“Not that we lord it over your faith . . .”
– 2 Corinthians 1:24 –
Second Corinthians is a book about ministry. Many commentators call it the fourth pastoral epistle, adding it to First and Second Timothy and Titus, because it focuses so much on the true character of Christian ministry. And it teaches us the lessons that it does by looking at the life of the Apostle Paul, the archetype of the minister of the Gospel.
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul explains why he had delayed coming to them after promising another visit. The false apostles were using his change of plans as fodder for slandering him (2 Cor 1:15–17). But he affirms to the Corinthians that it was out of consideration for them; he postponed his visit in order to spare them the pain of judgment (2 Cor 1:23). But he knows that his opponents will seize on that confession of love and consideration, and twist it to suit their own ends. “It was to spare you that he didn’t come?” they would ask incredulously. “That’s nothing more than a veiled threat! He might as well say, ‘Don’t make me come and destroy you!’ Don’t you see what a tyrant this Paul is?!”
So to make sure that he’s not misunderstood, he adds this qualification: “Not that we lord it over your faith.”
In this phrase is a lesson for all those in ministry: the faithful minister of the Gospel is a servant. There is a wholesale repudiation of a domineering spirit. The truly loving shepherd of Christ’s sheep renounces all forms of despotism, domineering, and dictatorial power. Paul has absolutely no interest in lording his apostolic authority over the Corinthians. He has no desire to micromanage and domineer and control people’s thinking and behavior.
Now of course, Paul didn’t have a problem with any and all authority structures in the church. He recognized differing roles and prescribed submission of the people to the headship of their elders. But Paul did have a problem with lords in the church. There is only one Lord in the church, and that is Christ. In 2 Corinthians 4:5, Paul put it plainly: “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.” In other words, “We are not your lords; Christ is Lord. We’re just your slaves.” This is a spirit of servanthood. Just as was our Chief Shepherd (Isa 49:3; Mark 10:45; John 13:13–15), the undershepherd of Christ’s flock is to be a servant.
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.”
You see the point? That heavy-handed, domineering spirit—that’s what marks the rulers of the world’s system. But in the kingdom of God, true greatness displays itself in the humility of servanthood.
In 1 Peter 5, the Apostle Peter writes, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your Pope….” Wait, no. That’s not it. “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as the Head of the Church….” No, that’s not it either. “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”
We who would claim to be ministers of the Gospel in the service of Christ’s flock need to be on guard against that domineering spirit in our own hearts. It is so easy for those who are naturally gifted as leaders to fall prey to this temptation. You give a prideful and insecure man a title, a little publicity, and a bit of a following, and he immediately starts kingdom-building. He likes being the guy in charge. He likes being the one to make decisions. He likes being the one that everyone looks up to, and respects, and reveres. And before long he becomes enamored with the glory of himself, and his ministry becomes less and less about the magnification of Christ, and more and more about the preservation of his ego. Now, if anyone dares to contradict him, he takes it as a personal assault to the personal kingdom that he’s building. And so all of his energy goes into micromanaging and controlling every little decision, to increasing his power and broadening his influence, to making sure everyone toes the line. That sort of cultish authoritarianism is the beginning of spiritual rot in the church.
That is the very last thing in Paul’s mind when he speaks about sparing the Corinthians the sorrow of another painful visit: “Not that we lord it over your faith.”
Martin Luther expresses this concept well, in typical Luther fashion. He was discovering that a number of the Protestants who were following his example and leaving the Catholic Church began to call themselves Lutherans. And he wrote this:
“What is Luther? Is it not true that the teaching is not mine! In the same vein, I have been crucified for no one. Saint Paul would not allow it that the Christians would be called Pauline or Petrine, but just Christians [1 Cor 3:4]. How did it happen to me that I, a poor, stinking sack of maggots, should have someone call the children of Christ after my unworthy name? Not so, beloved friends! … I am and wish to be master of no man. I have, along with the community, the one, universal teaching of Christ, who alone is our Master [Matt 23:8].” (Cited in Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 8)
Luther understood this principle of servanthood—that we are not in the ministry to make a name for ourselves, but to make Christ’s name famous. George Whitefield wrote in a letter, “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified.” The true minister of the Gospel delights to make the confession of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John MacArthur calls that confession “The First Law of Ministry.” May we who propose to serve Christ’s Church in ministry—whether in the pulpit or in the pew—never forget that we are ministers, not masters.