In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul engages with the Christians at Corinth as his authority has been sharply challenged. Many of the Corinthians were unimpressed with Paul’s “charisma” and thought he was sort of a shifty, untrustworthy character who would promise to visit but wouldn’t deliver. That isn’t to mention that Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian behavior, some of which is contained in 1 Corinthians but much of which probably occurred in correspondence we do not have today, probably ruffled some feathers. As a consequence, the Corinthians were susceptible to some opportunistic teachers, who Paul sarcastically refers to a “super-apostles” who tried to present themselves as religious authorities via letter of recommendations and report of having dramatic visions purported to be from God. To put it in modern day analogy, imagine congregationalist church, which hires their own pastors, have a pastor with whom they have become disgruntled with and in the mist of this some opportunist comes in to try to wheedle their way in as the future pastor. What is being witnessed in 2 Corinthians is Paul’s engagement with an attempt to oust his apostolic authority and replace him with others.
Such events can be quite painful, where people you love and care for regard you in a way that you believe to be unfair or untrue. In his opening, he talks about being afflicted and consoled, disclosing a heart that is experiencing pain over the conflict with the Corinthians.1 Paul expresses both the hurt and the consolation regarding his relationship to Corinth is for the benefit of the Corinthians, rather than being about himself. Paul believes he has suffered faithfully like Jesus Christ, and it is this willingness to experience and go through suffering that serve as his apostolic credentials. In disclosing his own heart and understanding of his emotional trials, Paul is making an appeal to the Corinthians: he has the true marks of apostolic authority in his suffering love, whereas his opponents try to appeal to traditional status-bearing criteria such as charisma, recommendation letters and dramatic religious/apocalyptic visions.
For Paul, the critical question then is how do the Corinthians learn to identify God and God’s agents. Paul’s concern is that their social perception is skewed when it comes to God, believing that the signs of God’s bestowal of authority is grounded in these traditional status-bearing criteria, rather than the demonstrations of suffering love. Thus, the Corinthians fundamental problem is that they fail to truly understand the heart and mind of God. They do have a form of faith in God, but they don’t really “get” God. God is like what is known in Jesus Christ. The Corinthians obviously believe in Jesus, but they fail to appreciate that the light of Jesus is carried and born through brokenness and frailty, both in Jesus’ own mortality and death and then the mortality of his apostolic representatives. They know Jesus according to the flesh, but Paul urges them to move beyond this way of understanding Christ.3 that keeps the door open to relate to His people through the chosen human agent, which Paul sees himself. God’s relationship with the Corinthians is not currently in a smooth state, but it is going through a rocky phase, but God keeps the lines open. It is Paul’s hope that the Corinthians will finally rightly understanding God’s purposes and nature in the right way, and as a result, rightly understand the way they are to relate to people, including spiritual authorities.
At the core then is a analytic relationship between forgiveness, reconciliation and social perception. Often times, we construe forgiveness as being about consequences, not punish another person, or about feelings, such as not being angry with a person. But the nature of forgiveness in Paul’s discourse is neither behavioral or emotional, but it is about social perceptions; despite the Corinthians behavior which has grieved Paul and shown they do not truly understand God’s heart, God in his grace and forgiveness keeps a line open to the Corinthians. Forgiveness is about social perception and identity; how is it we will make sense of people based upon their hurtful and painful actions. The lack of forgiveness will treat a person’s negative behaviors as entirely eroding the relationship.
When Israel worshiped the Golden Calf, God’s initial response before Moses intercession was to entirely reject Israel and lead them into destruction. However, after Moses’ intercession, God was not planning on being present in the pillar of cloud, but he still maintained an active concern in Israel’s affairs in the wilderness by sending an angel to guide them instead. But even after God’s retains his concern to be involved with Israel but in a distant way, Moses continues to intercede for God to remain present, and God commits to remain present with his people. This narrative, which is the prototypical narrative of God’s forgiveness in the First/Old Testament isn’t simply about punishment or action, but God’s openness to a relationship with Israel despite their betrayal shows that the way one sees and relates to another is what forgiveness is about. It isn’t about the lack of all consequences, as Israel’s relationship with God was persistently altered as a result of their idolatry and then later lack of faithfulness, but God allows the space for Israel to relate to Him as God desires.
