It is a sad fact that many people are wounded, bruised, and even sometimes turned away from the faith because of church conflict. Charges are made, friends stop talking to each other, Pastors have to uproot families, and the body of Christ gets a black eye.
Let’s be realistic. When church people fight it is not a sign of hypocrisy . . . it is a sign that the people of the church are real human beings. Conflict is a normal part of life. People tend to overreact and say things in anger that should not be said. Some of those wounds last a lifetime.
As a Pastor I have been subject to charges that attacked by character, my motives, and my methods. In almost every case I feel the charges were unjust and misrepresented my heart and my actions (or lack of action). Perhaps this is why I resonate with Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4. In these words Paul defends himself from charges that have been leveled at him by the Corinthians. As we mentioned last week, throughout the letter of 2 Corinthians Paul felt it necessary to defend himself from criticism.
12 We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you. 13 Our letters have been straightforward, and there is nothing written between the lines and nothing you can’t understand. I hope someday you will fully understand us, 14 even if you don’t understand us now. Then on the day when the Lord Jesus returns, you will be proud of us in the same way we are proud of you.
Charge One: Paul is Insincere
It is always a dangerous thing when people begin to assume. When you assume, or read into the words or actions of another, it is easy to create a caricature of anyone. Any charge can be leveled because it is all based on imagination.
As we have pointed out before, scholars believe after Paul heard there were problems in Corinth he went to visit the church but the visit didn’t go well. There was a group of people who opposed Paul and the gospel he proclaimed. Paul called this his “painful visit”. As a result of this conflict, charges were made against Paul. The first was that Paul was speaking an insincere message; he wasn’t being honest. Apparently, the charge was that Paul was trying to take advantage of them by words that were not truthful.
This is a very difficult charge to defend against. One misunderstanding leads to another. When you start questioning someone’s integrity or sincerity you can attribute all kinds of things to them. When you are in leadership, such attacks (if they take hold) can destroy people. A charge of misusing public funds, sexual harassment, or any other kind of impropriety can destroy a person in any position. This is why the Bible warns us not to consider or entertain charges without the testimony of witnesses. Innuendo is a weapon that does not require truth or accuracy to destroy someone else.
Paul defends himself the only way you can defend yourself in such situations. He testifies that he said what he meant and he meant what he said. He said his words should be taken at face value. He was not sending any “hidden” messages.
Paul says he (and his colleagues) depended on God’s grace rather than human wisdom. In other words, they trusted God’s power to use the truth rather than depending on human wisdom or the manipulation of the world. Worldly wisdom says: say whatever you need to say to get what you want is what you need to say. In other words truth is “that which serves my purpose” rather than “that which is accurate”. Paul wasn’t concerned about “getting his own way”. He wasn’t playing on emotions, appealing to guilt, or any other kind of manipulative tactics. He wasn’t even concerned about gaining a larger audience. He spoke the truth of God as plainly as possible, confident that God’s truth (rather than our tactics) is what will transform people. He proclaimed the message that God has seen our sinful live and sent Jesus to rescue us. He proclaimed that we cannot save ourselves but God has done what is necessary for our salvation.
Paul said he was confident that when they all stand before the Lord on the Day of Judgment they will “be proud” of Paul, just as he is proud of them. They will then realize that what he was doing was out of love rather than out of self-service.
Let me stop and apply this. First, I hope you are led to ask yourself, “Am I guilty of questioning the integrity or motives of another? Am I guilty of using innuendo to cast doubt on a person’s character? Am I drawing conclusions that are based on my impressions rather than on any real evidence? Is it possible that you have unfairly judged someone else? If so, then confess your sin and repent. You may need to apologize and ask for forgiveness. You may need to make right the wrongs that you have done. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.
Second, we need to ask ourselves a question: Am I living my life in such a way that is above reproach? Am I speaking plainly and truthfully or am I trying to manipulate people and situations? We need to ask are we simply and accurately presenting the truth of God as His people or are we “compromising the message” to make it more palatable to the world around us? It is one thing to change your approach depending on your audience (that is wisdom); it is another to change the content of the message! We represent the Lord of truth and life. As His representatives we must be truth tellers also. We are His ambassadors. What we do represents Him to others . . . good or bad.
