Never, ever, ever boast that you have done something for the Lord that was, in fact, done by someone else. Never muscle in and try and take over another person's ministry or try to build your own by taking credit for their work. Don't sheep-steal. It's ungodly and it reveals you to be a deceitful workman (11:13). That's the claim of Paul in this passage.
With heavy, dripping irony he sets out to put the record straight. Other seeming leaders - "super-apostles" have come to Corinth and have captured the affections of the church. They have done so by a combination of commending themselves, claiming credit that wasn't their due, boasting about achievements that weren't theirs and by discrediting Paul.
Just in case you think that such things don't happen today, let me give you a personal example. When I worked for UCCF - The Christian Unions - we laboured hard over many years to build up an evangelistic witness to a particular campus. One local church then decided that the student work on this campus ought to belong exclusively to them and went about hijacking it in a deceitful fashion. First they subtly arranged for as many of the CU small groups as possible to be led by students attending their church. When this reached a critical mass, they said "these are now church small groups, we are pastorally responsible, they no longer belong to the CU". The church leaders told the student leaders of those groups to disassociate themselves from the CU and did a wholesale takeover. It ripped the hard-built work to pieces and it was quite deliberate. Furthermore, when we did our best to reason with the students and rebuild, we were personally maligned with doubt cast on our sincerity and credibility. And told, to our faces "we are a local church, you have no right to build anything here of which we don't approve."
I can't read this passage in 2 Corinthians without thinking of that incident. It isn't for me to judge the motives of the people in question. I can't objectively evaluate what those motives were. But I can judge the visible actions and whether they worked out their motives with integrity. There is no doubt that they acquired a ministry by seizing it from those who had built it up. I have had a loathing of predatory ministry ever since.
Here are four pieces of advice from Paul:
- Don't boast for yourself about work already done in someone else's territory (10:16). ie if someone else did it, give the credit to them
- Boast in the Lord and what he has done rather than commend yourself and what you have done (all through the passage, eg 10:17-18)
- Discern whether someone is, in fact, a "servant of righteousness" by their actions and what they boast about (11:13-14)
- Cut the ground from under people who undermine the ministry of others for personal gain (11:12). Because what is at stake is real, godly evangelistic ministry
Paul spends nearly three chapters out of thirteen trying to expose and prosecute the work of these false apostles, which shows how important it was. We should always be very wary before going to war with other people who seem to be disciples today. Even when motives are false, gospel witness can be true (see Phil 1:15-18, in which case don't go to war). But when we must, we must. In Corinth, the message of the false apostles was a false message, a false Jesus and a false Spirit and the Corinthians had fallen for it hook, line and sinker (11:4).
Salvation itself was on the line. Let's not flinch from being as strong as the Bible is when core essentials are being undermined. We want to be known for outdoing others in kindness and grace, but we don't extend that kindness and grace to heresy. As Paul says to the Galatians, if anyone preaches a different gospel "let them be eternally condemned."