This was a more difficult lesson for me to prepare today. Forgiveness and repentance aren't subjects people like to deal with. Most people will at least say you are forgiven if you wrong them and subsequently ask for forgiveness. Forgiving and forgetting - well that's another matter altogether. It isn't natural to let go of things - that takes Christ working in you.
It is frequently hard for people today to ask for forgiveness. We all like to think we're perfect and don't like to deal with repentance. Just let Christ forgive us again is the prevailing attitude we have. I know that many reading this and hearing this have problems with forgiveness. Hopefully, I can help in some way, but I don't make any guarantees with this lesson.
The Corinthian Church
What were the issues that the Corinthian church was dealing with that led to Paul's comments in 2 Cor. 2:5-11?
The events that this part of 2 Cor. 2 is dealing with are most likely described in 1 Cor. 5. There was an individual in that church given over to fornication. The sexual immorality was so deeply entrenched in the family that the individual had had sex with his mother, while his father was yet alive.
Paul condemned the church in 1 Cor. 5:2 for being so proud of their gifts and holiness that they had overlooked the evil in their midst. He indicated that they should be in mourning that such a thing was allowed to go on in their church. He went on to say that the evildoer should be cut off from fellowship with the body for as long as they remained in a rebellious state.
It is important to note that in verse 10 of that chapter, Paul explicitly instructs the church that they were not to cut off interaction with the people in the world. Specifically, he told them that it wasn't possible for them to go out of the world, so it was necessary that they continue to deal with sinners at some level. He went on to say at the end of the chapter that it was up to God to judge the evildoers outside of His church - not the church. The unrepentant individual who calls himself a Christian, however, was to be excommunicated (v 5) and was to have no fellowship with the church members (v 11) while in that state. The contact level would go back to a similar contact level with the sinners of the world.
It appears that most in the Corinthian church carried through with these instructions, although from 2 Cor. 6, it is possible that some kept in contact with the individual. From the surrounding verses, it is clear that the person was sorrowful for what he had done (v 7). The church is now instructed that after seeing a repentant heart, they should forgive, comfort, and love their brother so that the person didn't fall completely away from the church and perhaps drift back into the idolatrous religions that were prevalent in the city.
An additional risk was that Satan would use the backsliding of one, and the lack of a forgiving spirit within the members of the congregation, to his advantage to destroy the church from within. When a church has a hard heart toward someone who has fallen, but who is genuinely sorry, and cannot forgive that person, it makes it so much easier for Satan to use that fact against the church to its direct detriment. At the very least, it is easy to turn such an attitude into a tool to prevent the church from being effective in its ministry. At the other end of the spectrum, people who were friends with the person will be upset by the holier than thou attitude being exhibited by others in the church. This can quickly lead to a split the church - whether in spirit or in fact - that will destroy the church just as surely as allowing the evil to remain unchecked would have.
The list in 1 Cor. 5 covers a lot of ground. Fornication is listed first - this is a broad category that covers all manner of perversion, impurity and immorality. The root word in the Greek is porneia. The list also includes covetousness, extortioners, idolaters, railers, and drunkards. These were probably all issues in the Corinthian church, considering many came from an idolatrous past. Anything else that comes from the "old leaven" of (v 7) would be equally fitting in this list. These other sins just weren't specifically singled out for inclusion in this list since they probably weren't a problem at that place and time. There are none of us who don't have something in us that if we are honest with ourselves and each other is less than lily pure. We have all made mistakes at some point in our Christian walk. We may all be genuinely sorry for all the trespass we have done since accepting Christ as our Savior, but few long term Christians have led a perfect walk since accepting Christ as their Savior.
Every Christian will probably need to seek forgiveness from their brothers and sisters in Christ at some point in time, and everyone who doesn't feel this way needs very clear and bright illumination of their hearts from the Holy Spirit to show them their true state. Then, they can truly feel thankful for God's mercy and forgiveness and adopt an attitude of forgiveness toward their brothers and sisters in Christ who haven't lived up to their standards.
Having said that, I also want to point out that Christ's command to His followers in Matthew 5:48 was "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." The word perfect there is from the Greek teleios roughly translated as being in complete conformity to God's laws. This was repeated by Paul at the end of 2 Cor. 13:11.
It is very easy to adopt an attitude that you will never be able to get victory over a stubborn problem or character flaw that has hounded you for years. Without God and the Holy Spirit's help, this may be true. But with Their help, you can have victory over any issue if you turn it over to them and let them help you deal with it. It might not be easy, but God doesn't give commands that we can't carry out. He expects us to try and not just throw up our hands and say it is impossible. With God, nothing is impossible (Mt. 19:26). He also promises in 1 Cor. 10:12-14: "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able: but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry." You can substitute just about any sin in the place of idolatry that is mentioned here. Like Joseph with Potipher's wife - flee!
Application For Today
So how does this lesson about how churches should relate to back-sliding Christian's relate to church life today?
The Corinthian church started pretty small. Christianity itself was just getting rooted in that city. The people were meeting house to house. The biggest difference between their community of Christians and today's is that they knew each other pretty well. The church was made up primarily of those who Paul and others had led to Christ, and those who they had personally led to Christ.
There was one Christian church. They may have met in different houses, but there was still just one church. You were either a part of the church, a Christian, or you weren't. There wasn't no middle ground in Corinth. Most of the Christians were demonstrably different than the world. They didn't frequent the idolatrous feasts and they either were no longer observing Jews, or had never been in the first place. They stood apart.
I hope that what I am about to describe doesn't reflect the life in your community. I hope that it doesn't too accurately reflect the nature of the churches in your community. But what I am about to describe is true of most places of any size in the U.S. today. There are some small localities, perhaps more in the South and Midwest, where these conditions don't hold true, and that is mostly a very good thing. But in a lot of places, it is a completely accurate description. As time goes on, it is becoming more true even in the places that are holdouts to simpler times.
