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Biding His Time for Good   Leave a comment

Paul’s trip to Corinth had been delayed by sickness and storm, but Paul also believed it had been delayed by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Corinthian Christians.

Now I appeal to God as my witnessthat to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. 2 Corinthians 1:23

The delay had given Paul time to think, but more importantly, it had given the Corinthian Christians time to contemplate what Paul had written in his earlier letter and repent of their own volition.

I do not mean that we rule over your faithbut we are workers with you for your joybecause by faith you stand firm. So I made up my own mind not to pay you another painful visit. For if I make you sadwho would be left to make me  glad but the one I caused to be sad? And I wrote this very thing to you, so that when I came I would not have sadness from those who ought to make me   rejoicesince I am confident in you all that my joy would be yours. For out of great distress and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tearsnot to make you sadbut to let you know the love that I have especially for you. 2 Corinthians 1:24 – 2:4 

Image result for image of hair pin curvesThe Bible wasn’t originally written in chapters and verses. 2 Corinthians was a long-form letter. Why some monk at some time decided to put a chapter break where he did is unnknown, but it makes no sense. I’m focused on topics, so I’ve chosen to ignore the chapter break.

We all know the modern expression “being there for me.” The idea is, if another person really loves us, they will “be there for us” at our time of need. Love is therefore measured in terms of one’s presence. Absence is seen as a failure of love, caring and compassion. Paul challenged this mindset. He felt that love can best be expressed, at times, by being absent. This may not feel right to us, and it certainly isn’t always the case, but in Paul’s situation with the Corinthian church, his absence at their time of need was meant as a benefit to them.

Paul wasn’t a stranger to Corinth. He’d already been there twice. After his initial visit to Corinth, Paul felt compelled to make a hasty second visit. We know this because Paul wrote briefly of this “painful visit” and of his future visit as coming for the “third time” (2 Corinthians 2:1; 12:14; 13:1). Some ugly and painful things seem to have happened during that second visit. Paul had to deal severely with some of the saints. It seems a particular individual must have made some kind of personal attack on Paul, which brought a strong response from the church (2 Corinthians 2:1-11). Associated with this “painful visit” was a “painful letter,” which caused Paul, as well as the Corinthians, great sorrow (2:4). Now, in spite of Paul’s stated intentions to come for a more pleasant visit, he had not yet done so.

Paul wasn’t “there for them” at the time of their perceived need for him. This must mean, some were saying, that Paul really didn’t care about them. Others were “there for the Corinthians” in their time of need. These “false apostles” who were causing trouble for both Paul and the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 11). Paul asserted his absence was a purposeful decision motivated by his love.

Paul was very serious about this, so serious that he called God as his witness that his delay in coming to Corinth was for their benefit, to “spare them”,

If you’ve never had an overbearing pastor who thought he could dictate your life, you’ve been most blessed. Paul was not that sort of spiritual leader. He didn’t wish to “lord it over” their faith. He had confidence they would stand firm. Because of his confidence in God’s ability to keep them and bring about their growth and maturity, Paul didn’t feel the need to come, as though the church would get straightened out only by his being present. He had done his part by coming to them and by writing to them concerning needed corrections. They needed time to implement these corrective measures. Not enough time had passed for the Corinthians to fully demonstrate their commitment to obey Paul’s instructions. To come too soon would be painful for both Paul and the Corinthians. He would be obliged to point out what they had not yet done, and they would feel pressured to do them by his presence. A delay gave the Corinthians time to do the right thing and meant Paul’s next visit would be one of great joy.  Paul delayed to allow the Corinthians time to complete their obedience.

Do you have kids? Ever been away on a trip and leave an older teenager in charge? Ever get a phone call from a neighbor who dropped by and found the house in shambles or reported a wild party the night before? Would you cut short a trip and dash home to clean up or would you call your kid and instruct them to clean up before you got there so you didn’t have to yell at them? I would choose the second option mainly because it’s a long trip back from anywhere to Alaska, but also because I’d rather say “Thank you for cleaning up” rather than “This place is a mess. Why should I ever trust you again?” Which do you think the kids would learn more from?  I would opt for a warm welcome and a happy reunion in a meticulously clean house over a confrontation.

Paul was doing the same thing by delaying his visit to Corinth. Paul’s absence is out of love for these saints, knowing it is for their best interest and his. Sometimes love is better demonstrated by keeping our distance from those we love than by being with them. I know that’s hard to accept for some people, but helicopter parenting has proven that over-involvement in your children’s lives is not a healthy thing. Neither is pastoral over-involvement in the lives of church members a good thing. Christianity is not a second-hand faith. We all must learn from the Holy Spirit’s ministry within our own hearts. And sometimes that means our mentors must take a step backward in order for us to grow on our own.

