At verse 16 Paul finally gets on with playing the role of the fool. In verse 1 he had asked the Corinthians to bear with him in this matter ("I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness"). But now he warns, Let no one take me for a fool. The term fool (literally "unwise") refers to someone who lacks sense or reason. It is not someone who is stupid or witless but rather someone whose self-perceptions are blown all out of proportion. The distinction is an important one. While Paul considers what he is about to do sheer folly (the act of boasting), nevertheless, what he is about to say is far from foolish (he is no blithering idiot). For if he chooses to boast, he would not be a fool (like his rivals) because he "would be speaking the truth" (12:6). The Corinthians will do well, therefore, to take what he has to say seriously. But should they be predisposed to do otherwise, he begs their indulgence to receive [him] just as [they] would a fool. After all, they are quite accustomed to putting up with fools—and in fact gladly receive them (v. 19). The fools Paul has in mind are the Corinthian intruders, who started this business of boasting ("that I may also boast," v. 18—NIV's I too will boast). So what will another fool matter among so many? If the Corinthians can tolerate the self-important jibberish of the intruders, they can also tolerate a little of Paul's boasting.
There is one qualification, however, that Paul insists on. They are not to receive his self-confident boasting as from the Lord (v. 17). The NIV translation self-confident is by no means certain, since examples of hypostasis used in this way are lacking (compare JB "certainty"; KJV, RSV, NSRV, REB "confidence"; Phillips "proud"). Of the possible meanings, the too preferable ones are "purpose" (as in "in this plan to boast") and "undertaking" (as in "in this matter of boasting"; Bratcher 1983:122). On balance, the latter is to be preferred.
In this matter of boasting Paul does not want to be taken as talking as the Lord would. The phrase is literally "according to the Lord" (kata kyrion). What exactly does this mean, though? Paul could be saying that in boasting about his ministerial achievements he is not talking as the Lord would (NIV). But it is more likely that kata kyrion means "with the Lord's authority" (RSV, JB, Phillips) or "what the Lord would have me say" (TEV). The bragging Paul is about to engage in is not something the Lord would approve of; hence he does not presume to speak ex cathedra (as an apostle). Boasting of this sort is not the way of the Lord but rather the way of the world (v. 18). The Greek is literally "according to the flesh" (kata sarka)—a favorite phrase of Paul's (five times in 2 Corinthians). Typically it denotes operating the way the world does or being driven by human standards (compare 1:17; 5:16; 10:2, 3). When it comes to human pride, the way of the world is to boast in personal accomplishments. Many brag in this fashion, so Paul will too (v. 18).
The biting sarcasm of Paul's next remark is unmistakable. Having begged their indulgence, he now points out that bearing with his senseless boasting should pose no great problem for them, since they are used to putting up with fools. Paul minces no words when it comes to the Corinthian intruders. In verse 13 they were labeled "false" and "deceitful"; now they are called fools (v. 19). The term fool (aphron, "unwise") denotes a lack of sense or reason (see the commentary on v. 16). The intruders are fools on account of the exaggerated opinion they have of their self-importance. And the Corinthians gladly put up with them, thinking themselves to be so wise (v. 19). The position of hedews ("gladly"), beginning the clause, heightens Paul's sarcasm: "Gladly you put up with fools." The Corinthians have been duped by the apostolic pretenders. Yet they think themselves so wise! The irony of the situation does not escape Paul—nor does the danger. The Corinthians should have seen through these apostolic pretenders, but they chose not to. Moreover, they did not merely turn a blind eye to what they were about but received them with pleasure.
Is Paul being too hard on the Corinthians? The next verse suggests that he is not. For although the Corinthians thought themselves so wise in their dealings with the visiting missionaries, they actually allowed themselves to be walked all over (v. 20).
Five terms sum up how the intruders were taking advantage of the congregation. First, they were "enslaving" them. Katadouloi denotes absolute subjection or the loss of autonomy (Rengstorf 1964:279). Because the term is used in Galatians 2:4 of Judaizers who sought to enslave the Galatian churches to the rules and regulations of the Mosaic law, some have argued for the same sense here. But there is no hint of a Judaizing polemic in chapters 10—13. Slaps you in the face, at the tail end of verse 20, suggests, instead, subjection to a domineering style of pastoral leadership (Furnish 1984:497). "Treats you like slaves" (Bratcher 1983:123) or "orders you around" (TEV) catches the idea.
Second, Paul's opponents are "exploiting" the church. The Greek term katesthio, commonly used of animals of prey, means to "eat up" or "devour." Paul undoubtedly is thinking of how the intruders set out to devour the Corinthians' finances. So C. K. Barrett's translation "eats you out of house and home" (1973:291) and the NJB's "eats up all you possess" may not be far off the mark.
Third, they are "taking advantage of" the church. In the realm of hunting or fishing, lambano means to "catch" or "take unawares" through the use of alluring bait (Zerwick 1993:558). Paul uses the verb in 12:16 to denote catching through trickery, which may well be its sense here.
Fourth, they "push themselves forward." The verb is literally "to hold or lift up" (epairo). The picture is of individuals who have a lofty or stuck-up opinion of themselves—constantly keeping their nose in the air.
Finally, they are "slapping" the church "in the face." The Greek verb dero means to "flay" or "skin" (as in "to beat a dead horse"). It usually refers to a physical beating or flogging (Mt 21:35; Mk 12:3, 5; Lk 12:47, 48; 20:10, 11; 22:63; Jn 18:23; Acts 5:40; 16:37; 22:19), but it is also used figuratively for insulting behavior.
The overall picture is appalling. It would be appealing to say that Paul is only anticipating what could happen at Corinth. But the form of the conditional at verse 20 connotes fact (ei tis + indicative). Some have indeed come to Corinth and are employing these kinds of browbeating tactics. Paul, however, will not stoop to such levels. To my shame, he admits, . . . we were too weak for that! Biting sarcasm is once again in evidence. It is probably best to put too weak in quotes. This is the voice of the opposition speaking rather than Paul's own self-estimate. He has been accused of being bold enough when away but timid when actually face to face (10:1).
We may be quick to scoff at a church like Corinth. How could a church permit itself to be browbeaten like this? What kind of wimps were they to so readily accept such leadership? But are the Corinthians really so different from some of our contemporary churches? A take-charge, strong-arm style of leadership is valued by many within evangelicalism today. Those who lead in this way typically claim to be exercising their God-given authority. Interestingly enough, though, Paul rejects this style of leadership in his own ministry ("not that we lord it over your faith," 1:24)—as do other New Testament writers (for example, see Mt 20:25-26; 1 Pet 5:3). In fact, the language of "bearing rule," "governing" and "exercising authority" is not used by the New Testament writers to describe the leadership role in the church. It is employed only of the apostles and the congregation, not of an individual within the local church context (Belleville 1993a).