June 8/9, 2013
Jason Meyer | 2 Corinthians 2:5-11
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
—2 Corinthians 2:5–11
Last week I closed with a word picture that I want to begin with this week. A church celebrates the Lord’s Supper as a family meal. Each member of the family pulls up a chair at the table. Each person seated at the table is there to do one thing: Remember. This remembering is what Jesus commanded: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24–25). When we look into the texts on the Lord’s Supper for what we are to remember about Jesus, two things come to the forefront: (1) the Lord’s death (body and blood) (1 Corinthians 11:24–25), and (2) the Lord’s return (1 Corinthians 11:26).
The first, his death (his body and blood represented by the bread and the wine) reminds us why we have a seat at the table. We have a seat at the table because of what is on the table. His work in our behalf, not our work, is why we are seated at the table. That means that no one can look down at anyone else at the table—we are not looking down on anyone—we are looking up together at One—our Lord and Savior. So we remember the reason we are at the table is what is on the table. While we are there at the table we may have conflict. As in any family, we may have lots of opportunities to both receive and give forgiveness as we have received forgiveness from God. As I said last week, we can have hard conversations around the table because of what is on the table. The focus remains on what is on the table! The death of Christ literally is the life-blood of our community.
The second thing we remember, the Lord’s coming, reminds us of our future together. What is he returning for—our future! Our groaning will become glory. He saved a people. He is going to take us to the place he has been preparing for us. As he described the place he is preparing, he once again points us to a meal that we will have together. We commemorate the Last Supper in this fallen world as a way to look ahead to the First Supper in the world to come. (I got the language of Last Supper to First Supper from my BCS colleague, Joe Rigney). More importantly, he got the concept from Jesus.
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”—Matthew 26:27–29
This act of remembering is what defines a church. Jesus forces us to remember who we are and what we are waiting for and perhaps more decisively we remember whose we are. Therefore, what we have shared, do share, and will share together defines us more than any individual distinctive that could divide us. No one has the right to say that they are done with anyone at the table. This week’s text appears to offer an exception to that rule: what about church discipline? Can the church declare that someone’s place at the table is no longer valid?
What is a church? Does it have the right to say that someone has a place at the table? Does it have the right to say that someone no longer has a place at the table? Is this not an abuse of authority and “lording it over someone’s faith” (2 Corinthians 1:24)? I believe that Paul addresses those very questions in this passage.
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.
The point of this verse is to interpret the pain that is the aftermath of the painful visit. Notice a couple of things. First, he addresses the individual in a singular, yet general way. Paul has no desire to shame the person by publicly naming him. The Corinthians already know all about it and so Paul feels no need to rehearse all the details including calling him out. It is individual though in the sense that Paul says “he has caused it.” There is a person that is behind these things. The same point is made in 2 Corinthians 7.
So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God”
(2 Corinthians 7:12).
This reference to an individual begs the question: “Who is it?”
Older commentators almost all believed that it was the person that was committing sin with his stepmother in 1 Corinthians 5. That makes the “tearful letter” a reference to 1 Corinthians. 2 Corinthians would then testify that they enacted the church discipline and the person subsequently repented and now they must forgive him.
Modern commentators are virtually unanimous in rejecting this view. They reject it for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps the main reason is because it is hard to believe that 1 Corinthians really represents the tearful letter. It is also hard to account for what Paul calls “another painful visit” back in 2 Corinthians 2:1. Most commentators believe that the travel narrative assumed in 1 Corinthians and mentioned as a plan in 2 Corinthians was abandoned because of a painful visit in which Paul’s apostleship was directly challenged. This visit took place between the writing of 1 and 2 Corinthians and thus the “tearful letter” could not have been 1 Corinthians, but must refer to a letter now lost.
I tend to agree more with modern commentators on this point, but I think the fact that he is not named and the transgression is not spelled out actually helps make it more widely applicable. The specific person and the specific transgression in any case, is manifestly NOT Paul’s point. So what is his point here?
