THERE IS A GREAT DEAL OF BOASTING in Western evangelicalism. Some of it is so flagrant that it is repulsive to all serious-minded people. Much of it, however, is subtle and potentially subversive. Probably most of us are guilty of it sometimes.
On first reading, it sounds as if Paul in 2 Corinthians 10 is also caught up in boasting, a word that recurs in the final four chapters of this book. In fact, the issues raised by this chapter are extraordinarily complex. I can here mention only a few of them.
(1) The tone of 2 Corinthians 10–13 sets this section off from the rest of the book. It may be that more information about the situation in Corinth has reached Paul. Whatever the case, critics in Corinth are demeaning the apostle on several grounds. They say he is weak and timid in person, while putting on airs of power and authority when he is absent and wielding his pen (2 Cor. 10:1, 10). In an age when “persona” and rhetoric meant a great deal, they say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Cor. 10:10). They spend time patting each other on the back in a system of mutual approbation and letters of reference (2 Cor. 10:12). The next chapters reflect even more elements of this barrage of criticism that Paul must endure.
(2) At the heart of it is a stance toward boasting that is antithetical to all that Paul holds dear. A certain style of self-promotion, of confidence in one’s knowledge and rhetoric, of belonging to the “in” group, conspires to construct a clique of egos. Doubtless some of them were threatened by Paul, but whatever their motives, they made a habit of running him down. This put him in an impossible position. If he said nothing, he was in danger of losing the confidence of the entire church; but if he set forth his credentials as a way of responding to these attacks, he would be falling into exactly the same moral failure that beset his opponents.
(3) In the initial response to this dilemma, Paul does three things. (a) He carefully distinguishes his standards from “the standards of the world,” his weapons from “the weapons of the world” (2 Cor. 10:2, 4), and warns that on his next trip to Corinth, despite their caricature of his presence, he will be prepared to administer punishment (2 Cor. 10:6). (b) He insists that his exercise of authority has been for their good, not for his own gain or advancement (2 Cor. 10:7–11). (c) He subtly reminds the Corinthians that they are believers because of his ministry (2 Cor. 10:12–16), while insisting that proper Christian boasting is boasting in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17–18).