When You Are Misunderstood

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For the last several months, I have been teaching our 20s and 30s class on Wednesday nights, and we have been walking methodically through the book of I Corinthians.  I had never truly done a deep study of my own on the book, so even though I knew there were some deep subjects, it has gone much deeper than I ever thought it would.  As most Bible class teachers will tell you, I feel like I’m learning way more personally than I can ever convey to the rest of the class.  (So…take that as a subtle plug to teach a Bible class.  You won’t regret it.)

Just this past week, we finished up I Corinthians 5.  That chapter focuses predominantly on how the congregation at Corinth was failing to deal with a man who was having an affair.  In fact, not only were they not dealing with it, they seem to have just simply turned a blind eye to it and let it go on publicly without a hint of shame.  While sin within a congregation and the practice of church discipline is almost always the focus of this chapter, something really jumped out to me that I had never considered before, and I pray that it will help me to mature somewhat in the way I react to certain things that are said.

In I Corinthians 5:9-10, Paul writes: “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.  Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.”

This passage may at times be skimmed over, but there is so much we can learn from it, apart from the sins listed.  First, Paul seems to have written to this Corinthian congregation prior to the letter we know of as I Corinthians.  Apparently, the Holy Spirit found it unnecessary for that letter to be included in the totality of God’s written word.  However, Paul had spent nearly 18 months with this congregation in the past (Acts 18:11), so it’s not a stretch to think he kept more contact with them than just the two letters we have preserved for us by inspiration.

Here’s the second thing we can learn, and this is what really got me.  In one of these previous letters, Paul had told them to not keep company with people who lived a life of sexual immorality.  However, what he meant to say and the way they took it were two different things.  Paul had specifically been talking about only those who are sexually immoral within the church, but since he didn’t provide that extra little detail, they must have thought he meant all sexually immoral people in the world.  Paul had to go back and clarify what he meant.

Here are two things I think we can all take from that to make us better:

  1. It is possible for us to misunderstand something that someone says.  Maybe it was our fault for the way we perceived it, or maybe it was their fault for the way they said it.  Either way, there can be misunderstandings.  This passage shows that we should allow someone an opportunity for clarification.  I’ve often heard the joke that a preacher is only one sermon away from having a rent a U-Haul truck.  I know that’s just a joke, but I’m sure there are some preachers in the Lord’s church who have lived it.  When we sit at the feet of a man for years who has accurately shared God’s word with us, why are we so quick to tear him down and demonize him if he states something that we question is scriptural?  The Corinthians could have very easily have done that to Paul.  They could have said, “Hold on a second.  Jesus ate with sinners.  He was around people constantly who were sexually immoral.  Obviously, Paul is a false teacher.  We should never listen to him again, and we should write letters to all the other congregations to not give him the time of day.”  But they didn’t.  Paul was given an opportunity to clarify what he meant by his statement.  He added one additional detail that almost completely changed the meaning of the command.  Do we afford our brothers that same opportunity today?
  2. For those who preach or teach, please understand that we have to be careful about what we teach others.  I’m writing this point with the full knowledge that I’m the one who needs to be reading it.  I’m not one to shy away from talking in front of others.  Some have a great fear of speaking in front of a crowd.  For some reason, it doesn’t bother me at all.  However, I have noticed that having that comfort has caused me some problems at times.  One of those problems is that I brainstorm out loud.  I’m not afraid of having a dumb idea, so I tend to say what comes to mind because that gets people thinking and talking.  However, when you are in a position of authority, that can lead to some dangers.  People tend to automatically assume you know what you are talking about because of your position, so they won’t argue with it vocally, though they may wholeheartedly disagree with you inwardly.  We need to make sure that we are careful in our studies and in the way we word things so that we do not mistakenly give someone a wrong impression about what we really mean.  Paul apparently did that in his prior epistle (which to our knowledge was not an inspired epistle).  Fortunately for Paul (and for us), he had the opportunity to clarify himself.  We may not always get that opportunity.

I encourage you to continue to study and to teach and to allow yourself to be taught by others.  However, may we always remember that our speech is not inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit, so there is a possibility for innocent misunderstandings.  May we take the example of Paul and the Corinthians and handle those situations in the correct manner.