By Edward O. Bragwell Sr.
For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears (2 Cor. 7:5).
Paul admitting to fear? This is the man who had the courage to call one Ananias a “whitewashed wall” – and to apologize upon learning that he was the high priest (Acts 23:3). Paul was set for the defense of the gospel (Phil. 1:17). He defended it even when all forsook him (2 Tim. 4:16). He demonstrated his courage in nearly every city during his travels for the gospel’s sake.
One associates boldness with courage rather than fear. Yet, here and on other occasions Paul freely admits his fears (cf. 1 Cor. 2:3). It is interesting to notice specific fears expressed by Paul in Second Corinthians. They relate to his concern for the spiritual well-being of his brethren – the church. These are the kind of fears shared by every dedicated elder, preacher, teacher – indeed by every Christian who is concerned with the souls of brethren and the progress of the Lord’s church.
Paul had written a pointed rebuke of the Corinthians in his first letter to them. While waiting to hear the results, he says “without were conflict, inside were fears.” He knew they might not have received his rebuke in the spirit that was intended. He suggests that he had some second thoughts about his rebuke – “though I did regret” (7:8). What sincere and sensitive gospel preacher has not felt this conflict between his duty to “rebuke with all authority” (cf. Tit. 2:15) and wanting to spare the feelings of brethren whom he dearly loves? How many brethren have unjustly thought that such preachers were hard and calloused in their attitudes toward people?
What a relief it must have been for Paul to hear that his fears were unfounded! His rebuke had worked! They had sorrowed unto repentance!
I highly suspect that Paul’s words were intended to profit far more than the Corinthians. They tell every advocate of truth for all time that he must not let his fears – even regrets – to keep him from doing his duty before God even at the expense of his personal comfort. This is important at a time when there is a growing obsession with “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative” in preaching and writing. Unless one is one of those rare birds who enjoys the challenge of conflict, he had much rather always be pleasingly positive. It would mean a whole lot less wear and tear on a sensitive nervous system. It would make it a lot easier for brethren to take his preaching – both public and private. He could learn to live with brethren’s response to this kind of preaching in a hurry!
Though elated by the news of their repentance, Paul expresses other fears about the Corinthians. He was afraid of what could happen when he saw them in person. They might disappoint him and he them (12:20-21).
If he found “contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits” among them, he would be disappointed. If he found those “who have sinned before and have not repented” of things “which they have practiced,” he would be further disappointed. If he did find such, he knew he would likely “be found by (them) such as (they did) not wish.” They would be disappointed with each other!
He was not only concerned with what they presently did, but with what they had previously done (v. 21). Even though it may have been “done already” (KJV), it would still be a problem until they repented of it. Mere quitting is not repenting.
It is so easy to ignore the past sins of brethren – if they no longer practice them. Never mind that they have never repented! Never mind that they never openly repudiate the words or deeds that they openly spoke or did! There is no reason to fear that they would find us “as they did not wish,” for we know full well that we are not going to rock the boat – as long as they are not presently engaged in the evil in question.
Is not the fact that one can say “they have practiced” rather than “they are practicing” evidence enough that they have repented? Apparently not. Paul was still afraid “lest, when I come again, . . . I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of . . . which they have practiced.” Judging from our experience with brethren, Paul had good reason to fear. He not only would be a disappointment to those who had sinned and not repented, but also to other brethren who observed his handling of the matter. They simply would not understand how Paul could still hold those brethren accountable after they had quit their sinful practices. Of course, if Paul found that what they had previously done was not really sinful, then that would be a different matter entirely.
One must not allow his fear, even if realized, to stop him from his duty under God. Nor can he allow disappointment with brethren or their disappointment with him to turn him into a cold, bitter and/or rude person. Paul wrote, “We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed, we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8-9).
But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craltinem, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (11:3).
Paul knew how deceptive false teachers could be: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light * Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (11: 13-15). He knew about the “smooth words and flattering speeches” of those causing divisions contrary to the doctrine of Christ (Rom. 16:18). He knew how false teachers “zealously court” (cf. Gal. 4:17) good brethren with their “swelling words of emptiness” (cf. 2 Pet. 2:18-19) – sweet nothings.
Paul also knew how gullible good brethren can be. They can be easily swayed by a powerful and pleasing personality. Paul asks, “Do you look at things according to the outward appearance?” (10:7) He knew how easily brethren can be taken in by oratorical skill (see chapters 10:10; 11:6). A skilled practitioner of sophistry, flattery, or emotionalism can find among brethren an ample supply of itching ears ready to be scratched (1 Cor. 2:4,5; 1 Thess. 2:5; 2 Tim. 4:2ff).
Paul was afraid that the Corinthians would be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (11:4). Simplicity, in this case, does not mean the easy to understand. It means the opposite of duplicity and/or multiplicity (simplex is one fold, duplex is twofold and multiplex is manyfold). Paul was concerned that their faith in Christ should not be mixed with some other system like that taught by Judaizing teachers. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a stand-alone system. Its value lies in maintaining its purity unmixed with any other element. Once it is mixed with other systems or schools of thought, like Judaism, worldly philosophy, paganism, etc., it ceases to be simple. It is now a mixture of two or more elements. It becomes a compound solution rather than a Simple one. Its value and power is weakened or destroyed by the additional elements. It becomes a modified version, a watered down and weakened gospel. It is the result of blending the truth of the gospel with other religious and/or philosophical systems. It retains enough of the truth to allow the naive to drink freely of it without suspecting that it is mixture rather than the truth alone. It would be less dangerous if it were an entirely different system. Such mix. ing results in another system with a strong Christian flavor – strong enough to convince many good people that it is the real thing. The preaching of such a mixture is in effect preaching another Jesus, another gospel, and/or another spirit. Paul chided the Corinthians for “put(ting) up with” or “bear(ing) with” (KJV) such preaching (11:4).
Much that is passed off as being “of Christ” is in reality a mixture of the gospel of Christ with other schools of thought. We are to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (10:5). Rather than hunting some way to harmonize the religious and/or philosophical thinking of our neighbors with the gospel, we must use the gospel to defeat such thinking. The truth must be used “for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God . . . ” (10:4,5). “Indeed, let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). Brethren sometimes make a spectacle of themselves by trying to ride two horses running in opposite directions – the truth of the gospel and the conventional wisdom of this world. It may be an effort to accommodate faith in God to the philosophical theory of evolution resulting in “Theistic evolution.” It may be to attempt to accommodate the kospel of Christ to the hedonistic whims and temporal needs of society resulting in the “social gospel.” It may be an effort to accommodate the gospel of Christ to the religious realities of this age, resulting in “ecumenism” or “unity in diversity.”
It is truly amazing how tolerant brethren can be toward those who corrupt the truth and how intolerant they can be toward those who, like Paul, oppose their compromises (cf. 11:1,4,19-20).
Brethren, if Paul were present today, would we give him reason to fear? Or would we give him reason to rejoice?
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 3, pp. 76-77
February 5, 1987