The apostle Paul’s ministry set a lasting example for how the gospel is to be preached and presented.
There is no doubt that Paul’s ministry embodied Christ crucified. When Paul describes his mission in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, he makes it clear that his motivation and methods were consistent with the gospel of Christ crucified. It is in the character, the methods, and the conduct of the missionaries, along with the goal of the mission, that we see cruciform nature of Paul’s ministry. For the sake of this reflection, we shall however, limit ourselves to only the character and methods of the ministry.
The Character of the Ministry
Like Christ, who experienced suffering which culminated with death on the cross, Paul’s ministry was not without its suffering. Paul reports that he and co-workers suffered shame at Philippi. The mission experienced opposition to the preaching of the gospel.
Yet in spite of the opposition, the ministry continued unabated.
Paul was committed to the crucified One: Christ who died and rose from the dead.
Paul was not under any illusion as to the possibility of suffering in proclaiming Christ crucified. Yet, he did not do this in his own strength but was “emboldened” in God to communicate the gospel. As the Thessalonians faced opposition, Paul and his co-workers become models for them. Christ’s pattern was seen as normative for Paul and his communities. This is not to say that we must all suffer in proclaiming the gospel. However, if suffering should become our cup, we should drink it as Christ and Paul did before us.
Paul, like the One he represents, faced opposition in his proclamation of the gospel, but this opposition did not deter him from doing what he was appointed to do. He has not chosen himself for this task, but has been “approved by God” who also “tests our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4). The approval’s purpose was for the proclamation of the gospel.
The Nature (Methods) of the Mission
In 1 Thes. 2:3, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the nature of his ministry. He does this by presenting the negative (what he did not do) and then the positive (what he did). Paul did not use flattery or tricks in proclaiming the gospel. As God’s emissaries, the missionaries avoided ill motives. This, however, does not mean that Paul would not contextualize the gospel; he was still able to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) without compromising his message.
The gospel, Paul proclaims, was the test for the methods used to proclaim it.
On the positive side, the missionaries spoke with openness and truthfulness. Not only did they avoid impure motives, but they also avoided “deception.” For the missionaries, the end does not always justify the means. Not every method—such as flattering speech—should be used to get converts. The gospel the missionaries proclaimed was not one whose aim was to simply please others.
Paul would say that he did not “seek glory,” though people of his day were obsessed with honor as seen by the monuments they left behind reciting their services to the gods of their cities.
In addition, Paul and his co-workers came to the Thessalonians as “young children.” This metaphor demonstrates that they did not throw their weight around. Even though they were apostles of Christ, they did not demand the privileges meant for them. Like Christ, who did not come to be served but to serve, Paul and his team served the Thessalonians rather than demand service from them. They shared their lives with the Thessalonians. They even worked to support themselves as they ministered.
Paul did not speak with deception, nor did he attempt to flatter his audience. Even though Paul did contextualize the gospel, such contextualization had limits. Methods had to be consistent with the gospel preached. This leads us to the issue of the conduct of the messengers of the gospel.
Implications for Cruciform Missions Today
To be sent in the manner in which Christ was sent is to be cruciform. Those who accept the call of Christ to go must also become like Christ. Paul’s mission at Thessalonica was an embodiment of cruciform mission. Such a mission is not deterred by any form of opposition. It is a mission in which God not only approves but also continues to test His messengers. The methods used in this ministry must be consistent with the gospel preached. As a result, neither deceit, tricks, nor flattery can be used; only openness and truthfulness.
In some cases today, the message preached makes no demands on the hearers. They come as they are and remain as they are. Such methods are not consistent with the gospel of the crucified Christ. Those who preach Christ must act as servants rather than masters, like Christ—they must be “among you as one who serves.”
There are prominent preachers in every culture who seem more interested in meeting their own personal needs with things like money and expensive jets instead of preaching a gospel of surrender and sacrifice. Likewise, we have instances in which the messengers live luxurious lives, far above the average congregant. Paul and Christ’s example of sharing life with converts and working with them where they are is a necessary antidote.
Evangelistic ministry should not be separated from discipleship ministry.
In Africa, it has often been said that “Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.” Yet it should be as deep as it is wide. We must accept responsibility and learn from Paul who founded, nurtured, and shaped his communities of faith.
It is not enough to get people converted; we must develop a plan to teach them the demands of the faith they have accepted. The goal of such instruction should always be that people would “live lives worthy of the Lord” (see Col. 1:10). The reign of God should be our focus in our discipleship ministry.
As we learn from Paul, the manner in which we go is as important as going. The sent one cannot be other than the One who sent him or her. Christian mission is defined by Christ crucified; those who join it can only assume this posture. The character, method, and conduct of those who carry the gospel ought to embody cruciformity just as Paul’s mission did. Those in search of personal upward mobility have no share in this ministry.
Gift Mtukwa is a professor at Africa Nazarene University in Nairobi, Kenya.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2019