If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent – not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. (verses 5-8)
Church discipline is severe.
That’s the point. It’s meant to awaken someone from complacency in sin, rousing them to the reality that they are living apart from Christ. Back in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul shook the whole church into conscious awareness of sin festering right in their midst. One man had been living in sexual relationship with his father’s wife, something that did “not occur even among pagans” (1 Cor 5:1). Meanwhile, the rest of the church condoned his actions, actually taking pride in the apparent freedom of it all. “Wake up!”, Paul said on that occasion, wanting the church to see sin as sin, and then discipline the offender by putting him outside the fellowship of the church that he might experience the true reality of sin’s consequence. Discipline is indeed severe.
But even then, Paul made it clear that the goal of such strong action was so that the man’s “spirit (might be) saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). Restoration was always the end-game.
In this present chapter, it may be that Paul is reflecting on the same situation – or it may be another. We don’t know for sure. But in either case, we get a view of the intense compassion that is meant to be at work even in such severe circumstances. Discipline had previously been enacted – the offender in this case had been cut off from church fellowship, relationship, and support. But Paul now states that it has been “sufficient for him” – the time has come, instead, to “forgive and comfort him” (verses 6-7).
“Reaffirm your love for him,” Paul says (verse 8 ).
Which is to say that discipline, in its proper context, is never disconnected from love.
It’s not a matter of trying to make someone “pay” for their wrongdoing. If that were our motivation, our theology would have seriously gone wrong. “Paying” for sin can only be done by Christ himself – and that payment has been made once for all.
Rather, in love, discipline seeks to awaken the offender (and sometimes the church community itself) from sin. Sin has been atoned – don’t linger in it any longer. Discipline aids in the process, guarding believers from settling into a state of dazed grogginess, comatose in sin. Wake up. That’s the point.
But all the while, it is undergirded by the long-range perspective of love itself. Once the offender is wakened, bring about restoration, Paul says, so that “he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (verse 7). Enfold him again in the warm embrace of Christ’s family. Let him step back into the solid reality of the New Command, where we love one another as Christ himself has loved us.
“Reaffirm your love for him.”
Lord, it strikes me that the reality of this teaching is so dependent on the church being a community that is truly alive in your love. We confess that often we experience something less. Please awaken us afresh, by your Spirit, to live the fullness of the love that you yourself have poured out upon us. Prepare us, that in the moments when discipline, or correction, or rebuke are necessary, it can be experienced in the context of love like yours. May it be. Amen.
Reflect: Is your church community living the love of Christ in such a way that lives are continually supported and restored? Whether ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ what steps can you take to increase the reality?