Paul visited many places and founded many churches, but the longest he ever stayed in one place was three years. He sent Titus, Timothy, and others out on their own, rather than keeping them at his side. Paul left churches to struggle and to survive without his presence, not because of his lack of love for them, but because he wanted them to learn to depend upon God’s Word and Spirit. This was accomplished by his absence, as well as by his presence (Acts 20:32; 1 Corinthians 16:15-18; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). Plus we shouldn’t overlook that it is because of Paul’s physical absence that we have the inspired epistles he wrote to the churches.

There are times when we must demonstrate our love for others by our absence, even though this causes pain to us and to those we are not with. We must sometimes let others fail rather than rush in to rescue them. At times, we must step back and allow others to face the consequences of their folly rather than seek to cushion the blows they have brought upon themselves. This is true of our children, and it is true for others. Sometimes we must physically separate ourselves from others because of their sin — as both Jesus and Paul instructed as to church discipline (Matthew 18:15-201 Corinthians 5:1-13). Our society teaches us “unconditional acceptance,” which implies that we never draw back from those we love, even when they are doing things that are unacceptable. Our society does not know the Scriptures and doesn’t wish to obey them. Loving at a distance is painful, which is why most of us are unwilling to do it, but it is something we must do for the good of those we love as well as for our own good. Jesus is not physically present with us at this moment, but it isn’t because He has ceased to love us. He is not with us because that is better for us (John 16:7f.).

But if anyone has caused sadnesshe has not saddened me alonebut to some extent (not to exaggerate) he has saddened all of you as wellThis punishment on such an individual by the majority is enough for him, so that now instead you  should rather forgive and comfort him. This will keep him from being overwhelmed by excessive grief to the point of despair. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For this reason also I wrote you:  to test you to see if you are obedient in everything. If you forgive anyone for anything, I also forgive him – for indeed what I have forgiven (if I have forgiven anything) I did so for you in the presence of Christ, so that we may not be exploited by Satan (for we are not ignorant of his schemes). Now when I arrived in Troas to proclaim the gospel of Christeven though the Lord had opened a door of opportunity for meI had no  relief in my spiritbecause I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and set out for Macedonia.  2 Corinhians 2:5-13

Some take Paul’s words in verses 5-11 to refer to the man who was “living with his father’s wife” from 1 Corinthians 5. I am inclined to believe that theory. It resonates with me. Is that the Holy Spirit or just a personal preference? I don’t know. The Bible study guide I’m using for this study doesn’t hold to that theory. The writer has reasons:

  1. Paul doesn’t specifically identify this person with the person mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5
  2. Paul’s reference seems deliberately vague; he seems to be purposefully avoiding naming names
  3. Nothing is really gained or lost by knowing exactly who Paul was referring to. The Corinthians knew who it was and what they should do.
  4. Paul spoke of the disciplinary measure to be taken against the man in 1 Corinthians 5 as though the outcome would be physical death. The writer thinks the Corinthians may already have attended that man’s funeral.
  5. It appears the person referred to committed some offense against Paul and the Corinthian church had taken up for Paul by censuring the person from their fellowship.

These are all valid reasons for believing these are two different individuals, although I really only feel resonance from #5. The others I think might be the study writer’s own reluctance to forgive sexual immorality after it has been repented. That’s just a personal observation. I’m not sure that it matters. Paul outlines how we should deal with those who repent of sin, regardless of which sins we’re talking about.

I’m going to suggest that Paul might have been practicing what he preached – not discussing the details of this man’s sin now that he had repented. We’re not supposed to bring up the repented sins … ever again. Discussing it in an open letter to the church sort of negates that principle.

Whatever the case here, it seems that during Paul’s second hasty and painful visit, he took an aggressive course of action which caused both him and the Corinthians great sorrow. Paul discussed it further later in this letter. We can surmise that some time during that visit, an individual reacted in an unseemly manner toward Paul and his apostolic authority. The church rushed to Paul’s defense and censured this man by excluding him from their fellowship. Regardless of what sin is being discussed here, the church exercised discipline on this man who had, at the time of the writing of this letter, repented, but the church had not yet forgiven him and received him back into their fellowship. Paul urged them to do so before he arrived to visit them again.

So, I still think it was the sexual sinner being discussed, but let’s ignore that and just look at what we know. Someone sinned against Paul. Maybe he said horrible things about Paul as the apostle was encouraging the church to discipline him for sleeping with his step-mother. The church took disciplinary action against that person at that point. They might have been reluctant before that, but perhaps his own words and actions condemned him, so they disfellowshipped him.

