As we begin this week by going to chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians, we are going to enter multiple upcoming chapters dealing with difficult and unpleasant subjects. The immediate three upcoming issues involve Paul addressing an immoral situation that was well-known within the church, the difficulty of dealing with interpersonal disputes, and the call for sexual purity.
Frankly, I’d rather not be writing about any of these things; I’d rather be addressing some deep point of theology. But the issues in the upcoming chapters are not isolated to Corinth or the first century. And some of them (particularly in the area of marriage and remarriage) do not always have simple and clear answers. As they say, “It’s complicated.”
Even so, there are issues that are truly black and white. And this first of these is confronted by Paul in 5:1-5 …
5:1 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
Even in the secular world of Corinth, sleeping with one’s mother-in-law would not be acceptable behavior. Yet for some reason the church was overlooking this commonly-known sin. Likely they were proud of their tolerance (doesn’t that sound like 2019?). Rather, they should have put the man out of the church (the woman, by not being spoken of similarly, was apparently not associated with the church). The Corinthians should have been grieved by this and confronted it.
Confronting is the challenge, the difficult thing to do. It remains this way. Trust me … these situations are awful to deal with. Yet by not dealing with them, they tend to merely get worse. Sometimes it is necessary for leaders in a church to take a strong stand and say that a person’s sin needs to stop, or they need to be put outside the family of faith.
Always, the goal of church discipline and confrontation is not to be overly judgmental or condescending. The issue needs to be clearly one of sinful rebellion, and the desired outcome is to see the offender repent – to stop the sin and walk toward Christ and restored fellowship. It does not help the person to not confront the sin. Just as with disciplining your young children, you don’t do it because you like coming down on them, you do it to see their behavior corrected. It is not loving to not discipline – be it children in the home or family members in the church.
The meaning of the word for the “flesh” in this passage – speaking of the person being turned over to Satan for the destruction of it – is argued by theologians as either the physical body or the sinful nature. I can see it both ways. But in any event, it speaks of a person being put out from under the protective umbrella of the church family, thrust exposed into the storms of the world that Satan controls. The desire of this is that whatever “destruction” happens will result in the person’s soul salvation and final restoration at the end of it all … even the end of life.
But there was another reason for putting this man out of the church …
5:6 – Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Allowing the sin to go unchecked within the church family would inevitably lead to more of the same, though maybe not the exact same sin. The lackadaisical attitude would lower standards of holiness and righteousness to the extent that immorality would expand.
The illustration is that of yeast. We know what it does in the baking process, something that is really quite amazing. This was of course not a new illustration. It went back to the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt and the centuries of remembrance of that in the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The application was to move forward without the “yeast” of wickedness, but with the unleavened reality of truth and righteous obedience.
And Paul’s exhortation goes beyond the one individual …
5:9 – I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
5:12 – What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” [from: Deut. 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21,24; 24:7]
We know that the world will always be full of sexual immorality and the purveyors of such. Beyond that are other people habitually practicing other blatant sins that dominate them: idolatry, slanderous speech, drunkenness, financial abuse of others, etc. We cannot avoid being around these people in the world; but in the church family, this is not tolerable. Eating with people in that culture represented acceptance, and the church services involved meals shared together. It is one thing to have some association with people who are seeking to get their lives in place, but quite another to see them as full-fledged members while ignoring their ongoing errors.
Open rebellion and sin by those fully a member of the church family needs to be confronted, as that is the loving thing to do; and those who won’t repent need to be put out of the church. That is clear.
Around churches, then and now, people come and seek to learn more about life and truth, often being seen regularly though not fully engaged in an official way. And it is not rare for these “seekers” or “immature believers” to bring some messes with them. Our policy at TSF has been to say that we want to walk in life with those who are moving consistently toward the Lord, even if far from ideal, while also growing to know and love others enough that, when they are walking away from the Lord, we speak to them of the dangerous and downward slope upon which they tread.
Yes, it’s complicated.