Have you ever lost a friend or a family member because of some conflict between you? Have you tried to make amends for something you did but continued to be pushed away? If so, you will benefit from this morning’s text.
This morning we return to 2 Corinthians. Paul (the author) was the first true missionary to the Gentiles or non-Jews. He helped start Christian congregations all over Turkey, Greece and part of Europe. One of those churches was in the seacoast town of Corinth.
The Corinthians were a diverse group. Because Corinth was a busy seaport the city was filled with people from different countries and cultures. When Paul proclaimed the message of Jesus some took offense. Others however embraced Christ and these people were the members of the first church of Corinth. Paul stayed with these people for awhile and helped them get established as a church. Paul kept in contact with the church as he went out to plant new churches.
In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians Paul answered some clarifying questions brought to him. Many parts of 1 Corinthians are very well known even by non-believers (such as the “love chapter”).
Between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians a serious problem developed. Before writing 2 Corinthians Paul made a “painful visit” to Corinth and then wrote a “severe letter” to the church. Apparently the letter awakened the people. 2 Corinthians is largely designed to address the issues raised in the conflict and restore the relationship between Paul and the church.
As Paul begins our passage today he refers to the conflict that was severe and seemed to have been focused on one person. As we look at this text Paul will show us some things about conflict situations.
The Best Way to Handle Conflict is to Involve as Few People as Possible
There has been great debate among Bible students as to the nature of the conflict Paul refers to. Some suggest that Paul is referring to the situation he mentioned in his first letter in chapter 5 (he didn’t write the letter with chapters . . . they were added much later). There was a man in the church who was sexually involved with his step mother. The church knew about it but they did nothing. Paul said they were proud of their open-mindedness.
He told the church they were wrong and instead of standing by and doing nothing they should kick the guy out of the church. This kind of sin did not only compromise the witness of the church, it would be like a cancer to all the members. This behavior, unaddressed, would lead others to compromise with sin as well. Paul said the only way to deal with this behavior was to make it clear that this was wrong behavior and until this man turned from this blatant sin, he would be denied fellowship with the church.
Some have concluded that the church did what Paul said. When Paul arrived in Corinth (sometime after his first letter) the man may have confronted Paul and asked “Who do you think you are?” Such situations are never pleasant. It’s possible that people in the church started taking sides (which often happens).
This is a very plausible explanation for what Paul is referring to in our text. But notice something: Paul does not specify what the problem was. The Corinthians knew what had happened and there was no use rehashing the situation. Paul had no desire to feed the rumor mill. He understood that stirring the pot and rehashing old hurts was not going to bring about the healing that was needed in the church.
We know this from personal experience. Let’s say you fall and open a wound on your leg. It is going to take some time for that wound to heal. However, what will happen if you keep picking at the scab on the wound? Will it heal faster or will it take longer to heal? It will not only take longer but it has an increased chance of infection.
The same is true in times of conflict. The more we “pick at the scab” the longer it is going to take for things to heal. The more we keep rehashing the past the deeper the wound. The more we talk about it with others the wider the hurt grows. If you tell people who love you that you have been hurt, they will be hurt also. They too will be forced to take a side (which is usually what we want them to do when we tell them). This just makes the conflict greater and it often takes these people longer to get past the hurt than it will take you! You can see this played out over and over again on Social Media sites like Facebook.
So, the first step to healing is to put a fence around the hurt. Deal with that hurt with the principle parties and leave it there.
Discipline is Meant to be Redemptive
Whatever the issue that is referred to here is, we know the church responded to it as Paul suggested. Perhaps they excommunicated the member who was wayward. As a result of their action, the person was brought to repentance. He expressed sorrow for what he had done.
It appears there were some in the church who felt that this person’s repentance was not sufficient. Maybe they felt it was superficial. Perhaps they thought the person deserved a greater punishment. Those loyal to Paul may have believed the man shouldn’t “get off so easily”. Maybe they thought they should boycott his place of business.
If he was a family member perhaps they felt they should no longer invite the person to family gatherings. Maybe they changed their will to make sure the person didn’t get anything “after what they had done”. Whatever they wanted to do there seems to be a feeling that more punishment should be given before this person was (if ever) laws truy restored to the fellowship of the church.
