The issue in Second Corinthians was not a doctrinal problem or a theological dispute. It appears some members of the church has attacked Paul personally. The double reference in 2 Corinthians 7:12 to an injustice shows the issue was disaffection between fellow Christians. Paul appears to have been so angry over this dispute he could not even travel to Corinth to discuss to with meet the church face to face.
The problems stem from a single individual as the primary reason for the disagreement. Second Corinthians 2:5, 6, 7, 8, 10; 7:12 all speak of a specific person. The problem was serious enough Paul changed his travel plans and instead wrote the “tearful letter” (1:23; 2:1, 3, 4; 7:8). In fact, the attitude of one individual was so serious that it poisoned the life of the entire church (2:5). It is remarkable how even a single individual can destroy what should be a unified body of believers!
Who is this person that opposed Paul so strongly and was put out of the church? In 2 Corinthians 7:12 Paul says this person has wronged him, using a participle, τοῦ ἀδικήσαντος. The verb ἀδικέω as the sense mistreatment or injury, but the damages are to Paul’s reputation and honor rather than physical harm. The verb is used in Philemon 18 to refer to the damages which Onesimus might have caused when he left Philemon’s service.
The most common suggestion is the man is the incestuous man from 1 Corinthians 5. In 2:9 and 7:12 Paul refers to the fact he has already written to the church about this man, and we know from 1 Corinthians Paul did in fact recommend the incestuous man be expelled from the congregation. There is a connection between 1 Cor 5 (hand him over to Satan) and this passage, and it is very appealing to read this as saying that the incestuous man repented and returned to the church a changed man.
A second suggestion focuses on the situation in 1 Corinthians 6. People were suing one another in the courts over internal “family” matters which ought to have been handled by the church. It may be the case that an individual in the church disagreed with Paul so strongly he went to the courts and tried to overturn Paul’s commands for the church found in 1 Corinthians. It is shocking that a church dispute could have spilled over into the courts, but in the Roman world a perceived insult often did result in a lawsuit.
It is also possible there is a public attack on Paul’s ministry and authority in the background here, an attack so severe Paul must break off travel plans to the church. Some speculate the attack took place in front of Timothy or Titus, or even that Titus was the object of the attack. Whatever the attack was, it was interpreted by Paul as “an act of flagrant disobedience and revolt” (Suggested by C. K. Barrett, cited in Martin, 2 Corinthians, 34). This could include a party within the church that supported the incestuous man, or simply an attack on Paul’s authority as an apostle. Because the church has dealt with the problem, Paul feels that at least one hindrance to reconciliation is out of the way, he can return to Corinth now that the insult to him has been removed from the congregation.
It is quite remarkable to me that a church in the first century was so fragmented that someone might bring a lawsuit over a doctrinal issue or a leader’s decision or some perceived insult.I can think of any number of examples of this sort of thing in modern churches both in America and in the context of a mission church. People with strong personalities trying to lead a church as if it was a business will generate conflict. Although that conflict might be common in the world of big corporations and business, it is has no place in the local church and can only lead to he shame for the church in the community.
This is yet another example of the culture of Corinth warping the church which God established. The members of the church are still thinking like Romans not Christians.