Paul’s Opponent in Corinth in 2 Corinthians

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. Who was Paul’s opponent in Corinth?

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!

Paul's OpponentWho was Paul’s opponent who 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.

Paul’s Conscience is Clear – 2 Corinthians 1:12-14

Paul does not think the church at Corinth is maturing as they should. First Corinthians outlines several problems which were due to not fully applying their status in Christ (factions, sinful behavior, questions about key doctrines). In 1 Corinthians Paul was straightforward and confrontational, to the point that some in the church were offended. He therefore wrote another “tearful letter” and made what he calls “a painful visit” to the church in order to deal with these sins. This correction left many in the church with raw feelings, and Paul himself was angry and perhaps humiliated by the audacity of the church and their challenges to his authority.

Image result for godly sincerityIn this opening section of 2 Corinthians, Paul tries to explain where his heart was during these difficult times. He claims to have acted with pure motives for the good of the church, even if the church was offended by Paul. Ultimately, his goal was to “help the Corinthians make the necessary corrections themselves” (Garland, 2 Corinthians, 111).

Although it seems strange from a modern perspective, Paul boasts he has acted in good conscience (1:12). It is possible Paul could be accused of acting rashly in the way he attacked the church for the treatment of the sinful member of in 1 Corinthians 5. Later in the letter Paul will defend himself against people in the Corinthian church who are attacking his authority as an apostle. This boast at the beginning of the letter sets the tone for his later defense, he has acted properly and does not have anything weighing on his conscience as a result of previous confrontations through letters and visits.

First, Paul acted with integrity, or simplicity in the ESV. The word he uses here (ἁπλότης) is very flexible, which is why there more difference in the translations than usual. It is used in the New Testament for “personal integrity expressed in word or action” (BDAG), for behaving properly, without ulterior motives, or “without ambiguity,” or “simple goodness…‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas’” (BDAG). For example, it appears in Eph 6:5 and Col 3:22 in the context of how slaves ought to obey their masters. They ought to act sincerely, not simply to curry favor with their master.

Second, Paul’s relationship with Corinth is based on godly sincerity. This word (εἰλικρίνεια) is rare in the New Testament, it only appears in 1 Cor 5:8 to describe sincerity of worship (in contrast to the sinful man) and again in 2 Cor 2:17, sincere motives in contrast to certain “peddlers of the word of God.”  The word connotes purity, and can be used to describe something that is “unmixed” (“a pure and clear air” in Hippocrates, Vict. 2.38.5, for example). Spicq contends that the word does not connote “so much an absence of duplicity or hypocrisy as a fundamental integrity and transparency; it can be compared to innocence”(TLNT 1:423).

Was there an accusation of inconsistency from the Corinthian church? Perhaps someone said Paul “passes himself off as strong in his letters but comes off as weak in person (10:1–11; 13:2, 10). He threatens the rod (1 Cor 4:21) but runs away when discipline is necessary (2:1–4).” As a modern analogy, people tend to be much more bold and aggressive on the internet than in real life, especially if they are in some sort of anonymous forum. People say things in an email they might not say face-to-face!

Third, he did not act according to earthly wisdom. “Earthly” can be translated “fleshly” since the noun (σαρκικός) has the sense of human frailty. In the New Testament the word usually has a negative connotation, as it does here in contrast to the grace of God. This “mediocre, transitory, or sinful” human way of thinking is a theme which comes up often in 2 Corinthians. In this context, Paul is saying the way he treated the church was not the way people in the secular would have done it.

Perhaps he implies his condemnation could have been far more painful, or that his attack could have caused them a great deal more pain. He may simply mean his extension of grace to the church was unexpected—most would have written off the church as utterly corrupt and sinful, no longer able to be corrected and restored to fellowship. If a major theme of the letter is reconciliation, then “conventional human wisdom” would be reconciliation is impossible in this case, why even try?

It is possible someone in the church accused Paul of writing obscure, difficult letters, as if he was trying to display his “worldly wisdom.” Think of a young pastor who tries to demonstrate his theological education by referring to the Greek too often, or quoting obscure intellectuals (“as Kierkegaard says…”)

On the other hand, Paul was indeed sensitive to how his letters were interpreted. As Furnish comments, Paul was concerned someone “in Corinth was deliberately trying to turn Paul’s letters to the apostle’s own disadvantage” (II Corinthians, 130). Perhaps the charge against Paul was that he intentionally preached an unclear gospel out of impure motives. If a teaching could be interpreted in a favorable way, then Paul stands to gain honor. Like a modern political speech, maybe Paul was being evasive and vague to be “all things to all men” and gain favor of all men.

