Dealing with Dysfunction in the Family of Faith (2 Cor. 6:11-13)
I recently received an e-mail from a reader who was lamenting the tragic absence of love in the body of Christ. He was grieved by the failure of many to take seriously the words of John, who insisted that “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21b).
The failure of the Church to love its own is an ugly blemish on the public face of Christianity. All of us have seen it, and many have felt its pain. There are countless reasons why this is a such a problem: fear, lack of trust, suspicion, past failures, grudges, unforgiveness, anger, broken promises, most of which is fueled by pride and ambition and insecurity and greed and gossip and, well, perhaps you should just fill in the blank.
One of the many strengths of Scripture is its refusal to sugar-coat the relational dysfunction among its more prominent characters. I suppose some might have preferred that Paul not publicize his struggles with the Corinthians. They wonder why the Spirit preserved for us so many ugly episodes. I, for one, am glad he did. How else are we to learn principles for conflict resolution? How else can we grow in relational harmony and overcome the many obstacles that hinder our witness to a lost and dying world?
That there was a palpable tension between them is evident from Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13. Although brief, close examination of this paragraph will yield great wisdom for resolving our interpersonal struggles in the body of Christ. Paul writes:
“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:11-13).
Most of us have, at one time or another, been on both sides of this sort of dispute. Like the Corinthians, you may have developed a lack of trust for leadership in the church. Fueled by gossip and misinformation, you may have grown to doubt their sincerity or their honesty. Perhaps you view them as power hungry and insensitive to the needs of others. One of your friends or family members may have been hurt by excessive authority or unjustly removed from a place of ministry. As a result, there is little room left for them in your heart.
On the other hand, you, like Paul, may have been the object of unwarranted criticism. Notwithstanding your best efforts and most sacrificial labors, people misinterpret your motives and impugn your character. You may wonder, “After all I’ve done and everything I’ve given, you’d think they’d give me the benefit of the doubt.”
Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, it hurts. You expect Christians to live by a higher standard. You’re shocked when their behavior differs little from what you encounter in the world at large. When your best efforts to put things right come up short, it seems only reasonable to withdraw, shut down your heart, elevate your guard, and wait for them to make the first move.
It’s clear from Paul’s words in this passage that he didn’t embrace that philosophy. His approach to resolution is refreshing and highly instructive. We would do well to imitate his strategy. I’d like to highlight five principles at work in Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians from which we can learn much.
The first thing that stands out to me is the deeply personal and direct way in which Paul addresses them. Did you notice his use of the word “Corinthians” (not simply “you”), as well as his appeal to them as his “children” (only elsewhere in Gal. 3:1 and Phil. 4:15 does he address his readers by name)?
The reference to them as “children” is not a rebuke, as if Paul is saying that they are acting “childishly.” Rather, these believers are his children “in the faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:2). Paul led them to Christ. He was the human instrument in their spiritual birth. This is an affirmation of intimacy, not indignation.
It’s not easy to speak in such terms to those who’ve hurt you badly. Your instinct is to keep them at arms length and not to expose yourself until you’re convinced of their good intentions. But Paul won’t have it. He is open and up front about his feelings for them. This is not a guarded or dispassionate command on his part but a heartfelt appeal from a spiritual father to his spiritual children.
A second principle to note is the transparent and honest way in which Paul lets his heart be known. He holds back nothing. He hides no motives, employs no facades, and avoids all pretense. He turns away from verbal manipulation and speaks the truth without embellishment or flair.
The fact that Paul’s frank speech is an accurate and utterly honest expression of his intentions and beliefs and desires is indicated by the second phrase, “our heart is wide open.” Jesus declared that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34), and Paul hopes the Corinthians will hear his words and thereby feel the pulse of his soul. He knows they are still suspicious of him. He knows they harbor ill will. He knows they doubt his sincerity. He knows they are afraid of entrusting themselves to him. Yet this is no hindrance to his complete openness.
The phrase, “we have spoken freely to you”, is literally “our mouth is open toward you,” a graphic and pointed way of describing utterly unrestrained, vulnerable, frank speech. Paul here is uninhibited and free in expressing his affections.
Third, be prepared to correct false notions or unwarranted beliefs that others have about your feelings. Paul knew they thought he loved them little (cf. 2 Cor. 11:11). So here he uses a figure of speech called litotes, in which a positive is emphasized by use of the negative. Thus when he says “you are not restricted by us” he means, in effect, “you enjoy the fullest devotion possible,” or “we love you with unbridled affection,” or more literally, “I have not allowed you to be squeezed out of my heart.”
Fourth, identify the problem. Don’t skirt around the issue or pretend that it is less painful than it is. Be specific in focusing on the source of the tension. You may be wrong, but at least it will let them know how you perceive the situation. In this case, Paul is convinced that the problem is not that he lacks affection for them but that they have shut their hearts toward him. “You are restricted in your own affections,” he says. The word translated “affections” is a graphic one in Greek (splanchna), referring to the inward parts, the viscera or entrails, if you will. It is obviously a metaphor for the emotions or feelings or deep affections.
Paul unashamedly declares that they have failed to reciprocate his love. His feelings for them are honest and sincere and passionate. He has not closed himself to their needs or their pain. But they in turn have not returned the favor. If he is open, they are closed.
Fifth, Paul makes an urgent and heartfelt appeal to them. In return for opening his heart to them he pleads that they will open theirs to him. “In medical terms,” notes Harris, “an enlarged heart is a dangerous liability; in spiritual terms, an enlarged heart is a productive asset” (490).
Paul doesn’t bludgeon them with heavy handed ecclesiastical power but speaks to them as a friend and a father. He doesn’t play the apostolic trump card to enforce his will, but entreats and pleads with tender passion. His spirit isn’t official, but personal.
Does it always work? Sadly, no. There will always be people in the church who, in a perverse sort of way, derive pleasure and sinful satisfaction from the alienation they have both caused and continue to perpetuate. Often their identity is wrapped up in the offense they carry. For others, to release it and reconcile requires a vulnerability they are not yet willing to embrace.
But their weakness is no excuse for our reluctance. Paul, it seems clear to me, was determined to obey his own command, painful though it be: “Repay no one evil for evil,” he wrote to the Roman church, “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:17-18). That’s not easy to do, but the alternative is simply not an option for the one who says he “loves God” (1 John 4:21).