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 ESV)
Tough love is something that we have all experienced at some point of our lives and usually from those that love us most, like our families. We accept this as a normal part of family life and see it even as a refining virtue. The Scriptures are clear that this should be no different in the life of the church. People have a tendency, despite their natural family experiences with genuine tough love, to recoil at the thought of tough love in the church. In the sphere of ecclesiology this tough love in the church is called “Church Discipline”. Despite how ominous that sounds and how unpopular the idea is in the modern church, church discipline is a merciful form of tough love if carried out in a biblical manner.
The Church is also known as the “bride of Christ” and God is at work sanctifying that bride to make for himself a bride without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:27-29). It is important that the church, as Christ’s representatives on earth, be growing in grace and Christ-likeness. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he warns the church about the one in their midst who was sexually immoral and was unrepentant. He warns them that a “little leaven leavens the whole lump” (I Cor 5:6). The body of Christ, His church, is a made up of many members that are all joined together (1 Cor 12). I believe it is not inappropriate to use this analogy to say that if I stub my toe the whole of my body reacts! In a local congregation there is no such thing as sin that only affects the individual. We see this lesson taught in the Old Testament when the sin of one or a few put the whole of Israel in danger (ie. Joshua 7, Ezra 9, etc). The practice of removing from fellowship a “so called brother (or sister)” living in unrepentant sin, which we call church discipline, is a form of tough love that must be in a church if that church is supposed to be healthy, biblical, and faithful to its calling as Christ’s bride and his representative body on earth.
In II Corinthians Paul find himself at the tail end of an episode of tough love that he likely oversaw from a distance. With a grief laden heart he explains in the beginning of chapter two why he delayed his coming to visit them. It was Paul’s wish that in coming to them he would be able to impart “a second experience of grace” (1:15, likely a second chance to give to give to the famished Jerusalem believers) and it was his desire that “his joy would be the joy of them all” but this was to be impossible if matters of discipline were unresolved for then he would come and have no reason to be glad on the account of the one to whom he had caused pain by means of discipline (2:2-3).
Before Paul can come to the church it is his desire that they have this matter in order. It is often debated as to whether this individual being disciplined is the fellow guilty of sexual immorality in I Corinthians 5 or if this is an individual who was stirring up rebellion against Paul. Either way the result here is what they had hoped for, the individual has repented, this is the goal of church discipline. This individual was put out by the church, under the direction of Paul (assuming this is the continuation of the I Cor 5 episode) “to deliver [him] over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Corinthians 5:5). The man has suffered enough in Paul’s estimation (2:6) and his repentance has proved genuine (II Cor. 7:5-13). However the danger for the church in this situation is not over yet! The pain and sorrow caused by this individual has been far-reaching. The leaven has had its swelling effect and the searing pain of a limb severed is still keen. Now we will look at the heart of our text, Paul’s plea for loving and victorious restoration of the offender.
A Wounded Body
The pain that was caused by the discipline of this individual was not a pain felt only by Paul, but by the entire church. Church discipline should never be a joyous occasion, but one of tender grief and loving jealousy for the name and reputation of the bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Paul is an example of the posture of a leader who understands the gravity of the situation. In 2:4 Paul exclaims that he wrote to Corinth “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause [them] more pain but to let [them] know the abundant love that [he had] for [them]“. With this in mind Paul acknowledges that he is not the only one that has been pained by this ordeal, but that this individual who had sinned had caused pain to the entire church.
It is important for Paul to recognize this. Anyone that has experienced church or family life shattered by sin knows the pain and even bitterness that can be caused by it. By recognizing that the entire church has been pained he is then able to admonish them with credibility as to their further action. Paul speaks as one who is not distant emotionally but one who has shared in their sorrow. Paul knows that this time for the church is crucial for its health and we will examine this closely but first we look at what Paul requires of the church in relation to the disciplined individual.
