciliation, Paul embraces the task of proclamation grounded on three important principles, namely: (1) the fear of the Lord (2 Cor 5:11); (2) the love of Christ (5:14); and (3) the mind of the Spirit (5:16). They serve as the attitudinal motivations for the task of preaching the gospel of reconciliation.
The first principle is the knowledge of the fear of the Lord. This principle certainly echoes the Scripture as the locus of wisdom. There can be no wisdom without the fear of the Lord. The gospel of reconciliation is God’s wisdom now offered in and through the ministry of Paul, the other apostles, and the church. Faithfulness to God is a must to those who have been entrusted with such wisdom from God. But faithfulness to God and the gospel of reconciliation only comes out of the fear of the Lord. Such fear points to the righteous accountability of diakonoi to their master. The Lord stands as the only judge to whom Paul and the other apostles must give an account as diakonoi. This is further intensified by the fact that God knows them. Colin Kruse says, “Motives and actions lie open before God, who sees that there is no deception involved in his attempts to persuade men and women.” Indeed, the task of persuasion is motivated by the fear of the Lord. Witherington writes,
Paul freely admits at the outset that his modus operandi is to persuade, not simply to command, and this would normally be understood to mean the use of the art of persuasion, that is, rhetoric. It is intriguing that in 5:11 Paul uses rhetoric, bearing in mind that God, not the Corinthians, is the one who is watching and will be the ultimate judge of his performance. Nevertheless, he admits that he is appealing to the Corinthians’ consciences as he presents his case (5:11), for it is them, that he must persuade. They are the jury even though God is the ultimate judge.
Servant leaders possess the knowledge of the fear of the Lord. On the contrary, Paul’s opponents are boasting themselves of their credentials and their boasting is obviously not of God, which means that they don’t know the fear of the Lord. False teachers or apostles are motivated not by the fear of the Lord, but by their love of power and money. Such concept of leadership is apparently the kind of leadership Paul’s opponents have embraced from their philosophical and cultural orientations.
Another attitudinal motivation is the love of Christ. The force behind the proclamation of the gospel and the task of persuading men and women is the power of the love of Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For Christ’s love compels us…” (2 Cor 5:14a). Diakonoi are highly motivated by the knowledge of the love of Christ. Such knowledge of love is not an emotional affection toward Christ, but a deep personal conviction of a definitive and extensive act of love demonstrated in and through what Christ did for all—he died for all. Paul is referring to a particular and historical act of love, but one that is theological and universal in its extent.
Grace is for all. It benefits not only the Jews but also the Gentiles. Such is a radical demonstration of grace, previously limited to Israel and a few favored men and women, but is now made available to all. Kruse writes, “It is the exceptional character of Christ’s love, understood as that which moved him to die in our place, which alone accounts satisfactorily for its great motivational power in Paul’s life.” The willingness of Christ to die for all is the very content of the grace of God—a love that is so compelling a force for the tasks of proclamation and persuasion. This love is personal, that is, it is demonstrated in the person of Christ toward a new life and a new community. This love is what is lacking in the claims of the super apostles or diakonoi of God. They lack evidence of any knowledge of the love of Christ indeed. Any claim for diakonoi with the gospel of reconciliation is now indissoluble with the life and person of Jesus Christ. The new covenant is expressed in the life of Christ, and not in the Law of Moses. Christ did what the Law failed to do, that is, the reconciliation of men and women to God regardless of their ethnic origin and identity.
The third is the knowledge of men and women that is no longer anchored in the flesh. We can infer from this that Paul is referring to the mind of the Spirit now at work in their judgment of men and women and even of Christ, which the Corinthians must likewise possess if they are truly to be spiritual and be the servants of God. It is a new perspective influenced by the Spirit. By the Spirit, judgment is now both Christological and eschatological: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17). Diakonoi certainly have the Spirit as the guiding person toward knowing Christ and others. They must judge men and women, and yes even Christ, according to the mind of the Spirit, not according to the flesh.
Servant leaders do so for the triune God. Their leadership is God-centered; they pursue nothing but God. Their services are motivated by their love for God and love for the people of God.
SERVANT LEADERS AS MINISTERS OF THE CHURCH
Ministry and the church are inseparable. Where the church is, there is ministry; and, where ministry is, there is the church. Ministers, therefore, are ministers of the church. Ministers dispense their ministry in and on behalf of the church. Paul understands ministry as a task connected to the people of God. For example, Paul’s sufferings and comfort are to serve the church. Paul had no other hope but to serve the Lord in and through his life and ministry for the people. He also has no other joy but the people and their well-being.18
While there is a great tension between Paul and the Corinthians, the apostle himself has not given up on them. He works towards the reconciliation of their relationship. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul hopes to establish a stronger relationship with the people. He has explained what actually happened not to defend himself against his detractors but for the sake of the people he has loved and served. The church in Corinth is an integral part of the church of God (see 2 Cor 1:1b). Their imperfections and immaturity are not enough reasons for Paul to give up on them. Every church of God is worth fighting for. Diakonoi are servants of the church of Christ. This is why Paul said to the Corinthians: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake.” Ministers are servants of the church. This does not mean that the Corinthians are his masters. Kruse writes, “Paul acknowledges only one Lord, and it is in obedience to him that he serves the church and humanity.”
