Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Six
Was Paul Arrogant?When reading Paul there is no doubt that he comes across as arrogant at times, at least in our way of thinking about arrogant. We tend to think of anyone who talks well of themselves as arrogant. So, for example, when Paul defends himself and his credentials to the Galatians, we think Paul is really bragging. Again, when he is sarcastic to the Corinthians about them being “smarter” than he, we think he is being boastful. We all know that Paul was a very brilliant man. He was trained under one of the finest teachers and may have had a good grasp of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
I want to say in defense of Paul that, while in our standards he seems a bit arrogant, he was actually very humble for his own time. When Paul brags about his credentials or mocks others when they think they are smart, he is actually using a common form a rhetoric in which the goals was to establish credibility with the audience so they will listen to what he had to say. This explains his autobiography in Galatians and Corinthians.
In both of these places, perhaps more than any other, his apostleship was being questions. In Galatia a group of people came in after him and was probably teaching them that they must become a Jew before they could be a Christian. They may have told the Galatians that Paul was not a “real apostle.” Paul had to defend himself and his apostleship before they would respond to his teaching.
In Corinth in appears that Paul was again followed by another teacher, possibly Apollos, who was skilled in the art of logic and Greek philosophy. He may have appeared to be smarter than Paul and so at least some of the Corinthians decided Paul was not that smart. Perhaps they even felt they were smarter than Paul for having learned from a great man like Apollos.
A great testimony to Paul’s humility is that he never talked bad about Apollos. We even are led to believe that the two of them really got along and preached similar things. Paul’s problem is not with Apollos, but with people who claim one person over another and neglect the gospel of Jesus.
We do see Paul in several places telling folks to follow his example as he follows the example of Christ. For example, In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about his own freedom and how he has all the freedom that any other apostle has. He has the right to depend on people for money, but instead he works. He says he becomes a Jew to the Jew, the Gentile to the Gentile so that he might win some. He then goes on to say that he wants the Corinthians to follow his example and use their freedom responsibly.
This does seem somewhat boastful for our day and time, but I think maybe we have a misunderstanding of humility. Let then examine what it means to be humble. CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity says that humility is NOT thinking bad about yourself, rather, it is not thinking of yourself at all. Most of the time, we think that the humble person is the one who beats themselves up all the time. When you meat a humble person you would probably walk away thinking, “That person never thinks about themselves.” A person who is negative all the time thinks about themselves all the time.
If this is true, then Paul is actually teaching true humility in this passage. He is telling the Corinthians to stop thinking about themselves, and use your freedom in a way that builds others up. In Philippians he tells them to follow his example in humility and defines it as follows,
Be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vein conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
He then goes on to give this example from the life of Jesus in the hymn known as the kenosis hymn in Philippians 2:6-11.
I would conclude by using these two definitions, one by CS Lewis and the other by Paul himself, that he was not arrogant. Paul actually wrote these words from a prison. He put his own life on the line for the well-being of others. Paul did use his own life as an example to follow. Not that he was special, but he believed that he was trying to model the life of his Lord, Jesus. He was showing others how to do this. After all, in tells the Corinthians, that he does not boast in his strengths, but he does boast in God who uses his weakness. To God be the Glory!