The life story of the apostle Paul would not be Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His detractors in Corinth made the mistake of thinking he had wimped out on his previous visit, walking away from conflict instead of overcoming the opposition. And because of that, they believed themselves immune to church discipline.
Nope, Paul says, as he brings Second Corinthians to a close:
This is the third time that I’m coming to visit you. Every matter is settled on the evidence of two or three witnesses. When I was with you on my second visit, I already warned those who continued to sin. Now I’m repeating that warning to all the rest of you while I’m at a safe distance: if I come again, I won’t spare anyone. Since you are demanding proof that Christ speaks through me, Christ isn’t weak in dealing with you but shows his power among you. Certainly he was crucified because of weakness, but he lives by the power of God. Certainly we also are weak in him, but we will live together with him, because of God’s power that is directed toward you. (2 Cor 13:1-4, CEB)
Toward the end of the letter, he keeps warning them: I’m coming to you. It may be because his second and disastrous visit to them had been a bit of a surprise; he had told them he would come later, and changed his mind after he heard Timothy’s report of trouble. Now he repeats himself (cf., e.g., 12:14) so that no one can say he didn’t tell them.
Nor should anyone accuse him of running away from the previous conflict like a whipped dog with his tail tucked between his legs. Paul reminds them that even then he had warned the unrepentant, and now, he’s warning them again. His critics had accused him of writing powerful letters from a safe distance, insinuating that he was too weak and ineffectual to confront them in person (10:9-11). Here, he reinterprets that distance as safe for them — they have an opportunity to take care of business before he arrives.
Paul’s reference to witnesses is reminiscent of the rules for testimony in Deuteronomy 19:15. It suggests that he has already put procedures in place for church discipline, which the congregation used for the person who caused all the trouble on his second visit. That person was put out of the fellowship for a time. The implication: those who thought they had escaped such discipline earlier because of Paul’s weakness were about to find out how wrong they were.
Here again we see the theme that runs throughout the letter: power in weakness. As suggested in my Good Friday post, the power of the cross was veiled in weakness. Then, too, the enemies of Christ made the mistake of thinking they had won.
Paul doesn’t want to have to discipline anyone. He would rather they come to obedience by the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit than by the rod of discipline. But he will do what he must for the sake of the church. Christ isn’t weak, and neither is Paul.
In a culture where religion is considered a mostly private affair, the very idea of church discipline may seem distasteful. We may have visions of spiritual abuse, and not without cause. But there can be the opposite problem, too: a congregation where moral laxity reigns, because no one has the courage to speak up, and to do so in love.
There can be strength in humility, but also loving confrontation. And what we need is the wisdom to know when each is needed.