(2 Cor. 2:5-8) Who is this believer described here?

CLAIM: Paul writes about a believer that was kicked out of the church in Corinth. Who is he referring to?

RESPONSE: Depending on your view of a lost letter in between 1 and 2 Corinthians (see comments on 2 Corinthians 2:4), you will have different views on this question. It is our view that the man mentioned here is the same man who was removed from fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5. The Corinthian church was formerly licentious, permitting this man to sleep with his stepmother. However, after Paul’s rebuke in 1 Corinthians, they must have swung to the opposite side of the spectrum, taking an unforgiving stance in church discipline (c.f. 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 3 Jn. 10).

Despite the fact that we are in the minority,[1] we hold that Paul is describing the man who was removed from fellowship for adultery in 1 Corinthians 5. We hold this view for several reasons:

First, Paul assumes that they know who he is talking about. This would fit with the infamous (singular) man mentioned in his first letter.

Second, Paul refers to Satan in both passages (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 2:11). In the first passage, Paul refers to how the adulterer would be handed over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5), but in this passage, he refers to how the church is in danger of Satan fueling their bitterness (2 Cor. 2:11).

Third, the man in 1 Corinthians 5 was went through formal church discipline, and so did the man in 2 Corinthians 2. Indeed, the “majority” of the church voted for his removal (2 Cor. 2:6).

Finally, Paul would’ve been hurt to see the church suffering by the adulterous man (1 Cor. 12:26; 2 Cor. 11:29). Garland writes, “Although the sin of incest did not wrong Paul, he identifies himself so closely with the church that any wrong directed against it directly affects him.”[2] However, because he wasn’t present (1 Cor. 5:3), he wouldn’t have been hurt the way that they were. This explains how Paul could write, “The man who caused all the trouble hurt all of you more than he hurt me” (2 Cor. 2:5 NLT).

Counter-Arguments to our View

(1) Tertullian held that the period of church discipline was too short for adultery and incest (On Modesty, 13-15). However, the Bible gives no legalistic timeframes for how long church discipline should last. Instead, discipline is contingent on repentance (2 Cor. 7:10; Mt. 18:15-17). Garland writes, “Such discipline… is intended to cause people to snap out of their sinfulness and come to their senses. The purpose is to bring the offender to repentance and to protect the community from the corruption of brazen sinners. The view that this punishment was to be immutable does not permit gentleness when a sinner repents and implies that certain sins are unforgivable. Paul does not believe that discipline should be meted out for discipline’s sake.”[3]

(2) Paul forgave them before the Corinthians did (v.10). In our opinion, this only makes sense. After all, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul was the first to accurately judge the man and call for his removal. It’s no wonder that he would want to lead the way in sharing about his forgiveness of this man.

(3) Paul forgave this man too quickly for such a debased sin. While the sin of incest and adultery is severe, the man was repentant (2 Cor. 2:7). Where there is true repentance, we should offer forgiveness. Indeed, Jesus was quick to forgive debased sinners like us

(4) Satan is mentioned in both texts, but he serves two totally different functions—one redemptive and one harmful. This is true to some extent. However, having the world-system let loose for the purpose of the “destruction of our flesh” hardly sounds painless. Satan surely relishes in this activity—even if it is for the believer’s ultimate good. In our estimation, Paul brings up Satan to express two equal and opposite errors: licentiousness and legalism. In 1 Corinthians 5, the church was too lax on sending the man into the world-system; however, in 2 Corinthians 2, they were too strict on receiving him back from the world-system. Paul likely brings up Satan in both passages to show their equal and opposite error. Moreover, Garland comments, “Both 1 Cor 5:5 and 2 Cor 2:11 reflect a belief that the church, if successful in fending off Satan’s wiles, is a bastion against Satan—a place where Satan does not rule.”[4]

[1] Garland gives this list of commentators who affirm that the man is the adulterer of 1 Corinthians 5: S. Cox, “That Wicked Person,” Expositor, 1st ser. 3 (1875) 355-68; P. E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961) 59-65; A. M. G. Stephenson, “A Defense of the Integrity of 2 Corinthians,” in The Authorship and Integrity of the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1965), 96; G. W. H. Lampe, “Church Discipline and the Interpretation of the Epistles to the Corinthians,” in Christian History and Interpretation, ed. W. R. Farmer, C. F. D. Moule, R. R. Niebuhr (Cambridge: University Press, 1967) 353-54; D. R. Hall, “Pauline Church Discipline,” TynBul 20 (1969) 3-26; N. Hyldahl, “Die Frage nach der literarischen Einheit des zweiten Korintherbriefes,” ZNW 64 (1973) 305-06; and Kruse, “The Offender and the Offense.” See footnote. David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 119.

[2] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 123.

[3] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 122.

[4] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 122.