The church in Corinth sits on a sort of precipice with this repentant brother. He has borne the discipline and has clearly repented. The church has been hurt and wounded. Perhaps there are a few who didn’t desire the discipline, but we know that it was done by the agreement of the majority (2:6) and it is possible that more than a few did not wish to restore this man who might only disappoint them again or be a constant reminder of the pain that was wrought. Into this atmosphere Paul “begs” the church to reaffirm their love for this brother. After identifying with their grief he orders that they should “turn to forgive and comfort him” stating that the “punishment by the majority is enough“. The purpose of the discipline had been reached now it was crucial that the church move on to fully restore this brother in love. Paul was in blood earnest in this, for he knew that for the church to fail to obey his direction would lead to a serious blow by the enemy both in the life of the church and the certainly in the life of the one seeking to be restored. Disobedience to Paul’s direction would have led to a victory for the enemy on at least two fronts:
(1) Overwhelming Sorrow
The goal of church discipline is that the flesh may be destroyed by Satan in order that the soul may be saved. In this act we see God’s sovereignty at work over Satan to purify the church. Satan walks about the church, seeking whom he may devour and when one is removed from the protective fellowship of the church, whether by removing himself or by being put out in church discipline, Satan is ready to pounce. Now it is impossible for those that are among the elect to be entirely devoured (Rom 8:38-39) but Satan is cunning and his desire is to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). Paul is concerned that the church, by not receiving this man back into the protective fellowship of the church gathered, would cause him to despair (2:7). Such despair is dangerous.
Paul realized that the enemy would love to see this man be driven to despair and utterly destroyed and rendered useless rather than being made whole. This situation was ripe for Satan to exploit. It is possible that the indignation of some could have led them to believe that they were right in not receiving the offender back into the fellowship. The longer they tarried in forgiving and comforting the offender, the longer he was left outside to be afflicted and ravaged in mind and spirit by the enemy. The result of this would have been tragic for the man put out of the church and a weakening of the Corinthian church’s Gospel foundation….
Jesus taught clearly that the mark of one that is forgiven is that he forgives (Matt 6:14-15). Mercy is foundational in the life of one who has received mercy (Matt 5:7). John Piper once said (paraphrase) that “one who does not show mercy should have no expectation that he himself is a recipient of God’s mercy”. Yet a very real mark of a person(s) that has been wounded is the difficulty to show mercy. As Paul tells them to “turn to forgive and comfort him” he knew that a proper understanding of the Gospel was as stake here in the matter of forgiveness.
Satan would have loved for the church in self-righteousness to hold this man at arm’s length, not forgive him (and feel they were just in doing so) and thus see him consumed.
Amidst the pain and sorrow the danger of this was real. Paul takes the first step in forgiving this man from a distance, just as he had judged him from a distance (I Cor. 5), saying “Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything has been for your sake in the presence of Christ,…” Paul knows that in this situation it is not only the life of the individual who needs forgiving that is at stake but the life of the entire church! For he goes on to say that he did this “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his devices”. Paul, who had been a Pharisee of the Pharisees and a persecutor of the church, knew all too well how Satan will exploit a perceived rightness. In fact in his testimony Paul testifies that he was “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless“(Phil 3:6) yet utterly without mercy.
By not forgiving, by not showing compassion to one who had repented, the church would have forgotten in their hearts the center of the Gospel, which is that is that a holy God saves sinners. The Son of God was despised, rejected, forsaken, spit-on, beaten, and finally slaughtered in order that he might save his enemies. Satan would relish that we forget this in the church, not only so that he may devour the ones put out of the church but so that he may watch as those within the fellowship of the church devour each other.
All of our perceived righteousness and all of our propensity to harbor bitterness when hurt must be left at the foot at the cross. The church is a community of sinners saved by grace being changed from one degree of glory to the next. As the church we must never lose our zeal for the reputation of our God and Savior and we must never cease from our pursuit of personal and corporate purity, but we also must never cease being a people who are desperately aware of how much we need the Gospel each and every moment.
Paul knew that almost any command can be abused and church discipline is one of those commands. Most churches have discarded this biblical practice because of its harsh nature and sadly because it has been often abused throughout church history. However, the potential of abuse did not stop Paul from practicing church discipline and it shouldn’t stop us either. In order for us to discipline rightly we must understand that mercy is at the foundation of church discipline.
Just as tough love is found in the life of every healthy family so also it will be found in every healthy church. What determines if that tough love is in fact healthy and truly loving lies in how the church responds to the call to restore the offender who repents. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to test them and see if they were “obedient in everything” (2:9) this included forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an option for us, no matter how deeply we have been hurt by the sins of others. Satan would love to convince us that we have a right to be bitter or to withdraw, pout, and lick our wounds. It is not that our wounds are not real, even Paul was afflicted in his soul as a result of the situation he faced at Corinth, but we must understand those emotional wounds in light of the thorn pierced brow, the nail scared hands, and shredded back of Christ.
Keep the Gospel fresh in your heart and mind, “Pursue holiness without which no man shall see the Lord,”Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”,and you will not be outwitted by Satan. (Heb12:14, Eph 4:32)
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