The Maturity of the Local Church
2 Cor. 13. 7-11
Text and Exposition
8“For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth. 9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete. 10 For this reason I am writing these things while absent, so that when present I need not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down.”
8 οὐ γὰρ δυνάμεθά τι κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας ἀλλὰ ὑπὲρ τῆς ἀληθείας. 9 χαίρομεν γὰρ ὅταν ἡμεῖς ἀσθενῶμεν, ὑμεῖς δὲ δυνατοὶ ἦτε· τοῦτο καὶ εὐχόμεθα, τὴν ὑμῶν κατάρτισιν. 10 διὰ τοῦτο ταῦτα ἀπὼν γράφω, ἵνα παρὼν μὴ ἀποτόμως χρήσωμαι κατὰ τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἣν ὁ κύριος ἔδωκέν μοι εἰς οἰκοδομὴν καὶ οὐκ εἰς καθαίρεσιν.
“As the book of 2 Corinthians closes, Paul’s aim and goal is to bring the church back to its first love. That is, the church has since lost its way. Paul had invested in the church, founded the church, preached in the church, and spent himself for the church. He was content to die that they may live. For all of the sacrifice Paul endured for the Corinthians, they were still out of sorts with him. Much of the letter surrounds the possibility of discipline since the church is still in need of rectifying sinful lifestyles in their midst. As much as the church may end up opposing Paul, the fact remained that nothing could be done against the truth itself. All that could be done was to conform to the truth. The truth remained that Paul’s ministry was sacrificial and selfless. Paul prays for the church’s maturity. This will only happen as they reconcile with Paul restore mutual trust. Paul lays out their spiritual growth and completion by first taking advantage of his absence to rid themselves of sinful influences. Second, the church will only grow if they recognize Paul’s apostolic authority and third, they must receive edification if they are to be built up in the Lord. Paul reminds the church of the purpose of his ministry, he was called to edify them and not to destroy them. In order for the edification process to benefit them, they must avail themselves to the means of grace God has vested in Paul’s apostolic ministry.”
THE MATURITY OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
In order to grasp the theology of any book of the Bible, it is always good to read and reread the book all the way through several times. Sometimes, it is especially helpful to take notes as to how the book ends. Sometimes the end of the book helps in understanding not only the beginning but also the overall purpose of the book. These final verses encapsulate the reason why Paul wrote the letter of Second Corinthians. In sum, the letter is written to bring the church back into fellowship with Paul, to rectify their sinful problems and to be brought to full maturity through the gospel.
1.) THE CONTEXT OF MATURITY
The context of maturity begins with a deficiency. Although the church might have excelled in spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14.8), knowledge (1 Cor. 13.2), or gifted teachers; they were deficient in spiritual maturity nevertheless. Paul captured the essence of this in his famous love poem, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13.2). The church can be filled with many graces that if left alone and not mixed with obedience and fidelity to the gospel will result in the immaturity of the church. The Corinthians were in that place; numerous things going on, church gatherings, theological conversations, powerful preaching, eloquent preaching, and emotional experiences abounding but no maturity. The context of the church’s need for maturity is their relationship to Paul or the lack thereof. This is why the church needs to grow into completion, that is, spiritual maturity. Maturity is God’s will for the church; it is what He has ordained and desired for every church. God does not save us for route religion but for reaching maturity:
Ephesians 4:11–15 11 “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,”
This passage gives us various principles as to how a struggling church, and every church for that matter, can achieve spiritual maturity.
2.) CONFORMITY TO THE TRUTH
8“For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth.”
