I recently received an advance copy of a scholarly paper written by my friend Dr. Scott Bartchy which deals with Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 4:21 where he says:
“What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”
The context of this statement is that Paul’s authority among the Corinthian Christians was being challenged, and Paul certainly felt that his grip on these people was slipping away as some of them began to follow other teachers.
Bartchy’s interest here is in the phrase “Am I to come to you with a stick..?”
Why? Because he’s curious what sort of “stick” Paul may have had when it came to exercising authority over the ekklesia.
As he points out, in a former life Paul [Saul] certainly knew what it was to carry the stick. He was once empowered by the Jewish authorities to knock down doors, arrest men and women, and even threaten them with death for blasphemy [as we see with the stoning of Stephen where he was an eye-witness to that event].
So, we know that Paul was well-acquainted with the power of a stick to motivate people by fear and even by harsh rebuke. However, Paul has gone to great lengths to distance himself from that former frame of mind, even to the changing of his own name, as an indication of just how completely he has become a new person in Christ.
Bartchy quotes from Kathy Ehrensperger’s book, “Paul and the Dynamics of Power” to support his contention that Paul did not seek to maintain power over his disciples, pointing out that Paul “only has authority in relation to them in as much as he is building them up.”
Ehrensperger also argues [per Bartchy] that Paul “did not aim or claim at establishing a position of domination or control,” and notes that Paul “repeatedly left behind the house churches he had founded. While later keeping in touch with many of them through letters and colleagues, he pushed on to the West.” (See Romans 15:14-29) and separated himself from his converts in the hope of their continuing empowerment by God’s Spirit in Christ.” [pg. 199]
Bartchy continues: “What hold do we imagine that Paul had on his converts, such that his disapproval, however, expressed, could make a serious difference in their lives? What price could he make any of his converts pay for not obeying him? What do we suppose Paul could have done, if indeed he had come to the Corinthian converts ‘with a stick’”
This is the focus of the paper, and a fascinating question to ask. One that I have hardly heard anyone ever pose before, to be honest.
Later, in the second epistle to the Corinthians, Paul even warns them that he will “not be lenient” when he comes to them again (2 Cor. 13:1-4) and that he hopes he “will not have to be severe in using the authority” that the Lord has given him (v. 10).
But, Bartchy wonders, what exactly did Paul have in mind here? What would they have expected this to mean? Would Paul shout at them, or single people out to be banished, or would he just come to them with a bad attitude?
Well, we do see that Paul made a point to say that he did not want to shame anyone, (see 1 Cor. 4:14), so that removes a few options from our list, but what did Paul mean to suggest?
Bartchy notes: “Whatever means of punishment Paul thought to use, would he, by his own example, have been inadvertently hindering the transformation of his converts by the Spirit? If he came to them with a stick, even in view of the harshness and thrashings for which [teachers] could be known…would not such a negative example of interpersonal relationships have placed an unintended but significant barrier between his converts and his own goal of changing both their convictions and their behavior?”
What became apparent to me as I considered Bartchy’s questions was that Paul’s authority over these Christians in Corinth was quite obviously very loose. In other words, the very fact that the Corinthian Christians challenged Paul’s authority over them testifies to their freedom. They did not feel the “wrath of Paul” might come down on them for listening to other teachers. In fact, Paul’s “stickless” authority over them is, in itself, partially why they could entertain other ideas without feeling the need to run everything by Paul first.
Bartchy correctly notes that, when it comes to authority in the new testament, “it does not exist until it is granted by those who willingly give that power over them [to others]. While power can coerce, authority results from gained assent.”
My friend Jon Zens has phrased it as: “Authority is something you grant, not something you demand.”
So, the authority that Paul has is only that which has been granted to him by the people in the Body of Christ. In the beginning, they freely granted Paul authority to teach and to care for their spiritual health. Now, for some reason or the other, Paul feels that this authority may have been revoked, or perhaps even stolen, by other teachers.
Bartchy’s main thesis is that Paul would not likely come to them “with a stick” because to do so might play into their expectations of authority [as they might have been used to in their own previous experiences with so-called “leaders”]. Instead, Bartchy argues, Paul would have taken another approach – a “cruciform” authority.
As he notes: “Paul must have known that the key to his success in this regard was his own Christ-like, Spirit-filled behavior. As one who had been raised according to the dominant values and social codes in ancient Mediterranean culture, Paul must also have known that he had undertaken a super-human task as he sought to lead the Corinthians into a less arrogant, less competitive, less envy-filled way of acting.”
Just before the “stick” reference, Bartchy notes that Paul said: “When reviled, we bless. When persecuted, we endure. When slandered, we speak kindly.” [1 Cor. 4:12-13]
“Such counterintuitive responses make clear that Paul himself as a Christ-follower had been undergoing a very serious, Spirit-led re-socialization process, in sharp contrast to the values by which his parents and other significant adults had raised him.”
Then? Paul urges his converts to follow his own example and to imitate his Christ-like character. [See 1 Cor. 11:1]
So, why even mention the possibility of coming to them with a stick at all?
Bartchy suggests that Paul did this “…to stress in sharp contrast the alternative values that he had consistently lived by when he was among them…Was he assuming that some of them would really have preferred him to act ‘the old-fashioned way’ and thus ironically reminding them that he really did not have a stick anymore?”
Paul has already stressed his lack of power by saying: “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak but you are strong. You are held in honor but we are in disrepute.” [1 Cor. 4:10]
Bartchy says: “Paul’s stress in this passage is on his refusal to retaliate and use power for himself is unambiguously the behavioral context in which Paul urges his converts to imitate him…’not seeking his own advantage but that of many’.”
Interestingly, Paul does not play the “Spiritual Father” card. We know that he easily could have, but he does not.
In 1 Cor. 4:15 Paul reminds them that “they did not have many fathers [pateras]” in Christ and that “indeed, in Christ Jesus, I became your father through the gospel.”
Yet, the word often rendered as “Father” in our English translations betrays the reality of what Paul is saying here. He does not use the term “father” (Pater) in this sentence. Rather, what Paul wrote was “in Christ Jesus through the gospel I begot you” (egennesa).
By using this term, Paul carefully avoids claiming the title of “Father” (Pater) for himself. He also avoids the use in the letter to Philemon but again used the term “egennesa” instead to suggest that Paul wanted only to emphasize the nurturing caretaker side rather than the authoritative position of dominance typically associated with the term “Pater”.
If Paul had wanted to leverage the “Fatherly” aspect of his relationship with them, as one with an inherent authority over them, he could easily have done so by using the word “Pater”, yet he carefully avoids it and simply says that he has cared for them like a loving father-figure whose only authority would be granted in love by a child who reciprocated and appreciated that loving care.
As Bartchy notes: “What Paul did not do is claim ‘because I am your father you must obey me!’ In that sense, Paul never played his culture’s well-known ‘father card.’”
If anything, Paul appeals more to a motherly metaphor by comparing himself to a nursing mother [1 Cor. 3.2] and in other epistles used similar motherly images to refer to himself [see 1 Thess. 2:7; Gal. 4:19-20]
This comparison with a maternal figure automatically defers any and all paternal authority that Paul might have claimed for himself, and this is most obviously by design.
Bartchy closes his paper by saying: “No matter how weak his opponents perceived him to be, Paul knew that his strength was based on acting with agape love ‘in a spirit of gentleness.’ Paul at his best, according to his own transformed values, was indeed ‘stickless’ in Corinth.”
Keith Giles is the author of several books including “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” and the co-host of the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast. He and his wife live in Orange, CA with their 2 sons.