In the last article, we thought about dealing with serious sin in the assembly based on the text of I Corinthians 5. At the conclusion we mentioned the light which Paul’s second letter to Corinth shed on the matter. The sinning man repented and the church must now receive him back into the warmth of fellowship. But we cannot leave this study yet. There is a greater lesson to be learned than how to deal with sin in the Christian community. On the surface it may appear that the main contribution of the second epistle is to assure us that even in the most difficult cases there is hope. But looking more carefully, we can gain some insight as to how things came to this point in the first place. Some would urge that an investigation into conditions at Corinth should not cloud the simple fact: sin is sin and when discovered must be dealt with or it will spread. Quite true. Yet sin is rarely “simple” in relationships, but is often the manifestation of a complex network of hidden actions and attitudes that have gone unheeded for some time. So it seems to have been at Corinth.
Toward the end of his treatment of the whole matter in II Corinthians 7, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the difference between godly or genuine sorrow which leads to repentance, and the sorrow of the world that leads to no true change of heart or action and eventually leads to death. A serious situation has existed in Corinth, and a change of heart has come. But as we ponder Paul’s words a question suggests itself: to what situation is he really referring? Certainly he mentions “the one who did the wrong,” (vs. 12), but is that all? His explanation is arresting. The primary reason for writing this painful letter (1 Corinthians) is “not for his cause that had done the wrong, nor for his cause that suffered wrong, but that our care for you in the sight of God might appear unto you.” One gets the impression that even as he helps the church deal with a local problem, the knowledge that things have not been well in his own relationship with the Corinthians weighs heavily on his heart. Indeed, the attitude of the church to the man who had been a spiritual father to them (that is, who led them to Christ) had been soured. A brief overview of the situation may be helpful.
Apparently, Paul was neither handsome in appearance nor eloquent in speech (II Cor. 10:10). On at least one occasion he had changed his travel plans with respect to an intended visit to Corinth. There were certain illustrious persons at Corinth who were quick to point these things out, calling into question Paul’s authority as an apostle, and by implication the validity of his message. The believers had to some degree been influenced by this criticism so that Paul felt the need to defend himself against accusations that his purposes were insincere (1:17). Must he begin again to commend himself? (3:1). There was a problem in the Corinthians’ affections: “you are restrained in your own affections” (6:12 NASB). “Receive us,” he writes, “we have wronged no man.” (7:2). Now taking all the foregoing into consideration, as we read the seventh chapter once more, the conviction presses upon us that Paul in speaking about repentance (7:9-11) is referring primarily to a problem in the Corinthians’ relationship to himself. Titus had come from them and brought word that the church had turned from its bitter attitude towards Paul (7:6-7), and he is now examining the evidence of genuine repentance, both of the sinning man and of the Corinthians in their attitude towards him. Indeed, the fine details of his language can be explained in no other way.
What rich lessons are here for us! How could there possibly be brokenness at Corinth over a sinful relationship among themselves, when their own hearts were filled with bitterness and malice toward their own father in the faith? Toleration of the immoral man’s conduct was really a symptom of a deeper problem in more fundamental relationships. Paul knew that to address the one while ignoring the other would be missing the point. In fact, there could be no true restoration extended by those who were in the wrong themselves.
This puts a new light on the matter of discipline in an assembly. How easy it is to ignore the beam of pride and envy in our own eye even as we seek to deal with a comparative speck in the eye of another that has come to light among us. Must we then seek near perfection among ourselves before dealing with open sin? No, but whenever sin is discovered it would be well to make sure that all efforts at restoration are done humbly, “considering ourselves” (Gal. 6:1).
In all of this we see a powerful reason for maintaining intense love and purity in relationships throughout the assembly. Darkness in even a few corners of the room will allow harmful things to go undetected. May the Lord help us to maintain “fervent lovel”(I Peter 4:8) among ourselves. This critical area must ever remain under the prayerful and watchful eye of assembly elders