A long time ago and a long way from here, I was once a member of a church that faced a really painful issue. The unadorned facts are these.
There was a believer of many years standing, a long-term and respected member of the fellowship, heavily involved in leadership within the congregation, and a married man. There was also a young woman who had not been a Christian very long, but who nonetheless had made a clear profession of faith and was involved in areas of service in the life of the church. She too was married.
These two began an affair, and left their respective spouses. What had happened could not have been kept secret even if they had wanted it to be. Representatives of the leaders of the church spoke to them, over a period of time, urging them to see that what they were doing was quite contrary to their commitment to Christ, and urging them to abandon their course of action. They would not accept that what they were doing was wrong, nor would they end their relationship. They were required to leave the church, which they did, and to my knowledge we had nothing more to do with them after that.
From my point of view, it was a steep learning curve. I saw in practice the destructive power of such events. I saw the responsibilities and burdens of Christian leadership with new clarity. I learned a lot about how such situations need to be handled. Not least, I understood with new force the relevance and wisdom of the Bible’s teaching about how the church should deal with sin.
That’s an example of an unhappy and unsatisfactory resolution. What we wanted was for the marriages, and the godly discipleship, of those people to be restored. But that didn’t happen.
However, in greater and in smaller ways, I have also over the years seen serious sin come to the surface and be met with a real change of heart and restoration in relationships within the Body of Christ. But we have to get this right. The spiritual health and long-term witness of the church, and indeed of the individuals concerned, is at stake. If we don’t keep on track when serious issues of sin arise, then the whole life of the church will be de-railed.
So there’s much to learn from the way that the apostle Paul handles himself in relation to the church in Corinth. That’s what we’re considering this morning as we continue our series in 2 Corinthians. We’ve come to 2.5-11 – so please have that open in front of you.
You’ll see from the outline on the insert in the service sheet that my title is Human Relationships – because that is, above all, what we’re dealing with here. And I have two simple headings. First, ‘Follow Paul’s example of pastoral concern’. And secondly, ‘Fulfil our part in the sequence that restores the sinner’. No doubt it’ll help keep track of where we’re going if you jot down some notes on there as we go through.
Paul is an amazing letter writer. This is passionate, intensely personal and revealing. To an uptight Englishman it’s almost embarrassing to read at times because Paul is pouring out what’s on his mind and heart and the full range of his overwhelming emotions. But we have, as it were, God’s permission to pry because he wants us to see inside this situation.
Now, if we’re going to understand the deeply troubled relationships that this letter exposes then a bit of background will help.
For a start, remember that Corinth was a massive, thriving metropolis; it was a boom city because of its privileged position at the epicentre of Mediterranean trade; it had a population of maybe 250,000 free and 400,000 slaves. And it was utterly pagan. The temple of Aphrodite up on the hill had a thousand prostitutes working there. The city was infamous even in the pagan world for its immorality – ‘to corinthianise’ was slang for indulging in sexual immorality. So that’s the kind of society these Corinthians were converted out of.
Paul spent eighteen months there planting a church. After he left, he wrote a series of letters – at least four. Two of them are here in the New Testament. But there’s a letter that’s been lost that Paul mentions here in 2.4, where he says:
I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears…
He speaks of this letter again in 7.8:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it.
That anguished letter followed on from a second visit that Paul made to the church in Corinth – a short, sharp, visit. Paul had intended to see them for a third time but postponed his visit unexpectedly. That upset the Corinthians even more. And Paul wrote this letter because he thought it would be the best way to work through the issues that he had with them. 2.1:
So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you.
Why all this anguish? What was going on between them? Well the Corinthians had it in for Paul for a number of reasons. They’ll become apparent as we work our way through this letter. This morning, though, we need to focus on just one of them.
There was a man in Corinth who had gone badly off the rails. This is the man who’s referred to in 2.5-11. The church had at first completely mucked up the process of dealing with the situation by failing to act. Paul was desperate for them to get it sorted, because it was so bad that if it had been left to fester it could have shipwrecked the church. But now they’ve made progress in dealing with it, and Paul wants them to complete the process before any more damage is done.
What had this man done? In a word, we don’t know. It’s possible that this is the situation that’s referred to in 1 Corinthians 5.1-2. Here’s what Paul says there:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather be filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?
The other indication of the nature of this sin is near the end of this second letter, in 12.21, where Paul says:
I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.
And perhaps it’s not surprising, given the culture from which they’ve been converted, that sexual sin should be a great threat to the life of the church.
