Comfort for Immoral Heretics?

“Return of the Prodigal Son,” Rembrandt (1620–69), Metropolitan Museum.

About twenty years ago, after witnessing some of the results of Reformed theology on church life, I did a close study of 2 Corinthians. I had seen churches split into ever-smaller factions over fine points of doctrine. The tone of conferences got darker each year. I kept running into leaders whose idea of discipleship was brow-beating people into abstract doctrinal “unity.”

Whatever this was, I felt, it was off track.

The Reformed awakening in the 1990s attracted people who wanted a radical change. People saw that churches were compromising with the immorality and soft-headed spirituality of American culture. They demanded a reassertion of biblical authority. Anything other than a hard line was too soft.

I was part of this movement. I saw American evangelicalism as a Corinthian mess. I still do.

But, as I’ve argued, “hard line” authority has left evangelicals in an institutional crisis. We often slam people’s consciences with God’s commands but ignore God’s design for curing their consciences. Authoritarianism freezes our churches, schools, and mission organizations in a defensive crouch.

And, as I discovered in studying 2 Corinthians, the hard line does not really match the apostles’ authority in the New Testament.

The situation in Corinth was just as spiritually chaotic as our churches today. False doctrine, moral failure, and factionalism were all prominent issues in 1 Corinthians. When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, there was a rebellion against his leadership. False teachers were slandering him as a double-minded hypocrite who was too weak to lead (2 Cor 1.15–22; 10.9–10).

If there is any text where we might find an apostle bringing the hammer down on a lawless church, 2 Corinthians would be the book. And, indeed, chapter 10 is one of the classic spiritual warfare passages that every pastor needs. It’s aggressive, even shocking (10.4–6): “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

But in my study twenty years ago, I saw that those words in chapter 10 grow out of a truth Paul taught in 1.6–7. Paul’s ministry gives comfort to the Corinthian church: “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”

Comfort for people caught in moral failure and flirting with apostasy? Paul has an unshaken hope for a congregation that is harboring slanderers? Why does Paul wait until chapter 10 to pit his authority against false teachers?

Start with the last question. Paul does not wait. He confronts false teachers with his apostolic office from the very first chapter. His authority comes from the comfort that Paul has received from God and gives to the Corinthians. That is the energy driving his apostleship: Christ receives sinners, forgives them, and heals them. Another way to translate the Greek word is encouragement. I have never seen this principle fail. My influence grows when people feel comforted in Christ — that is, when they are built up and strengthened by God’s grace against the power sin once held over them.

Take the previous question: how can Paul have an “unshaken” hope for a congregation that is harboring slanderers? Without a doubt, they were harboring false teachers who wanted to push Paul’s influence out of the church. The problem with these teachers was not a big misunderstanding. Their lies were attracting followers. That’s why Paul wrote 2 Corinthians. But the way he persuaded the Corinthians to dump the rebels was a simple contrast: I comfort you. But they dominate you.

I’ve been slandered many times. Every pastor has. Slander comes with the job. It hurts, and I complain about it. But I have learned to give comfort from the Gospel to those who believe the lies. Every time I apply this truth from 2 Corinthians — every single time — my influence grows. It grows even when some continue to believe the lies. Giving comfort draws a line in the sand for churches: do you want to follow slick liars who play to your fears, or do you want to be built up in the Gospel? God’s people respond to grace, not fear. Even if they choose fear for a season, they will get thirsty for grace again.

So why does Paul announce Gospel comfort to people caught in moral failure and flirting with apostasy? Because Gospel comfort in Jesus Christ is how the apostle tore down strongholds and the lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God. Paul didn’t use the weapons of the flesh, but weapons that have spiritual power. His weapons called sinners back from moral failure and apostasy. His authority was rooted in Gospel comfort.

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