In contrast to the flawed way humans think and behave, Paul was motivated by the grace of God. Despite the sins of the church and Paul’s anger and humiliation over their behavior, they are still people who God has saved by grace. Paul acted to restore them to fellowship, even if he treated the sin boldly and hurt some people along the way.

It is always difficult to use Paul’s difficult relationship with Corinth as a “model for ministry.” But Paul’s claim here is that whatever happened, he was motivated by a sincere desire to extend God’s grace to the congregation.

How would this attitude change the way we “do church”?

Main Themes of 2 Corinthians

2 CorinthiansThe background to 2 Corinthians is complicated by letters from Paul we do not have as well as visits to Corinth by Paul, Timothy and Titus. An additional problem is 2 Corinthians is a compilation of several other letters. Perhaps parts of 2 Corinthians contain other letters sent by Paul (the so-called “tearful letter”). Some suggest chapters 8 and 9 are separate letters dealing with the collection, and chapters 10-12 are yet another letter dealing with the super-apostles. I would recommend any serious commentary on 2 Corinthians for an overview of these suggestions or an introduction to the New Testament such as Raymond Brown. Combining letters around a similar theme is not surprising, but it is also not necessary to understand the overall theme of the whole letter: the need for reconciliation between Paul and the church.

First, Paul must deal with the damage in his relationship the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 1-7). The church did not receive the letter of 1 Corinthians well and Paul’s attempts to deal with the tensions seem to have created more problems. The reason Paul did not return to Corinth is to spare them from another difficult visit (1:23-2:1). Paul admits he has caused the church a great deal of pain, but (with God as his witness), he did not intend it that way. Although he does admit he may have caused the pain the church felt after 1 Corinthians, the “tearful letter” and the painful visit.

Paul wanted to gladden those he had pained, but the pain was ultimately necessary. His tough letter was written to make it possible for him to have a “joyful visit” the next time he came to Corinth (2:3). Paul was confident the church world respond to his tearful letter, even if there was come fear it might cause them pain. But not all grief and pain is bad, in fact godly grief produces a great deal of positive virtues. If Paul had upset them with his strong challenge, that pain is a positive benefit if they are reconciled to him

Second, Paul must encourage the Corinthian church to make good on their promise to participate in the collection he has made for the poor saints in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8-9). Paul’s collection would have looked very suspicious to a resident of a Roman city like Corinth. Public works were not funded through taxation or public fundraising, but through wealthy people who want to gain honor from public benefaction. There is no honor in putting money into general fund and sending it off to distant (non-Roman) city to be used to help poor people. It is no surprise at all the Corinth church was slow to participate in the Collection. But it is remarkable (from a modern Christian perspective) this wealthy Christian church refused to participate in Paul’s collection to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem. But now that Paul and the church have reconciled, it is now time for the church to participate in this important ministry Paul initiated. In fact, for Paul, participating in this gracious gift is an opportunity to render a service to God.

Third, Paul must deal with some competition in the church, the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 10-13). Paul probably coined this sarcastic description of his opponents, but it may be based on the attitude of the opponents themselves. They consider themselves to be superior to Paul in terms of honor, use of rhetoric, and perhaps even blessings from God. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title. More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church. The opponents appear to be trained communicators (v. 6) and accepted patronage from the church (v. 7-9). This would be consistent with any other Greco-Roman philosopher or teach and more or less expected by the Corinthian congregation. Rather than superior apostles, the opponents are like Satan, masquerading true apostles (11:12-15). Rather than boast in his accomplishments, Paul choose to boast in his suffering as a servant of Jesus Christ. Boasting in beatings and arrests is an outrageous reversal of what the super-apostles consider to be indicators of divine favor. Paul claims in these final chapters of the book that the follower of Christ can expect to suffer as Christ himself did.

What Happened between First and Second Corinthians?

After Paul established the church at Corinth (Acts 18:1-17), he remained for 18 months before traveling to Ephesus. He will spend three years in Ephesus, although he appears to have done ministry in Troas as well as planting several churches around the Lycus Valley supported by the Ephesian churches.