The man repented (presumably after Paul left town), but the church had not forgiven him and received him back into fellowship. Paul’desired to forgive this man and be reconciled to him, but Paul didn’t speak for the Corinthian church. The people comprising the church must first acknowledge the man’s repentance and reverse their disciplinary action. If Paul were to return before the church restored this man, Paul wouldn’t be free to fellowship with him because Paul would be bound by the church’s disciplinary actions against the man. When the church restored the man, Paul could be reconciled and find joy and comfort in his reunion with him.

The church’s failure to reinstate this man hindered Paul’s return, as it hindered the unity of the church,. It made the saints vulnerable to Satan’s attacks (2:11). Further, it placed an excessive burden of sorrow on this man, which is no longer necessary because of his repentance (see 2:6-7). Satan, the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10), loves nothing more than to accuse, especially when he can do so through others, like the church.

Sometimes we do things which seem to be spiritual, but which in reality are counter-productive. The church disciplined this man to protect the purity of the church. Good for them. Then, they went too far by refusing to receive him back into fellowship. Not so good for them. They were actually endangering the church and this man. Going too far with a good thing can be bad. We see this also in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul spoke to a husband and wife who decided to refrain from sexual relations. This may be beneficial for a short time, Paul told us, such as when a couple sexually “fasts” in order to devote themselves to prayer (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-5), but sexual abstinence should not be maintained for too long a period of time, lest “Satan tempt them for their lack of self-control” (verse 5).

Church discipline is necessary for so long a time as the sinning saint persists in rebellion against God, but once repentance has taken place, restoration should quickly follow. Failing to exercise discipline is dangerous to the whole church (1 Corinthians 5:6).  Failure to remove discipline upon repentence is also dangerous to the whole church (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

Despite Paul’s physical absence from the Corinthians, he was deeply aware of the presence of God in his life and ministry. He practiced the presence of God.

10 But whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:10, emphasis mine).

Paul was absent from the Corinthians, but he was never absent from God. Paul sought to practice the presence of God by living in a conscious state of awareness of God’s presence.

The two letters of 1 and 2 Corinthinans serve to remind us that sin is dynamic rather than static. After Satan tempted our Lord without success, Luke’s Gospel tells us that after “the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Satan never gives up, and his temptations come in all sizes, shapes, and forms. We really should thank the Corinthians for their bumbling in dealing with sin because they gave Paul an opportunity to teach the whole history of the Christian church something we seem to forget every generation or two. As object lessons, the Corinthian saints are impressive poster-children.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul reminded these saints that he had previously written to them, instructing them not to associate with immoral people (5:9). The Corinthians misunderstood (or at least misapplied) this instruction. They sought to separate themselves from the unbelieving world, while they continued to embrace professing Christians who lived in ways even pagans would not accept. Paul instructed them to separate themselves from the man living with his father’s wife and to maintain some contact with the unsaved world, to whom they had the obligation to be witnesses.

Now in 2 Corinthians, we find the church had over-corrected their error. While they once failed to exercise church discipline where it was desperately needed, they were now reluctant to remove church discipline, when it was no longer necessary.

Living the Christian life is like walking along a path. You can stumble off on either side. Many times when we wander off the path in one direction, we over-correct so that we then depart from the path in the opposite direction. Let us beware of thinking that once we have dealt with a particular problem, we will no longer struggle with it again. The same problem may recur and, in our zeal to avoid falling into the same sin, we may venture to the opposite extreme.

We have our ups and our downs, our peaks and our troughs. We will struggle with sin as long as we live, just as the Corinthians did over the course of Paul’s ministry to them. Christian maturity and spirituality are not the cessation of sin, but the gradual reduction of the extremes to which we wander. The ideal in this case would be to walk a straight line. We won’t accomplish that in this life, but we can strive to avoid the hair-pin curves!

As Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians continues, we see the dynamic nature of the spiritual life and the struggle with sin. We see some of the problems, still in embryonic form in 1 Corinthians, coming to full term and birthing before our eyes. We see other problems dealt with in such a way that new dangers arise. The struggle is life-long, and thus we suffer and groan, along with all creation, until sin is finally removed once for all.

Why Church Discipline?   Leave a comment

What is the purpose of Christians in a church body withdrawing fellowship from the sinning church member?

Are we just judgemental and mean? Do we think we are better than them? Is it an act of revenge toward those who have fallen from the faith? Doesn’t it show a haughty or malevolent attitude?

No!

Well, if done right, no! NO! NO!

The Scriptures suggest that church discipline serves both a corrective and a protective function.

First, discipline is designed to save the erring child of God. If I seem to return to the church in Corinth a lot it is because we have one of the best examples of church discipline there. Paul demanded that the Corinthian fornicator be disfellowshipped so that he might be motivated to destroy “the flesh.”

