What exactly happened when Paul visited Corinth, and things went so badly that he had to beat an unscheduled retreat back to Ephesus? Unfortunately, nobody knows.
A common speculation is that the situation described in 1 Cor 5:1-5 had escalated. One of their members had been sleeping with his stepmother, a behavior that should have been an offense to Jews and even to many in the surrounding pagan culture. But the affair, instead of provoking disgust, had become a source of twisted spiritual pride: Look at how tolerant and open-minded we are! We really know what spiritual freedom is all about!
Horrified, Paul didn’t mince words:
Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor 5:2b-5, CEB)
In other words, Come together and kick the guy out of the fellowship; in the power of the Spirit, I’ll be right there with you. It’s for his own good — and yours (cf. vss. 6-8).
Given the divisive state of the congregation even before Paul wrote the letter, it’s easy to imagine how such an instruction might have inflamed the situation. By the time Paul visited in person, he may have faced what seemed like a full-blown mutiny, with the incestuous man at its head. Even those who considered themselves Paul’s supporters may have lacked the courage to speak out, adding insult to injury.
Is this what actually happened? Again, nobody knows. But given all the troublesome matters addressed in First Corinthians, it seems that some such scenario is likely, even if it centered on a different issue. The point is that the church had probably responded inappropriately to some situation, and Paul’s assertion of apostolic authority was like gasoline to the flames.
The good news is that the “severe letter” Paul sent afterward seems to have worked. If 2 Cor 2:5-11 is any indication, the majority repented, and disciplined the individual who had been at the center of the ruckus.
The bad news is that they may have swung too far in the opposite direction, and were carrying the discipline beyond what was necessary for the sake of congregational unity. More on that in the next post.