Next to Jesus, of course, the apostle Paul is the most well-known figure of the Christian faith. Intrepid apostle, church planter, theologian, pastor, writer. Paul is our hero. He models the faith for us.
But a careful reading of his letters demonstrates that he had many enemies both inside and outside the church, and it appears the Christians of his time found him controversial. Sectors of the Christianity of his time passionately challenged and even despised Paul and his ministry. For example, when Paul the prisoner writes to the Philippians, he informs them that some believers around him were talking up Christ, as it were, just to get Paul in more hot water (Phil. 1:15–17). They wanted to ruin his ministry; they wanted to ruin him.
Perhaps the most obvious place to look for an all-out throwdown between Paul and a rival form of Christianity is in 2 Corinthians, where Paul had to defend himself against the attacks of the so-called “super-apostles” (11:5). They slandered him, claiming he did not have the right credentials. They said they were strong, but Paul was weak. They wanted Pauline Christianity to be lesser, and their Christianity to be greater. It seems like there were Christian groups that were constantly trying to extinguish Paul’s influence, drag his name through the mud, and entice his “children” away from him.
I’ve wondered over the years, how did Paul feel about being hated, slandered, and constantly undermined by other Christians? We all want to be liked by as many as possible. We want our ideas and values to resonate. But where there are big ideas and plans, there are critics. With bigger platforms comes wider-spread criticism, which can sometimes bring necessary accountability.
Public criticism has existed from before Paul’s time until now. He, too, was surrounded by noise that told him he was unwelcome, incorrect, even corrupt. How did he deal with that? What did his form of resilient leadership look like? Today, pastors and other kinds of leaders face a barrage of negativity that can seem overwhelming. There is so much noise on social media—good, bad, and neutral—that it is difficult to know who to listen to, who to apologize to, and where to direct one’s voice. After two decades of studying Paul, here are my insights into how his first-century life speaks to us today.
Keep your shape
Over the past half decade or so, I have become a soccer superfan. I watch European soccer, I watch South American soccer, and I root for my local team in Oregon. There is a phrase you will hear from coaches and commentators about how a struggling team must overcome obstacles in their game: Keep your shape. When the chips are down, when the odds are stacked against you, when you are losing nil-3 before half-time—follow the game plan, remain in your designated positions, trust your other teammates, and stay focused.
Paul seems to have been a “keep your shape” kind of leader. By that I mean that when he saw things going wrong in the churches he founded or for which he was responsible, he didn’t lash out at specific church leaders. Perhaps more strikingly, when outside enemies or troublemakers were involved (as it seems to be the case with Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and perhaps Philippians), Paul focused on forming his people; he did not spend his energy correcting his enemies.
We have about a dozen letters Paul wrote to churches and to individual church leaders like Timothy and Titus. But we don’t have any letters that Paul wrote to his enemies. Certainly, he could have. He could have told them off, he could have warned them, threatened them, argued with them. But it seems that he didn’t. Instead, he had laser-like focus on forming churches and fortifying the faith of his own people.
Yes, of course he was worried about the negative influence of outsiders, but his focus was not on them. He stayed true to his mission and ministry, he kept the shape of his calling, and he refused to get distracted into engaging in theological turf wars to assuage everyone. That’s impossible and we know it, though we sometimes try. Paul kept his eye on and directed his voice towards his own community.
Paul knew his limitations. God called him to something, he had certain gifts, but he also had weaknesses. The Corinthians (like many of us!) liked to rank leaders and rally behind certain ones (#TeamPaul vs. #TeamApollos). Apollos was the cool new kid on the block. He was a polished and elegant speaker, the Andrea Bocelli of preaching. Paul was not. Paul could have taken shots at Apollos to increase his own stock, but instead he tried to put it all in perspective for the Corinthian Christians: I have my part to play, Apollos has his, God is the one we should really be focused on. He makes it all happen (1 Cor. 1:10–17).
