We all experience conflict. It is part of life. How we approach conflict can make or break relationships. We can learn a thing or two from how the Apostle Paul approached conflict in his relationship with the Corinthian church. One of the key factors that led to conflict between Paul and the Corinthians was their false boasting. They boasted in all the wrong things, as exemplified by the “spirit people” (pneumatikoi). Some think Paul was insensitive to the spirit people in his first epistle, thus leading to their likely continuation in Corinth at the time of Paul’s second epistle to the church in that city (Refer here, too). Personally, I believe Paul was quite astute in how he handled their spiritual pride.
Whereas the Corinthians boasted in such things as special allegiances and cliques with those deemed winners (1:10-16), spiritual power (1:26), spiritual wisdom (1:26), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12 and 14), and freedom and rights (1 Corinthians 5 and 8), Paul boasted in such things as believers’ allegiance with Jesus Christ (1:10-16), who is the great equalizer, as well as the power and wisdom bound up with Jesus’ cross (1:18-25), the surrender of God-given rights and freedoms for God’s people (1 Corinthians 9), and the gift of God’s love manifest through the Spirit who is also responsible for the manifestation of the other gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14).
What do we boast in today? We need to take to heart Paul’s exhortation, which hearkens back to Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31; ESV; see 1:29-31; see also 2 Corinthians 1:12,14, 2 Corinthians 10-13).
We may boast in our history or national and ethnic heritage, our degrees, our styles and tastes, our spiritual insights and ministry successes. While we might feel better about ourselves as a result of such boasting, where does such boasting get us relationally?
Say all you want about making yourself or your church or your country or your favorite sports team great again (I’ve nearly given up on my Chicago Bears!), but what we really ought to boast in is the crucified and risen Lord: let him who boasts boast in the Lord Jesus.
Now how does boasting in the Lord Jesus help in building relational bridges with people in various contexts? Although Jesus has all power and wisdom and riches, he lays it all down for us in love. As Jeremiah 9:23-24 reveals, God delights in loving-kindness, justice and righteousness toward us, and calls on us to boast in our relationship with God, not our own capacities of power, wisdom, and wealth. As we boast in God’s righteous and just relational engagement of us, it will help us operate in like manner toward those around us.
Paul follows Jesus in his care for the Corinthian church, although it makes him look the part of a fool. Paul boasts in caring for the Corinthian church, laying aside financial well-being that would otherwise come at their expense, an appetite for speculative theology, and his right to demonstrate power over the church. Though he is entitled and able to engage all these rights and ambitions, Paul goes against these inclinations so as to go after the Corinthians’ hearts in love. After all, he is their father in the faith and he longs for a healthy relationship with them.
How much do we desire healthy relationships inside and outside the church? It will be important that we consider the nature and end of our boasting. Whatever we boast in will define our lives and our relationships for good or for ill.