They all just kept hurting one another.
The first time he came to Corinth, Paul spent about a year and a half preaching the gospel and building the church. Once he felt they were ready, he moved on to Ephesus. He hadn’t been gone even a year when he began to be troubled by the news he was hearing out of Corinth, about the immorality that had seized the community from the inside out. So he sent them a warning letter and then, when that wasn’t enough, he sent them a longer letter going into greater detail on issues of morality and calling them to unity with one another. He said the letter wasn’t intended to shame them, but it opened up a rift in their relationship that seems to have festered.
By the time he visited again he’d been gone almost three years. He’d sent them the two letters, and then he returned, but the trip didn’t go well. Someone in the church at Corinth had a bone to pick with Paul, and just kept coming after him — attacking the way he spoke, the way he wrote, the way he taught. It seemed as though he had the backing of another group of teachers whom Paul called the “super apostles,” not because they were great, but because what they taught was not the gospel of Jesus Christ, it was something beyond the gospel. They were harsh judges, and demanded strict adherence to the law. They mocked Paul’s way of leading as soft, because he preached forgiveness.
It was a sort of an impossible situation with no clear way out or through. Paul had come to them out of concern for the immorality that was spreading among them, and once he arrived he was undermined for being too lenient. He asked the church to help him address the behavior of this brother, but they didn’t want to get involved.
Paul eventually left, but he wasn’t done with them. After that second visit, where he’d been so thoroughly disrespected, he sent them a letter that provided in painful detail all the ways they’d wronged him, all the hurt they’d caused him, all the ways they’d failed to support him. In time it came to be known as “the severe letter,” or “the letter of tears.”
It got them moving. The brother who’d made Paul’s second visit so difficult, they finally took to task. If before they’d been too lax in their engagement with one another, now they became too harsh. Convicted by Paul’s scolding, they came down hard on the “troublemaker,” shaming him to the point that Paul seemed concerned he might hurt himself.
It was a mess, and the harder they tried to fix things, the worse they got.
In seminary you usually get a light introduction to family systems theory as part of the training in pastoral care and church administration. It’s applicable to both. As I worked to understand the relationship between Paul and the church in Corinth, I tried to apply the little I know about how family systems work to this tangled knot of hurt and betrayal. Paul had come to them like a parent, preaching and building the church, giving birth to a community. After he left, he continued relating to them as a parent might, but other teachers and leaders arrived to take his place, criticizing his work, filling the parental void he’d left. Like children caught in a messy divorce, the community in Corinth was trapped by divided loyalties. Soon the struggle for power and authority between Paul and the “super apostles” was being mirrored by members of the church, like children fighting to defend their parents’ honor.
“Family quarrels are bitter things,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.”
Life in the world these days feels like this to me. Everywhere we look there are authority figures battling with one another in public over what our world, our nation, this thing called “community” that we’re building together, is supposed to be. Are we a corporation or a commune? Are we a liberal democracy or a nationalist theocracy? As the proponents of these ideologies dash from state to state like queens on a chessboard, we hear their conflict playing itself out in a million repetitive versions of the same conversation. Then the video of a solitary young black woman being attacked at a nearly all-white political rally. Then the assault on the protestor who tore up a political poster at a campaign stop.
I suppose it’s the theologian in me that wants to know where it all started. Have these political icons, these archetypes, manipulated us into this state of constant war with one another, or are they responding to the violence we already nurture in our hearts and minds? Are we mirroring them, or are they mirroring us?
To find the answer, we’d have to shut up already with our obsessive chatter about how insane the political landscape has become and look inward. We’d have to listen the things we say when we assume we’re in a room of like-minded people. We’d have to be honest about the things we think when we hear “them” speak, whoever “they” are, when we’re stuck next to each other in the checkout lane or on the train.
So how does Paul interrupt the seemingly endless cycle of hurt in which he and the church in Corinth are trapped? He writes to them again, but this time instead of recounting all the ways they had hurt him and failed one another, he calls them to be reconciled.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us through Christ to God, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s own self, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:17-19)
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that, “Family life is too intimate to be preserved by the spirit of justice. It can be sustained by a spirit of love which goes beyond justice.”
It occurs to me that Paul wrote four letters to the church in Corinth. In two of the letters he warned and scolded them, and in the other two he spoke of love and reconciliation. He was mocked by his opponents for being too soft, but it was only the letters that concerned themselves with God’s grace that made their way into the Bible. Those other letters? Not a single copy of them exists today. He wasn’t perfect. Not everything he said, or wrote, or taught, was worth remembering. Just like us.
Which letter are you writing with your life: a letter of condemnation, or a letter of reconciliation? Who is your letter written to? Who do you imagine to be a part of your family, and how far are you prepared to go — what are you prepared to forgive — to welcome them home?