Perhaps they were trying to show their loyalty to Paul. But loyalty can be dangerous. Paul makes two points.
First, Paul points out that the issue is not him . . . it is the purity of the Christian community. He writes,
5 I am not overstating it when I say that the man who caused all the trouble hurt all of you more than he hurt me.
Paul’s hurt is not the issue. What matters was the hurt this person was causing to the church. This conflict, says Paul, should not be about personalities, it should be about behaviors and attitudes.
It is not OK to hurt each other. We should show love to one another. When we offend another person we should go to them and ask forgiveness. When another has hurt us we should go to that person and tell them that we have been hurt (because there are many times we do not know we have done something to hurt another person).
However, Paul is saying drastic action was necessary not because this person had offended Paul (that was a personal issue), but because he had threatened the purity of the church made it a public issue. Personal issues should be dealt with personally (privately) while church issues should be dealt with as the body of Christ.
The rule for personal offenses is to reconcile, forgive, or overlook an offense. There may be times when others must be involved but for the most part we are to work through the issues. The rule for a church problem is to confront, discipline (if necessary) and restore.
Let’s take one issue: the issue of sexual unfaithfulness. If this is a sin between a husband and wife they may need a counselor’s help but the issue is best to keep private. Only in the case of a refusal to repent should this issue be brought before others. However, if the issue involves a Pastor or a prominent leader in the church then because of the impact such behavior has on the reputation and purity of the church it must be dealt with as a church body. This is why Pastors are generally removed from their positions in these cases.
Second, Paul points out that the motivation of church discipline is not punishment, but redemption and restoration. Paul said,
Most of you opposed him, and that was punishment enough. 7 Now, however, it is time to forgive and comfort him. Otherwise he may be overcome by discouragement. 8 So I urge you now to reaffirm your love for him.
The reason we must hold each other accountable, the reason for church discipline, is not about control, it is about spiritual growth. It is not about judging people, it is about protecting people. It is not about punishment, it is about redemption. Paul said the man who was involved with his step-mother should be excommunicated not to punish him . . . but to wake him up to the sinfulness of his actions!
This is something we often miss. Someone does something sinful and wrong and we shun them (this is to be a last resort rather than the first response). We write people off as a lost cause. We determine to never have anything to do with that person again. That mentality is sinful! We are to seek the redemption of people not their condemnation! Sadly, we are much better at kicking people out than we are at welcoming lost and repentant people back into the fold of the church. Yet, this is what we would want from others if we had strayed and realized the error of our ways.
Human nature is such that when someone does something to us personally, instead of trying to resolve the issue, we become fully armed and go to war. We are not content with working through the conflict, we want to WIN! We are not happy until we feel we have hurt the other person as much (or just a little more) than we were hurt because we want them to learn the lesson that they should never cross us again! That is the wrong approach.
In conflict situations it is easy to be seduced by power. For some reason we feel we have the right to “play God” and issue edicts about a person. We are to hold each other accountable to live as God commanded us to live (which is not the same as holding others accountable to the way we think they should live). However, accountability is like tending to trees. The goal in trimming trees is not to punish the tree, but to encourage the health and fruitfulness of the tree.
In this situation in Corinth the goal had been achieved. The discipline applied by the church led this man to repent of his sin. Now it was time to welcome the man back into the fellowship of the church.
A Lack of Forgiveness is a tool of Satan
The third principle Paul shows us is that a lack of forgiveness is a tool of Satan. When we refuse to reconcile, when we refuse to move past the hurt, Satan will use our hard-heartedness to harden both the offender and the one offended.
10 When you forgive this man, I forgive him, too. And when I forgive whatever needs to be forgiven, I do so with Christ’s authority for your benefit, 11 so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.
Paul calls for forgiveness to make sure the one punished is not “overcome by discouragement” (v.7). Church discipline is necessary but it must be administered carefully. The goal is to REDEEM and to restore. If the church continued to “pile on” this man, he would become discouraged, sink into despair, and drift even further from the Lord. In other words they would effectively do more harm than good.
I am saddened to think of how many people have left the church because they did something foolish and sinful and then were relentlessly beat up by fellow believers because of it.
