Dealing With Conflict And Criticism —
Lessons From The Apostle Paul
Leadership has its privileges, but it also has its liabilities. A friend remarked that ascending the ladder of leadership gives you visibility, but it also makes you an easy target. This observation is also valid for those in spiritual leadership.
The Book of Acts indicates that Paul’s missionary career was marked with conflict. It is not surprising, then, that his epistles reflect those conflicts.
Paul’s letters were written in response to specific situations that had developed in various churches. Among them were problems that involved individuals who were attempting to undermine Paul’s teaching or were opposing his apostolic ministry. Often the opposition came in the form of false charges and unjust criticisms based on distorted facts and motives. Paul’s writings are filled with references and allusions to these trials. In them he has left us a veritable legacy of practical advice — principles drawn from his own experiences that reveal how to respond to conflict and criticism — and a response that will glorify Christ and safeguard the work of the gospel. We begin our study by looking at three key passages.
When Facing Conflict And Criticism, Keep Focused On The Big Picture (Philippians 1:12–18)
When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he addressed a church that knew him well and was dear to his heart.1 Apparently the feeling was mutual as their loyal support of Paul from the beginning of his ministry among them indicates.2 They had on several occasions sent support for Paul’s missionary work (Philippians 4:16).
Paul wrote to them from a prison in Rome. Even his tragic circumstances had become an occasion for joy (Philippians 1:18). Paul could rejoice because instead of halting the spread of the gospel, his imprisonment had advanced it (Philippians 1:12). Not only was Christ being preached among the “whole praetorian guard,”3 but also the brethren in Rome were emboldened by Paul’s example to fearlessly speak the word of God (Philippians 1:13,14). As we read on, however, we encounter evidence of a strange conflict casting a shadow on an otherwise victorious picture.
In Philippians 1:15–17, we read of a puzzling situation. Apparently, some opponents of Paul took advantage of his imprisonment to preach the gospel for less than noble reasons. In Paul’s words, they were doing so “thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” Furthermore, they preached Christ “even from envy and strife” (verse 15); “out of selfish ambition”; and from less than “pure motives” (verse 17). Incredibly, these individuals were Christians.4
Paul’s attitude in the face of this opposition was exemplary and remarkable. Paul teaches us that spiritual leaders must be able to objectively view the big picture. He was able to rejoice over the spread of the gospel even though the people being used were aligned against him. What enabled Paul to maintain this remarkable attitude? Two facts are obvious. First, Paul saw the providential handiwork of God (Philippians 1:12). If God could use his imprisonment to spread the gospel, surely He could override the sinful motives of his opponents. After all, is God not able to make even the wrath of men to praise Him? (See Psalm 76:10.)
Second, by the grace of God Paul was able to walk in the footsteps of his Lord, who was also falsely accused, but did not revile His accusers or defend himself.5 Christ was able to endure the trials of His passion because He kept the big picture (redemption through the cross) in focus.
Do Not Accept Carnal Or Worldly Criteria As The Measuring Stick Of Success In Ministry (1 Corinthians 9:1–18; 2 Corinthians 11:5–12
What determines success in ministry? How do you know if you are a good spiritual leader? The answers to these questions may embrace a host of factors, but part of the answer is determined by how well you deal with personal criticism that is aimed at casting doubt on your ministry. This is best illustrated in Paul’s dealing with the Corinthians.
First Corinthians 9:1–18 and 2 Corinthians 11:5–12 provide evidence that certain leaders in Corinth had a problem with Paul not making his living from the church. First Corinthians 9:1–12 shows that Paul did not object to this practice; in fact he defended its legitimacy. He gave several arguments and presented scriptural endorsement (1 Corinthians 9:9; Deuteronomy 25:4) for his right to be supported like any other apostle. Why, then, did he not exercise that right?
First, he did not want to be a hindrance to the gospel6 (1 Corinthians 9:12). Second, he desired to preach the gospel as a stewardship from God. This was his boast and reward (1 Corinthians 1:15–18). But the passage in 1 Corinthians screams for further explanation.
In 2 Corinthians 11:5–12, Paul was even more emphatic and defensive concerning his chosen practice of nonsupport. From verses 5,6 we see that Paul’s opponents have compared him to other apostles and found him wanting.7 In particular, they attacked his poor rhetorical skills (verse 6)8 and again, his practice of not taking money for preaching the gospel (verse 7).
