Was Paul Co-Dependent?
Was Paul Co-Dependent?
Reflections on 2 Corinthians for Singles (and the Rest of Us)
2 Corinthians 2:12-13 says something extraordinary. Paul walked away from an open door of ministry in Troas because he couldn't find Titus. What's up here? Why was not finding Titus so important to Paul? Answers range from Titus carrying news of the Corinthians' welfare (which was Paul's ministry priority at that time), to Titus carrying money - which made Paul nervous for his welfare. No one, in my observation, has properly weighed a powerful alternative: Paul needed Titus because he needed his comfort and encouragement... so much so that without it he could not go on!
We may readily appreciate why this has not been the first interpretation coming to mind. Paul is our hero. And, thinking within a Western individualist perspective, this means that Paul was complete. Paul was self-contained, in himself, like all good self-contained individuals, and therefore in need of nothing else from anyone. Paul was like a perpetual energy source, powered by the Holy Spirit. He could give and give without ever needing to be filled back up. This is our Western individualist ideal. And Paul is our poster boy. Oh, that we would all be like Paul!
But what if Paul was admitting that he was "needy" (not a word we love), and even "co-dependent" (no way!)? All our categories would be shot. This would seriously mess with us. Indeed, I suggest we need to be messed with on this point, if for no other reason than that we would properly love to those who are single and marginalized. It is easy for those who are married to not smell the coffee on this point. They have someone, a partner at home, in whom they can confide and from whom they can receive encouragement. But Paul, a single himself (!), powerfully illustrates our need to admit our neediness, and to become aware to the neediness of others--including those who are single.
In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says that while in Asia he and those with him "were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself." There is evidence here that Paul had been rocked in such a way that he needed encouragement from others, which then affected his entire ministry. In 2:1-3 we read that at least part of the reason Paul did not visit the Corinthians was because he could not bear losing the encouragement of those who should make him glad:
"For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice."
It's at this point that Paul mentions coming to Troas (in Asia), and not finding Titus and then leaving:
"When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia."
What was on Paul's mind as he moved from Troas to Macedonia? Consistent with my hunch, as he returns to this theme in chapter 7, it appears that it was personal demons that he could not shake:
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn--fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. (2 Corinthians 7:5-7)
Now the two groups that Paul was hoping to get encouragement from - Titus and the Corinthians - come together to comfort Paul in the midst of his fears. This is precisely what we would expect and precisely what Paul spells out as someone in serious need of encouragement.
Why do we find it so hard to believe that Paul desperately needed Titus and that without him Paul could not minister? Note that if we acknowledge that this indeed is the theme surrounding 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4, many textual issues that have long been associated with this section begin to evaporate. So why, in spite of all the good this reading produces, do we seem to struggle to acknowledge that people (particularly single people in ministry, but all of us if we are honest) are co-dependent, i.e. utterly dependent on the support of other Christians?
I have already given the answer: Western individualism, coupled in America with a dash of capitalist competitive spirit and a saving of face. We cannot be seen to be less than competent in every area if we are to be the complete person. We must have all the gifts, or at least appear to have them. We must appear to have our lives completely together. But guess what? Paul admits that he didn't have it all together and that he would never have it all together without the companionship and support of others dear to him.
Single people, of all people, need deep and intimate personal relationships that provide them with support when their tanks are empty. So let's give it! Let's make sure that single people have extra time to recharge. Let's give them space to be honest about their struggles and not write them off.
But what about ministers? Ministers of all people must appear to have it together. They cannot possibly be seen as needy. But what a disaster this will cause! If we are not giving leaders space to be honest--somewhere to someone--or to have close, transparent, and supporting relationships, then we are setting ourselves and our pastors up for failure.
Paul was burnt-out. The great apostle... burnt out. Extraordinary! But we gotta love this. Because Paul's burnout is our great gain. It teaches us; indeed, it confronts us, with our foolish thinking when it comes to being self-contained. Could Paul do it alone, just him and the Lord? Never! So why do we think we can do it alone?
May we learn from him and respond accordingly.
Author's Note: Thanks to our Friday night Bible study who in co-dependence yielded many of the insights found in this article.
Bruce Lowe (PhD) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
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