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Sin in the church of Jesus Christ cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet.  It would be wrong to imagine that things will just correct themselves over time.  Look at the tragic outcome in the life of the prophet Eli for failing to properly discipline his sons.  The Apostle Paul deeply felt the burden of nurturing each church along the treacherous pathway of spiritual growth and maturity with all of the pitfalls and opposition along the way.  Here he is concluding his lengthy section on contrasting the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.  He has just exposed the arrogant pride and self-sufficiency of the Corinthians who were undermining his pastoral example and ministry foundation.  They had taken their eyes off of their crucified Savior and were boasting in schisms centered around various prominent personalities in the church.

This section provides a casebook example of how to effectively perform nouthetic counseling (after the pattern described by Jay Adams in How to Help People Change).

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness . . .” (2 Tim. 3:16).  Certainly all of these four elements can be traced through Paul’s interaction with the Corinthians as he seeks to correct them and restore them to vibrant spiritual health.

Richard Hays: Paul’s tone changes abruptly in verse 14. Having scolded his readers devastatingly, he reaches out to embrace them as his “beloved children.” When he says that he is not trying to shame them, he means that his aim is not to disgrace them but to correct their behavior. This image of fatherly correction is deeply imbedded in Israel’s wisdom tradition: It is the role of the father to reprove and chasten his children to bring them into the disciplined way of knowledge and obedience (e.g., Prov. 3:11–12; 13:24; 19:18). The “rod” that Paul brandishes in 4:21 (not a “whip,” as in NIV), is the “rod of correction” that the Old Testament sages believed a father should use to drive away folly from the heart of the immature (Prov. 22:15; 23:13–14). Thus, even if Paul has had to use severe rhetoric, his severity has had a fatherly purpose, and he now seeks to reassure the Corinthians that he is acting out of love and concern for them. His hope is that they will recognize the error of their ways and accept the welcoming gesture that he offers in verses 14–15. . .

Given the present turmoil and division in the Corinthian community, however, Paul is not able to end this section of the letter on a kind and encouraging note. He has received discouraging reports (1:11) not only that the community is divided but also that some of the Corinthians, supposing that Paul is not coming back — he had, after all, by this time been gone for several years — have become “arrogant” (the same word that was translated “puffed up” in 4:6). We have already seen that their arrogance is based on their pretensions to possess wisdom, but there is also a clear suggestion here that they are explicitly repudiating Paul’s authority. Presumably they have gained new ideas from other sources that they regard as being more spiritually sophisticated and rhetorically polished. In a breathtakingly bold conclusion to this section of the letter, Paul calls their bluff and threatens unnamed but ominous consequences if they persist in their rebellion against his authority. When he arrives, there will be a showdown: He will “find out not the rhetoric [logon] of these puffed-up ones but their power.” . . .

Paul concludes this section of the letter, then, by placing the choice back in the hands of the Corinthians. If they continue on their present course of boasting and resisting Paul’s authority, he will be forced to administer stern discipline when he appears in Corinth; on the other hand, if they acknowledge his authority and repent of their boasting, he will be able to come with gentleness. By sending this letter ahead, he is giving them fair warning and allowing them time to get their affairs in order. Much will depend, then, on how they react to the more specific directives that he is going to give them in the rest of the letter.

Paul has at last brought to a close the opening section of the letter. He has exhorted the Corinthians in numerous ways to turn away from their boasting in human wisdom and to seek to be reunified in the service of the one God to whom they all belong, who is ultimately their one judge. In the chapters that follow, he will seek to build on the foundation of these opening chapters in a way that will decisively reshape the community’s understanding of its identity in Christ—and, therefore, its behavior.

Mark Taylor: Paul’s purpose is not to demean them but rather to admonish them since he is their spiritual father. The father/child metaphor reminds the Corinthians of Paul’s role as the founder of the community and brings a measure of balance to their understanding of Paul’s previous use of servant language in 3:5 – 4:5. The metaphor affirms the familial relationship they enjoy “in Christ” and Paul’s responsibility to warn them of spiritual dangers and sets the stage for the key exhortation in 4:16, “I urge you to imitate me.” The father image is appropriate for what Paul wants to do in this section: admonish, exhort, and, if necessary, discipline (4:18–21).

