Humbled by the Sin of Others (2 Cor. 12:19-21)
2 Corinthians is a vivid, often painful portrayal of the courage, honesty, and vulnerability of the apostle Paul. More so than in any of his other letters, in 2 Corinthians we hear his heart beat, we feel his passions, we are put in touch with his deepest fears and longings and loves. If one is looking for a paradigm of pastoral sensitivity and strength, of unyielding commitment to truth and purity together with compassion and profound concern for his converts, this is the place. Look no further.
I say this because of one remarkable statement in the passage before us today. Although on reading this text you may at first wince a bit at the forceful language of the apostle, read it again, carefully and slowly, and tune your ear to the sound of his love for these people:
"Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish - that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced" (2 Cor. 12:19-21).
The Corinthians may well have thought that Paul's purpose in this letter was to defend himself to them. Of course, he has been defending himself, but not as the Corinthians defined it. His aim has always been to do whatever made for the building up of their faith. He assures them that to whatever degree he has spoken of himself it was ultimately for their welfare or edification (v. 19b). "Your growth, not my glory, has been my primary goal." "Not I, but you," was his dominating motivation. D. A. Carson makes the following pointed application to the present day:
"Sadly, too many leaders consciously or unconsciously link their own careers and reputations with the gospel they proclaim and the people they serve. Slowly, unnoticed by all but the most discerning, defense of the truth slips into self-defense, and the best interest of the congregation becomes identified with the best interest of the leaders. Personal triumphalism strikes again, sometimes with vicious intensity. It is found in the evangelical academic who invests all his opinions with the authority of Scripture, in the pastor whose every word is above contradiction, in the leader transparently more interested in self-promotion and the esteem of the crowd than in the benefit and progress of the Christians allegedly being served. It issues in political maneuvering, temper tantrums, a secular set of values (though never acknowledged as such), a smug and self-serving shepherd and hungry sheep" (164-65).
Note also how theology impacts life. Paul's posture throughout the letter, each word that he wrote, his pastoral choices, as well as his attitude toward the Corinthians, all were shaped by his keen and conscious awareness of God's keen and conscious awareness of him! "It is in the sight of God," says Paul (v. 19), that I've conducted myself and fashioned my speech. The all-knowing God, who sees into every motive and method, is witness to the truth of his words. Omniscience changes lives! Theology impacts ethics!
These closing verses of chapter 12 are dominated by Paul's "fear" at the presence of unresolved moral problems in Corinth which he must address upon his arrival. His concern is that he may find them embroiled in "quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (v. 20b).
There are, apparently, long-standing and unrepented sexual sins in the church as well. The extent of such sin in Corinth is well-documented. The so-called "lost letter" to the Corinthians was occasioned by "sexually immoral" people in the church (1 Cor. 5:9-11). In 1 Corinthians, Paul had challenged their indifference to the incestuous man (5:1), and had rebuked them for their use of prostitutes (6:15) and their involvement in adultery and homosexuality (6:9).
He fears that things may not have changed much in recent days. Three specific areas of moral failure are noted. First, he mentions "impurity", a general term for sexual uncleanness of any kind (cf. Rom. 1:24; Eph. 4:19). Second, "sexual immorality" is the rendering of the well-known word porneia from which we derive "pornography" and would refer to illicit sexual activity of any and all sorts, especially fornication and prostitution. Finally, "sensuality" (aselgeia) refers to debauchery or wanton defiance of public decency. According to Harris, it "describes sexual conduct that lacks any moral restraint, unbridled and shameless sexual activity comparable to that of animals" (903). Between them, "the three terms depict impure, immoral, and dissolute sexual behavior and testify to the rampant depravity in the city of Corinth and the clinging pagan background of some of the Corinthian converts (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11)" (Harris, 903-04).
But my primary concern is for us to note Paul's attitude and response. Make no mistake. If he does not find repentance upon his arrival, he will discipline them firmly. But he takes no delight in dealing harshly with such people. Indeed, he anticipates "mourning" over their sins. Discipline grieved Paul. It broke his heart. He took no sordid joy in it.
Paul is open and honest about his fear that if they have not repented, "God may humble me before you" (v. 21). In other words, in addition to his fear of conflict with the Corinthians over their persistent immorality is his concern that God might "humble" him in their presence. What could he possibly mean by this, and what does it tell us about this man of God?
Some think that Paul anticipates the formal exclusion (excommunication) of people from the church, perhaps via some congregational procedure of discipline (cf. 1 Cor. 5:4; 2 Cor. 2:10). This would result, no doubt, in accusations, recriminations, and increased opposition by the obstinate, all of which would be a "humbling" experience for the apostle, as it was on his earlier "painful" visit. We certainly can't rule out this possibility.
But I'm inclined to find in Paul's words another emphasis. Note well that it is "God" who will humble him, not the Corinthians or the false apostles in their midst. This reflects his remarkable sense of personal responsibility for the churches he founded and those who came to faith through his ministry. Not for Paul, writes, Carson, is "the haughty sternness of egocentric leaders who can with dry eyes and a high hand discipline members ensnared by sin. Paul is too much aware of the intertwining of responsibilities in the body of Christ. He cannot even distance himself entirely from their sin. He himself feels humbled in the face of it, just as a father feels humbled by his son's rebellion" (168).
In other words, Paul clearly holds them accountable for their moral choices, yet he feels profoundly identified with their behavior in a way that their failure is, to a degree, his as well. He does not wash his hands of them or flippantly cast them aside, as if saying, "Well, you had your chance. You're on your own now. I won't be bothered by such behavior among those who claim to be my disciples."
He is fully prepared to impose the required discipline, but regards it as a personal humiliation to himself. Discipline, yes, but not disinterested or harsh lording it over others. As Paul contemplates the necessity of dealing with their immorality, he is gripped by heartbroken dismay and tears flow freely. There's not a hint of self-righteousness or smug pontificating.
I've had the responsibility of being involved in several cases of church discipline over the years and must confess that I've not always done it well. All too often the wayward are either oppressed by leadership or largely ignored. That is to say, we err either on the side of excessive harshness and rigidity or apply "greasy grace" in our misguided attempts to display love and compassion for those who have failed. Rarely do we see instances in which people are held accountable, even publicly rebuked, and yet provided with counsel and encouragement with a view to their restoration both to God and his people.
Perhaps the element most lacking in us is what we see most shockingly present in Paul's response, namely, a healthy sense of personal identification with those who've fallen and a humbling awareness that their failure is, at least in part, indicative of our own failure. Excessive individualism and a loss of authentic community have contributed greatly to this in the church today. We too easily isolate ourselves from others and fail to grasp the profound implications of what it is to be one body, unified in Christ, one with another.
The example of Paul is a powerful message not only to pastors but all believers in the body of Christ. Would that we all might say with him, "Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?" (2 Cor. 11:29).