Answering a Fool according to his Folly (2 Cor. 11:16-21a)
Some have struggled to reconcile Proverbs 29:4 ("Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself") with Proverbs 29:5 ("Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes"). But there's no contradiction here. On most occasions, when a fool speaks, keep your mouth shut. There are times, though, albeit rare, when an answer is essential. Evidently Paul was faced with just such a situation in his relationship with the Corinthians. He writes:
"I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord's authority but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!" (2 Cor. 11:16-21a).
Paul is about to boast, and he is sickened by the thought of it. His words "are no reflection of the real Paul, but only of the Paul who, to preserve the Corinthian church from moral and doctrinal seduction, must answer the real fools according to their folly" (Carson, 109). He is clearly compelled, contrary to normal practice (Prov. 29:4), to momentarily stoop to the level of his enemies to gain a hearing with the Corinthians and hopefully bring to an end the slanderous accusations brought against him.
The last thing he wants is for any of the Corinthians to think that he is actually a "fool" (v. 16) for taking this approach. However, if someone should regard him as such, at least he should be granted the same courtesy of patience and tolerance they regularly accord to other fools in their midst!
He also wants them to know that in speaking this way he is not following the example of Jesus or claiming to have heard the Lord instruct him to do so. In other words, this was Paul's decision and did not come at the prompting or from the guidance of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12). Of course, Paul no doubt believed he had "the Spirit of God" (1 Cor. 7:40) on this matter and wouldn't have employed this tactic if he didn't think it was permissible, given the unusual circumstances he faced in Corinth.
The distasteful and unavoidable fact is that pastoral problems in Corinth have compelled him against his nature to follow the example of his enemies. Paul wants them to know that this way of talking is not that of an apostle but of a self-righteous fool. So he here casts himself in the role of his opponents. What they do, he will do. If they boast "according to the flesh" (v. 18), i.e., appeal to worldly standards of "strength" and "success," so too will he. But it is all utter "foolishness" and he wants to be certain the Corinthians understand that.
Given their past performance, the Corinthians shouldn't have any problem temporarily accommodating Paul's "foolishness." After all, they "gladly bear with fools" (v. 19) on a regular basis. So what's the harm in putting up with one more! Paul's use of irony is biting.
It is with v. 20 that we come to a stunning disclosure by Paul of the aggressive authoritarianism and overbearing leadership tactics of the intruders (i.e., the true fools) in Corinth. I'm not entirely certain to whom I should direct my comments: pastors and leaders who may be inclined toward such sinful and reprehensible behavior, or average Christians who senselessly and stupidly submit to them. But let's go with the latter.
My reason for this decision is that often times "groveling submission" (Barrett) to oppressive and self-serving leaders is hardly less evil than the arrogance that demands it. In other words, there's no excuse for yielding to people who elevate themselves by humiliating and enslaving others. The time had certainly come in Corinth (and perhaps in our day and in your church) that Christians stand up to the domineering tactics of those who "lord it over" their faith (2 Cor. 1:24).
What follows may be painful for some of you, but I hope it is instructive for all. As you read the description of the behavior of these "fools" who passed themselves off as apostles, and especially as you consider the pathetic way in which the Corinthians tamely submitted to it, ask yourself whether such relational dynamics are present in your own church, among your own leaders, and perhaps in your own heart.
There are five features of this despicable behavior. Let's take note of each in turn.
First, the Corinthians bear it when someone "makes slaves" of them (v. 20a). The word Paul uses refers to a servitude that is total, to "reduce to abject slavery," wrote Plummer (316). Most likely they were subjecting the Corinthians to themselves, demanding unqualified allegiance and total obedience to their every whim. So severe and comprehensive was the control exerted by these intruders that many in the church had lost any semblance of freedom or sense of responsibility for their own lives.
Let's be clear about one thing. True, godly, Spirit-filled leaders don't exist for you to serve them. They exist to serve you! This was the precedent set by Jesus who said of himself that he "came not to be served but to serve" (Mt. 20:28). Leaders aren't placed in the body of Christ so that their reputation, lifestyle, and bank account can increase at the expense of those who are led. Leaders lead so that those led might be ever more conformed to the image of Christ. And if such comes only at great cost to those in authority, so be it, for Jesus served his own by giving "his life as a ransom for many" (Mt. 20:28).
Paul made this point earlier when he said that "what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). It is nothing short of stunning, and reveals the depths of their deception, that the Corinthians preferred the self-aggrandizing manner of these "false apostles" to the humble, self-effacing ministry of the apostle Paul.
Second, Paul accuses the intruders of "devouring" (v. 20b) the Corinthians and again rebukes the latter for allowing it to happen. Paul uses this same verb only one other time, in Galatians 5:15 where he refers to the in-fighting of the saints who "bite and devour one another." Jesus denounced the Pharisees as those who "devour widows' houses" (Mark 12:40), suggesting that perhaps the offense here is one of financially fleecing the sheep. Harris argues that Paul is referring "to their parasitical attachment to the Corinthians, their living ‘on' or ‘off' them . . ., that is, at the Corinthians' expense . . ., demanding and receiving payment for ‘services rendered,' eating them ‘out of house and home'" (785). Let me be blunt: spiritual leaders are not to get rich at the expense of those they lead. If they do, get rid of them.
Third, these interlopers "take advantage" of the saints (v. 20c). Paul uses the same word later in 12:16 when answering the charge that he "got the better" of the Corinthians "by deceit." Evidently he has in mind the idea of bringing someone under your thumb by craftiness and misrepresentation, duping them with groundless guarantees and false promises (which are often the fruit of a misguided theology).
If you ever sense a "leader" making repeated promises that put you on the line and pay off only to his benefit, say No! If you find that those in authority ever so slightly bend the truth to their own advantage or employ a strategy designed solely to expand their following, say No!
Fourth, do those to whom you submit "put on airs" (v. 20d)? Paul clearly has in mind haughtiness and self-exaltation. This need not be shameless self-promotion but often comes in a more subtle, even spiritual looking, form. Constant reference to one's calling or gifting or anointing or past success or publishing record, perhaps ever so often with a prominent named "dropped" into conversation at just the right time, are tell-tale signs of the sort of arrogance that Paul has in view. Again, don't stand for it. Say No!
Fifth, and finally (and shockingly), these pompous power-mongers "strike you in the face" and you bear it (v. 20e)! Many insist that Paul uses this imagery in a figurative sense, perhaps in reference to demeaning verbal attacks or deliberate public embarrassment. That's certainly possible. But it's not out of the question that some of these "leaders" had physically accosted a few of the believers in the body. Among the Jews, a slap on the right cheek with the back of one's hand was an especially indignant way to humiliate a person.
Let's not forget that one qualification of an Elder in the local church is that he not be "violent" (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), often translated "pugnacious" or "given to blows." But Carson is probably right that this is "metaphorical language to refer to any kind of humiliating treatment" (111).
Whether considered individually or collectively, these actions are the antithesis of the humility and gentleness (cf. 10:1) required in a minister of the new covenant. Paul's sarcasm in v. 21 is unmistakable. If I may be allowed to paraphrase, "Isn't it simply shameful of me that in my obvious weakness I declined to treat you as tenderly and lovingly as they did! Please forgive me!"
My prayer is that no one reading this will be guilty of the abusive tactics employed by the false apostles in Corinth. But I fear that far too many have been victims of it and have, with false humility and a warped sense of spiritual submission, yielded to the perverted power of those who claim to labor in the name of Christ. Again, let me put it in no uncertain terms: Say No!