The focus of 4:14–17, which is closely linked to 4:6–13, is apostolic imitation. To this point in the argument Paul has established that his ministry among them embodied the wisdom of God (2:1–5,13–16; 3:10), that he and other apostles are living examples of Christ crucified (4:9–13). In 4:17 he explains that he sent Timothy for the purpose of reminding them of Paul’s manner of life in Christ. Again in 11:1 Paul will exhort the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The cross is the measure of genuine apostleship, but it is also the standard of all things Christian (4:17). The Corinthians must embrace the wisdom of the cross exemplified by the apostles in order to rid themselves of arrogance that leads to divisions and other vices. In the concluding verses of this section, 4:18–21, Paul admonishes the arrogant yet again and warns that he will come and discover how effective they are for the kingdom of God. But how will he come to them; “with a whip, or in love with a gentle spirit”?

Andrew Noselli: Paul gives a fatherly appeal to imitate him (vv. 14-17), and he tells the Corinthians that he plans to return (vv. 18-21).  He pastorally follows up on his rebukes in verses 1-13 by shrewdly reasserting his apostolic authority.  The heart behind his rebukes is to warn or correct the believers in the same way a wise and kind father shepherds his beloved children without causing them to feel bitter or resentful.  As the one who planted the Corinthian church, Paul is their spiritual father.  In ancient times, sons imitated the vocation of their fathers.  Paul encourages the Corinthians to imitate him as their role model by living in light of God’s wisdom of a crucified Messiah and not in light of worldly wisdom.  In particular, the Corinthians must mature by not dividing over church leaders.  Paul commissioned Timothy to help the Corinthians connect what they know with how they live.  Some arrogant Corinthians think Paul will not visit them again, but Paul promises to return and confront them.  They arrogantly belittle Paul, but they are like a chihuahua crazily barking at a s Doberman pinscher. God’s wisdom and power contradict worldly wisdom and power (cf. 2Co 12:9).  Paul appeals to the Corinthians like a father might to his misbehaving children: would you prefer a hug or a spanking?

Daniel Akin: Main Idea: The church needs spiritual fathers to live exemplary lives and provide gentle, firm correction to help others mature in Christ.

I.  Spiritual Fathers Have a Unique Relationship with Their Children (4:14-15).

A.  They care for us (4:14).

B.  They gave us birth (4:15).

II.  Spiritual Fathers Provide an Example to Follow (4:16-17).

A.  We imitate them (4:16).

B.  We follow their teaching (4:17).

III.  Spiritual Fathers Confront Us When We Sin (4:18-19).

A.  They confront our sinful attitudes (4:18).

B.  They confront our sinful actions (4:19).

IV.  Spiritual Fathers Correct Us as Needed (4:20-21).

A.  They provide spiritual perspective (4:20).

B.  They provide spiritual discipline (4:21).


Definition of “nouthetic counseling”:

The three ideas found in the word nouthesia are Confrontation, Concern and Change. To put it simply, nouthetic counseling consists of lovingly confronting people out of deep concern in order to help them make those changes that God requires.


Def. of Prerogative: an exclusive or special right, power or privilege (Webster’s)

A.  (:14) His Fatherly Role Motivates Him to Confront Sin

  1. Context for this Confrontation

I write these things

Look especially at the previous paragraph covered in 4:6-13

Paul Gardner: “These things” (ταῦτα) refers to all that Paul has said thus far, not just the last few verses. Two contrasting purpose clauses follow. First, Paul speaks negatively. The participle provides the purpose clause (ἐντρέπων). He does not write to “shame” them.  (Note this is not the verb καταισχύνω that was discussed in 1:27 with its connotations of God’s judgment.) In a status-conscious community in which appearances matter more than they should, Paul wants to be clear that he is not deliberately seeking to make them feel “put down.” His intention is not publicly to insult or demean them in front of each other or before the world. His intention throughout has been to seek to help them see that their “belonging,” their status, is safe and secure, yet “in Christ” this will be seen in ways that the world does not recognize. In today’s terminology, their “self-esteem” should not lie in what they look like, what gifts they have received, or how sophisticated their speech and behavior are. It should be found simply in the grace and love of the Lord. So Paul does not write to undermine them as people, but rather to warn them as his “dearly loved children” and as one who is their “father” in Christ (v. 15).

