The habit of forgiveness

People looking at the church from the outside hold a number of stereotypes — not without some justification.  Some people, after all, have experienced authoritarian and spiritually abusive congregations, where members are kept in line through intimidation.  Small wonder, then, especially in our highly individualistic American society, that many are suspicious of organized “religion” and prefer private forms of “spirituality.”

And it’s no surprise either that the very idea of church discipline would raise some hackles.

As discussed in a recent post, the congregation in Corinth had finally disciplined the man who had caused both Paul and the community such grief.  But though the man was sorrowful and repentant, they had not yet restored him to fellowship.  Paul urged them to do so, with loving forgiveness.  And as he explains next, this is no small matter:

This is another reason why I wrote you. I wanted to test you and see if you are obedient in everything.  If you forgive anyone for anything, I do too.  And whatever I’ve forgiven (if I’ve forgiven anything), I did it for you in the presence of Christ.  This is so that we won’t be taken advantage of by Satan, because we are well aware of his schemes.  (2 Cor 2:9-11, CEB)

Paul’s earlier and severe letter had been a test of their obedience, and the Corinthians, thankfully, had passed the test.  But would they now obediently follow Paul’s lead in forgiving the man?  Just as they had stood with Paul spiritually in meting out the appropriate discipline (cf. 1 Cor 5:3-5), so too does Paul urge them to stand with him in the spirit of forgiveness.

How could Paul forgive a man who had given him so much trouble?  Personally, I’d be far less inclined to be so generous.  But Paul is ever aware of being in the “presence (the word can also be translated ‘face’) of Christ” — the one who preached a radical message of forgiveness (cf. Matt 6:7-15, 18:21-35) and embodied it on the cross.

It’s hard to know exactly what Paul means by the parenthetical remark, “if I’ve forgiven anything.”  Is he being modest?  Ironic?  Absent-minded?  All of the above?  Whatever the case, it’s fairly certain that forgiveness has become part of his spiritual DNA in Christ, and he wants the Corinthians to have the same habit.

Where there is appropriate discipline, there must also be appropriate forgiveness.  In the emotional dynamics of real congregations, the tendency to scapegoat troublemakers is already all too common.  One can easily imagine the repentant Corinthians going too far in ostracizing and laying the blame on one individual.

But that’s not the way of Christ.  Repentance must be met with forgiveness.  And who knows what the world would see in the church if, in the presence of Christ, loving forgiveness became more of a habit.