Paul’s concern for the Corinthian church in relation to the opposing parties is that the Corinthians would not be yoked with unbelievers. What is at stake in the conflict between Paul and his opponents in relation to the Corinthians is the holiness or purity of the church. The holiness of the church is an important truth in the life of the Corinthians as the “people” and “temple” of God. J. Ayodeji Adewuya gives us some of Paul’s designations of the believing community in 2 Corinthians in relation to their status as a holy church: Holy Ones, The People of God, A Chaste Virgin and Bride, and God’s Temple. The holiness of the church is not only something that affects individual believers, but it also affects the life of the whole community of believers. Paul’s sees the believers as beings-in-relation. To Paul holiness is a characteristic or mark of the community of believers. Moreover, Paul’s concern for the holiness of the church is seen in the expression of his jealousy for the Corinthians, which reflects the same jealousy God has for his people in the OT. Paul Barnett makes the connection of Paul’s jealousy with diakonia and its relation to divine jealousy,
Appropriate to this view of his diakonoia, Paul declares at the outset, “I am jealous for you with a godly [RSV, “divine”] jealousy.” This sentiment should not be confused with the petty possessiveness that mars human relationships. His words—which could also be rendered “I am zealous for you with God’s own zeal”—reflect an important theme in the (LXX) OT. Yahweh, Israel’s covenantal God, in zeal for his holy name, binds his people to him in a relationship that excludes the worship of other gods (LXX Exod 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 6:15). The theme “zeal” also reflects God’s covenantal care for his people (LXX Isa 9:6; 37:32; 63:15–16). The inter-testamental tradition looked back on individuals, like Phinehas and Elijah who took violent action against idolatry and apostasy, as having acted in zeal for their God. Inspired by zeal for Yahweh, the pre-Christian Saul of Tarsus, as a persecutor of the church, stood in the same tradition (Gal 1:13–14; Phil 3:6; Acts 22:3–4). The Christian Paul’s zeal, however, is a converted zeal, free of the violence that characterized his pre-converted days and zealots before him, a zeal now driven by love (see on 5:14).
That’s why Paul is jealous for the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor 11:2). God’s diakonoi also possess the same jealousy for the people of God. Diakonoi are jealous as God is for the people of God. Such is an expression of their commitment to the holiness of God and his people. Diakonoi desire no other rival with God’s people. Relationship in the community of believers is theologically exclusive. It can neither be mixed with unbelief nor shared with unbelievers. There is no genuine fellowship between believers and unbelievers indeed. Paul’s concept of holiness involves both an absolution and a separation. And this must be kept in the hearts not only of the people but also of the servants of God in relation to unbelieving world.
If holiness is a mark of the church, love must be its character. There is no incongruity between holiness and love. As God is so is the church—love. This must be demonstrated in the life of every member of the church whether by the people or the ministers. Hence, Paul loves the church. While his relationship with the Corinthians is tested, his heart for them remains. Paul’s actions and letters were motivated by his love for them: “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2 Cor 2:4). Love is what it truly means to be a servant. Diakonos is more than about authority or simply waiting on table; it is about love. Genuine diakonia is a ministry of love. The absence of love nullifies any claim for diakonia in the name of Christ and for the church. It is love that made Paul refused patronage, so as not to deprive himself of love toward the people of God. The concept of Patron, particularly the acceptance of gift as “patronage,” would bind the apostle Paul to an obligation with the Corinthians and so make his relationship not an expression of love rooted in freedom, but in “an inescapable train of obligations.” In the same manner, Paul can expect from the Corinthians the principle of reciprocity in the spirit of love.
In a progressive manner of holiness and love, the grace of giving serves as the practical expression of the first two (8:8). Holiness, love, and giving all go together. Kruse writes, “True love never leaves us content to just talk; it has to be expressed in acts of concern (cf. Luke 19:1–10; 1 John 3:16–18).” Servant leadership likewise redefines the concept of “patronage” vis-à-vis giving. The concept of Diakonos definitely includes that grace of giving, which Paul wanted the Corinthians to likewise participate in as did the Macedonians (8:3– 5; 8:23). If doulos is the very spirit of diakonos, then giving is inevitable. Giving is congruent with service, but it must be an outflow of love rather than an obligation. By this diakonoi are more benefactors (servants who serve in mutuality) than clients of the people they serve. This is why Paul exhorts the Corinthians to continue in the grace of giving, and as an example appreciated the giving of the Macedonian churches (8:1–9:15). To Paul, giving is a result expression of one’s righteousness that serves the needs of God’s people and fittingly honors God. Indeed, giving is the very expression of the gospel of Christ—the very spirit of Christian diakonia.
