A Minister Defends His Integrity

Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace.

2 Corinthians 1:12 (NIV)

Nathaniel Hawthorne addressed ministerial hypocrisy both in The Scarlet Letter and in a short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” In the latter, Brown leaves his wife, Faith, one night and is tempted by Satan in the woods. During this dark evening, the devil convinces him that every Christian he has ever respected—his pastor, his Sunday school teacher, his deacon—is, in fact, a fraud; their religion a mere show. When the night is over, Brown is a changed man, for the worse; the experience has shipwrecked his faith. He is never again able to believe that he—or anyone else—can have a credible profession of faith. This was a terrible conclusion, one that God’s children must address constantly, by trustworthy behavior and, when necessary, by verbal defense.

Paul knew what it was like to have his integrity questioned, and in 2 Corinthians he defended his ministry against those who challenged it. The apostle was unequivocal in his response: His conversion was genuine, and his sincerity was rooted in the grace of God (v. 12). He knew that the change in his life was real, so he saw no virtue in running himself down to please his critics. Furthermore and above all, Paul knew that any spiritual soundness he enjoyed was God’s doing, not his.

The problem was this: Paul had spoken of another visit but had yet to show up. Did his absence imply some failure on his part, a lack of concern? Paul asked rhetorically, “Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time?” (2 Cor. 1:17). In other words, was he a self-serving hypocrite?

What then was his reason for not returning? He explained that he was staying away to spare them pain (1:23-2:4). As 1 Corinthians shows, he had found much to criticize in this church—quarrels, factionalism, sexual immorality, neglect of the weaker brother, idolatry, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, vanity … the list went on and on. With this background and the prospect of more tough talk in mind, Paul thought it best to just send a letter instead of risking face-to-face confrontation. Unfortunately, the sting of his earlier ministry remained in some, so they decided to get even through slander.

As Charles Haddon Spurgeon counseled in Lectures to My Students, it is generally best to turn “the blind eye and the deaf ear” to unfair criticism:

A great lie, if unnoticed, is like a big fish out of water, it dashes and plunges and beats itself to death in a short time . . . [O]ur best course is to defend our innocence by our silence and leave our reputation with God. Yet there are exceptions to this general rule. When distinct, definite, public charges are made against a man he is bound to answer them, and answer them in the clearest and most open manner. To decline all investigation is in such a case practically to plead guilty.[1]

In such circumstances, the minister is “bound to meet [the accuser’s] charges with honest statements of fact.” And that is exactly what Paul did. He knew that without both integrity and a reputation for integrity, a minister was finished. But how might a fallible man stand in a hostile world, which is eager to gainsay his life and work? Paul’s answer, which still stands, was simply the grace of God as it worked its way into the minister’s walk, his utterances, and his circumstances.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 332-333.