Second Corinthians Complicated

From Ephesus, he wrote at least one letter which is now lost (1 Cor 5:9, possibly embedded in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1). After hearing reports of divisions and other sins in the church and also receiving a letter from the church with a number of questions, Paul writes a second letter, 1 Corinthians. Paul sends another “severe letter,” probably lost to us and delivered by Titus (2 Cor 12:18). This letter appears to have upset the Corinthian believers and even angered some of them.

Timothy had been sent to Corinth to “to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:14, cf. 16:10). Instead of accepting Timothy as Paul’s personal representative, the church attacks Paul and Timothy is not able to handle the attack so he returns to Ephesus to report to Paul. After hearing from Timothy, Paul makes a “painful visit” to the church (2 Cor 2:1). This is not found in Acts, although Paul spends three years in Ephesus so there is plenty of time for visits to Corinth. This “painful visit” goes very badly and Paul returns to Ephesus angry and humiliated.

After this painful visit he writes another “tearful letter,” which is either lost or embedded in Second Corinthians 10-13. During his time in Ephesus Paul faced some persecution and was faced with the possibility of death. This was likely an arrest and imprisonment, although there are no details in the book of Acts (2 Cor 7:8–9).

Titus intended to leave Corinth and meet Paul in Troas, where Paul is preaching at the time. They cannot find one another. Paul therefore does not know what the situation is in Corinth, causing further anxiety (2 Cor 2:12–13). When Paul and Titus finally meet, Paul learns the church dealt with their factions and desires to be reconciled with Paul (2 Cor 7:6-16).

Now that Paul has a better understanding of the situation in Corinth, he writes 2 Corinthians to deal with any remaining barriers to reconciliation with the church. (Martin suggests the autumn of A.D. 55, from Macedonia, prior to his return to Jerusalem to deliver the collection). It is possible the first nine chapters were written (and sent?) before Paul hears there is still some opposition in the church, chapters 10-13 target the teachers in the Corinthian church who are directly opposing Paul’s authority. The letter is delivered by Titus and two other brothers who are to take care of the collection before Paul arrives.

When Paul finally returns to Corinth he spends three months with the church (Acts 20:2-3). During this time Paul likely wrote the book of Romans from Corinth.

This rather complicated story is an attempt to “read between the lines” and sort out several letters (which we do not have) and visits (which Acts does not report). To a certain extent this is speculative, but it is the traditional view of the relationship between Paul and this particularly difficult church.

As Garland points out that the Corinthians “were not yet comfortable in living out the scandal of the cross” (Second Corinthians, 31). The fact of Paul’s suffering and the possibility they too might suffer was troubling for the Gentiles who had converted to Christ.

 

 

Logos Free Book – Craig Keener, Romans (Cascade Commentary)

PrintLogos Bible Software is offering Craig Keener’s Cascade Commentary on Romans for free during the month of October. This is one of the best resources Logos has offered in a while. I already have both books in my Logos library (and Fee as a physical book).

Unlike some of Keener’s other commentaries, this book is a rather slender 211 pages plus indices. But do not let the size of the book fool you, Keener’s commentary is an excellent exegetical commentary which is extremely useful for preaching and teaching the book of Romans. As he says in the introduction, Keener has included “only a fraction of my research documentation in the notes for interested readers to follow up” (xi).

I overlooked this short commentary when I offered my Top Five Romans Commentaries several years ago, but have read most of it while preparing for my Romans course this fall and would certainly consider this a highly recommended commentary for pastors or laymen interested in the important exegetical discussions for key passages in Romans. For more in depth work on Romans, I recommend Douglas Moo (NICNT) and Richard Longenecker (NIGTC).

Fee RevelationFor only $1.99 you can add Gordon Fee’s Cascade Commentary on Revelation. I reviewed this commentary when it was first published, you can read the details here, but I said at that time “Fee’s commentary is an exegetical commentary and his goal is to read the text in order to determine the author’s original intent. . . Fee’s commentary is useful and can be used by pastor and layman alike, although the specialist will find it lacking in the sorts of details we have come to expect from the mammoth exegetical commentaries of Aune or Beale.”

As always Logos is giving away the other four published Cascade Commentaries in the Logos library. Both of these books are excellent additions to your Logos library, so make sure to add them to your library before the end of the month.