With a strong adversative Paul says, “but rather [ἀλλά] . . . [I write] to warn” (νουθετῶν, another purpose participle). This verb “to warn” or “admonish” (ESV) is used in a variety of contexts, but is used elsewhere of what a father does for his children (see Wis 11:10 LXX). In this sense, such warnings are not threats but words and actions designed to help a person mature as behavior changes.

Paul’s gentle pastoral heart is on view for all to see here. It is one of the sadnesses of the modern world that our tendency is always to equate genuine love with softness of speech and character. Paul’s true love for these people is to be seen at its clearest in the verses that have preceded this. Here we see Paul’s understanding that as one who is loved by them and as one who loves them, his words will hurt. So he reinforces and builds on the relationship that alone actually allows him to be able to say what he has said and still receive a hearing. If they did not actually grant this relationship, then Paul’s words would fall on deaf ears.

  1. Goal for this Confrontation

a.  Negatively – “not to shame you

b.  Positively – “but to admonish you

                                    word from which we get “nouthetic

  1. Tone for this Confrontation = Father-Child Love Relationship

as my beloved children

  • writes out of a heart of loving concern
  • it is appropriate for him to address their behavior issues
  • he writes with the authority of a father

Gordon Fee: The people in his churches are his “children” because they are his converts (v. 15; Phlm. 10); and because they are his children in this sense, he can exhort and encourage (1 Thess. 2:11), or chide (2 Cor. 6:13; 12:14; Gal. 4:19), or appeal, as here.

John MacArthur: Despite their fleshly, even sometimes hateful immaturity, Paul always looked on the Corinthian believers with affection (cf. 2 Co 12:14, 15; Gal 4:19; Php 1:23-27; 3 Jn4).

B.  (:15) His Fatherly Role Should Motivate the Corinthians to Receive His Counsel

  1. Limitation of Role of Tutors

for if you were to have countless tutors in Christ

  1. Uniqueness of Role of Father

yet you would not have many fathers

No, you only have one legitimate father.

[Illustration: Julie has been in many plays; many different actors have played her father; I always made it a point with her that I was uniquely “Father #1!]

Gordon Fee: Having called them his “dear children,” Paul proceeds to make use of this imagery in two ways:

  • first, in this first sentence, to reestablish his unique, and therefore authoritative, relationship to them as their founder;
  • second, in the follow-up sentence (vv. 16–17), to urge them to conform their behavior to the “father’s” example.
  1. Privilege of Role of Soul Winner

for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.”

  • spiritual father in Christ
  • power of the proclamation of the gospel message
  • as a result, he certainly deserves their obedience – as long as what he is asking is consistent with following Christ = transition to next point
  • “Who’s your Daddy?”


A.  (:16) Key Exhortation: Imitate the Apostle Paul (as he imitated Christ)

I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me.”

Paul’s life and ministry methodology were consistent with his teaching;

What spiritual mentors have provided helpful examples for us?

What are the limitations of such models?

Paul Gardner: Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians imitate him in the sense that they follow both his teaching and his practice in whatever life they have been called to lead. Paul wants their lives to reflect the saving gospel of Christ, and that means not a life of triumphalism, elitism, sophistic arrogance, or status seeking but rather a life that reflects the crucified Christ.

