Ministry style matters. First Corinthians 2:4 tells us that Paul decided on a manner for his entire ministry that was harmonious with his message. Paul’s message was Christ, in His cross and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1–4), so his manner likewise had to be cross-shaped, rather than posturing or self-promoting. How a preacher presents his message and carries himself either illustrates or distracts from the meaning of the message God has entrusted to him.
This is the ministry logic that lies behind Paul’s refusal to rely on “plausible words of wisdom.” The Corinthians, like the rest of the Greco-Roman world, believed that wisdom is the ability to achieve status and success by appearing to be great, positioning oneself alongside society’s celebrated men, and looking and sounding the part. This cultural wisdom was manifested in the popular orators of the day, or sophists. These were celebrities who knew how to present themselves and speak in order to gain followers, status, and success even if their message was vacuous.
So, when Paul says he decided not to use “plausible words of wisdom,” he was not saying he did not take a studied approach to preaching and teaching, or that how he used words did not matter (2 Tim. 2:15). He decided not to rest the plausibility of his message on his perception as a great man. It wasn’t that he didn’t think carefully and reason thoughtfully in his preaching and teaching (Acts 18:19). He had decided not to mask his weakness so that the power of the Holy Spirit would be evident in his message (2 Cor. 4:7; 12:9–10).
First Corinthians 2:1–4 reminds us that the most powerful message is the one delivered in a manner that is Christ-centered, Spirit-dependent, and cross-shaped.
A brief look at the context of Paul’s letter shows us why this mattered. The Corinthian church was dividing over leaders (1 Cor. 1:12–13; 3:3–5). This was almost certainly not a theological disagreement. Paul and Peter, as Apostles, taught the same doctrine that Christ taught (our faith depends on it; Eph. 2:20). Moreover, Paul did not treat doctrinal division as inconsequential (Rom. 16:17–18). The division was almost certainly over allegiance to personalities—either to Apollos or to Paul (1 Cor. 4:6). Apollos was apparently a gifted orator (Acts 18:24), and the Corinthians had determined that Paul was not (2 Cor. 10:10). These culturally dominated Christians were afraid that Paul’s “weakness and trembling” (including his sufferings; 1 Cor. 4:9–13) wouldn’t appeal to their neighbors’ sensibilities. So, Paul sought to show them that his weakness-embracing, suffering-enduring, self-effacing ministry style was designed to make much not of himself but of his message—Christ, His cross, and how He saves the worst and weakest of sinners (1:17–31).
Understanding that context helps us see why 1 Corinthians 2:4 should not be used as an excuse for an anti-intellectual, deliberately unstudied approach to the ministry of the gospel. Paul does not oppose here what he practiced and prescribed elsewhere—robustly reasoning and persuading from the Scriptures (Acts 17:16–31) and stewarding our minds for spiritual growth (Rom. 12:2). However, he does teach us that those who minister the Word must make a conscious decision, in their cultural context, about how to keep the focus of their ministry on the message with which they have been entrusted (Christ from all of Scripture) and the means by which that message is made effective (the Holy Spirit working in power through the Scriptures).
There is consistent pressure on ministers and churches to depend on the plausibility structures of the culture in order to achieve popular success. Paul made a deliberate decision not to employ this brand of wisdom to make the gospel more marketable. Instead, he decided to prioritize and trust the Spirit-empowered proclamation of Christ displayed through a servant whose conduct in turn said, “This ministry is not about me” (see 1 Cor. 1:31; 2:5).
The conduct of a preacher matters. The way he walks will either betray the message he claims to steward (1:17) or provide a ring of authenticity for those who listen to him (2 Cor. 4:2, 7; 2 Tim. 2:21). He can choose to use his leadership platform to make much of his knowledge, gifts, and personality, or he can decide to use that platform for God’s intended purpose—to make much of Christ. Christian leaders and preachers must continually make conscious decisions about how they will do ministry. They can be conformed to the wisdom of the culture and pursue the cult of the great man, or they can embrace the cruciform image of the Savior they serve (Luke 22:24–27) and live and minister in dependence on the means He has ordained. First Corinthians 2:1–4 reminds us that the most powerful message is the one delivered in a manner that is Christ-centered, Spirit-dependent, and cross-shaped.
Dr. John Currie is department coordinator and professor of pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.