Paul continues to work through the challenges to his leadership in Corinth and the wider Christian world of the time. While the focus of 2 Corinthians 11 is his relationship with the church at Corinth, an Apostle would have been respected, should have been respected, by all of the churches of the time. As such, he is defending not only his work in the one local church, but also his work throughout the body of Christ.
Reading through this chapter, it is important to recognize that Paul is going to use several contextually-normal rhetorical devices to make his point. He’ll refer to his ‘foolishness’ and to his skills and his effectiveness. He will also point out that he is personally committed to the Corinthians and contrast that with the manner in which others have, apparently, treated them. Verse 20, for example, makes it clear that some bad things have happened to the church at Corinth, yet the Corinthians seem unwilling to reject the people responsible for those occurrences. Perhaps they were too afraid to cross up the celebrity apostles of the day by rejecting them outright.
Paul highlights, as the chapter comes to a close, that one of the marks of a true apostle is his willingness to face danger for the sake of the Gospel. Paul testifies to his experiences, not in the abstract, of dangers faced for the Christ he serves. The wolves, on the other hand, tend to flee the risks of the work. We do not have records to see what they claimed, but one can almost fill in the gaps: that if Paul had any sense, he would have avoided the dangers, the robbers, etc.., and Paul is embracing the danger as part of the task.
For a focus, though, let us move off of Paul and onto 2 Corinthians 11:14. Here we see the most insidious problem that churches will face: the masquerade. Take from verse 13 through verse 15 as a unit and the picture becomes clear: those who are false prophets are agents of Satan, out to destroy.
And Satan uses deception to advance his purposes, just as his servants disguise themselves as God-honoring servants. As we consider this, the dangers come into view: the first glance at a false prophet, a deceitful worker, will look like someone who is doing good things for the Church. After all, these men had deceived the churches which learned from the Apostles themselves! Their deeds will, eventually, expose them as false but not before they lead many astray.
To that end, Paul warns the church at Corinth: BE AWARE, but also do not be so surprised. They should expect this.
And so should we: deceivers still come around and try to destroy churches. They come in many flavors, and we need to address a few of those here.
First, there is the willful deceiver. This is the person who knows what they are doing is wrong, and comes deliberately to do wrong and bring harm to the people of the church. There are more of these than you would expect! They prey on our unwillingness to ask probing questions, our unwillingness to push back against a forceful personality, and our over-willingness to let people do whatever they like, for fear they’ll leave!
Second, there is the unwitting deceiver. There is a bit more to be pitied in this person, because they are not aware of their errors. They still take people along with them, and need to be corrected. But the malice is absent. These tend to come in two basic types. You have the ones who have slidden, over time, away from a solid faith. They started off good and Christ-focused, but issues pushed them off the mark into a bad place. Usually it happens in response to someone’s sin: a good example is the youth teacher who becomes legalistic about all forms of boy/girl interaction in response to sexual sin on the part of a few. They are deceived (and deceiving others) that hyper-legalism will substitute for a vibrant relationship. The other portion of this group tends to be those who follow false teachers. Perhaps it is because of an old relationship, perhaps because of a personal blind spot, but these folks recycle the bad teaching of a wolf without knowing what they are doing. You can find this when someone frequently brings in the same author/speaker/video presenter and will accept no questions of that person’s ideas. Having a favorite author/speaker/presenter is no sin, but treating that person as infallible is absolutely a problem.
So, what do we do about it?
Three quick thoughts:1. Know the truth yourself, to the fullest of your ability. That requires effort and diligence, which means you need to treat your Christian walk as a responsibility and not a dessert party. You have to work at your growth in Christ. It will not be automatic.
2. Be willing to ask questions. You need to listen to the answers, because at some point you have to decide if someone is trustworthy or not, but ask questions. Ask good questions: not the fluffy ones but the real ones. The ones that are revealed as much in a life as they are in words. If someone professes one thing but you have never seen evidence of the other, that should be a clue.
3. Be careful of the cynicism that rises up in you as you encounter deceivers. It is absolutely true that some folks are out to use you, abuse you, or otherwise harm you. It is certainly false that everyone is out to do so. Now, avoiding cynicism is not the same as having no defense—the wise person locks their car, the cynic never takes it out of the garage. Both are trying to avoid it being stolen, but one is still using their resources for life.
(and someone who has had many bad experiences will, understandably, need more times of staying in the garage.)
4. Seek the wisdom of others. It is tragic the number of times that we treat others as non-existent when we need help. Many wise people in your life probably feel like Cassandra: shouting the truth and being fully ignored by those in need. Ask for help, and be fully forthcoming in your requests. It is very, very difficult to give wise counsel to those who only tell half the problem.
5. When you identify a deceiver, do not keep it to yourself. Pass that information on to those who need it! Not out of malice, but out of compassion for others.
In Nerdiness:1. Take note of 2 Corinthians 11:7-9 when some use Paul’s occasional tent-making as a justification that ministers/preachers should never be paid. Here Paul expresses that his wages for working in Corinth were supplied by other churches—he was not always working outside of teaching/preaching! We should also take from this, though, an additional thought: when our churches can sustain multiple ministers, is it not worth considering that we should be like the Macedonians and fund a minister to a church, that he may serve without straining that church? Usually we want the excess spent on more of what we want, or we send it off, but there are many areas in need of a solid, local Gospel witness, that are only a few miles from large churches—but while the large church adds a fifth, sixth, seventh, full-time employee, the church a bit further away lacks the resources for one minister. We could do better about sharing as Baptists, this much I do know.
2. We assemble parts of Paul’s biography from the end of the chapter, but we cannot fit all of those details into the narrative of Acts. So, we don’t know where his shipwrecks were, all of his floggings, etc..