Week of April 3

Extinguish the Flames of Church Conflict with Forgiveness

Read: Judges 13-16; 2 Corinthians 2
“So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him”
2 Corinthians 2:8, ESV


The importance of Christian forgiveness cannot be overstated, but it certainly can be underserved by churches. I suppose some things should change, but they are slow in coming—centuries slow! We find ourselves too often unwilling to practice forgiveness and our divided churches give witness to this reality. Paul calls for forgiveness in an extremely difficult church setting and provides us with a wonderful example of how we can overcome brokenness and find healing through forgiving one another.

Understanding the Bible Context

Uncertainty as to “who was the culprit” but clarity about the response
Some personal affront had been levied against Paul in association with the situation surrounding the man who was found to be practicing incest (see 1 Corinthians 5). There was an earlier generation of respected Bible commentators who believed that Paul was taking up again this sexual matter in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, but a growing number of notable contemporary Bible scholars believe this was not the case. Either way, some further discord ensued which led Paul to write a letter that no longer can be found.

Regardless of the catalyst for this portion of Paul’s letter, a serious breakdown in relationships had occurred and Paul was writing to address this situation. The apostle writes of “feeling pain, causing pain, and avoiding further pain” in the previous section of the letter (1:23-2:4). All three of these perspectives on pain recur in verse 5-11 with respect to a certain wrongdoer in Corinth. Paul demonstrates key characteristics of a forgiving pastor. First, he does not “call the person out,” which sadly has become the case too often on social media in our day (2:5-8). Secondly, he understands that Christian discipline is not only “retributive,” but it also is also “remedial” (2:6-7; EBC). Thirdly, Paul knows that the situation is not all about him, so he is careful to understand the feelings of the penitent wrongdoer (2:6-8). He then seeks for the Corinthians to imitate his behavior as an example to follow (2:10). Paul is also aware of Satan’s operation to divide the Christian community (2:11; EBC). Let’s dig deeper by examining how we may follow this path toward forgiveness.
Steppingstones to Christian forgiveness
First and foremost, Christ’s teaching and example provide us with a steppingstone to forgiveness. I know, I know! We have all heard this before, but this is a critical element in establishing a healthy climate within a church. Christ taught His disciples that a willingness to forgive was a precondition for receiving God’s forgiveness, and He meant it (Matthew 18:23-35). His cross proved it because it showed that God took the vital first step to bring about reconciliation between Himself and humankind. Paul had taught the same to his churches (see Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32).

This approach to resolving conflict also is a crucial ethical construct because it originates from within God’s character and is a necessary virtue in the lives of those who profess to be believers (cf. God’s mercy and longsuffering nature in Exodus 34:6; see also the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, “longsuffering”).  

Secondly, we forgive because it is vital to church unity. We are not called to be pirates who turn upon one another at the smallest aggravation, but brothers and sisters who are a part of God’s family where love and service take center stage. Forgiveness was granted “for your sake,” meaning that Paul saw the higher call to total church unity rather than to divisive political loyalties (2:10).

Thirdly, a further purpose for forgiving was to avoid giving the Tempter a decided advantage within their fellowship. Satan had already sought to gain an advantage by creating discord between the church at large and a small minority within it, or between the repentant wrongdoer and his fellow Christians. If they refused to forgive the man, then they would play further into Satan’s hands. Surely, they knew better than to be vindictive to the point where the man would be driven away from the church? The aim of church discipline is repentance, indeed, but it also includes reconciliation, and restoration.

Applying the Passage to Our Lives

One of the most helpful, but often overlooked, home tools is a fire extinguisher. Surprisingly, while fire extinguishers are often a first line of defense when a fire occurs, surveys have shown that nearly two-thirds of adults have not received training in their use. This tool for business and home safety is often the difference between a small fire and a much larger blaze. We are in the midst of remodeling work at the Baptist Center for Global Concerns, and I have noticed that the fire extinguishers throughout the building will need to be updated and placed in key locations. It also occurs to me that I have never been trained in the use of these important safety tools!

On a spiritual note, many small fires of discord in the life of a church could be extinguished were the congregation trained in how to apply forgiveness to the situation. We see it in the Bible, but no one has ever provided us with training in how to apply it effectively. Here are some important ways to offer forgiveness.

First, the incident was not swept under the rug. Paul and the church had dealt with the situation openly and with mercy in mind. The church did not blow up from the confrontation; instead, the Body of Christ bowed down before the God who shows mercy to sinners. Yes, forgiveness had taken place, but there was important ongoing work that needed to be done to bring about restoration. So, this was not a case of forgive and forget.

Secondly, the sin had been confronted in such a way that allowed the man to preserve his dignity. Notice that he is not named in the letter. I am certain that everyone knew who it was, so his name did not need to be dragged through the dirt.

Thirdly, the guilty man was penitent. Paul, the person who was offended, and the church had all forgiven the man who had erred. Even though there were still wounds that needed healing, the church was intent to glorify the Lord in its actions. We all may learn a lesson from Paul about the healing that comes through forgiving.

Reflecting Upon and Discussing the Passage

1. Forgiveness is often readily available, but underused in relationships. When conflict surfaces and creates angry hurt and heat in your heart, then train yourself to reach first for an attitude of forgiveness. Call to mind a church situation that proved to be hurtful. How would a forgiveness approach, like the one Paul used, help your church to better handle the situation?

2. For Families: Children who learn to ask for forgiveness when they have offended are better prepared to foster and sustain healthy relationships throughout their lives. What beautiful healing takes place when someone who has hurt another recognizes the wrong-doing and comes to ask forgiveness, makes restitution, and the relationship is restored. It takes two to mend fences, however. Children also must learn to forgive truly and completely. I have seen false apologies on one hand, and an attitude of unforgiveness on the other, and the wrong-doer repeatedly offending over and over and over again.

To help your children understand what repenting means, go outside and draw a long line down the length of the driveway. Have each child march one direction on that line for fifteen seconds. When you signal a change with a shout, have them make a 180-degree turn and march back the same way they came. Saying we are sorry, either to God or to our family members, means that we will not keep going or continue doing whatever it is that hurts or offends ever again. Instead, we turn around and do not repeat it. Then we ask for forgiveness, are forgiven, make restitution for the offense, and are restored. Paul shows us how: “So I beg you to reaffirm your love.”

May your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock