Paul frequently distinguishes himself from Greco-Roman philosophers. In several different texts, Paul boasts in his weakness and claims he is unskilled as a public speaker. In 1 Thess 2:1-7, for example, he clearly distances himself from the typical orator the Thessalonians likely encountered every day. He has “pure motives in contrast to those who use slick rhetoric to manipulate their audiences. Perhaps he is using some false humility to over emphasize the boasts of the opponents, since it is appears he was at least an effective speaker if not familiar with the way ideas were presented in the Roman world.
In 1 Thessalonians Paul reminds the church how he conducted himself when he was in the city. Abraham Malherbe suggested this description of Paul’s motivations for ministry is not really apologetic but a presentation of Paul’s model of the moral behavior he expects out of his congregation. “The philosopher presented himself as a moral example to follow.” Gene Green cites Dio Chrysostom as an example of a philosopher who set himself up as a model to be followed (in contrast to other philosophers and sophists.)
But to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow- man stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy, but rather the good fortune of a very lucky city, so great is the dearth of noble, independent souls and such the abundance of toadies [flatterers], mountebanks, and sophists. (Dio Chrysostom, 32.11)
It is possible that Paul is responding to attacks against his character made by opponents (either Jews from the synagogue or the Thessalonians themselves). It is even possible people in the congregation wonder about Paul’s motivation for preaching the Gospel in their city and founding the church. After all, Paul did spend a minimal amount of time in the city and he leave under suspicion from the civil authorities. He did in fact leave town after Jason posted bond, possible giving credence to the rumor that Paul was preaching the gospel for the money and did not really care about the church.
My guess is most Christians do not know much of anything about Philosophy or methods of rhetoric used by ancient philosophers. Perhaps a useful analogy for the methods of an orator in a modern context is a politician. The goal of a politician is to get elected (and then re-elected). They give speeches in which they say things in order to convince people to vote for them, whether those things are strictly true or not. The facts are usually presented in a way which is appealing to the audience. Politicians have become masters of “spinning the truth” in their favor. Ancient Sophists were trained in this very skill. They developed the ability to argue for or against anything at any time, spinning the facts in a way which gave the result their patrons desire.
In 1 Thessalonians 2 Paul says this is not the way he presented the Gospel. He was not a huckster trying to get rich off the Gospel nor was he a slick philosopher trying to manipulate the audience to believing the Gospel.
What implications can we draw from these observations for how churches “do ministry” today? I am not an advocate of rejecting all modern methods and tools for the presentation of the Gospel, but how does a church or individual avoid the more manipulative methods used by advertisers, for example, or even politicians? What can we draw from Paul’s example?