Sexual immorality is a great danger, and was a particular issue in Corinth, as it is in our own society. But sexual immorality is not the only kind of sin that Paul says the church should tackle. Paul makes that quite clear. 1 Corinthians 5.11 says :
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
Corrupt, unjust and ungodly financial dealings; damaging and verbally violent use of the tongue; physically violent behaviour; religious activity that compromises and violates the gospel and the Word of God; regular drunkenness – all these would fall within Paul’s categories here. And even those are only some examples. So, for instance, in 2 Thessalonians 3.6 Paul speaks of persistent idleness as a sin that should be disciplined.
What, then, is all this to us? What is revealed with great clarity in this exchange between Paul and the Corinth church is the way that Paul cared for them, even though some of them, at least, were giving him a great deal of grief. And Paul is a model for us. So one of main lessons for us is this – and this is my first heading on the outline:
First, FOLLOW PAUL’S EXAMPLE OF PASTORAL CONCERN
Paul had a deep love for these people. And he doesn’t hide it. There in verse 4, where he’s explaining to them why he wrote the earlier letter that they’d found so hard to take, he says:
For I wrote to you… to let you know the depth of my love for you.
To be a believer is to belong to a family. To have any kind of pastoral responsibility for people – whether it’s on the children’s work team, or through a home group or whereever – is not just to be part of some convenient administrative structure. It is to be bound together with love.
What kind of love? Well, the clear-eyed love of Christ. I was amused to see this news the other day. I quote:
Love really does have a strange effect on people, say scientists. A study suggests that love may indeed be blind. Researchers at University College London have discovered that being in love can affect key circuitry in the brain. They found that the neural circuits that are normally associated with critical social assessment of other people are suppressed when people are in love. They said the findings may explain why some people are often "blind" to their partner's faults.
By the way, they also say that the effect wears off after a few years. You might not be surprised to hear that.
But Paul’s love for his Christian family was never like that. He always has a clear-sighted judgement of what they’re really like, and what needs to change. But he wants change not for his own convenience, but for their good and for the glory of God.
That’s not to say, though, that he’s detached and cool. He feels deeply for them. Verse 4:
I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears…
But just as his love doesn’t blind him to how they need to change, so his emotion isn’t something that he wallows in – it drives him to action, and to what we might call ‘pastoral intervention’. He takes it on himself to act. He accepts the responsibility he has towards them. He decides what he needs to do to help them work through the situation to greater spiritual maturity. And he gets on with it. But he doesn’t just wade in with both feet. He acts with sensitivity – with love, indeed. ‘I wrote… not to grieve you,’ he says, ‘but to let you know the depth of my love for you.’
Is that how we care for one another when we see problems that need to be faced up to? With deep love, clear-sighted judgement, great distress and pastoral intervention? I praise God that I do see a great deal of this kind of profound care being expressed among members of JPC. But I also know that we have a long way to go. We must follow Paul’s example of pastoral concern.
That’s our first main lesson, and my first heading. The second is this:
Secondly, FULFIL OUR PART IN THE SEQUENCE THAT RESTORES SINNERS
Here is this man who has gone badly off the rails. When that kind of thing happens, how, collectively, are we supposed to get things back on the rails again? This is such a vital part of how we need to function together. If we don’t learn to get this right, the whole train of church life will come off the tracks, with disastrous results for all concerned.
Remember, we don’t know exactly what this man did. As so often with incomplete Biblical accounts, that’s probably a good thing – because it’s not the specifics of this case that are important to us. What are important are the underlying principles of how Paul deals with such situations, and how he urges the church – that’s us – to deal with them.
Now it seems to me that what Paul says here in verses 5-11 reveals a seven-stage sequence of events that he wants to see happen. At every stage the sequence can be broken for one reason or another, and its effectiveness destroyed. So let me explain. At the risk of over-simplification, I’ve put a one word label on each of the seven stages of this restoration sequence. Here they are: sin; grief; discipline; repentance; forgiveness; love; and comfort. Let me run through those, and as I do so, I’ll also mention the alternative that breaks the sequence.
First, the sequence begins with sin. In particular, this relates to sin that is public, persistent, scandalous, unapologetic and unrepented (at least at first). That is the nature of the sin in this case study in the church in Corinth.
Of course, the way to break this sequence before it even starts is not to sin in the first place. Resist the devil, and walk away from the temptation . What a lot of heartache that saves.
But if the sin is commited, the second stage in Paul’s sequence is grief. First, sin. Second, grief. And this is a grief that should touch the heart of the whole church – or anyway the hearts of all those who know about the situation. Referring to the sin that this man has committed, Paul says here (verse 5):
If any one has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me [though,as we’ve seen, Paul’s own grief over this situation is very obvious] as he has grieved all of you, to some extent…
What are the alternatives to this grief and distress at what’s happened? I think there are two. One way we could react is simply to be complacent, and not really care. We can regard it as unimportant. Alternatively, we can be complicit. We can be drawn into the sin ourselves, or approve it either openly or tacitly. Complacency or complicity, in the long term, spell catastrophe. The right response is grief. Grief more than anger, because quite apart from anything else, we know that ‘there but for the grace of God we go’. And that’s not just a trite cliché. That’s reality.