Paul denied that he is inferior to the “most eminent apostles” (verse 5). If his preaching was poor, it was certainly not from his lack of knowledge. But at the latter criticism, Paul was livid: “Did I commit a sin … because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to serve you” (verse 7,8).
Ironically, what Paul’s opponents saw as cause for criticism, Paul regarded as his boast and one that he would not be denied (2 Corinthians 11:10). Paul’s defensiveness seemed off the charts.
Part of the answer lies partly in the spiritual passion Paul had for the Corinthians. He was zealous to protect them from people who would seduce them away from their purity and devotion to Christ, to whom they were betrothed (2 Corinthians 11:2). His passion was not without anxiety because the threat of seduction and defilement was real. There were those in Corinth who would lead them astray, as Satan under the guise of a serpent craftily deceived Eve in the Garden (verse 3).9 Paul’s concern and dismay was that the Corinthians were being offered a counterfeit version of Christianity, and they were prepared to accept it.10 One significant reason the counterfeit offered by these false teachers was attractive was that it was thoroughly in tune with the world. Paul described their worldliness as “carnal” (or “according to the flesh”).11 Their character can be seen in their criticisms of Paul:
- He did not preach like an apostle, and he lacked the rhetorical eloquence and power of a true apostle.12
- He did not carry himself like an apostle. He was weak, lacked boldness, and did not have the authoritative bearing of a true apostle (2 Corinthians 10:1,2).13
- He did not act like an apostle. They objected to Paul’s practice of preaching the gospel without charge (2 Corinthians 11:7–12).
Paul’s response to this last criticism was a bold declaration of his freedom to preach without charge. He made this practice the object of his own boast.14 Clearly, he was trying to distance himself from the false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13–15) who attempted to call Paul’s apostleship into question to establish their own. Their criticisms were from a value system that was enamored with externals — and especially symbols of power, prestige, and status. Paul refused to play their game and paradoxically offered the paradigm of the Cross — God’s power demonstrated through human weakness (2 Corinthians 11:29 through 12:10).
A spiritual leader facing criticism must be discerning. Paul counseled, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). As his own life illustrates, however, Paul did not believe Christians should accommodate the carnal demands and expectations of critics in an effort to avoid conflict at all costs.
Be Sure Of Your Own Integrity Before God (2 Corinthians 1:12–18)
Conflict and criticism are a part of spiritual leadership. As one insensitive wag put it, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” We do not need to live long before encountering horror stories of gross unfairness and unjust criticism. How is a spiritual leader supposed to survive such opposition? Any attempt to provide a brief answer is subject to the charge of oversimplification.
Paul left us a principle that is bedrock to survival. It comes from 2 Corinthians, which is a veritable smorgasbord of criticism leveled against him. We only need to read a few verses before encountering a classic example of unjust criticism.
In 2 Corinthians 1:8–11, Paul told the story of a near-death trial while he was in Asia.15 He shared the situation partly to encourage the Corinthians to trust God and embrace hope when they undergo trials. His main motive, however, was to silence his opponents who, because of his delay in coming and a recent change of plans (2 Corinthians 1:15 through 2:4), had accused him of vacillating and not keeping his promise.16 From the emphatic way he boasted of his integrity (2 Corinthians 1:12) it is obvious that his opponents had accused him of being less than sincere and upright in his conduct.
Second, verse 13 shows that Paul’s opponents charged him with being intentionally vague and even devious in his letters. In essence, they contended that there was another side to Paul; his true motives and agenda lay outside what they could see, hear, and read. Paul was unshaken by these accusations because they were unfounded, and his conscience was clear. He had walked before them and “in the world” with integrity17 and transparent openness. The word “sincerity” (eilikrineia, verse 12) means purity in motive (compare 2 Corinthians 2:17). Furthermore, Paul’s conduct was not based on worldly (or “fleshly” sarkikos) wisdom, but on the grace of God. His epistles have the same integrity. Paul wrote what he meant, and he meant what he wrote. There was no secret message or hidden meaning behind his words.
Spiritual leaders can take heart and instruction from Paul’s example. Conflicts and criticisms will come; they are inevitable. However, there is no better antidote for unjust criticism than a clear conscience before God.
Paul had not only founded the church, but had also visited them at least twice more during his second and third missionary journeys (Acts 16:12; 20:1–6).