Ministers are servant leaders of the church indeed. They are entrusted with the body of Christ. Hence, the interest of the church must be in the heart of their task as servants of Christ. They are called to serve the church. Servant leaders think of the life and growth of the church.
SERVANT LEADERS AS MINISTERS OF SUFFERING
What does suffering have to do with (redemptive) leadership? The prevailing understanding of ministry these days tends to avoid suffering, and places the concept of suffering within the realm of sin and evil. This is due to the spirit of triumphalism that has recently dominated the preaching of the gospel of Christ, particularly with the health and wealth gospel. To the apostle Paul, however, his concept of suffering for the gospel is an integral part of his call as God’s diakonos. Ministry (diakonia) to Paul is one that sees triumph in and through suffering. Hence, suffering is part and parcel of Paul’s theology of ministry. There is no Christian ministry without suffering. It is in suffering that the glory and power of God is being revealed. Scott J. Hafemann’s study of Paul’s suffering in 2 Corinthians leads him to the following conclusion,
As we have seen, Paul’s argument in 2 Cor 2:14–3:3 unfolds in three stages. Having occasion to refer to his anxiety over Titus in 2:12– 13, Paul is forced by the polemical situation in which he now finds himself to remind the Corinthians of the role his suffering, including his anxiety over his churches (2 Cor 11:28; cf. 2:12–13), plays with in his apostolic ministry. He does so by introducing the imagery of a triumphal procession (thriambeuein), with himself as the captive slave of God who is constantly being led to death. With this image Paul graphically portrays that it is through his daily experience of death = suffering that the glory and power of God are being revealed.
Paul’s defense of his apostleship and ministry in Corinth brings a new light to the function of suffering in ministry; one that redefines his understanding of diakonos in light of the suffering of Christ himself. Hafemann writes, “Rather than calling his apostolic ministry into question, it is precisely Paul’s suffering which therefore commends his to the Corinthians within the church, as well as defending him from the attacks of his opponents from outside the church.”
Paul understands the fact that ministry is one that is confirmed by suffering. Matera writes, “Just as Paul affirms that God paradoxically manifests his power and wisdom in the weakness and folly of the cross, so he insists that the life-giving power of the gospel is revealed through the suffering and afflictions that the ministers of the new covenant endure for the sake of the gospel.” The fact that his gospel is anchored in the very suffering of Christ, Paul sees no incongruity with his own suffering as regard to his role as diakonos of the gospel. The incongruity is in fact in the absence of suffering in the ministry under the new covenant. Thus, to focus on triumph outside the realm of suffering is one that is inconceivable to Paul and his ministry. For the one who preaches the suffering of Christ as the very substance of the gospel must himself demonstrate or exemplify it in his life. Failure to exemplify suffering would mean a nullification of any claim for ministry associated with Christ and the new covenant. Ministry takes suffering as sharing both in the death and life of Jesus. This is the treasure that Paul is talking about that reveals both the glory and power of God (4:7–12). Paul’s understanding of suffering is, of course, anchored not only in the suffering of Christ, but also in his personal sufferings as an apostle of Christ. Paul himself is a sufferer. Matera’s words, however, must be taken into consideration regarding the difference between Paul’s and Jesus’ sufferings:
Paul is not substituting his sufferings for Christ’s sufferings. Nor is he claiming that his sufferings are redemptive in the way that Christ’s sufferings are redemptive. But he is firmly convinced that those who preach the gospel about the cross must manifest the message about the cross in their lives. More than an annoyance, the sufferings of Paul’s new covenant ministry embody and illustrate the gospel he preaches.”
And to Paul, suffering is a mark of true apostles of Christ—a mark that truly defines the life of diakonos/diakonoi. As such, Paul denies his opponents of any right to claim for apostleship. His opponents glory not in sufferings, but in their status and authority as servants of God associated with Moses. The so called “super-apostles,” therefore, show no claim for fellowship or partnership with Christ. They distance themselves from any association with the suffering of Christ, although they are willing to embrace the triumph or victory of Christ. Theirs is a ministry anchored in the authority of Moses and the “victory” of Christ, but void of the very suffering of Christ. Their Christology is obviously triumphalistic (more on the power and glory of Christ) at the expense of the suffering and death of Christ, which to Paul and his colleagues are the very substance of the gospel. This is why Paul rebukes the Corinthians: “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” (11:4).