Things today seem much different than the Corinthian community. There frequently isn't much difference from the world's point of view between Christ's followers and the rest of the people. Oh sure, we go to church most Sunday's when the kids don't have something else scheduled, the weather is good, and we feel up to it. But most never go to any other service during the week. We go to the movie theaters, buy music and movies, have TVs and cable / satellite links bringing in a wide variety of channels to fill our spare time. Our reading material isn't much different than the world's in many cases. Most don't read their Bibles. Most don't study their Sunday School lessons or even attend Sunday School (that last one was free). We have accepted Christ as our Savior, but He isn't king in our lives. Most in the U.S. don't even have a clue about what living under a monarchy meant.
In many cases, people barely know who their next door neighbor is. The people across the street might never exist for all we know today. Have you checked? Maybe they are empty houses and the people you see mowing the lawn once and awhile are just a lawn service! I'm not much better at that than anyone else. I know a little bit about the people in some of the houses on the block. I've spoken with the people in a couple of the houses across the street and next door. But mainly, from the time I get home, I'm trying to get caught up on what is going on in the community and world, financial markets, dealing with our own family projects and kids to the exclusion of the world. The web site takes up some time. Certainly, doing a Sunday School lesson takes up more time. There's always something going on. I fall in bed sometime between 9 and 11, and get up the next morning to start the whole thing all over again. At least I have the privilege of living in a smaller town where my total commute time lost to work is around 25 minutes or so as opposed to those families in big cities that get up at 5 something and don't get home till 8 something. But everyone is busy these days. Rushing here and there.
This shows in the churches we attend. People there don't really know each other either. There isn't much of a sense of community. We know most of each others names if the church is small enough. We may know what some of them do or did for a living. But there isn't much fellowship like the early church had. What we have lost in all this is any real sense of responsibility for our trespasses and how it affects our brothers and sisters. If we are called on something, there is no reason to repent and ask for forgiveness - just start attending the church down the street. The chances that anyone will ever find out about what went on in our past are slim, since most people don't pay a lot of attention about the people around them anyway and the churches don't communicate with each other very much. The pastors may sometimes converse about new people if they think they came from another church, but if they think you just moved into town, you're safe. The bigger the town is, the easier it is to disappear and reappear somewhere else. Right?
The church leaders aren't much better. It is rare for a pastor to call a member on something that member is doing wrong. Just preach a few hard sermons, and they'll probably get uncomfortable and leave the church and become another church's problem anyway. That way you won't have to be the bad guy.
There was a great furor a while ago about the Catholic church telling its priests to refuse communion to political leaders who didn't follow the church's teaching and instructions about certain issues the church had a moral interest in. How do you feel about that? Even in some denominations it has been a common practice to accept an apology from leaders who do wrong and move them somewhere else and hope for the best. Leaders are hard to find after all! The church has a lot invested in them and you can't just throw that away! Is this the right thing to do?
Do you have any examples from your past experiences in church you would like to share? Have you experienced any corrections from the pastor as a body or an individual? What ways worked best and what ways worked worst?
The church has lost something here. It is too easy to simply brush the wrong things under the carpet and pretend they aren't there - whether in our churches or in our lives. We need to start standing for what is right again. Paul's letter made it clear that it wasn't our place to judge what goes on in the world. But it is our place to judge what goes on behind our own doors and in those in a leadership position in our own churches and denominations. We need set ourselves apart and start living the life that Christ called us to live. The Sermon on the Mount lays out some pretty heavy requirements for Christians and many of us, myself included, are falling far short of our potential as Christians. Pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ that they may be strong and that the church can stand for something once again.
I guess that this is just destined to be a short lesson, but I can't get much further than these basic points. We need to get back to knowing each other and becoming a community again. That needs to start in your family. We are too hurried today. Drop some of the kids activities and trust God to get them into the college He wants them to attend and be successful in the job He has picked out for them. Start eating meals together once again. Plan some family oriented activities that all can enjoy. I've got a pretty big age range of kids, so I know how hard that is, but we do need to try anyway.
Start forgiving each other and trying to do right again within your own immediate family. Then work on your extended family. Then extend it to include the church you attend next. Then it needs to spread between churches in a community. Then we need to get back to being the body of Christ with all members working together in harmony. We need to be responsible to each other and for each other.
There isn't any of us who don't have issues that we need to have forgiven. Truly, all have an innate sin nature and accepting Christ as your Savior is the only way to get right with God in the first place. That is the first step you must take and if you haven't done so yet, I urge you to take it. Even if you have been a Christian for years, it is good to review from time to time just what Salvation is all about. As we walk our Christian walk, we may well make mistakes. As for forgiveness if you have done something wrong. Repent and stop doing wrong so you don't have to ask for forgiveness again. Ask with both your mouth, and your heart. Don't just pay lip service because you think it is required.
On the flip side, there are none of us who don't have someone we need to forgive in our hearts, at least, even if we can't do it in person. Release the pain and anger you have buried (perhaps for years) and let it go. Pour it out to God and forgive. You'll be healthier for it. A load of anger and hatred you have bottled up inside is a heavy load for your body to carry around for a long time. It will wear you out. Get rid of it and lighten your load!
As you go about your business for the rest of the week, let God be your guide in granting forgiveness and seeking forgiveness as needed. Get it done earlier rather than later. Letting issues remain in an unforgiven state just festers. No good comes of it.
If people don't respond to your requests to be forgiven, at least your heart is clear. Christ's command was clear in the Sermon on the Mount - "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Later, he answers Peter's question - "Then came Peter to him and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." The church will be healthier for it. So will you.