In 2 Corinthians 2:9-11, the Apostle Paul addresses a particular situation of discipline in the local church at Corinth. In what most theologians think is probably his fourth epistle to this church (although only two made it into the Canon of Scripture), they appear to have listened to his earlier letters and cleaned up some of the mess that was going on in this early church; it seems that he is now helping them to look past the harshness of church discipline.
Restoration and the Question of Sin and Discipline
One of the raps on those of us who are proponents of a local church culture that models restoration for fallen and broken leaders is that we are soft on sin. May I remind you that this same Paul understood that discipline was necessary, but only effective when coupled with love? Unfortunately, some of my evangelical brothers and sisters have forgotten that the ultimate purpose of spiritual discipline is restoration, and it was never meant to be about punishment. While spiritual discipline can seem harsh at times, the Bible says “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). It is clear that the intent of even the most difficult discipline is ultimately restoration.
In 2 Corinthians 2:9-11, Paul alludes to a believer whom he had led in disciplining. Some scholars have asserted this was the man Paul addressed in I Corinthians 5 who was having a sexual affair with what was probably his step mother. There appears to be no clear way to know if that was true and based on context, he was probably speaking of some issue he had addressed in one of the non-Canon letters he had written, probably in response to one who was sowing discord and disrupting the unity of the church. Regardless, Paul had led them to exercise strong discipline in an effort to bring him back to repentance. The insinuation here is that this man has repented of his sin and the church is still not sure how to deal with him.
How Should the Church Respond to True Repentance?
Paul tells them they need to do three things to this one who was once exiled from the fellowship of believers over known and unrepentant sin. He says the punishment/discipline of the majority is enough and it has worked its desired effect, causing this brother to turn back to God and repent of his errant ways. Paul encourages the church to do three things.
- They should turn to forgive him. Paul acknowledges that the man caused him and the church pain. Those who toil in a culture of restoration need to understand there is pain caused by failure and it often is far more widespread than we realize. Yet, in spite of that pain…in fact, it seems to say before the pain is even gone…you should turn to him in forgiveness. People struggle with forgiveness because it feels like the one who failed is getting a free pass, but Paul says forgive him. Forgive him not because it feels good or feels right, but as an act of obedience unto the Lord.
- He instructs them to comfort him. Comfort here is a picture of hospitality. Take him back in. Welcome him home. Embrace him. Include him. The most painful part of failure and both official and unofficial spiritual discipline is the isolation and the questions of where one belongs and where one is welcome. Paul says, “Look, the discipline worked! Love him more passionately than you disciplined him.” That brings us to his third instruction.
- Reaffirm your love for him. If you have ever disciplined your child for any reason, you know what it is like to tell them that you love them in spite of the discipline. You also know it’s hard to believe that when you are experiencing discipline. That is true of those who undergo spiritual discipline as well. We can tell them all how much we love them, but it does not feel like love, especially when the God who is love is so far away because of choices we have made. Paul says to the church, say it again. Reaffirm your love for him. He says, “I know you told him earlier but he was in no position to hear it then. Tell him now. He is ready to hear it.”
What If We Cling to Punishment Instead of Restoration?
In the midst of these instructions to the church, Paul points out two critical dangers that lie in wait for the one who does not have the advantage of a culture of restoration and a champion for restoration in their lives.
In verse 7, he says if you don’t forgive and comfort him, he may be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow. We know that Paul is not advocating that we completely shield fallen and broken brothers from sorrow. In fact, in just a few short chapters, he will tell the church in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” He (and we) know that sorrow that is driven by conviction of the Holy Spirit is a critical piece of restoration. Yet, Paul says here that when repentance does not bring restoration, the fallen or broken brother is in danger of being overwhelmed by it. Spiritually, a brother can drown in sorrow and grief over what was, what he did, and what can never be if the body of Christ does not reach out in love, forgiveness, and comfort.
The second danger is more critical for the church than for the one who failed. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, we are told that if we don’t do those things, we are in danger of being outwitted by Satan. Wait, what? What did I do? Paul says churches that hold up godliness and holy living and expect that from their leaders are in a position to be outwitted by the father of lies. How? When we get caught up in our reputation and don’t want to be seen as soft on sin.
There are numerous ways we can be outwitted, but just consider these.
- The church is outwitted by Satan when we have a gifted, restored, and repentant believer who wants to serve the Lord in some capacity and we don’t embrace, encourage, forgive, and love them. Instead of using what God has given to the local church for ministry, Satan tricks us into believing that person is not ever useful to the body again.
- The church is outwitted when it harbors a spirit of unforgiveness toward a brother who let them down at some point in the past. Satan tricks them into believing they are just being holy and righteous when they are really being holier-than-thou and self-righteous.
- The church is outwitted when the enemy causes her to develop a reputation of saying one thing and practicing another. When a church says God is a God of grace and that when someone repents, God forgives and times of refreshing come, it needs to be demonstrated. When we have high profile people who are told God’s refreshing and hospitality is not available for you because you sinned too greatly and from too lofty a position, the church unwittingly draws a picture not of grace, but of legalism.
There is great danger to both the broken leader and the church that refuses to restore. We do well to keep our eyes open to that danger and choose to forgive, comfort, and love the broken brother trying to find his way home.
My co-author and I deal with this and other potential dangers inherent in restoration throughout the book re.CLAIM.ing – A Handbook for Developing a Restorative Culture in Your Church. Order your copy and one for your pastor today!
If you have questions about restoring fallen and broken church leaders, contact us through this website.