Ministry in the kingdom of God can be tremendously fulfilling and joyful. We live to feel the Lord’s smile upon us. We long to know that he is blessing our work with fruitfulness for his glory. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.
But Christian ministry is also fraught with many hazards, as any experienced pastor or minister can tell you. Ministers who are not careful of their boundaries can very easily find themselves overworked, overwhelmed, or overcome by temptation and moral failure. Even those who are good at setting boundaries are not immune from intense pressure, hurt, and disappointment. This can lead to ethical compromise and impure motives.
People in the body of Christ assume much about their leaders, often unconsciously. There are unspoken expectations that in the kingdom of God, people—and leaders especially– should be more just, kind, honest, and fair than those who are lost in the world’s ways. But people are people everywhere, inside and outside the church. And where you have people, you have problems. The best of us are imperfect, and are bound to disappoint others, despite our finest, most noble efforts.
Nevertheless, leaders are accountable to God for their leadership, and for the ethics and motives that undergird it (Heb. 13:17). Much of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a defense of Paul’s leadership and a full disclosure of the motives of his heart. He argues fervently that his teaching and behavior towards them were the outworking of his inner motives. Because he worked so diligently to conform his heart to Christ’s, this was to be the basis for their evaluation of his apostleship.
To drive home the point, Paul repeatedly contrasts right and wrong motives. He exhorts disciples of Christ to carefully discern what defines authentic, honorable ministry of the gospel. We must understand well what authentic, Christ-centered ministry looks like, so we will recognize and avoid ministries driven by unholy motivations.
I’ll just give a summary and a few examples from Paul’s very heartfelt letter.
We’ll start with the idea that Paul and his team of leaders were not operating from a hidden agenda, but from a burning desire to present the truth, commending it to “every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:2). He didn’t ask the Corinthians for money, or praise, or recognition as someone great. He had brought his ego into submission to the word and will of God. He insists, “It is Christ’s love that fuels our passion and motivates us” (5:14, TPT).
From there, we see that Paul stood in “holy awe of God” (5:11). His fear of God prohibited him from ever handling the word of God with trickery or deceptiveness. There were no confusing mixed messages. He didn’t cover up or avoid confronting people with the truth, even when it stung. In the letter, he expresses his anguish at having appeared harsh at times in his presentation of the truth. Yet he celebrates the fruit that resulted. In one of my favorite New Testament passages, Paul expresses great satisfaction with the Corinthians:
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves…” (7:10-11).
Paul demonstrates the heart that Jesus seeks in those who are making disciples.
What is most compelling and convincing about the authenticity of Paul’s ministry—one we should seek to emulate—is the high price he paid for the privilege. He presents “proof” of his legitimacy in Chapter 6, detailing his endurance amidst great hardships, stress, calamity, beatings, riots, hunger, sleepless nights. Throughout every season, even when at death’s door, he clung to truthful teaching, kindness, holiness, love, and full transparency. This fearless apostle had a clear conscience, knowing that in his heart he had never betrayed the Lord or his people.
As I read and reflect on these things, I pray that I will be able to say the same thing at the end of my race. Whatever life and ministry throws at me, I want to be able to say that my heart was steadfast, true, and noble, motivated always by burning devotion to Jesus Christ, his word, and his church.