Missing the Point
2Co 7:1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
This verse is more about church discipline (or corporate holiness) than personal holiness.
I have for some time had this passage as a favorite, starting back at 6:16 where the “promises” of 7:1 are identified. I've taken it as a call to strive towards personal holiness. However, having just now read it with concern for the context, I think I've been missing the point.
If this is about personal holiness, what does it have to do with the context both before and after it? There seems to be a shift in topic from 6:13 to 6:14, and then again at 7:1 to 7:2:
2Co 6:13 In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also. 2Co 6:14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
2Co 7:1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. 2Co 7:2 Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.
This apparent shift in topic should suggest to us that we might be misunderstanding the passage. If it can be understood without a shift in topic then that is probably the correct contextual understanding. Even more indicting is the fact that the topic in 6:13 (“widen your hearts also”) is the same topic at 7:2 (“Make room in your hearts for us”). I’m inclined to think our passage is not a tangential, parenthetical thought inserted randomly, but intentional teaching on the same topic.
So what is Paul’s topic at 6:13 and prior? His statement at 5:12 is helpful: “We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.” It is evident starting all the way back at chapter 2 that Paul is on the defensive against people who question him and the legitimacy of his ministry. Such people “boast about outward appearance.” These critics say of Paul, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account,” (10:10). These people prefer preachers that Paul labels “peddlers of God’s word,” whereas Paul and company are “men of sincerity...commissioned by God,” 2:17. The term “peddlers” suggests these are the type of preachers that capitalize on a church’s financial support. Paul, on the other hand, “preached God's gospel to you free of charge,” 11:7. While some Corinthians consider these preachers “super-apostles” (11:5), Paul calls them “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ,” 11:13.
Judging by outward appearance, Paul and his traveling company did not have God’s so-called blessing--they endured “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (6:5). If God approved of Paul and his ministry, the critics said, surely God wouldn’t put them through all this suffering. To the contrary, Paul argues, his suffering is evidence of his sacrificial love for the sake of others. He says that he and his company experience death (suffering) so that the Corinthians would have life (spiritually), 4:11-12. Not their lack of suffering but their endurance through suffering is an opportunity for God to display His power: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us,” (4:7). I could go on with such examples because it is all over chapters 3-7. To reiterate, the context (including chapter 6) is Paul’s defense of the legitimacy of his ministry.
This sort of contrast between a life of “blessing”--material and social ease--and a life of difficulty and sacrifice is best described as the “theology of glory” versus the “theology of the cross” (terms that I understand Luther originated). If the world rejected our Lord, Christians in this age should not expect any better treatment. (I hope to explore this more sometime through the perspective of union with Christ.)
The Passage in Light of the Context
Coming then to 6:11-13, just prior to the supposed change of topic, what is it about? It says:
2Co 6:11-13 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.
Just after our passage of interest, it says something similar:
2Co 7:2 Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians is that they would see how much he loves them so that they would love him in return. He’s kind of saying, “I’m sacrificing my life for you, and this is the treatment I get? That some of you doubt me?” It isn't that he really wants to be liked by them. The problem is that rejection or doubt of Paul translates into doubt of his message. Those who are doubting him and his message are being led astray from the truth of Christ into falsehood. He isn't concerned that they be faithful to him, but that they would be faithful to Christ:
2Co 11:3-4 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.
With this context in mind, we come to 6:14, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” If your first thought of this verse is that Christians shouldn’t date/marry non-Christians, then you’ve missed the context. Sure, that could be an extended application of this principle, but it isn’t why Paul says it. The ESV Study Bible (2 Cor notes by Scott J. Hafemann) says, “In context, it refers especially to those who are still rebelling against Paul within the church, whom Paul now shockingly labels unbelievers.” In saying this, Paul is calling for the Corinthian church to execute discipline against those causing this controversy. Until they repent, they are to be excommunicated and regarded as unbelievers. “Do not be unequally yoked” means a local church should refuse fellowship to members who are unrepentant.
Realities of Old Testament Shadows
In further support of this interpretation of this passage is the striking connection Paul makes between the local church in Corinth and the Old Testament community and temple:
2Co 6:16-18 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty."
In the administration of the old covenant, God gave all kinds of cleanliness laws. Here Paul quotes a number of Old Testament passages, including “touch no unclean thing” from Isa 52:11. In OT Israel, what were the consequences for someone who touched an unclean thing? You would not be allowed to join the assembly for worship (or else be struck dead by God). You would be regarded as unclean for a duration of time and be more or less shunned by the community, lest you make others unclean as well. Once the period of uncleanness is done, and/or you make the specified restitution, all goes back to normal. (See a sampling of passages at the end.)
One of the most significant things to realize here is that God himself was in the midst of the Israelites. When they were nomads living in tents, God had a tent too (the tabernacle). Once they settled into houses, God got a house too (the temple). To approach God’s dwelling place while unclean would be to treat Him like any other person, but God is not to be taken lightly or treated as ordinary. To do so is often termed “defiling” the temple. Many of the things that God said made one unclean were completely arbitrary, without any moral value in themselves (like touching a dead lizard); God’s purpose was simply to make it clear that approaching Him is different than anything else. “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,” Lev 10:10.
Paul references this very concept of God’s presence by saying “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them.” Even though the temple still stood in Jerusalem when Paul wrote, he claims that “we are the temple of the living God.” So just as the OT people gathered to God’s dwelling for worship and family-like fellowship with Him and each other, so the NT church regularly gathers for the same purpose. The difference is that God’s dwelling is no longer one particular piece of real estate. A church may gather anywhere and God’s presence will be there.