First, sin. Second, grief. Then thirdly, discipline. That’s what Paul urged on them in the 1 Corinthians 5 situation. That’s what’s happened here – verse 6:
The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.
How should such discipline be exercised? Here’s what we need to do. Be clear about the facts. Don’t act on insubstantiated rumour. Assess the situation on the basis of God’s Word. Act corporately. The principle should be that the smallest number of people who need to know should do so. But if it comes to expelling someone, then in some way the church will need to need to know about it. So, as the ultimate sanction and the last resort, put the person involved out of fellowship. Then apply the sanction consistently.
We must act in the right way, with the right attitude, and for the right reasons – for the sake of the church, for the sake of the individual concerned, and above all for the sake of the honour and glory of God. If we take the alternative course of inaction, then that breaks this sequence of restoration. We dishonour the name of God and damage the gospel, not to mention those immediately concerned.
First, the sin. Second, heartfelt grief. Third, appropriate discipline. Fourth, repentance. This, of course, is on the part of the sinner. And this is what happened here, thank God. ‘The punishment… is sufficient for him,’ says Paul. It done its job. He’s turned from his sin. The danger now, if anything, is that he will be ‘overwhelmed with excessive sorrow’ (verse 7). On the other hand, if there’s no repentance, or if there’s a false repentance, then the sequence can go no further and the discipline must remain in place. What’s false repentance? It’s the kind of remorse that simply regrets being found out but has no real intention to change. True repentance is not just a feeling. It brings a change of behaviour.
First, the sin. Second, heartfelt grief. Third, appropriate discipline. Fourth, true repentance. Fifth – forgiveness. Verse 7:
Now instead [that is, instead of continuing with the discipline], you ought to forgive…
And Paul adds in verse 10:
If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive [by which I take it he means the sin wasn’t against him personally] – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
To forgive is objectively to release someone from the debt created by their sin. It’s a powerful spiritual weapon against Satan. A church that’s strong on discipline but doesn’t have a forgiving spirit is a church that’s lost the gospel. It will bring noone to restoration.
Then, sixth, that objective and stated forgiveness needs to be followed by an expression of love for the repentant sinner. Rather than allow this man to be ‘overwhelmed with excessive sorrow’, Paul says (verse 8):
I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.
So this is a reaffirmation of love. It’s not that there was no love there before. Appropriate discipline, exercised in the right way for the right reasons, is itself an expression of love. It is neglect and hard-hearted rejection that’s loveless. Nonetheless, especially when we’ve been subject to discipline, we need to know that we’re loved, so we have to be told. ‘Tell him you all love him,’ urges Paul. Make sure he’s in no doubt about that.
And what will be the result of all that? Well, this is the seventh and final stage of the sequence of restoration, and it is comfort. That’s what Paul wants this man to experience now. Comfort. Not a seared conscience that’s lost all sensitivity. Not spiritual despair – those are the alternatives. But the kind of comfort that Paul’s already spoken of early in the letter (this is 1.3-4), where he praises God who is…
… the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.
So here in chapter 2 Paul’s applying that to us even when we are the cause of all our troubles. God has compassion on us. He loves sinners. His purpose is to restore sinners. This whole sequence isn’t a kind of sideshow to what the church is for. It’s the heart of the gospel: restoring sinners by the grace of Christ.
The life of any church is gravely threatened by serious, public, scandalous sin. Even as I was preparing this the trial was proceeding of a man who a short time ago was the pastor of one of the UK’s largest evangelical churches, with attendances of thousands and income of millions. But the church has been investigated by the Charity Commission as a result of serious financial irregularity. On Thursday this pastor was also convicted of indecent assault on young women. The church has been shut down. One report pointedly noted:
The sign over the [church] where he presided said it was a place where "Jesus Christ is Lord”.
None of us is invulnerable. We must all watch ourselves lest we fall. And if we fall, we must help to restore each other, not trying to skip any step of this Biblical sequence.
We must be a church that brings, not shame, but honour and glory to the name of Jesus in the wider community. We must be a church that follows Paul’s example of pastoral concern – marked by deep love, clear-sighted judgement, great distress over sin, and Godly pastoral intervention when it’s called for. And that will mean fulfilling our part in the God-given sequence that restores sinners. Then sin will be met with heartfelt grief, appropriate discipline, true repentance, complete forgiveness, reaffirmed love and Godly comfort.
Lord God, Father of compassion and God of all comfort, by your grace keep us from sin. But when we do sin, please, Lord, use this church as your means to restore us. For the honour and glory of your name. Amen.