Paul begins several of his letters by being very complimentary to the recipients….and then later, subjecting them to sharp correction. Does this mean that Paul is simply following the principles for giving a corporate performance review, where you must say positive things before you come forth with a negative?
No, Paul is not trying to “win friends and influence people.” Instead, we are seeing something profound about how Christian love works. Paul’s compliments are not saying what fine upstanding people the recipients are, but rather they express how thrilled he is that that the risen and glorified Christ is alive and at work in their lives.
At the start of Colossians, Paul says:
In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. (Colossians 1:6)
This wonderful truth of Christ-in-them is so powerful that it vastly outweighs their negatives that need correction. Paul’s compliment is honest, even though he is fully aware that many in the congregation are not living up to their calling the way they should be.
So later, Paul turns loose with a sharp rebuke of the Colossians:
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules (Colossians 2:20). He’s yelling at them for obeying a bunch of bogus rules that have nothing to do with being a Christian.
The same pattern repeats in 1 Corinthians. Early on, Paul says:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
But then later he has a sharp rebuke:
Your boasting is not good. (1 Corinthians 5:6a) Here, he’s furious at them for bragging about overlooking some raunchy misbehavior within their congregation.
These examples help us as we look at our fellow Christians today. The pastor of my church is not lying when he says we have a healthy church, while yet being aware that some of our people are struggling or even are in rebellion. We can be fully aware of each other’s flaws and faults — yet rejoice that we are all touched by God’s grace. And when we do have to correct each other, we keep in mind that we are all Christ’s people, not adversaries to pummel!
Our rebukes are given with hope that they will guide people to change. Our flaws are tiny compared to the gloriousness of Christ! Together, we know that God is at work and the gospel is spreading.