Forgiveness then is the basis for reconciliation to occur by seeing those who trespassed not as simply treacherous and incapable of every being in right relation, but as capable, even if some pain will be cased by speaking the truth of the offenses. Thus, through the joining of forgiveness and the speaking of the truth and hope, reconciliation can result as social perceptions are rightly aligned. Both parties come to rightly understanding each other and each other desires and to genuinely value the other in that way. Thus, true reconciliation occurs not by righting the wrongs, but in seeing each other in terms of what is true, both the negative and positive truths with the appropriate emphases on those different truths, along with a genuine alignment of hearts on what is truly most important. Then, as the social perceptions are rightly corrected, a repentant change of attitude about one’s past behaviors in light of this new understand leads to a reconciled relationship bearing the fruit it should bear.
Thus, Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians is that God and Paul himself as who one embodies God’s righteousness, because of what Christ did has done, has forgiven the Corinthians and his heart is widely open to them, with the hopes of them rightly seeing him, his authority, and what is his ultimate concern, how the Corinthians see God. While a skeptic might suggest the alignment of God’s interests and Paul’s interests might be Paul trying to appeal to God as a way to maintain his own interests, it can also be seen the other way: Paul sees himself as an agent so that through his own struggle, the Corinthians will learn how to rightly relate to him and, through his own struggle in ministry, God in Jesus Christ.
[PS as a matter of self-disclosure, this has been a reflection of my heart from my own experiences of the pains of conflict. Hopefully, it is my experiences that gives me the lens to see rightly rather than seeing what isn’t there.]
- Although, to be sure, there is a bit of rhetorical flair purposes for persuading the Corinthians.
- 5:16[/note because the criteria they used to evaluate Christ will also form their social perceptions of others. If one see’s Christ as a bearer of outright power in a traditional manner, perhaps seeings the resurrection as a sign that Jesus is more powerful than others, then one will evaluate other people based upon the traditional status-bearing criteria; if one see’s Christ in his true glorious manner, as the one who suffered and through comes into glory, then the Corinthians will begin to understand the true heart of God and in that, begin to rightly identify God’s representatives. At the core of Paul’s concern with the Corinthians is a matter of social perception, how it is that we perceive God in Jesus Christ and from that, how it is that we perceive others.
But here comes the problem: often times social perceptions lead to widening conflict and bitterness. If two people are angry at each other, if one person reacts strongly towards the other person’s anger, their actions will reinforce the negative social perceptions they have. Never mind if one person’s perception of the other was false and it was this false perception that was responsible for initiating the conflict; to act with unrestrained hostility in response, even if it is “justified,” will only reinforce the negative (and false) social perceptions. Amidst conflicts, social perceptions are frequently skewed, as we think people’s basic personality and way of being is defined by their conflict behaviors, perhaps overlooking how their behavior is more determined by the circumstances and the false beliefs that have impacted the circumstances. A simplistic tit-for-tat doesn’t fix false perceptions, no matter how the circumstance might be seen to justify fighting back along the same lines.
It is Paul’s heart that perhaps recognizes this reality, although not in the terms of modern psychology. While Paul must still endeavor to speak the truth to his congregation, he knows that his heart must accept the pain that comes with the Corinthians painful response to him and focus his concern on their well-being rather than simply his own. At the heart of this is the act of forgiveness, where one is not treated based upon their actions. The relationship isn’t as it should be or as Paul wants it to be, but he believes that God knows that reconciliation doesn’t come without forgiveness. In speaking of God’s ministry of reconciliation in Christ in 5:18-19, he describes God’s ministry occurring through two acts: 1) not regarding people based upon their trespasses that are a violation of faithfulness and trust and 2) entrusting himself to other agents to call people to be reconciled. It is God’s ongoing forgiveness2the word for overlooking is in the present tense, perhaps suggesting and on-going action on God’s behalf