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We live in a day when the exercise of discipline in the church is fast disappearing or being replaced by self-image reinforcement, while in the home it is often frowned on as being antiquated or bordering on abuse. Yet discipline is firmly rooted in the biblical record, where it is presented as a positive, not negative, model. The preeminent model is God himself, whose dealings with his people are often pictured in terms of a parent-child relationship. Central to this relationship is discipline. It is a measure of God's love that he disciplines his children (Prov 3:11-12), but it is not without personal cost. In Hosea 11:8-9 God is portrayed as a parent pacing the floor, anguishing over the need to discipline his wayward child, Israel. Paul similarly anguishes over the need to discipline the Corinthian church.
In 1:23—2:4 Paul tells the Corinthians why he did not carry out his Corinth—Macedonia—Corinth travel plan. Today, to guarantee the truthfulness of what we are about to say, we use such phrases as "with God as my witness" or "I swear to tell the truth." Paul begins by swearing an oath in the strongest terms possible. I call God as my witness is literally "I call upon God as a witness against (epi) my soul (psychen)." With this imprecation Paul invokes the wrath of God against himself (v. 23). He is willing to forfeit his very life if he is found not to be telling the truth. The term soul is commonly used in the New Testament of the "self." Paul employs it of the inner life of a person—equivalent to the ego or personality (e.g., Rom 2:9; 11:3; 13:1; 16:4; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 12:15). That Paul would bind himself in this way points to the seriousness with which he viewed the Corinthian accusation.
Legal terminology predominates in these verses. Paul pictures himself on trial in a court of law. To call upon (epikaloumai) is a common legal term in the Old Testament for summoning witnesses to a trial—equivalent to our subpoena today. Under Jewish law any matter had to be verified by too or three witnesses (Deut 19:15; compare 17:6). Since there are no human witnesses who could testify about the intentions of his heart, Paul calls on God as his sole witness to testify to the fact that it was to spare the Corinthians that he did not pay them a return visit. Pastoral concern, not fickleness, caused him to change his travel plans.
But from what did Paul want to spare them? It is clear from his remarks both here and in chapter 13 that had he come again he would have had to discipline them (13:1-10), and this would have caused them grief (2:2). Paul exercised discipline very unwillingly and only as a last resort. When he did rebuke a church, it was done in love, never merely to hurt but to restore a broken relationship (2:4).
All of us who teach or pastor face the danger of thinking that our job is to force others to think as we do. So Paul immediately throws in a qualifier. To talk about sparing them discipline could sound like a threat. It could seem as if he is attempting to lord it over their faith (v. 24). On the contrary, he and his colleagues work together with them (synergoi) to secure their joy. When Paul rebuked, the last thing he wanted was to play the bully. Nor could he bully them if he wanted to, because it is by faith, not by pastoral coercion, that they stand firm.
In 2:1-4 Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians why he did not pay them a return visit. I made up my mind, he says, that I would not make another painful visit to you (v. 1). I made up my mind is literally "I judged this for myself," indicating a settled and carefully weighed decision. The reason he gives for his decision is that his visiting them at this time would cause them to be sad and then there would be no one to make him glad (v. 2). So intimately was Paul's happiness bound up with theirs that he refrained from coming until it would be a time of gladness and nurture for both. So instead of paying them yet another painful visit, he decided to send them a letter that was intended to show how much he loved them but which caused him many tears to write due to its harsh character (vv. 3-4).
The events surrounding this painful visit and "severe letter" can be reconstructed to a large extent from 1 and 2 Corinthians (see the introduction). It appears that the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians deteriorated when a group within the church began to question his authority. There were "some" who were arrogantly claiming that Paul was not coming back to Corinth (1 Cor 4:18). They were also becoming suspicious of him because he would not accept financial assistance but worked instead to support himself (1 Cor 9:1-18). Perhaps, they thought, this was because Paul was not truly an apostle. News of this deteriorating situation reached Paul and resulted in a visit that was painful for both him and the Corinthians. It seems that during his visit someone in the congregation publicly insulted him and challenged his authority, demanding proof that Christ was speaking through him (13:3). What was particularly hurtful for Paul was the fact that the church sat by and did nothing to support him. After issuing a strong word of warning (13:2), he returned to Ephesus, abandoning his plan to visit the Macedonian churches, revisit Corinth (1:16) and then go on to Jerusalem with the relief funds that had been collected from the Gentile churches.
When Paul returned to Ephesus he wrote the church a "severe letter" by means of which he hoped to avoid another painful encounter with them (2 Cor 1:23). In this letter he called for the Corinthians to discipline the individual who had "caused" him "grief" (2:5-11), rebuked the church for not coming to his aid (7:8-12), tested their obedience to apostolic authority (7:14-15) and questioned their personal support (2:3; 7:12-13). That this was a difficult letter for Paul to write is clear from his statement that he wrote it out of great distress and anguish of heart with many tears (2:4). Thlipsis (distress) and synoche (anguish) are virtual syno-nymns for personal pain brought about by oppressive circumstances. Here, they refer to the deep emotional turmoil that Paul experienced as he wrote this letter to the Corinthians, very much like the anxiety a parent feels when faced with the prospect of exercising discipline.
Disciplining a child is never an easy matter. That discipline can be motivated by love is exceedingly difficult for a child to comprehend. It must have been hard too for the Corinthians, who were "grieved" by the severity of Paul's letter (v. 4). Nonetheless, Paul intended that by this letter they might know the depth of [the] love he had for his spiritual children (v. 4). Love, which stands in an emphatic position in the clause, is the primary reason he gives for writing. It is all too easy to allow personal feelings to get in the way of ministry. But this was not the case with Paul. He could have used this letter to vent his anger and disappointment with his spiritual children. Instead, he saw past his own pain to what was needful from the pastoral standpoint.