+ Dr. Cameron Lee introduces 2 Corinthians as a case study in church conflict and a real-life picture of how Christians can sometimes do harm to each other.
Cameron Lee is professor of marriage and family therapy in Fuller’s School of Psychology. He is the author of 8 books, and is also a teaching pastor and licensed minister in the congregation where he is a member.
“In a sense, when we read 2 Corinthians, we could read it as a case study in congregational conflict, in the ways that Christians can actually wound each other.” – Cameron Lee
Dr. Cameron Lee introduces 2 Corinthians as a case study in church conflict and a real-life picture of how Christians can sometimes do harm to each other.
I was trying to come up with an image or a symbol of what is important in 2 Corinthians. And again, as somebody who reads a lot, teaches about stress and conflict in ministry, I wanted something that might convey the brokenness of the church, because this is one of those things that, [there we go] despite the fact that we should all know better, that churches are made up of real people with real faults and real sin, we still continue to expect the church to be much more than it is even in the New Testament.
My name is Dr. Cameron Lee. I’m professor of family studies here. I’m a marriage and family life educator and also a licensed minister. And one of the texts that I love in the New Testament—one of my favorite letters—is 2 Corinthians.
An abiding interest of mine—my primary research interest over the years—has been pastors and how they deal with the stress of ministry. And, in a sense, when we read 2 Corinthians, we could read it as a case study in congregational conflict, in the ways that Christians can actually wound each other.
So, remember what it is that we were looking at in 1 Corinthians, all the different conflicts that Paul was trying to address in that letter. Now, there seems to be one man, who’s mentioned in 2 Corinthians, who’s probably at the center of the controversy. But you know how congregations work. Even if there’s one person who is at the center of the conflict, they don’t just face that alone. They recruit other people to their side. And so, when Paul arrives in Corinth, Paul knows that if he stays around, the conflict is only gonna get worse. So, he withdraws from the conflict, he goes back to Ephesus, and then he writes what’s called the “Tearful” or “the Severe Letter.” Paul is anguished over what happened in Corinth, how the relationship has been broken. And he’s making demands for repentance or some kind of change. The good news is the letter works. The majority of the people in Corinth see the light. They take the man who is at the center of the controversy, and they discipline him.
Happy ending? Not quite. Because some false teachers have arrived in town. They are styling themselves as apostles, and for their own selfish reasons, they need to undermine Paul’s authority. And in order to do that, they play on some of the doubts that were probably still there surrounding Paul.
Now, Paul, in his own defense, doesn’t give an inch in responding to those kinds of challenges. He knows that he’s an apostle. He believes in his authority as an apostle. And he knows that if his own authority is undermined in Corinth, then the authority of the gospel will be undermined as well. And so, for example, when people say, “Don’t you think it’s a little strange that Paul suffers so much for the gospel?” He’ll come back by saying, “Suffering? You don’t know the half of it. Let me tell you all the different ways in which I have suffered, some of which you might not even know about. But why should you be surprised if what we’re doing is we’re serving a crucified Savior?”
This is what I love about 2 Corinthians. It is a real-life portrait of a conflict in a church, of a pastor-church relationship. Now, you wish that some of the things that he would write would just make all the problems go away—would just solve all the conflicts, would make people want to reach out to one another in love. And one hopes that you get to see at least a little bit of that. But again, this is a real-life congregation. And the beauty of 2 Corinthians is that we get to see Paul doing theology in the midst of conflict without assuming that the conflict itself is going to be resolved. That’s the way it is with real congregations, and that’s what we can learn from it.