The very first step towards maturity is theological. Too many churches today are non-doctrinal and even anti-doctrinal in nature. Perhaps today, this has been embodied most by both the Pentecostal and Emergent churches. One stresses emotionalism while the other stresses community both undermine the importance of theology and sound doctrine. Yet, Paul begins the journey to spiritual maturity with sound doctrine and theological knowledge. In fact, Paul derides the church for failure to grow theologically— this is a question we have to ask of ourselves, are we growing in the knowledge of God:
1 Corinthians 15:34 34 “Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.”
Here the focus is on the church’s relationship to the gospel, “the truth” (τῆς ἀληθείας). The words, “the truth” in this verse are somewhat synonymous with the words, “the faith” in verse 5, “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” This relationship is understood through the church’s relationship with the apostle Paul. It was through their opposition to Paul that their battle against the truth would be manifested (cf. 1 Cor. 14.37; 1 Thess. 2.13). Paul himself could not act “against the truth” (κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας) “but only for the truth” (ἀλλὰ ὑπὲρ τῆς ἀληθείας). Paul was bound to the truth. If the Corinthians would refuse to submit to his authority, continue to tolerate sin, and side with Paul’s opponents— Paul would have no choice but to act for the truth. Paul is calling the church to conform to the unbending reality of the truth of the gospel by conforming to his apostolic authority.
The gospel is the truth that Paul’s apostolic authority is built on. Paul had truth in his doctrines and truth in his deeds:
2 Corinthians 4:2 2 “but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Paul already told the Corinthians that he suffered and endured in association to “the word of truth” (2 Cor. 6.7), he equates the gospel to the truth (Eph. 1.13; Col. 1.5; cf. 2 Thess. 2.12), and Paul claimed that the truth of Christ was in him (2 Cor. 11.10). Regardless of the activity of the false teachers (e.g. 12.13-15), the truth can never be overthrown but only proffered. In order for the church to grow, they would have to come into conformity with the truth. Conformity to the truth of the apostles or the gospel means that they must at the same time guard the truth entrusted to them and also reject anything contrary to the truth:
Galatians 1:6–9 6 “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
If you do not love the truth enough to consider the enemies of the gospel accursed, you do not love the truth! (cf. 2 Thess. 2.10). We are called to love the gospel of Scripture and not of our own imagination, tradition or preference. The natural man is not capable of this (cf. 1 Cor. 2.14).
3.) COMPLETE MATURITY
9“For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.”
Whether it was the truth of the gospel or the truth of Paul’s integrity and conduct in the service of the gospel, Paul was confident that he stood with the truth. The truth was that he had lived for the benefit of others, the truth was that he sacrificed immensely for the good of the Corinthians and this he did gladly, “we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong” (χαίρομεν γὰρ ὅταν ἡμεῖς ἀσθενῶμεν). If the Corinthians were to grow into completion, they would have to take advantage of Paul’s sacrifices on their behalf. A mature church recognizes the sacrifices of their leaders and conversely mature leaders gladly spend themselves in the service of the church as an act of worship:
2 Corinthians 12:15 15 “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?”
The fact that Paul, asks if he is “to be loved less” shows that there ought to be a reciprocal relationship between he and the church. He hopes to draw them into his love by sacrificing for them and being spent for their souls:
Philippians 2:17–18 17 “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. 18 You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.”
From Paul’s perspective, his personal sacrifice was all part of his worship to God where he sees himself as a New Covenant priest offering up the souls of men as an evangelistic offering to God:
Romans 15:16 16 “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Just as Paul wanted to be a good “priest” to his God, he also wanted the church to be a good offering; one that was pleasing in God’s sight. This is what is behind the church’s need for maturity. This is why Paul is interceding for the church, “this we also pray for, that you be made complete” (τοῦτο καὶ εὐχόμεθα, τὴν ὑμῶν κατάρτισιν). The word “complete” (κατάρτισις) speaks of something coming into maturation (cf. BDAG). To be “perfected” and even “restored” to some former ideal condition. It makes sense in the context that their spiritual health would largely be predicated on whether or not the church would “reconcile” with Paul and make things right. The term is also used of the disciples mending their nets (καταρτίζοντας τὰ δίκτυα) (Mt. 4.21; Mk. 1.19). At the point when they mended their relationship with Paul, they would avoid church discipline (13.10), pass the test (13.5), and return to devotion to Christ and to the gospel (11.3-4) expressed in the unity of the church (12.20).
4.) CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL GROWTH
10“For this reason I am writing these things while absent, so that when present I need not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down.”