Charge Two: Paul is a Liar
15 Since I was so sure of your understanding and trust, I wanted to give you a double blessing by visiting you twice—16 first on my way to Macedonia and again when I returned from Macedonia. Then you could send me on my way to Judea.
17 You may be asking why I changed my plan. Do you think I make my plans carelessly? Do you think I am like people of the world who say “Yes” when they really mean “No”? 18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you does not waver between “Yes” and “No.” 19 For Jesus Christ, the Son of God, does not waver between “Yes” and “No.” He is the one whom Silas, Timothy, and I preached to you, and as God’s ultimate “Yes,” he always does what he says. 20 For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory.
Paul apparently had told the Corinthians that he was going to come for a visit, visit some other churches, and then he would come back through Corinth again. When he came to Corinth things were much worse than Paul anticipated. So, he changed his mind about the return visit. He felt it would be counter-productive. The conclusion his opponents drew was that Paul lied to them. It was vastly unfair.
Have you ever had to made plans and then had to change them?
- You promised your children an adventure but a family crisis made it impossible?
- You told your wife you would spend the day together but then the cattle got out?
- You planned a picnic lunch but it started to storm?
- You said you would attend a gathering but something unavoidable came up and you couldn’t make it?
- Perhaps you planned to attend a gathering but realized your being there would (or could) create problems with someone else who was there so you decided to stay away in an effort to avoid a bad situation.
It has happened to all of us. Were you lying in those situations? No. Your intentions were sincere. You told the truth as you saw it at the time. As human beings we do not have the privilege of knowing the future. This is why James advises,
13 Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” 14 How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. 15 What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” 16 Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
James says we should make all our plans with the knowledge that God may have other plans in mind for us. And, honestly, most of the time we assume that is the case. We know things could come into our lives that would change all our plans in an instant. I think Paul understood this too. However, if you are trying to criticize someone, understanding tends to be replaced by criticism.
Paul tried to explain what happened.
23 Now I call upon God as my witness that I am telling the truth. The reason I didn’t return to Corinth was to spare you from a severe rebuke. 24 But that does not mean we want to dominate you by telling you how to put your faith into practice. We want to work together with you so you will be full of joy, for it is by your own faith that you stand firm.
[Chapter 2] So I decided that I would not bring you grief with another painful visit. 2 For if I cause you grief, who will make me glad? Certainly not someone I have grieved. 3 That is why I wrote to you as I did, so that when I do come, I won’t be grieved by the very ones who ought to give me the greatest joy. Surely you all know that my joy comes from your being joyful. 4 I wrote that letter in great anguish, with a troubled heart and many tears. I didn’t want to grieve you, but I wanted to let you know how much love I have for you.
Paul had made plans to benefit the Corinthian church by visiting them twice. His desire was to do what was best for them. He didn’t go to Corinth on the return visit for the same reason: he knew it would stir up even more trouble and difficulty. Paul believed the situation needed to cool down before it could resolve. Making a return visit would do more harm than good.
Once again we can learn something from Paul’s situation. First, plans change. Good intentions cannot always be carried out. Sickness, loss, weather, traffic, and any number of variables can change the best plans. It is natural to be disappointed, but it happens.
If it is always happens to plans related to one person (like a spouse) then it may indicate a lack of consideration. There are times when our plans with our spouse should cause us to say to someone else, “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to do this because I have to be somewhere else” (you don’t any more than that). But that is not always possible.
Second, we learn that sometimes taking a step back is the best way to handle a volatile situation. Immediate confrontation is not always the best approach. When people are upset they say things they regret and often make the situation even worse. Sometimes people need an opportunity to reflect and weigh what was said and what happened. If we truly want is best for a relationship (and let’s be honest, sometimes we simply want to wound, payback, or fight), we will do what will eventually lead to reconciliation and sometimes that is a temporary step back.