David Garland: It is natural for children to take after their fathers (D. Stanley 1959: 872), and Paul regards “his life worthy of imitation because it is defined by the ‘word of the cross’” (Pickett 1997: 59). The image of pupils imitating their teacher also was widespread (Lindemann 2000: 114–15). It should be remembered that these first converts had no precedents or heritage to coach them on how to live out the radical demands of the gospel. They had only Paul’s verbal instructions and what they could witness firsthand of his own behavior and attitudes. Paul’s request that they imitate him, however, strikes many today as egotistical, but such criticism should dissipate when one traces what he could expect them to imitate. They are to give up their hankering for high status and accept the lowliness that Paul models. They are to welcome being regarded as fools for Christ, and as weak and dishonored. They are to return abuse with blessing, slander with conciliation, and to endure persecution (4:10–13). They are to recognize that all that they are and have comes to them as a grace-gift from God (3:10) and that they are not inherently extraordinary (4:7). They are to think of themselves as no better than menial field hands (3:5) and servants (4:1) awaiting God’s judgment to determine if they were trustworthy (4:5). They are to rid themselves of all resentments and rivalries with co-workers so that they can toil together in God’s field (3:5–9). They are to resist passing themselves off as wise or elite by using lofty words of wisdom or aligning themselves with those who do and to rely instead on the power of God that works through weakness, fear, and trembling (2:1–4). The ultimate aim is not to be Paul-like, but Christlike (11:1). The Corinthians are to imitate him only insofar as his behavior corresponds to the gospel (cf. 4:9–13, his suffering; 9:19, his becoming the slave of all; 2 Cor. 12:9–10, his weakness; 2 Cor. 12:12, his patience).

B.  (:17) Reinforced by the Personal Ministry of Timothy

  1. Choice of Sending Timothy = Paul’s #1 Clone

For this reason I have sent to you Timothy

They are getting Paul’s best representative – His ace card.

Anthony Thiselton: We have identified two ways in which Paul exhibits pastoral care: his desire for the readers’ good and his personal involvement or empathy with them. The “father” image necessitated a wider exegetical discussion. Now we identify a third way. As pastor and father, Paul expresses his care not only through his talk but also through his walk (in rabbinic terms, not only haggadah but also halakhah); not only through his words but also through his life and actions. He sends (or has sent) Timothy in his place until he himself can return to them in person (vv. 17-19), and they may witness not only his beliefs but also his “ways” (NRSV) or patterns of life (v. 17), which are consistently taught in every Christian congregation (v. 17b).

Craig Blomberg: Because of his unique relationship to this congregation as their church planter and the one responsible for leading many of its members to the Lord, Paul has a unique responsibility and authority to oversee their spiritual growth. He would like to be personally present again to model correct Christian living, but he believes the Lord wants him to stay on in Ephesus a little while longer (1 Cor. 16:8–9). So he has sent Timothy as his personal surrogate (cf. 16:10–11; Acts 19:22), who will hopefully overcome his timidity and arrive soon.

  1. Commendation of Timothy – Properly mirrors this father-son bond

who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord

  1. Christ-Centered Focus of Paul’s Example

he will remind you of my ways where are in Christ

  1. Consistency of the Apostolic Example

a.  All places

                                 “just as I teach everywhere

b.  All churches

in every church

  • No cultural accommodation
  • There are certain non-negotiables in following Christ

Paul Gardner: Paul is teaching nothing that would not have been taught by any of the other apostles. The phrase “just as everywhere” (καθὼς πανταχοῦ) is adverbial, modifying the present verb “I teach” (διδάσκω). Paul insists that there is nothing novel in what he seeks of the Corinthians. This way of life is exactly what he has taught in all the churches that he has founded. In Paul’s writings the word “church” (ἐκκλησία) normally refers to the local church, but here we see how Paul’s thinking does not easily separate the local from the wider group of churches. The church as a whole, in all its gatherings, is to be characterized by a lifestyle, a morality, and an attitude toward others that reflect the Christ she worships, the Christ “crucified.”


Craig Blomberg: With verses 18–21, Paul closes this four-chapter section of his letter with a final warning. He is coming soon, Lord willing (cf. 1 Cor. 16:5–7), even though some in Corinth are claiming that he is not (vv. 18–19a). He agrees with them that talk is cheap but disputes their claim that “his letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Cor. 10:10). If he speaks gently to them in person, it is out of love (v. 21b). But if necessary he will come, metaphorically speaking, with a rod (NIV “whip”), just as faithful fathers in Paul’s day made guarded use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool for their children.

