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In a book I have been working on, I have had occasion to ask myself the above question. There is no question whether the apostle Paul had the gifts to be a powerful and effective evangelist, but the skills of an evangelist are different from those of a church leader. How would Paul score in the church leadership category?

Here are the facts as I see them. On Paul’s missionary journeys, he started churches through his preaching—always in different cities. When he set out on a new missionary journey, he generally began by visiting the churches he had previously started (such as Galatia at the beginning of both the second and third journeys). And when he encountered problems in his churches on those visits, he told them what they must do, and then he left, expecting that the churches would comply. Or if verbal reports came to him about problems in any of his churches, he wrote letters and told the believers what the solution was. For example, the Galatians (who apparently had not followed his verbal instructions given when he passed through) needed to stop emphasizing the need for circumcision. Euodia and Syntyche were to stop their bickering and be of the same mind (Phil 4:2). The incestuous man of 1 Cor 5 was to be delivered to Satan. He expected “his” churches to obey his instructions without question; after all, he was their father; he was the apostle Paul.

The trouble was that there were rival leaders located in a number of these cities, and they had different ideas about what was the Christian way. They developed relationships with the people whom Paul had led to Christ, and I do not doubt that they were persuasive in what they taught. Moreover, the new believers saw these rival leaders every week, and Paul’s own presence among them quickly became a distant memory. Regarding Corinth (as we read in 2 Corinthians), Paul tried to make a quick trip across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus to reestablish his authority and his voice, but it didn’t go well. He then went back to Ephesus and fired off an angry and painful letter (2 Cor 2:1–4). Finally, he sent Titus there (perhaps with another letter), and Titus was able to bring the situation back under control (7:5–16); Titus apparently had a gentler spirit, and he was loyal to Paul and his ways.

I think Paul had the idea that he could influence all of his churches to live in the way he believed God wanted them to live by making an occasional visit and, if need be, by writing an occasional letter. But leadership on the local level requires building relationships—long-term relationships. A church leader cannot zip into a location, try to throw some weight around, and then leave and expect that all will be well. I also think Paul learned something from the pain of the Corinthian situation. It is no accident that a couple years later, when Paul learned of “heretics” in Ephesus and Crete, he stationed his own personal protégés in these areas (Timothy in Ephesus, Titus in Crete), and he wrote them letters on what needed to be done. These two “pastors” were loyal to the apostle Paul, had the relationships needed to have their voice be heard, and the credibility to make the necessary changes. The burden was taken off Paul’s shoulders to do it all himself.

Yes, even the apostle Paul had things to learn during his life as an apostle, especially in how best to nurture godliness in his growing list of churches.

Any thoughts?



Thanks for an interesting post on Paul's pastoral sense and strategy.

It's an interesting thesis: Paul learned gradually that local pastors have more influence than out-of-town experts and therefore shifted his strategy from writing letters to churches to writing letters to local pastors.

It's an interesting thesis, which I will explore with my students the next time I teach NT Survey.

But I think it breaks down at a couple of points.

-Paul's letters to Philippi and Thessalonica seem to have been well-received and accomplished their purpose. So maybe the contrast is not so much letter vs. personal presence as Corinth vs. Macedonia.

-It seems clear that Titus was able to turn the situation around in Corinth. This was likely due to his exceptional ability, more than the force of personal presence. Paul's personal presence in Corinth did not always accomplish his goals, any more than his letters did.

-having served in several locations as a local pastor, and on several occasions as the out-of-town expert (including writing "pastoral letters" from afar),  I do not think there is a clear pattern of local pastors having more influence. I have seen it work sometimes one way, sometimes the other.

Maybe the take-away point is: vary your strategy.  Which is, I guess, just what you say Paul was doing.

Thanks for writing,

Thomas Niehof


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