While this truth has a lot of implications, for Paul the purpose in this discussion is to carry in to the NT church the concept of OT cleanliness. If God’s presence is in the midst of a gathered people, then those people must take this assembly seriously. It is to be treated differently than other aspects of life. Just as OT Israel, we are to “distinguish between the holy and the common.” The difference between then and now is that the shadows of arbitrary cleanliness laws are removed, so that now cleanliness means the same as moral purity. Therefore, a person who is morally unrepentant is not to be welcomed into the church gathering.
To summarize this OT stuff, the NT church is to operate in essentially the same way as OT Israel, but with these key differences: (1) the location of God meeting with his people is not at the temple but anywhere they find to gather, and (2) cleanliness is equated to moral repentance since arbitrary cleanliness laws are removed.
Reading again 2 Cor 7:1 with this perspective, we can see its meaning much more clearly. “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” “These promises” is not per se the future hope of family-like fellowship with God in heaven, but the present reality of God’s presence with the gathered church. If that much is true, then the gathered church must be maintained as clean; “let us cleanse ourselves” does not mean to try really hard to stop sinning, but to bar any person from the church gathering that is known to be in sin and doesn't care to stop. The word “defilement” should also ring bells, since it is the way of speaking of an unclean person approaching God’s dwelling. “The fear of God” is understood much more when we have this appreciation for the way OT Israel had the fear of literally being struck dead if they came to worship while unclean. This passage is so drenched with Old Testament motifs that we really miss the point without this background. At least I have.
Having emphasized the gathered church, I should also mention how this applies beyond Sunday morning gatherings. Just as one in OT Israel would be unclean by eating with a Gentile, so in the NT church community we are not to even eat with an unrepentant person (1 Cor 5:11). But when we start talking this way, it needs to be clarified that we are still talking about people who claim to be Christians. The world is full of unrepentant people that we are allowed to share life with (it would be impossible not to), but for those who are “brothers” and yet don’t care about a particular sin we are to shun them in a manner similar to OT Israel, whether at church or at home. (I am merely paraphrasing 1 Cor 5.)
A push-back to what I’m saying against the individualistic take on this passage is this: Doesn't this passage still commend us to strive for personal holiness? Of course it does. But I think we shortcut around some rich details when we go straight to that conclusion. A very real part of the motivation to repent of sin given in this passage is “the fear of God,” i.e. the fear of His fatherly discipline, even being literally struck dead (1 Cor 11:30-32). Included as well is motivation by the fear of feeling shamed by the church community. I've heard multiple times people express a disdain for judgmentalism in churches (over homosexuality, for example). While many churches today probably do err on the wrong side by teaching moralism instead of gospel grace, I'm saying that this sort of shameful feeling is more appropriate than we might think.
But my biggest concern with taking this verse only in an individualistic way is the phrase “let us cleanse ourselves.” If this means personal obedience and fighting sin, there is a real problem with thinking that I am able to cleanse myself. I am not to cleanse myself from sin but to rest on Christ to cleanse me. When I sin I am to feel remorse for forgetting the precious blood of Christ by which he bought me, and in that sort of repentance and faith I am being continually cleansed by him. I do not cleanse myself. I don’t have the ability to. I ought to strive after holiness in prayerful dependence on his grace to empower me for the task. I don’t bring my own holiness to completion; God, not me, completes the work that He started. That’s the problem with missing the point of this verse.
But when we take this verse corporately, we don’t get stuck in all this clarification. A church community really does have the ability to “cleanse ourselves” when this means refusing fellowship to a particular person. While this still requires the grace of God to give us such discernment and bravery to take such painful actions against someone, it is doable. Church discipline is messy but this verse must be seen as a command to do it.
More Questions Than Answers
This study opens up questions on a lot of other issues. Maybe I'll explore them more someday. Things like:
- Christ’s real presence not only in gathered church, but particularly when we gather for the Lord's Supper. And what exactly does his "presence" mean? Is it a feeling?
- How church discipline takes shape in the Lord's Supper, and what that means for "open communion."
- The importance and responsibilities of church membership, and how discipline takes shape when people today could just leave one church community and join another when discipline comes up. That leads to questions on how to interact with Christians who aren't members of my own local church, or even Christians part of my local church but not official members.
- The responsibilities of a pastor that are distinct from the rest of the church. Does the pastor represent God's presence in any way? Or are we all ministers?
- What sort of gathering exactly constitutes a church? Is God present in a Mormon gathering? Is God present when "two or three" have a Bible study? What defines a "church"?
- How we ought to think of corporate worship and the question of "the regulative principle." How we apply this idea of distinguishing the holy versus common. Is all of life worship, or is gathered worship different in any way than the rest of life? This connects to how to understand our individual selves, not just the gathered people, as God's temple. Exactly which things change between OT and NT life and worship?
- What exactly constitutes repentance? At what point in our struggle with sin is it deemed unrepentance? Where does discipline officially start? Is there a particular class of sins more directly subject to discipline?
- Questions/concerns/objections that you probably have and I'm not thinking of.
Some Verses on Cleanliness
With emphasis mine...
Lev 15:31 "Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst."
Num 5:2-3 "Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell."
Num 19:20 "If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD. Because the water for impurity has not been thrown on him, he is unclean.
Lev 7:21 And if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether human uncleanness or an unclean beast or any unclean detestable creature, and then eats some flesh from the sacrifice of the LORD's peace offerings, that person shall be cut off from his people."
Lev 5:2,5-6 or if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether a carcass of an unclean wild animal or a carcass of unclean livestock or a carcass of unclean swarming things, and it is hidden from him and he has become unclean, and he realizes his guilt;...when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
Joh 18:28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.