What ultimately counts, however, is the presence of genuine spiritual power, as befits the presence of God’s reign (vv. 19b–20). This kingly power must not be narrowly conceived. It consists of the edifying manifestation of spiritual gifts, of winning people to Christ and discipling them, of moral living, and of appropriate humble self-assessment, all in striking contrast to the regal roles the Corinthians thought they were playing (v. 8).

A.  (:18) The Challenge of Arrogance

Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.”

B.  (:19-20) The Confidence of Spiritual Power

  1. (:19a)  Personal Presence of the Apostle Paul – subject to God’s leading

But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills

  1. (:19b)  Prideful Pretenders – exposed as powerless

and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power

Gordon Fee: Now he threatens the arrogant. When he returns, will they have merely logos, or will they also be able to demonstrate the dynamis of God in their worldly wisdom? They claim to have the Spirit; will they evidence what for Paul is the crucial matter, namely the powerful, dynamic presence of the Spirit among them to save and to sanctify (cf. 5:1–5)? Obviously he has little fear of the outcome of such a confrontation!

  1. (:20)  Spiritual Power – in submission to the kingdom of God

for the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power.”

Paul Gardner: The basis on which Paul will call their bluff is the nature of the kingdom of God itself, which manifests the power of God through the Spirit of God. The adversative (ἀλλά) and lack of verb intensify the contrast and make it terse. Paul is speaking of God’s dynamic rule, his reign in kingly power, and the fulfillment of his purposes of salvation that will one day reach the great consummation in the return of the King himself.  Paul takes the idea of “the kingdom of God” as a given when writing to the Corinthians. Herein lies the source of the power of which he has been talking. This kingdom has been inaugurated by King Jesus, the Messiah. One day when “the end” comes, Christ will deliver “the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (15:24–25 ESV). The present rule of Christ among the people will only be seen if the power of God is evident in the church.

When Paul comes to Corinth, he will be seeking to discover evidence that God in Christ is at work through these leaders. He fears that their grace-gifts, abused to buy them status and honor within the community, will offer no such evidence. The irony is that real evidence will be offered as people’s lives are so changed that they become Christ-like and even “apostle-like,” as has been described earlier. It is in weakness, in being the scum of the earth and yet living for God and his rule that kingdom power will be manifest. This is what Paul desires to see, and so he ends with a statement that is regarded by most as harsh or heavy-handed.

C.  (:21) The Call for Decision

  1. You Make the Call

What do you desire?”

  1. Two Options

a.  Rod of Loving Discipline

                                    “Shall I come to you with a rod

b.  Peacefulness of Loving Gentleness

                                    “or with love and a spirit of gentleness?”

Craig Blomberg: Parental love earns the right to discipline—hence verses 18–21. Paul warns us that our behavior ought to match our words. If not, then corrective action is required. Yet this corrective action must have the proper balance. All love without discipline produces a pampering permissiveness that leaves its recipients spoiled and still in their sins. Yet discipline untempered by love produces a harsh authoritarianism that drives people away from the church, and often from God, the minute they have the chance to escape.

Daniel Akin: Paul concludes with two rhetorical questions that would certainly get the church’s attention.

  • First, “What do you want?” The idea is, what would you like me to do? How I respond will depend on you and how you respond to my letter.
  • Second, “Should I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” The Message paraphrases: “So how should I prepare to come to you? As a severe disciplinarian who makes you walk the line? Or as a good friend and counselor who wants to share heart-to-heart with you? You decide.”

The children would prefer hugs and kisses, not discipline! Paul would prefer the same. The key will be their response. Paul loves them as his children. He will do whatever he must. He loves them too much to let them go on acting like fools and embarrassing themselves. After all, he is a good father!

Gordon Fee: At the end he has finally also reasserted his authority over them, but even here he concludes by using paternal imagery, not apostolic authority — a father correcting recalcitrant children, not an apostle wielding divine authority. The clear implication is that they have no choice but to give heed to what he is saying. Their behavior, as well as their theology, needs both correction and redirection.