If sufferings reveal both the power and glory of God, then they must not be seen as something negative and unwanted. In light of the new covenant, Paul sees his suffering as rather the very source of his confidence as a minister of Christ. His catalogues of sufferings are true marks of his call as diakonos,
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands. (2 Cor 11:23–33)
To be God’s diakonoi is to follow the way of Jesus himself—the way of suffering. Ministry always entails the prospect of sufferings for the sake of Christ and the gospel. The glory of every diakonos is in his willingness to suffer for Christ and the gospel. Paul’s opponents on the contrary distance themselves from sufferings and afflictions. The mark of diakonos for them is one of power instead. Hence, their accusation of Paul is related to power—that he lacks commanding presence and impressive speech. They pride themselves of their ethnic pedigrees, rhetorical skills, and demonstrations of wisdom based on human philosophies and traditions. Paul, on the other hand, could not even take pride of his very suffering; he considers boasting of them as an act of foolishness on his side forced by the situation confronting the church and his call. Paul sees himself a servant who deserves nothing of glory, honor, and power. If ever Paul had the right to boast, he believes that it should only be on the things that show his weakness and only in the Lord (2 Cor 10:17). Paul’s theology of glory had definitely been changed by the triumph of Christ through his sufferings and death at the cross.
Indeed, suffering has taken its new meaning in Christ (cf. Rom 1:16–17). For in Christ weakness/suffering becomes revelatory of power and glory. This is the mystery of the gospel of Christ—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9a). Kruse writes, “Clearly, we are confronted herewith a paradox.” Those who serve the gospel, that is, God’s diakonoi, must take the very definition of weakness as power for the sake of others. In and through their weaknesses, the power of Christ is revealed: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on us. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9b–10). This, however, is only true in Christ. Weakness on its own is weakness; but, in Christ, God can use weakness to reveal his power and glory.
Hence, servant leaders understand weakness as revelatory of power and glory in light of the gospel they preach and of Christ they serve. In God’s ministry, the weaknesses of his servants also serve God’s redemptive purpose in Christ. The power of the gospel is demonstrated likewise in and through the sufferings of the servants. People are served by the weaknesses of the ministers of Christ. This is the power of the gospel of Christ—power in weakness. In a similar way, Paul earlier reminded the Corinthians of the following words,
For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world— right up to this moment.” (1 Cor 4:9–13)
Indeed, Paul’s theology of the cross is one of paradox—revealing the power and glory of God through the suffering and death of Christ. Servant leaders possess such a paradox in their own ministries as they share in the life and ministry of Christ.
Paul’s understanding of diakonos in Second Corinthians demonstrates the factors we have discussed above: ministers of the new covenant, ministers of grace, ministers of the church, and ministers of suffering. In sum, Paul understands his ministry as diakonos in light of the new covenant that embraces the grace of God for the sake of the church in and through participating or sharing in the life and death of Christ effected by the Holy Spirit.
Diakonia, therefore, is a not a matter of a privilege call or identity, but a giving of one’s life in and through the gospel of Christ. Hence, ministers are servant leaders—diakonoi. They are called to serve. This call to service is one that is motivated by the fear of the Lord, the love of Christ and the mind of the Spirit. It is anchored not in human credentials such as letters and skills, but in the Spirit and suffering. They preach Christ and the gospel through the Spirit and with their sufferings making reconciliation between God and men/women. They are not ministers in terms of being God’s authoritative messengers as did the prophets like Moses in the OT; they are ministers in terms of being servants of Christ, whose lives and ministries are patterned after the life and ministry of Christ. Thus, Paul rightly states and let me repeat it here, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Christian leadership or biblical leadership is servant leadership indeed. Failure to serve is a failure of leadership. The measure of one’s leadership is not in how many positions we have held in our life time or how long we have stayed in those positions, but in how we have served the people in Christ. For it is only in how we serve that would help people come to a full understanding and experience of the gospel of reconciliation, and bring them before Christ to be presented as the holy people of God serving the world with the grace they themselves have received in and through a ministry that embody the life of Christ as diakonos.
*This paper is included in the book “Scripture and Service A Celebration of Life, Essays in Honor of Joseph Shao, published by Biblical Seminary of the Philippines. Permission was granted for its publication on Asian Missions Advance.”
Jason Valeriano Hallig
Jason Valeriano Hallig earned his PhD in Biblical Studies (New Testament) from Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission (ACTS) in South Korea and ThM in Biblical Studies (New Testament) from Asia Graduate School of Theology-Philippines (AGST). He teaches at Asia Graduate School (AGS) in Quezon City and Asia Graduate School of Theology-Philippines. He is the author of We Are Catholic: Catholic, Catholicity, and Catholicization (Wipf and Stock, 2016), and has published articles for Bibliotheca Sacra of Dallas Theology Seminary. He also pastors International Christian Fellowship in Taytay, Rizal, Philippines