“But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” (1 Corinthians 16:8-9)
“Don’t settle for the easy Christian life by just staying at home. Listen for God’s call to overseas missions.”
“Living in the suburbs is way too easy. You need to move to the city. Get involved in urban ministry.”
“Have you been in the same job for a long time? Life is short; do you really want to be stuck in one place for most of it? Time to risk doing something different, moving somewhere new!”
How often have we heard these and similar well-intentioned remarks by Christian speakers, mentors or friends? How often have we used lines like these ourselves to advise others? I know I have.
But no matter how many times I read the last chapter of 1 Corinthians, I still find verses 8-9 bring me up short. Paul has already been ministering in Ephesus longer than in any community we know of throughout his apostolic missionary career. He has already promised the Christians in the churches of Greece, including the Corinthians, that he will be visiting them again. What’s the hold up? The answer is twofold and the two answers create a seeming paradox: Paul recognizes plenty of remaining opportunity for significant ministry and he recognizes the strength of the opposition.
How can both of these at the same time be incentives for Paul to stay on longer in Ephesus? Consider the alternatives. If all he received was opposition without any success, sooner or later he would need to obey Jesus’ words and shake the dust off his feet (an ancient public gesture of rejection) and move on (Matt. 10:14). If all he experienced was success without any opposition, eventually he would need to question if he were really remaining publicly faithful to teaching the full counsel of God’s will, because Paul also knew that the godly follower of Christ would eventually experience persecution, in some form or another (2 Tim. 3:12).
The only remaining option, then, is some combination of success and opposition. But how much is there of each? A significant amount, it would seem. Paul says that a “great” door has opened, but also that there are “many” who oppose him. If the ministry were advancing mightily with only a small amount of hostility, Paul could easily have assumed it was safe in Timothy’s hands and in the hands of the local elders (see 1 Tim. 1, 3 and 5). If there were a little fruit but major attacks, Paul might well not have felt free to leave even after Pentecost, which as an annual festival had to have been less than a year down the road. But if there were both significant growth and great opposition, then it made very good sense for Paul to want to stay long enough to try to quell the hostility and yet still eventually continue his itinerant ministry to which he had been called.
As recently as forty years ago, it was more common than not in this country for adults to work one main job throughout their professional career and for people to live in fairly close proximity to where they grew up. Today both of those prove the exception and not the norm. Forty years ago, the challenges reflected in the quotes at the beginning of this blog were frequently needed. Today, the most needed challenges may be for believers, once they find a good place for effective ministry (whether professional or lay), to stay put, to offer some stability in a transient world, to stop the perennial quest to climb the professional ladder, and that even as opposition waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows.
Years ago my wife and I owned a coffee cup which had on it the slogan, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down!” After almost 24 years of ministry at Denver Seminary, I think somebody needs to make a companion mug that says, “Just stay put. You can outlast the turkeys!” At least that’s been my experience here. But I know it can’t be generalized. My dad taught in one public school district his entire professional life, most of it at the one high school in the district. Not long after he began at that school, a slightly younger colleague was hired in his department who would stay there until after my dad retired. For years, she was his nemesis in numerous respects, but he eventually learned with the right combination of kindness and avoidance how to get along reasonably well with her.
Of course there will be times when God leads one to change jobs, ministries, or churches. But given the speed and frequency of such changes by most in the twenty-first century Western world, I suspect our default mode ought to be that we will stay where we are—bloom where we are planted, so to speak (cf. 1 Cor. 7:17-24)—until we have a sure, prolonged, and clear call from God to the contrary, and that we have as good a reason as possible under the circumstances to believe we are leaving our work and ministry in good hands before we depart. There will be exceptions, but I suspect they should be the exceptions and not the norm. I suspect on Judgment Day that God will be far more impressed with faithfulness and loyalty to a group of people or a ministry than with climbing a professional ladder or fulfilling our own dreams or personal desires—that “self-actualization” that our therapeutic culture so values but puts so many people at odds with each other and leaves a trail of damaged relationships in its wake.
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.