Paul thanked them for their “participation” in the gospel from the first day until now (Philippians 1:5). The Greek word koinonia, sometimes translated “fellowship,” signifies a mutual participation or sharing in something (supplied by context). Since Paul’s literary purpose was to thank them for a recent offering (Philippians 4:10), which was consistent with their continual support (Philippians 4:15,16), the word koinonia in Philippians 1:5 is likely referring to their financial support of Paul’s ministry. Note also that the verbs translated “share” in Philippians 4:14,15 (sugkoinonesantesand ekoinonesen) are from the same root (koinoneo).
Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible
The “some” of verse 15 can only be understood as part of the “brethren” in verse 14, which probably explains why Paul said, “most of the brethren” and not “all.”
See Matthew 26:57–63; 27:11–14; Mark 15:1–5; Luke 23:1–9; John 18:29–38. These passages remind us of Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.” The apostolic church believed this silence was evidence of Christ’s commitment and resignation to the will of the Father. See Philip’s interpretation of Isaiah 53:7 in Acts 8:32.
For some time, Paul had been involved in collecting an offering for the saints of Jerusalem who had fallen on hard times due to a famine (see Acts 11:28,29). Concern for the poor was a priority for Paul, from the time his apostleship was confirmed by the pillars of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9,10). When he wrote to the Romans (ca. a.d. 57,58), an offering was under way “for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26). The churches of Macedonia and Achaia had already contributed. At the writing of 1 Corinthians (ca. a.d. 55) the collection was progressing and Paul told the church to follow the example of the Galatian churches in setting aside money for the collection (1 Corinthians 16:1,2). A careful reading of 2 Corinthians 8:16 through 9:5 reveals that Paul faced the danger of having his integrity maligned by accusations of impropriety. This passage shows how Paul ensured the integrity of the collection.
Paul’s Corinthian antagonists give numerous criticisms aimed at undermining his status as an apostle. For a comprehensive survey of what they were saying about Paul and how Paul viewed them, see James D. Hernando, “2 Corinthians,” in The Full Life New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998),
This was a common criticism of Paul’s Corinthian opponents. See also 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2:1,4,13.
They are led by an apparent ringleader (ho erchomenos — the “one” who “comes,” and preaches “another Jesus” allon Isoun — different from the one preached by Paul). His preaching was equivalent to offering the Corinthians a “different Spirit” and a “different gospel” than the one they had received. Keep in mind, for Paul, there was only one Jesus, oneSpirit, and one gospel.
The verb translated “to bear with” (anechomai) is used four times in this chapter (2 Corinthians 11:1,4,19,20). The last three occurrences reveal Paul’s impatience with the Corinthians for their willingness to endure the error and mistreatment of his opponents.
Paul described his opponents as “carnal,” or “worldly.” This is seen in the way he distanced himself from conduct done “in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 1:17; 5:17; 10:2), condemned the prideful boasts of his opponents as fleshly (2 Corinthians 11:18), and how he sarcastically illustrated this carnality with boasts of his own (2 Corinthians 11:18 through 12:11).
This explains Paul’s frequent admission of this fact (2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:6; compare 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2:1,4,13), and his suggestion that personal integrity (2 Corinthians 10:11) and knowledge of the truth (2 Corinthians 11:6) are more important than oratorical skill.
Paul countered this charge by affirming that his demeanor among them is modeled after the meekness and gentleness of Christ. Rather than deny his weakness, Paul admitted it and gloried in it as the means of securing the power of God (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:9,10; 13:3,4,9).
Paul’s opponents were proud and arrogant and declared their self-importance. They were fond of “commending themselves” (2 Corinthians 3:1; 10:12; 12:11) and boasting about themselves. This seems clear from the numerous times Paul used the words “boast/ed” or “boasting” (26 times — Gk. kauchomai). Often, his sarcastic tone indicated he was comparing himself to his opponents and their prideful and misdirected boasts (2 Corinthians 10:8,15; 11:6,10,12,16–18,30; 12:1,5,6,9).
We know little or nothing of Paul’s peril of death (1:8–10). It must have taken place during one of his two stays in Ephesus, in Asia (Acts 18:19–21; 19:1–20), but beyond this we are uninformed.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that nothing less than the severest of trials would have prevented him from coming as planned. The burden of the trial was so far beyond his ability to cope that he “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Indeed, he felt as if a “sentence of death” had already been passed on him and he expected to die (verse 9).
The exact wording of the Greek text is in doubt. The ubs Greek text reads haplotti (“sincerity” or “single-hearted devotion”), signifying the integrity of Paul’s conduct. The niv, however, reads “holiness” (preferring the alternate reading of hagiotti, “holiness”). In either case, the point remains the same; Paul’s conduct before the Corinthians has been unassailable.