One of the seven A’s of a confession as taught by Peacemaker Ministries is to “address everyone involved.” Paul is not making a confession, but he is trying to convince the Corinthians that they were all involved. Paul is saying that this was not a personal struggle that was all about me. It was not personal in the sense that I just want to win for the sake of my ego and my reputation. It was not a mere personal struggle; it was a pastoral struggle in which he wanted the gospel to win. If you did not turn back to me, the gospel would not win this congregation and thus you all would lose. It would be easy to think that the congregation was on the periphery of the conflict just because of the presence of key parties (Paul and his accuser). That is why he says that they all (at least in part) were part of this struggle. The pain that the accuser made was pain that impacted the whole community and brought them into this painful struggle.
Paul tries to show them that Satan has been trying to lure them away from him. He wants to convince them that when they sided with him, they returned to the truth of the gospel. Siding with Paul meant that they had to do something about the person that opposed Paul because that person was opposing the gospel.
The community sided with Paul against his adversary and thus they carried out “community punishment.” Look at verse six.
For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,
Paul applauds them elsewhere for siding with him and the gospel.
Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all. For whatever boasts I made to him about you, I was not put to shame. But just as everything we said to you was true, so also our boasting before Titus has proved true. And his affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling. I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you.
—2 Corinthians 7:13-16
Here his point is to actually give them a warning about not knowing when to stop the punishment. He says, “look, the punishment carried out by the majority is enough—it is sufficient.” I think Paul means that it is sufficient because the purpose of the punishment was to heal and restore, not further wound and injure. The next point shows that the punishment worked. The person repented and saw the error of his ways. We will see much more on that in point three in terms of his response, but before we turn there, I want to make sure that everyone sees an important principle: The church carries out the punishment here, not Paul. This is really an astonishing fact. Why didn’t Paul just do it? He was an apostle? He had the authority to do it, right?
Application: What is a church, a church member, and what is congregationalism?
Almost everyone agrees that some form of church discipline or correction is in view here. This raises the question: is the church supposed to do this kind of thing today? What is a church anyway? What does church discipline or corporate punishment really say?
The first thing to recognize is the journey from the Gospels to the Epistles. When one looks at the Gospel of Matthew, one notices that Jesus mentions the word “church” two times and “kingdom” 49 times. Paul’s letters, on the other hand, mention “church” 43 times and “kingdom” 14 times. Why this shift? The two times that Jesus talked about the church in Matthew account for the shift.
In Matthew 16, Peter makes a confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus goes on to declare who Peter is. He is the rock on whom Jesus will build his church. Now I do not go into complicated arguments that try to distance the rock from Peter. I simply acknowledge that the rock cannot be separated from Peter and Peter cannot be separated from his confession or his role as spokesperson for the apostles. These keys of the kingdom that he receives have a very specific promise with them. Jesus does not give a promise of rubber stamping: whatever you bind or loose, heaven will do likewise. The verb tense here is the past perfect. What Peter binds and looses will already have been bound or loosed in heaven. Jesus, in other words, promises to guide Peter and the apostles so that what they bind and loose will accord with what Jesus wants. The promise is that Jesus will guide their decisions to accord with his in heaven, not that they will govern heaven’s decisions.
Then, once again in Matthew 18, this binding and loosing activity come up again. This time it is in the context of church discipline. Private attempts at correction have failed and so have corporate attempts from the church and therefore the person is treated as being outside the covenant community—not part of Jesus’ assembly. Jesus again promises his presence will guide them into the right decisions on these occasions.
This verse in 2 Corinthians (in my judgment) is one of the clearest texts on congregationalism in the Bible. He attempted to persuade them that this was their direct responsibility. They had oversight over this person’s Christian confession. They are a kingdom outpost or embassy that affirms or revokes someone’s passport as a kingdom citizen.
Revoking someone’s passport is a big deal. A community says, “We can no longer vouch for you as a Christian. You are not part of the saints in light, you are walking in darkness. You are not alive in Christ; you are a walking dead man. You do not share the glorious future for which we are eagerly awaiting. You are not abiding in the vine as a branch. On the last day, we believe that Jesus will separate you from the rest of the sheep and he will identify you as a goat. We are doing our best today to represent what we believe He will say on that day.
This is the principle of plurality. The majority has to say it. It cannot be only the leaders. That authority could be abused if the keys of the kingdom were only given to a select few in the church. It cannot be a personality clash in which some people just can’t get along anymore. It must be the majority of the congregation and they must understand what they are saying. The sin or sins in question are in a category in which a whole assembly looks at and agrees that this is disqualifying. The congregation is saying, “We no longer feel able to affirm your profession of faith.”