James told us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. In order to do this, sometimes we need to take a step back. This is what Paul did.
An Important Underlying Principle
In the midst of this discussion about truth and broken promises we read these words:
21 It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, 22 and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us.
I think this is the key to Paul’s entire attitude and should be the key to our mindset as well. In the midst of all this personal attack Paul reminded the Corinthians of some very important truths.
We stand only because of God’s grace and strength. As long as we focus on being power-brokers, as long as we are wrestling for control of the church we show that we have missed the point entirely. We stand firm in Christ not by out-maneuvering others or by leading the church by our agenda or vision . . . we stand firm in Christ through His power and His power alone. The attacks that were made on Paul revealed a lack of maturity at best and a spurious faith at worst.
We have a job to do: to stand firm and to represent Him in the world. Right or wrong, the world looks at Christians and draws conclusions about God.
- When we are mean, angry, and abusive to people who engage in certain sins (like homosexuality, immorality, the party lifestyle) people wrongly conclude that God hates them. He doesn’t.
- When we redefine truth or negotiate moral standards to fit our cultural mores, people conclude that God’s standards of right and wrong are negotiable. They are not.
- When we pick and fight with each other; when we are always spotlighting the negative or magnifying the faults of the people in the church (or outside of the church); people will assume that God also focuses on the negative. They conclude that being part of the church will mean people are going to be critical of them. The truth is that God wants the body of Christ to be made up of people who are cheering each other on in the goal of honoring Christ in our lives.
- When we run the church like we do any other business (concerned about market share and making more money), people conclude that the church is just another “heartless” business only concerned about profit margin. The church should care more about people than stuff.
So, before we enter into, feed, or even create a conflict situation, it is good to think about the message our actions will have on the people around us. What message are we sending about Jesus? Are we representing Him accurately or are we disparaging His name?
We possess the same Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been given to every believer. This fact is what identifies us as a child of God. Because we possess the same Spirit we should also be moving in the same direction. There should be a sense of “family” in our midst because we have been made one in Christ. There should be a humility that is growing within us due to the realization that we are made new by the undeserved grace of Christ.
When families don’t get along it is bad for everyone. Friends, neighbors and various relatives have to pick sides. The strength that we should gain from our family now is undermined and we are all weakened.
Families do fight. They sometimes get on each other’s nerves and sometimes say things they should not have said. However, a strong family resolves issues, they forget the past, and they move on stronger than they were before the conflict.
It is OK to admit that this is an odd passage to study. We have a tendency to read these words and quickly conclude that they have no purpose for us. But God preserved this letter for a reason. The problem that Paul was facing with the congregation in Corinth is not unique to Paul and the Corinthians. These kinds of problems face all of us.
So what should we learn? Here are some suggestions:
We should be careful what we say about each other. Reckless charges can do great damage to people and to the Kingdom of God. Before you make a charge about someone (that they “don’t care”, are selfish, don’t mean what they say, or they can’t be trusted) stop and ask yourself some questions:
Do I have all the facts? If you have not talked directly to the person you are talking about you can’t possibly have all the facts.
Is this something to which I should respond with grace? Even if a person has failed or disappointed, or even angered you the question we need to ask is: should we simply overlook the offense in grace and mercy?
We must be Kingdom-oriented in solving problems. It is always tempting to be led by our desire to “win”. As Christ-followers we must learn to define “winning” differently. We win when we resolve conflict. We win when we build on truth. We win when we show grace, love and mercy.
Finally, we should protect the oneness we have with each other. Our job is to build bridges and to show the world the love of Christ in our midst. We should build bridges with believers in other churches and in other places around the world. We should work to spotlight strengths rather than picking at differences. We should focus not on the things that divide but on the fact that we are part of the same family.
If we will do these things we hopefully find that in those things that used to cause conflict, we will choose instead to respond with grace. Instead of the church being seen as a place of hurt and division, people will instead see a unity and a spiritual oneness among us that draws them to God’s Kingdom rather than pushing them away.