What does that mean? Well, it’s pretty clear that Paul didn’t advocate suicide or stoning, because we know from 2 Corinthians that the sinner repented and Paul said to refellowship him. “Destroying the flesh” didn’t involve death, so it’s can reasonably be assumed it mean setting aside (turning from) his ungodly fleshly passion so that “his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Discipline is designed to “gain” the wayward (Matthew 18:15), to make him “ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14), so that he would seek be restored (Galatians 6:1).

The church at Corinth was reluctant to do this. They apparently were proud of their forgiving attitude and Paul had to be rather harsh with them before they finally did withdraw from the sensuous offender. Their action brought him to repentance, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2:6.

Discipline is not merely for the welfare of the rebel. It is also for the protection of the church. When Paul admonished the congregation at Corinth to take care of the problem of the immoral brother, he warned: “Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). If you’ve ever baked bread, you’re familiar with the concept, but in our modern age, so few people bake bread that I find this medical example easier for them to grasp. the church as a whole is affected by the sin of the individual because the church is like an organic body that can be affected by disease in a single cell.

Sin in the church is as cancer in the body.

Paul dealt with it in other churches as well. In Romans 16:17, he declared that those who cause divisions and occasions of stumbling “by their smooth and fair speech beguile the hearts of the innocent”. Two false teachers in the early church, Hymenaeus and Alexander, had made reflected badly on the faith, so Paul “delivered [them] unto Satan. ” He disfellowshipped them (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 5:5) for the welfare of the brethren. False teaching, if allowed to go unchecked within the body of Christ, can eat like a cancer and cause the faith of some to be overthrown (2 Timothy 2:16-18).

Discipline is also important in preserving the integrity of the church before the eyes of the world. Society has enough bias against us without having the legitimate complaint that we harbor evil within our fellowship. We should never give occasion to the adversary for reviling (1 Timothy 5:14). Had the Catholic church disfellowshipped some priests who were sinning, the churches under that denomination might not have been the center of a firestorm. It is imperative that the conduct of the church be such that “the name of God and the doctrine be not blasphemed” (1 Timothy 6:1), and that the way of truth not be called “evil” (2 Peter 2:2). Note that it wasn’t just Paul who urged church discipline. Peter did as well.

What attitudes or conduct warrants the extreme measure of withdrawing fellowship? The Bible addresses this matter in several ways.

  • A brother who has sinned against another, but who refuses to repent of his transgression, could ultimately be disfellowshipped (Matthew 18:15-17).
  • Those who cause occasions of stumbling and who initiate division are proper subjects for church discipline (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10).
  • Those who are practitioners of such sins as fornication, covetousness, extortion, idolatry, drunkenness, reviling, etc., could certainly be candidates (1 Corinthians 5:9ff).
  • Advocates of soul-threatening doctrines must not be allowed to continue in open fellowship with the church (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:16-18).
  • Those who walk “disorderly” are to be refused association by the faithful (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Wait!

What is disorderly conduct?

There’s historical evidence to suggest that this may be talking about those who simply grow weary of the Christian life and decide to “resign” from the church. When approached about their neglect, and warned of possible discipline, they raise a voice of protest, claiming: “What am I doing that is wrong? I am not committing adultery; I am not a drunkard. The church cannot withdraw from me.” An appropriate response would be: “Are you faithfully serving God? Do you meet with your brethren to sing, pray, observe the Lord’s supper, etc.? What would be the fate of the family of God if every member were at liberty to do as you have done?” Spiritual neglect is disorderly conduct which may require a response of discipline. Whether that would be a thorough going disfellowshipping may be up for debate, but discipline itself should not be.

A person’s disposition is frequently the determining factor for when, or whether, withdrawal of fellowship is appropriate. Wise church leadership would not hastily disfellowship a sincere Christian who, through weakness, had fallen into a sinful situation. If the offender demonstrates humility and a genuine effort to overcome the problem, patience and forebearance would be indicated. On the other hand, a surly, rebellious attitude would require a swifter and more drastic response.

This is where faithful elders come in. I’m not just talking about pastors, but actual elders in the church who have been involved a long time and exercise some form of social supervision. Every church ought to have a body of wisdom such as this. These elders would need to make it known that if a person wants to identify with the congregation over which they exercise supervision, these Christians will be expected to live rightly, assuming a healthy responsibility in the areas of Christian growth and service. Lack of responsibility for one’s own discipline would require some form of church discipline.

This isn’t done very much any more, which is why we Christians need to discuss it and start structuring our churches to move in this direction. First, congregations would need to develop eldership — which does exist in many churches. In every congregation where qualified elders serve, these men and women (yes, I believe women can be elders and mentors within the congregation) would lead the church in the withdrawal of fellowship from the unfaithful. This shouldn’t be done behind closed doors by some privy council, but as an activity of the entire church. I’ve only seen it done once where a formalized procedure was enacted in the public assembly … and, yes, the sinning Christian repented … eventually.

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