The sin or sin pattern must be outward, serious, and unrepentant. The sin must be outward in the sense that we are not in the domain of sins of the heart like greed or pride. These are sins that can be seen with the eyes and heard with the ears.
The sin must be serious—serious enough to say that we would not expect a Christian to commit such a sin or a pattern of such a sin.
Finally, the person must be unrepentant. The person has been confronted with God’s commands in Scripture and how it appears they have left the path of joy in Jesus to pursue their love affair with sin. By all appearances, the person looks they love their sin more than Jesus.
There is a third category. A person may apologize and claim to be repentant, but a church could proceed with discipline anyway when the church simply cannot automatically believe the person’s words. It may be habitual lying or deliberate (longstanding pattern of abuse or premeditated murder) or heinous (like rape or child abuse). Those things make any quick words of apology remain unbelievable—at least for a time.
Jonathan Leeman says it this way in Church Membership (p. 114):
It’s not that such sins cannot be forgiven, it’s just that some time needs to pass and the fruit of repentance displayed before a church can responsibly pronounce forgiveness (see the example in Acts 8:17–24). On the other hand, when a church becomes convinced that a person is genuinely repentant, it should not proceed with formal discipline (and I cannot think of a single exception to this principle).
You have to do formative discipline before you do corrective discipline. Or to use last week as an example: We need to make a lot of observations with one another before we make a major joint declaration together against someone. Another way to say it: you need to practice formative correction on a small scale before you do collective correction on a large scale.
Someone needs to know what they are joining and what they are inviting. You don’t get a new member and then bring church discipline the first time that they get angry or say something mean spirited. That would be like seeing a long lost child for the first time and having your first interaction be a spanking. You have to set the relationship and lay out the accountability standards.
One thing that Leeman mentions in his excellent book on church membership is what is the difference between two Christians at a coffee shop that are from two different churches and two Christians at a coffee shop that are from the same church? The simplest answer is that the two Christians from the same church have a different relationship because they have different obligations to each other.
Members of a church body say “We recognize your profession of faith, baptism, and discipleship to Christ as valid. Therefore, we publicly affirm and acknowledge you as belonging to Christ and the oversight of our fellowship.” The individual, as a member, acknowledges something similar. They say, “Insofar as I recognize you as a faithful, gospel-declaring church, I submit my presence and my discipleship to your love and oversight.”
He then gave an illustration. “Coyle and I receive the affirmation and oversight of one embassy, while Mike receives these things from another. It’s as though two of us get our passports authorized at the US Embassy in Brussels, while the other gets it done at the US Embassy in Paris” (p. 65).
So why would we do church discipline? We have not joined a club; we have entered a kingdom. If we do not believe that a person has entered Jesus’ kingdom, then the most loving thing that we can do is tell them plainly that they have permanently left the path of joy. They may be pursuing other things that they love and believe that it will bring them joy, but it will be only the passing pleasures of sin, not the permanent pleasures that are found in the presence of God.
All we really do is enact a mini-stage play at a moment in time that represents our best attempt to represent what we believe the real Judge will say in the real judgment on the last day. As Leeman says, “A church does not enact God’s judgment through discipline. Rather, it stages a small play that pictures the great judgment to come (1 Corinthians 5:5)” (p. 110).
For some church discipline means removing someone from the rolls, not because we believe that they are caught in unrepentant sin that calls their Christian confession into question, but because we never see them enough to make an assessment from our experience of them. Jesus may know you or he may not, but we do not and we do not feel like we know you enough to comment on your confession.
So you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ,
I love the words that accompany the word “forgiveness” that help flesh it out. Notice in verse 7, we have the word “comfort” again. Experiencing forgiveness is experiencing the tender strengthening that God brings to the soul. The soul is fortified through experiencing forgiveness. Notice also the phrase in verse 8: “reaffirm your love for him.” Forgiveness is the reaffirmation of love.
But you may have noticed that I introduced a slight problem here on purpose. These verses do not say that God is to forgive and comfort and re-affirm his love for the individual. It says that the Corinthians are to forgive and comfort and reaffirm their love for him. Therefore, the question is raised: who forgives, comforts, and reaffirms love—God or the Corinthians?