Sometimes social media can feel like a basketball game—I win only if you lose. But when Paul was disliked, rejected, or hated, he didn’t play the game of getting the negative attention off of him by shifting it to someone else. He didn’t play a “win-lose” game with other leaders. He actively discouraged comparing his ministry to others. All of us, Paul said, should be for Team Jesus.
Invite others to “check you out”
Paul was not afraid to defend himself when he was accused of shady behavior or wrongdoing. But he didn’t engage in mudslinging, nor did he lash out. He would just say, Come check me out. My life is an open book. I don’t do back-alley shady deals, I don’t hide my activity. The Thessalonians, for example, apparently had their suspicions of Paul’s behavior.
Without getting defensive or angry, he said, “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others” (1 Thess. 2:5–6, NRSV). Later he reminded them of his public toil and labor: “We worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers” (2:9–10).
You may be despised, disliked, or dismissed, but the best defense is an honest life. Nothing to hide. Paul didn’t lose his cool with the Thessalonians. He invited them to test his life and remember his behavior.
Be wary of naming names
There is another crucial observation to make about how Paul engaged a Christian world of accusation and suspicion: He didn’t name names. That is, though he talks about troublemakers and enemies in several of his letters in the New Testament, we don’t know any of their names. Our modern social-media culture relishes any opportunity to lob grenades by naming (and tagging) wrongdoers, those people that deserve to be called out. Of course, individuals who commit crimes or engage in clearly unethical behavior need to be brought to justice. That’s not what I am talking about here. Such destructive people must be named and denounced. But we often spiral into slandering or mocking anyone we find annoying, offensive, or wrong.
Surely, Paul ran into people like that all the time. And worse, he dealt with bona fide false evangelists. People who could do serious damage to the church and sound theology. But we don’t know any of their names. Paul warned about false leaders regularly, but he was much more concerned with keeping his people on a healthy and true path than conducting witch trials and inquisitions to oust the heretic of the day. (Of course, that never means turning a blind eye to injustice and abuse that conscience calls us to speak against.)
Paul didn’t want to write up a list of people for his people to avoid or hate. He ultimately wanted to teach them to think and discern for themselves, to become masters of the gospel such that they could spot counterfeit theology.
I’m old enough to remember the antiperspirant commercials from the ’80s: “Never let them see you sweat.” Which really implied, Don’t show effort or weakness; put on a stoic facade of perfection and power. Paul was someone that wasn’t afraid to show his fragility, his weakness, and his needs. He bragged about his failures and limitations (“boasting in weakness”), frustrating any attempts to build a cult around his personality. He didn’t try to repel all criticisms. Sometimes he absorbed them, detecting an opportunity to defuse the mudslinging game.
Paul was not afraid to talk about his disappointments and struggles. He shared moments of fear, sadness, and vulnerability. He talked about his sadness at the thought of his friend Epaphroditus dying (Phil. 2:27). He confessed to the Corinthians that their strained relationship with him brought him to tears (2 Cor. 2:4). One of the most heartbreaking parts of Paul’s letters comes when he informs his friend Timothy that when he went to trial, no one came to his support; he could only lean on the Lord (2 Tim. 4:16–17) and Luke the physician, who visited him in prison (v. 9).
Being a respected and resilient leader should not and cannot include building a protective bubble blocking our failures, struggles, and weaknesses from the outside world. Paul boldly shared openly that he wasn’t perfect and sinless. He was proud of his ministry, but he never pretended to be more than he was. He had regrets. He had low times. He was proudly weak.
Nobody wants to be hated, rejected, or mocked. Sometimes it’s necessary for people to leave the spotlight and the public eye. But for the rest of us, the “noise” of public shaming and derision is par for the course. Paul’s ancient wisdom and model seems to provide a path that avoids knee-jerk counterattacking on the one hand and utter despair on the other.
To the Philippians, Paul once wrote that he tries not to look behind him and dwell on his past of wrongs. He might also be warning us not to spend too much time looking around at what everyone thinks of us. Rather, strain toward what is ahead as you fulfill your calling (Phil. 3:13).
Nijay K. Gupta is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. He is the author of Paul and the Language of Faith.