There were elements within the Corinthian church with whom Paul had an adversarial relationship, who were disturbing the congregation and threatening the spread of the gospel by attacking him personally. What he says to them, and what he does not say to them, provides a pattern for leaders to follow to promote both peace and truth in a congregation.
Pray for each other, even when there are problems. Despite the troubles Paul was about to address, he requested the prayers of the Corinthians (1:11) and he prayed for them (13:7). It’s hard not to keep people’s best interests in mind when you’re praying for them (1 Samuel 12:23).
Always assume the best in your brother in Christ, until evidence proves otherwise. No man except Jesus can judge the heart. Thus, motives are difficult to ascertain (1:23).
At many points in the letter, Paul was forced refute unfair accusations leveled at him by insisting on the purity of his motives. Paul hadn’t come to Corinth as he intended, so they called him wishy-washy and selfish. That’s certainly possible, but he explained it was a loving decision “to spare” them a harsh rebuke (1:17). Paul had arranged a contribution for the poor in Judea, so they accused him of greed. That’s certainly possible, but he reminded them of the transparency of the process (7:2, 8:18-24) and that the point was to “glorify God” (9:12-13). Paul had refused to accept financial support, so they accused him of being snooty. That’s certainly possible, but he assured them he refused money because he loved them (11:11) and desired to keep his ministry above reproach (11:12).
How sad that anyone would accuse Paul of fleshly motives like self-aggrandizement or greed. They only had to remember how much he had sacrificed for Christ (11:23-33), how much he had suffered to bring the gospel to Corinth (10:14)! Perhaps the Corinthians were so accustomed to worldly society (10:7) that they assumed the grubbiest, basest motives in everyone. It seems their senses were so warped by the world as to tolerate, even prefer, the rough treatment of false apostles (11:19-21). How refreshing to study the humility of Jesus, to meet a true Christian motivated by love and gentle service (1:12)! They had pinched closed their affections for Paul, but he opened wide his heart for them (6:11-13). Paul passed every word, every action, through the cross. Let us emulate such people!
As Christians, we owe each other the benefit of the doubt. Maybe your brother didn’t show up at worship because he’s a lazy faithless slob. That’s certainly possible, but maybe he was just sick or traveling. Assume the best, and if you suspect less, ask him personally before thinking or saying bad things about him.
Forgive freely and fully. Paul didn’t hold back on rebuke, but he quickly forgave (2:10). Remember that Satan is the enemy, not the brethren (2:11, cf. 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Whenever two or more people share space and effort, there will be friction and disappointment. Once the grievance is aired, offer forgiveness. Refusing to forgive crushes the spirits of the people of God (2:7), disturbs the work which Jesus commanded, and even threatens the soul of the grudge-bearer (Matthew 6:14-15).
Profess love. If you’ve been a parent, you know the heartache of taking something away from a child and hearing, “you just hate me!” You can’t convince him, but you can assure him, “I do this because love you. One day you’ll understand.”
Love is another one of those unseen motives. A Christian leader can’t convince every person he loves them, but he can assure them. Thus, Paul repeated his love for the Corinthians (2:4); he even used the parenting metaphor (12:14). Paul said, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls” (12:15).
Compliment often. It may be that Paul had to look hard, but he found reasons to sincerely boast of the Corinthians. “Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf” (7:4). He just knew they’d mature in Christ (7:4), they’d receive Titus with joy (7:16), they’d match the Macedonian’s gift (8:24, 9:2).
Remember: we’re in this together. Paul said, “we are workers with you for your joy” (1:24). Why shouldn’t they hope for the best for Paul’s efforts? It means salvation for them (1:14, 5:11-13)! Paul expects to see them in Heaven (4:14)!
Don’t be puffed up with self-importance. Belligerent people want to lead to make themselves feel good; Jesus leads to help and save. If rebuke is necessary, be sure it’s to gently save a soul, not appear lordly (1:24). Paul, who had the authority of an Apostle, did not exhibit crass behavior, but promised his audience that everything he did was for their benefit in Christ (4:12, 7:9, 10:8). “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond servants for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). Even when Paul used sarcasm it was not to make him appear witty, but to deliver the rhetorical blow necessary to break into their hardened hearts. Paul never sought to justify himself, but only to justify Christ (12:19). Paul never sought to make himself look good, but only to make Jesus look good. “I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (11:2).
Ignore all anonymous accusations. This is a principle in the Law, and in the church, too (13:1). It saves a lot of gossip and headache. If you’re concerned enough to bring it up, you better, like Chloe’s people (1 Cor. 1:11), be willing to attach your name to the accusation. If not, you may as well let it drop. –John Guzzetta