Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11
How can a pastor who has lost the respect and trust of many members of his or her congregation restore a healthy relationship with his flock? What might seem to be a modern problem has been an issue for Christian congregations from the beginning as this passage attests. The relationship between Paul and the congregation in Corinth was a very troubled one.
2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4 — A change in plans
Paul was determined not to have another difficult and unpleasant visit with his Corinthian congregation. Instead, he wrote a stern letter “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4). Then he reneged — at least temporarily — on his earlier promise to visit the Corinthian congregation (1 Corinthians 16:5-7).
We do not know the circumstances that provoked Paul’s tearful letter. There must have been a very serious problem within the congregation. Some believe that the problem was Paul’s response to the person charged with the immoral behavior described in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Others suggest that Paul’s trustworthiness and credibility had been challenged by an important leader or group of persons within — and perhaps also outside — the congregation.
In any event, a great chasm of distrust and anger had developed. This sad situation caused Paul and the congregation much anxiety and pain. Paul’s tearful letter, which has been lost, must have called for a radical remedy that he believed demonstrated his deep love and pastoral concern for the congregation. But would the Corinthians see it that way? And would they agree with Paul’s way of dealing with the problem?
2 Corinthians 2:5-8 — Forgive the offender!
We know from 2 Corinthians 7:6-13 that Paul’s tearful letter met with a positive response. His worries were not confirmed. Most of the members of the congregation and the central figure in the dispute accepted Paul’s remedy. The offender repented. And the congregation demonstrated its loyalty to Paul. Their “godly grief” produced “repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
Paul’s pastoral concern for the person who had offended him and the congregation did not stop with the sinner’s repentance. His ongoing concern was twofold: for the welfare of the offending person and for the health of the congregation. He urged the congregation to “forgive and console” the offender. Here as in chapter 1:3-7 “console” has the meaning of “encourage” and “support.” Paul wanted the congregation to do all they could to restore the erring person’s self respect and sense of belonging to the congregation. By showing their love for the offending person, the congregation could restore the integrity of the community.
2 Corinthians 2:8-11 — Frustrating Satan’s plans
Paul’s tearful letter also served another purpose. It was a test of the congregation’s willingness to accept his apostolic authority. As the founder of the congregation, Paul was carrying out a God-given mission to spread the gospel. He expected the congregation to accept him as God’s agent and to follow his lead in dealing with issues in the congregation. To Paul’s great relief, the congregation passed the test (2 Corinthians 7:11). They reaffirmed their loyalty to him and to the gospel he preached.
The resolution of this problem was a joint effort of Paul and the Corinthian congregation. He affirmed their forgiveness of the offending person and reiterated that he did so for the sake of the Corinthians themselves. Moreover, their mutual response to love and restore the offending person had been done as though Christ were present, for that is the meaning of 2:10.
Lurking behind the issues faced by the Corinthian congregation, Paul points out, is the evildoer, Satan himself. To avoid being outwitted by Satan, the congregation needs to stand solidly behind Paul and in solidarity with each other, including especially the now forgiven person who had cause the problem in the first place.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, does Paul’s role in resolving the problem in Corinth seem autocratic, even authoritarian, to you? Does Paul’s ego play a role here? The kind of punishment evidently requested by Paul and carried out by the congregation constitutes a form of church discipline. Such discipline is seldom carried out in our churches today except occasionally for erring pastors. Do you think church discipline is an effective way to bring about repentance and restore a congregation’s integrity? Why or why not?
JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.