The Apostle Paul is the most prolific of all the New Testament writers. He constantly stresses equality, participation, and servanthood. These were foundational in his ministry, which had the effect of suppressing any attempts at preeminence. He never had to address it directly as an issue like John with Diotrephes, so to get the richness of how he addressed preeminence requires seeing those element that are naturally weaved within his various writings.
Some of this weaving would take a good deal of time to unwrap, so the focus will be on the many areas that are easy to perceive. As you see and understand more and more the dynamics of preeminence, those areas that have the issue coursing through it will become easily identifiable.
Our first introduction to Paul is in the book of Acts. There, we see him steeped in preeminence within the Jewish religious hierarchy. He is first mentioned as Saul when officiating at the stoning of Stephen and later given authority to hunt down Christians for imprisonment or a death sentence.
Like so many people today that are blinded by a distorted religious culture, so too was Paul. The scales needed to be removed from his eyes and God did just that. On his way to Damascus to track down those cultish Jews who claimed to follow a risen Jesus, Jesus blinded him physically, but opened his eyes to the falsehoods he had embraced through all his growing up years.
Once the scales were removed, all his distorted theological thinking and cultural entanglements began to crumble as it was reshaped to the realization that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah. He immediately abandoned his preeminent Jewish position and let Jesus reshaped him into an amazing servant of God and man.
Here is a brief look at the major timeframes of his ministry (particularly to the Gentiles):
- Antioch (Syria): almost 3 years
- Ephesus (Asia Minor): 7 years
- Corinth (Macedonia): 1.5 years
- Caesarea (Israel; captivity): 2 years
- Rome (Italy; captivity): 2 years
Following are verses from Paul having to do with the suppression of preeminence, the exaltation of the preeminence of Jesus Christ, and how one should conduct themselves while avoiding preeminence.
That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. Romans 1:12
Paul is demonstrating a participatory equality as he talks of a mutual faith and a mutual comforting of one another.
7Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely? 12But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. 13For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works. 16I say again, Let no man think me a fool; if otherwise, yet as a fool receive me, that I may boast myself a little. 17That which I speak, I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. 18Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also. 19For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. 20For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face. 21I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also. 22Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I. 23Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28eside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? 30If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. 31The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. 32In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: 33And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands. II Corinthians 11:7, 12-33
1It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. 3And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 4How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. 6For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. 7And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 11I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing. II Corinthians 12:1-11
1Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. 2Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. 3For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. 4Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: 5Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, Philippians 3:1-8
Paul is extremely embarrassed in his writings to the Philippian and Corinthian churches to even appear as if he is trying to elevate himself into preeminence. But because there were those who were trying to elevate themselves by their credentials, Paul reluctantly listed his credentials in an attempt to put them in their place. Paul abases himself for having to do a seeming exaltation by saying he is a fool in glorying. Even though he has all these amazing credentials Paul says they are nothing but dung compared to having the proper relationship with Jesus Christ, the only one worthy of preeminence.
6And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. 7For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? 8Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you. 9For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. 10We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. 11Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; 12And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: 13Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. 14I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. 15For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. 16Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. I Corinthians 4:6-16
The above passage is probably Paul’s strongest statement against ecclesiastical preeminence. Here, Paul talks about us not puffing ourselves up one against another; that we should never differentiate ourselves from one another in a glorified status. Everything we are and have comes from God who sees us all in equal status. Instead, Paul adamantly exhorts us to be the opposite of preeminence when he describes the apostles as the offscouring of all things; that being the gungy stuff that sticks to the bottom of a pot. Through these vivid descriptions, Paul here and in other writings is constantly telling his readers (which includes you and me) to follow his and his fellow apostles’ example; an example to resist elevating ourselves by suppressing any attempts at preeminency; that we should be followers of him in his suffering; that we too should be the offscouring, rather have any part in an exalted elite.
3For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? 4For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? 5Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? 6I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. 7So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. 8Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. 9For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. 10According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. 11For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3:3-11
The preeminent elite can lay foundations that impress many Christians and non-Christians. But are those foundations legitimate or carnal? Paul would always put the focus upon God and not man. To focus otherwise is carnal (verse 3). Elevating certain believers to preeminence, that through the ages has created divisions among Christians, certainly does not reflect a wise master builder. Paul and Apollos were doing wonderful things in their ministry, but their ministry was never to be perceived as better than anyone else’s. All Christians are ministers and each ministry is to be considered no better or worse than another’s. And because of this no person should be considered preeminent over another (verse 5). Every Christian has been given a ministry (verse 5) therefore no one is to be above another in preeminence. All of us, together and equally, are but laborers with God, not laborers with a usurping preeminent person who doles things out according to his will (verse 9). A true fellowship is God’s building and not ours; not a building shaped by those who have taken preeminent positions, but the building which is Jesus Christ himself (verses 9, 11).
Christian churches of today do not reflect these verses, which means the state of Christianity is in a crisis. Unless we take part in reforming the church, by stripping away preeminency, Satan will continue to have pretty much his way. It is time for us to faithfully follow the one and only true Shepherd.
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. I Thessalonians 1:1
Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ. I Thessalonians 2:6
7So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. 8For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. I Thessalonians 1:7-8
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were good examples of those not seeking the glory of men. To be looked upon as a good example does not mean you bask in preeminence. Rather, it requires subduing oneself to be more the off scouring with the aim of lifting others.
Their leadership by example was not as Gentile leaders, but as obedient Christian servants, looking to glorify God by facilitating others. Following their example should result in an unleashing of potential among all within one’s fellowship group, wherein no believer will be left behind.
Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand. II Corinthians 1:24
Quench not the Spirit. I Thessalonians 5:19
Paul makes it clear he did not seek dominion over anyone but was there to help build up or facilitate their faith. Taking dominion over another believer quenches (suppresses) the Holy Spirit. Paul knew that if they were to stand strong in faith, it was imperative that they did not rely upon him, but in Jesus Christ. If they relied upon him, a mere mortal, they would end up stumbling and falling.
5For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. II Corinthians 4:5-7
Neither Paul nor his companions are focused upon themselves, but on Jesus and others in servanthood. Paul gives all the credit to Jesus Christ, the only true shepherd. He stresses that it is the power of God and not his, his companions, or any of the Corinthian believers that should be glorified.
But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. II Corinthians 4:2
Paul sets an example of transparency in word and deed. He has no fear of dialogue with other believers. He welcomes scrutiny as the truth is infinitely more important than his image.
Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, who in presence am base among you, but being absent am bold toward you: Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely? But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. II Corinthians 10:1; 11:7, 12
Paul explains that his abasing (diminishing) of himself is that they should be exalted. This exaltation from so many other verses is certainly not a preeminent exaltation that would usurp the preeminence of Jesus. Rather, it would be an exaltation of Jesus as Paul’s facilitation helped in shaping them more and more into the likeness of Christ’s own image.
But to those who seek to glorify themselves at the expense of others and Jesus Christ, Paul will not give them the faintest occasion. Instead, Paul is basically asserting that all believers are on an equal plane.
For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. II Corinthians 10:12
Paul would not commend himself like those who were seeking after or coveted preeminency, comparing themselves among themselves. Those who seek or refuse to give up their lofty positions within a fellowship do not reflect true wisdom, which can only come from God.
For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed: II Corinthians 10:8
All 12 Apostles (which includes Paul, as the Christ-selected replacement for Judas), did have a special authority as the Bible reveals in several instances, particularly with Peter, Paul, and John. These could have been used in the wrong way for developing preeminence. Instead, we see them using this authority to further the work of Christ, not for self-aggrandizement, not for the destruction or suppression of other believers, but for their edification (facilitation). Throughout Paul’s ministry, he knew that whenever you suppressed your fellow believers, you were destroying the work of God through them, often for the purpose of exalting oneself into preeminence.
17But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. 18For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth. II Corinthians 10:17-18
Paul makes it clear that only with Jesus as the Preeminent one, the one and only shepherd, the only head of the church body can there be any true commendation. All others are destructive thieves and robbers who sneak into the sheepfold and not through the gate (Jesus). Those who usurp Christ commend themselves and other preeminent ones in their elite circle; whereas only those Christ commends are legitimate.
1Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. 2And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. 3But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: 4And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: 5To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. 6But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: 7But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; 8(For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) 9And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. 10Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do. 11But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. 12For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. 13And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. 14But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? 15We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. 17But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. 18For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. 19For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. 20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. 21I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. Galatians 2:1-21
In Galatians 2 we see an unfolding that provides a picture of how to deal with preeminence; a preeminence that constantly tries to assert itself, as it has ever since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. The chapter starts with a visit to Jerusalem. Verse 2 talks of those who had established a certain reputation. Having a good reputation is a good thing. However, that reputation can be used to elevate one into a preeminence that usurps the preeminence of Jesus Christ. This verse clearly alludes that their reputation was perceived to be in an elite status. Then in verses 3-5 we begin to see the workings of those in preeminence who asserted themselves by sending out spies in an attempt to control other believers into their way of thinking; attempting to take away the liberty that there is in Christ, the only true shepherd, and bringing them into the bondage of the elite. This initial conflict was over the question of whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised. We cannot make too much of Paul’s use of “seemed to be pillars” in reference to James, Cephas, and John in verse 9. Although, by not calling them pillars seems to be an attempt to lower their status to the level of equality among all believers. Paul had to be relieved and possibly elated to receive their right hands of fellowship rather than having to face any further conflict.
Later, when Paul is in Antioch and was visited by Peter, an issue came up that forced Paul into an immediate response. Even though Peter was looked up to by many as a “pillar,” Paul saw him as an equal brother in Christ that needed to be confronted. Jews and Gentiles were eating together as full and equal partners in their relationship with Christ. Then a group came from the “pillar” community that could have been the previously mentioned spies. Here we see the effect of preeminency whether actual or perceived. They feared the consequences of not following the dictates of those who are preeminent and began surrendering to those fears. As the Jews began separating themselves from the Gentiles, Jesus must have wept, because to separate yourself from another believer because you think you are better than them is no different than separating yourself from Christ. The crowd effect took over as we see even Paul’s primary missionary companion (Barnabas) being carried away with the dissimulation.
Dissimulation (Webster 1828)
The act of dissembling; a hiding under a false appearance; a feigning; false pretension; hypocrisy. Dissimulation may be simply concealment of the opinions, sentiments or purpose; but it includes also the assuming of a false or counterfeit appearance which conceals the real opinions or purpose. Let love be without dissimulation. Romans 12:9
Peter, of all people knew better. He was the one who adamantly fought for the equality of both Jew and Gentile when defending his dealings with the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48; 11:1-18). Yet here we are given a lesson on dealing with preeminence and especially regarding Peter, who then and especially now is regarded as a “pillar” of the church. We cannot back down but must stand firm upon the truth. And Paul did just that as we see in verses 14-21. After Paul’s rebuke, we are not told the rest of the story, as to how Peter responded to the chastisement. But Peter was berated so often from Jesus, I am sure he knew it was Jesus who had prompted and guided Paul in setting things straight.