Verse 10 is where Paul sets the matter before them plainly and he paves the way for their spiritual growth and ours. There are three factors that if the church would come to completion and grow into a mature church they must follow. These deal with sin, authority and edification.
4.1 Repentance of Sin
The first step towards spiritual maturity for a church is dealing with impenitent sin. Paul has already mentioned the matter specifically and the danger it represents:
2 Corinthians 12:21 21 “I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced.”
Paul’s absence (ἄπειμι) represents an opportunity for the church to deal with sin. This will only happen if they acknowledge the ramifications of sin. This is how all sin must be dealt with, knowing and believing in the consequences of sin; that it will incur Paul’s use of “severity” (ἀποτόμως). This is what repentance avoids, the use of spiritual severity, spiritual discipline, “so that when present I need not use severity” (ἵνα παρὼν μὴ ἀποτόμως χρήσωμαι). Church discipline always presents an ultimatum, repent or rebel! Paul has had already set this before the church:
1 Corinthians 4:21 21 “What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?”
4.2 Recognizing Authority
As with all rebellion, sin is a disregard for authority— both God’s (Lk. 19.14) and man’s (Mt. 18.18). In the church both of these matters go together (cf. 1 Cor. 14.37-38) and that is why Paul instructs the future ministers of the church to embrace the authority God has given to the office:
Titus 2:15 15 “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”
The church is instructed to follow in the same direction i.e. the recognition of God’s authority in the leadership:
Hebrews 13:17 17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
Although there are many reasons for a church failing to submit to the authority of its leaders, it often stems from the fact that people do not acknowledge the divine origin of that authority.
This is precisely the problem in Corinth and why Paul feels the need to point it out to them, “in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me” (κατὰ τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἣν ὁ κύριος ἔδωκέν μοι). The reality is that biblical leadership is a delicate balance of power and privilege. One the one hand, biblical leadership comes with great authority and responsibility as the minister has great influence in peoples lives and brings God’s authority to bear through the administration of His word (John 21.15-17; Acts 20.28; 1 Tim. 4.11-12, 5.17; 2 Tim. 4.1-2). On the other hand, all God given authority is just that, God’s authority and given authority not inherent authority. God’s authority can be given and taken away. In this sense the minister is merely a representative of God’s commands (1 Thess. 2.13), and ambassador of Christ’s authority (2 Cor. 5.20), and steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4.1-2). Paul felt this so strongly that he left the Corinthians an example of how to hold ministry in this tension:
1 Corinthians 4:6–7 6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
4.3 Receiving Edification
Finally, spiritual growth will only be achieved when the church perceives the purpose of its leaders by receiving instruction and thereby edification. This after all is the purpose God why gives apostles, prophets, and now pastors authority, “the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down” (ὁ κύριος ἔδωκέν μοι εἰς οἰκοδομὴν καὶ οὐκ εἰς καθαίρεσιν). With this verse, Paul gives us the simple yet systematic plan and purpose of all true ministry. All true ministry will reject sin, enforce authority, and carefully cultivate the life of the church and its members.
In the negative, Paul’s authority is not designed to be destructive to the souls of God’s people, “not for tearing down” (οὐκ εἰς καθαίρεσιν). He mentioned this point already when Paul was forced to boast about his authority:
2 Corinthians 10:8 8 “For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame,”
Positively, the authority God had invested in Paul and now invests in His church officers is for the purpose of “building up” (οἰκοδομή). Paul defined this early in letter as working with the church to produce joy:
2 Corinthians 1:24 24 “Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm.”
Notice that this joy is cooperative. It means that the believer’s source of edification does not come from the pastor’s personality, his personal warmth, humor or resourcefulness but from his spiritual effectiveness and this by availing ourselves to that spiritual work. The pastor can be the most loving, hospitable servant in the world but as we have seen with the Corinthians, if we do not avail ourselves to his ministry we lose the crucial “with you” in the text, “workers with you.” The pastor cannot build the church on his own. He can study, teach, preach, and serve but if the church does not learn, listen, receive and labor alongside of him edification will be short-circuited and spiritual growth will be stunted in the membership. The biblical concept of leadership therefore includes partnership.