Two-tiered Witness?

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has been holding me for weeks.  I’ve blogged already about Paul’s vulnerable, transparent witness: “You are our letters of commendation,” he says to the Corinthians (chapter 3).  Paul has no structural, organizational props for his ministry, just the effective witness of a life lived before others that he can point to it and say, “See here?  This [my life] is visible proof of God’s transforming work.”  I like it.  Or do I?

Then I read chapter 6: “We have commended [there’s that word again] ourselves in every way…” and then a long list of sufferings: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments,” and on and on.  Now, I’m not liking it.

Which prompted this thought: is there a qualitative difference between the witness of “regular” Christians and people called to full-time ministry and then, by extension, even more so for people in apostolic-like ministries of the sort that Paul had?  My question is too long, so let me try again.  Is there one set of witness/lifestyle expectations for regular Christians and another set for people in full-time ministry?

The standard Protestant answer is no.  We like to tout the priesthood of all believers, which I believe myself.  But then I start thinking about how a middle-class American guy with a wife and kids and job and other such commitments reads and hears Paul’s testimony.  What is God’s Word for that guy when he reads 2 Corinthians 6?  By the way, we evangelicals love 2 Cor. 6:2, “…now is the acceptable time [for salvation].”  It really preaches well in evangelistic settings.  But immediately following is this “commendation.”  Paul is challenging the Corinthians: “Look at my life.”  So, “now is the day of salvation” is connected to “look at my life.”

Maybe that is it.  Maybe the key is, “Look at my life.”  I live within a particular set of circumstances.  Am I a transparent Christian there, in that context?  Paul’s calling was his and mine is mine.  Different time, different circumstances, different callings.  Of course, it is true.  But then I start to worry a little that I am too-easily letting myself off the hook.  I’m not an apostle, after all.  I’m just a regular Christian.  God doesn’t expect that sort of witness from me.  Or you.

What did we just do to our reading of the Bible?  On the one hand, we should read carefully and not just woodenly lift “life principles” out of the text in some mechanistic way.  On the other hand, I’m concerned about how the trajectory of this sort of “interpretation” always seems to soften the call.

I think, in practical ways, we do have a two-tiered witness among even Protestant Christians.  We love reading about the Jim Elliotts and the Amy Carmichaels.  We are inspired by their passion for the Kingdom of God and their sacrificial commitments.  But…we wouldn’t do it ourselves.  So, when we read Paul talking about his sufferings, do we blunt God’s Word  to us by putting Paul in a different category?  He’s an apostle and we’re just regular Christians, after all.

Is there a de facto two-tiered witness among all Christians?  Is it OK that there is such, if there is?

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Interesting and challenging question. Wonder how a Catholic laywoman would interpret and reflect on that same notion of a two-tiered witness as a Christian?
    My “witness” actually “rattles a few Catholic cages” with a bit of “stone throwing” in the mix. Not being dramatic just practical in thinking about how one witnesses in the context of history given the same biblical imperative to become Christ in the world!

  2. Heh, heh, interesting thought. (I was going to put a comment here, but since we just talked, I’ll skip it. 🙂

  3. I read 2 Cor 6 (at least the beginning) as continuing the thought of 2 Cor 5. When Paul is writing “Today is the day of salvation” he’s not using the phrase in the same way evangelists today tend to. He’s writing to believers. These believers (like all believers), have not only been reconciled to God, but have been given the ministry of reconciliation. “Today is the day of salvation” – not just for me, not just for we who are currently reconciled to God, but also for those who will enter reconciliation through what we do.

    As far as the suffering part goes… Our safe, comfortable, easy lives sure get in the way of that. “Take up your cross and follow me” was taken differently in an era when you could see with your own eyes that Caesar liked to crucify people. We find generalizations of the teaching throughout the NT, so it’s hard to avoid (Phil. 1:29 is one that stands out to me). Of course we find ways to domesticate this strand. We take 1 Peter 3:15 as a simple admonition to some up with reasonable arguments for skeptics, abstracting it from its context of suffering (“When people see how you handle suffering, they will ask questions. Be ready to answer them.”)

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