An unwillingness to forgive (in either personal or church situations) is an open door to Satan. When we refuse to forgive, Satan is allowed to use his arsenal of bitterness, resentment, a judgmental spirit, gossip, a lack of love, and through these weapons he can easily move us further and further from grace.
Of forgiveness, one writer writes,
The command (to forgive) is addressed to ordinary believers who must learn to love and therefore forgive not-so-lovable and forgivable people in the church, who slander, lie, embezzle, commit adultery and manipulate. It requires the community of faith to return to grace when its unity and peace is jeopardized by human shortcomings and weaknesses. It calls forth obedience when someone else’s sin inflicts pain upon an innocent party and breeds mistrust among believers.
Forgiveness is a uniquely Christian practice. Where the rest of the world pursues justice and payback, the church (and its people) is to be an example of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Apparently, in Corinth the person who committed the sin acknowledged his wrong behavior. It was time for the church to forgive and restore the man.
Let’s talk about forgiveness. First, no one said forgiveness would be easy. Let’s even go so far as to say that in some situations it seems like forgiveness is impossible. How could you ever forgive someone who murdered a family member? How do you forgive someone who took the life of your child in a senseless school shooting? How do you forgive someone who brutalized you? I don’t have an answer for those questions. Forgiveness in such situations requires a work of God.
Most situations are not that extreme. So the second thing to remember is that most of the time, when we are told to forgive, we are being told to forgive things we ourselves could do or have done. We are told to forgive a hurtful word, a betrayal, a dishonest deal, an angry outburst, or a reckless action. All of these things are bad but they are things that we too have been guilty of on occasion. Because of this, we know how much we depend on forgiveness and grace. We are to give to others what we would hope to receive if the situation was reversed.
Third, we are told to forgive because God have forgiven us far worse offenses. This is the real argument of the Bible. As followers of Christ we have been forgiven our treason against God, our idolatry, our denials of faith, our refusal to obey, and our reckless sin. People who refuse to forgive have no concept of what they have been forgiven. The Bible argues that since we know what it is like to be forgiven, we should be willing (and even eager) to extend similar forgiveness to others. We know how much freedom and life is given through forgiveness. We know because we have experienced it.
Fourth, we are most like Jesus when we forgive. Nothing honors the Lord more than when we extend mercy and grace to someone. It is a divine act. It is not our natural response. When we forgive, we find release from the bitterness, the resentment, and the strain of conflict. We enjoy a restored relationship with the one who hurt us and experience the grace of God in a special and wonderful way.
One of the great stories of forgiveness was told by the late Corrie ten Boom. She had gone through the horrors of the Nazi prison camp. She was humiliated and saw her sister die before her. After the war she spoke to many about her faith. On one of these occasions she recognized one of the guards who had caused her suffering in the audience. The guard came up to her after the meeting (he did not recognize her) and extended his hand. He told Corrie that he had been wonderfully forgiven by Christ. Her first thought was, “I will never shake this man’s hand”. However, something inside of her that told her to extend her hand. She reached out her hand only as an act of obedience to the whispers of God’s Spirit inside of her. She said when she shook his hand she said she experienced the love of God in a way that was greater than anything else she had ever known.
Because of our unique relationship as the body of Christ we must hold each other accountable. We should care when we see someone headed in the wrong direction. We must not bury our head in the sand even if it is what the rest of the world tells us we should do. However . . . we must hold each other accountable not out of a desire to condemn, but with a desire to redeem and restore.
Sometimes in the church we can be horribly mean and vindictive toward each other. At the very time people most need our support (when they have failed or fallen) we turn our backs or wag our fingers. This should not be. We should be people who apply grace and forgiveness to the wounded. As followers of Christ we should be more concerned about the glory of God than about personal victories. We should see sin as that which destroys people, homes, and churches. The struggle others face should provoke in us a compassion and grace that desires to help the hurting get free from what enslaves them. We should desire to help rather than condemn.
Deep down we all want this. We want to be a church that is recognized as a place where love is shown in actions. So we need to listen carefully to what Paul is teaching us. We need to train ourselves to respond as God commands rather than simply adopting the punishing ways of the world. If we will do this, we will not only keep from losing our friends and family members, we might also see our enemies responding to God’s grace.
 Gerald Sittser Loving Across our Differences (Downers Grover: Intervarsity1994) p. 87