Paul’s answer is “yes.” Or more specifically, we should get the relationship between these two realities right. God’s forgiveness, comfort, and love always set the precedent for our forgiveness, comfort, and love. We make it our aim to represent God’s forgiveness, comfort, and love rightly. What a privilege we have in this relationship as part of the children of God. We get to represent the voice, the heart, and the hands of God for a person when we forgive, comfort, and reaffirm our love for them. Fortifying comfort is experienced most powerfully when the voice of God and the voice of the children of God say the same thing.
Which is why rejoicing should follow repentance. Forgiveness is a way to reaffirm our love for someone “in the presence of Christ.” We want to represent what Christ thinks of this repentance. Being “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” comes when someone experiences dissonance between the voice of God and the voice of the people of God. There is dissonance in the story of the prodigal sons. If the Father says that someone was lost and is now found, was dead but now is alive, his fellow brother should agree with that assessment and join the rejoicing of the heaven, not throw a punitive pity party on earth. Our goal is to represent rightly the voice of the Lord of the church. If he would claim the person as his own, who are we to deny him? If Jesus would deny the person, who are we to affirm him? We do not have the right to have the final say, we have the responsibility to say the right thing by trying as best we can to represent the voice of the One who has the final say.
Here is then where the rubber meets the road: if we believe that Jesus has forgiven them, then we cannot in good conscience say something different than Jesus. I can forgive you because you do not answer to me. Even if we are not in a place where we can make all the promises that forgiveness makes, we can say something like, “Because I believe Jesus has forgiven you, I want to forgive you and I am going to trust that he will give me the grace to do it in time.”
So that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Notice that Paul does not have only the protection of this one individual in mind. Do not get me wrong. Paul does comment on that individual when he says he does not want that person to be “overwhelmed with excessive sorrow” (v. 7). But Paul is concerned with more than this individual—the stakes are much higher. Paul says that he forgave for your sake in the presence of Christ (v. 10). He forgave “for your sake” means you would be in danger if I did not forgive. The Corinthian church’s relationship with their apostle is what kept them connected to the apostles’ teaching and shielded them from the false apostles and their false gospel. Where else does Satan show up in 2 Corinthians?
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.—2 Corinthians 11:13–15
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.—2 Corinthians 11:3–4
Paul did not want the community to be vulnerable against Satan’s strategy to draw them away from the true gospel of the true apostles through the false gospel of the false apostles.
Satan will take whatever you give him. He is opportunistic to the core. I don’t want to call him smart because it is stupid to oppose God. But he is smart in knowing our tendency as Luther so memorably put it: to be like a drunk German peasant and thus be easy to fall off a donkey on either side.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul warns the Corinthians for not knowing when to start discipline. Sin needed to be exposed or it would spread like cancer or like leaven. The man needed to be cast out. Here the Corinthians don’t know when to stop the discipline. The person is back at the table so to speak but he is sitting all by himself still feeling the displeasure of the Corinthians.
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.—1 Corinthians 7:5
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.—Ephesians 4:26–27
If they fall on the side of leniency toward sin, Satan will use it. If they go the other way and want to punish sin but go to far and leave an opening for unforgiveness, Satan will take it. If they are devoting themselves to prayer and not having marital intimacy, Satan will use it. If anger lasts longer than a day, Satan will look for an open door. He is always looking for an opening.
In this case, Satan knows that the unity of the church is held together on the basis of forgiveness. If he can continue the conflict and increase the gap between Paul and some of the Corinthians, he will take it.
Forgiveness is a way to outsmart Satan. He would like us to focus on the worth of the person that committed the sin. The Christian knows that they must focus elsewhere if forgiveness is to flow.
You don't forgive someone because they are worthy of it. We certainly were not. Forgiveness does not focus on the person, but on the price that has been paid or will be paid. In the case of a believer sinning against you, you look at the price that has already been paid and you can say, “The death of Jesus is a sufficient payment.” Forgiveness here highlights the worth of Jesus' work.
If an unbeliever sins against you, you can forgive because of the price that will be paid. If that person does not repent, they will pay for that sin personally and eternally in hell. Forgiveness here highlights the high cost that will be paid and it can be given as an opportunity for a loving warning about the future and a loving witness to the power of the gospel to change hearts and make forgiveness possible.
Closing Song: "Jesus, Thank You"