2 Corinthians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Church Discipline and Forgiveness

Mention of the grief that the severe letter had caused the Corinthians leads Paul in verses 5-11 to think as well of the pain that the offending person had caused the church. This, in turn, prompts him to consider the action that the congregation took in response to his letter and the need for forgiveness now that the individual in question had repented. Like some churches today, the Corinthian congregation was a church of extremes. When Paul was publicly challenged at Corinth, the church sat back and did nothing. But now when pushed by Paul to deal with the situation, they mete out punishment with a vengeance, even to the extent of losing sight of the remedial character of the disciplinary process.

Once again Paul is concerned to get the church to see how intertoined their lives are. In rather convoluted language, he shifts the focus from a personal insult to the corporate affront implied in the individual's attack against him. His pastoral tact is also in evidence when he refers to the blameworthy person as anyone, rather than by name. If anyone has caused grief, Paul says, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you (v. 5). Just as a slight to the father or mother cannot help but reflect on the children, so an affront to Paul as their spiritual parent cannot fail to reflect on them. Paul does not wish to put it too severely, so he qualifies he has grieved all of you with to some extent. Not all in the church may have been affected to the same degree by the offense. Indeed his reference in verse 6 to the punishment by the majority implies that a minority did not agree with the course of action decided on.

The Corinthians' course of action is described in verse 6 as the punishment inflicted on him. The word for punishment can denote a penalty, rebuke or censure and implies causing others to suffer what they deserve (Louw and Nida 1988-1989:38.6). The context gives the impression of some kind of formal disciplinary action decided on and carried out by the congregation. Excommunication or at least the witheolding of church privileges is suggested by the danger posed to the individual (v. 7, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.

The responsible exercise of discipline was something that Paul had great difficultly instilling in his churches--especially a church like Corinth. It is the corporate responsibility of the church to punish wrongdoing (2 Cor 2:6; 10:6), to excommunicate in the case of persistent sin (1 Cor 5:2, 10-13) and to reinstate the repentant (2 Cor 2:7-8). Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians initially for not disciplining the individual in question (v. 9). Now the church has gone too far in the other direction (v. 6). Paul's counsel to them is threefold. First, the punishment by the majority is sufficient (v. 6). Mention of the man's sorrow (v. 7) shows that the punishment had its intended effect; the person has repented of his action. Reference to the majority points to the presence of a dissenting minority, who thought that the discipline was either too lenient or, more probably, too severe.

The Corinthians are instructed, second, to forgive and comfort the man rather than continue the discipline (v. 7). Instead of aphiemi, the customary word in the Gospels for forgiveness, Paul uses charizomai, which means to "give freely" and so to forgive on the basis of one's gracious attitude toward a person (Louw and Nida 1988-1989:40.10). God's gracious attitude toward us in the person of his Son is surely in the background here. It is likely that the man is becoming discouraged by the church's continuance of the discipline. What is needed at this point is for the Corinthians to stop the punishment and to "encourage" (rather than the NIV comfort; see the note).

The third and last piece of advice Paul gives the church is to reaffirm their love for the man (v. 8). The verb "to reaffirm" (kyrosai) means "to confirm" or "ratify." It was commonly used in Paul's day of a will, treaty, law, decree, bill of sale or other legal document coming into force (Behm 1965:1098-99). Paul is probably thinking of a public reinstatement as a means of reassuring him of the congregation's love. That they are to confirm their love for the man shows that Christian discipline is always intended to be remedial, never merely punitive. The Corinthians had to be reminded of this. But it is not much different today. Many churches have equal difficulty knowing when to discipline and when to forgive.

These verses point to too dangers in carrying discipline too far. First, there is a danger for the individual. What starts out as godly sorrow can unwittingly lead to a consuming guilt or to an overpreoccupation with one's sin (v. 7). The Corinthians are to forgive and encourage the man so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. The picture is of a drowning person who is in danger of being swallowed up by his grief, as by a rushing river or flood of water. Discipline that goes beyond the stage of "godly sorrow" becomes strictly punitive and nonredemptive (7:10).

There is also a danger for the congregation. The Corinthians are to forgive the man so that Satan might not outoit them (v. 11). The word for outoit (pleonekteo) means "to take advantage" of someone with the intent to cheat or exploit them. Overdiscipline can provide Satan with just the foothold into the life of a congregation that he covets. For we are not, Paul continues, unaware of his schemes (v. 11). The NIV misses the wordplay here. The Greek is literally, "we are not unmindful of his mind," which in the case of Satan is a scheming, plotting mind. What kind of plotting is in view? It is possible that Paul is thinking of how Satan can take advantage of the discipline process to alienate a person from the church or even from Christianity. The presence of the plural, "that we might not be outoitted," suggests, however, that the congregation is in mind. Paul could well be thinking of how Satan can take advantage of an unforgiving, overly legalistic attitude to sow division and dissension in the church. Mention of the majority suggests that a difference of opinion existed within the Corinthian congregation that Satan could easily exploit. This is probably why in verse 10 Paul says, If you forgive anyone, I also forgive . . . for your sake. He also understates the seriousness of the offense in his qualification if there was anything to forgive. If you forgive anyone is literally "whom you forgive something" and assumes that they will in fact do as he has advised. Otherwise, Satan stands a chance of outoitting them--but not because the church has not been forewarned. We are not unaware of his schemes, Paul states (v. 11). One of the Christian's best defenses against Satan's ploys is prior awareness of his purposes and methods (M. J. Harris 1976:330).

Paul offers his own forgiveness in the sight of Christ. At the start he invoked God as a witness to his wanting to spare the church pain on a return visit (1:23). Now as he concludes this section, he calls on Christ as a witness to the genuineness of his forgiveness of the man who had caused him pain on the previous visit. Paul's personal forgiveness of an individual who had deeply hurt and publicly humiliated him provides an important model both for the Corinthians and for us today. It is a reminder of what Jesus taught his disciples about forgiveness. If we ask God to forgive our sins, we ask because we ourselves are willing to forgive anyone who sins against us (Lk 11:4). Someone once made the comment to John Wesley, "I never forgive," to which he aptly replied, "Then, sir, I hope that you never sin." Wesley's quick-witted response highlights the truth that it is only as we are willing to forgive others that God extends forgiveness to us.

Paul's initiative in offering his personal forgiveness also points up his primary reason for writing the "severe letter." To be sure, he wanted to see justice served. But even more important, he wanted to see if the Corinthians themselves would stand the test and be obedient in everything (2 Cor 2:9). The NIV stand the test is literally "to know the proof of you." Dokime is the "proof" that comes from such a test of someone's or something's worth or genuineness. The Corinthians' response to the "tough love" expressed in Paul's letter would show their true character. Although Paul is concerned to know if they are on his side, it is their being obedient in everything that is the real issue. It is impossible to separate the person from the office. When Paul acts, he acts as an apostle of Christ. So to accept his reproof is to accept Christ's reproof, and to reject him is in effect to reject Christ. To the Corinthians' credit, they responded to Paul's rebuke with "godly sorrow" and an "eagerness to clear" themselves (7:11). When confronted with the facts of the situation, they were more than willing to admit they were at fault for not coming to his defense. One wonders whether many churches today--often the home of what J. I. Packer described as a "hot tub religion" that embraces anything that makes people feel better--could and would respond to a pastoral word of rebuke in like fashion.

Next commentary:
Evangelism in Troas

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