1 Corinthians 5 – A case in church discipline being neglected
In the best police forces there must be a tight cohesion in extremely dangerous situations. The awareness and responsibility for fellow officers are part and parcel of these operations. Nowhere is this more evident than when one of them becomes wounded to the degree they are incapacitated. Then the call will go out – ‘Man Down!’ – and immediately covering protection will be provided so that emergency medical personnel can safely pull him back for the vital care he needs.
In that circumstance we see total selflessness and other-centredness shown as absolutely essential. You could not do without that unity in order to deal with the evil you confront.
And so it is with the spiritual warfare believers are engaged in. We should be those who, in looking to the Lord, always seek to do what keeps us all safe – that which helps us altogether as Christ’s body to worship and serve him alone. We have to be on the look-out for each other, ready to rescue and restore.
This is why church discipline is an act of love and a mark of a faithful church. Like a faithful marriage the Bride in her relationship with the Groom – Christ – shows how blessed she is when she is true to him.
Sadly, this is not the story for many who call themselves Christian in our day. The discipline shown in times past has badly slipped. What has been happening in the world around us increasingly takes its toll upon us. What was such a hallmark for the faithful church in the past becomes more and more associated with negativity. The ‘me-first’ and ‘I did it my way’ draws us away from ‘Christ-first’ and ‘We do it the Lord’s way’.
There is a saying that goes, ‘If it’s raining in the world it’s dripping in the church’. But it’s also becoming clear it’s more than only some dripping happening in Christ’s body of late. Satan has flooded right into the church with the promotion of self-centredness that is the core of the brokenness and chaos.
And so, let’s turn to God’s Word in this, and, in particular, to 1st Corinthians chapter 5. Not only does it lay out for us how church discipline is an act of love and a mark of a faithful church, it also describes when church discipline is being neglected and the consequences of that.
Where church discipline is not present (5:1-2)
By now in the apostle’s letter to the church at Corinth it would be very clear that the Lord is not happy about the divisions in their congregation and the underlying causes for it. And here Paul continues in Christ’s concern for them. He commences this passage in a similar vein to what he has already written to them. But he also ratchets it up a notch or two. He now moves on further to highlight how unfaithful they are as a fellowship in Christ.
The apostle’s opening expression, “It is actually reported” indicates that this is a well-known fact about the Corinthian churches that was known throughout all the churches. While it is not one of the matters the church there has written to him about, it is very much tied in with the heart of what’s wrong in Corinth and so must be exposed and expunged.
This outrageous sin is sexual immorality of a particularly incestuous kind. ‘A double whammy’ we could say! A man has his father’s wife. It’s not his actual mother, that would have been stated, but rather it’s his step-mother – his father’s wife. It doesn’t specify if this member of the church at Corinth had seduced his then step-mother, or a woman divorced from his father, or that the father had died, leaving her a widow.
The reference to the pagans not tolerating this doesn’t mean it might not have been in their thoughts to do it. But when it came to actually getting down to do it their moral compass drew a distinct line against doing it. It shows that when people leave the way of the Lord they end up not just veering a little but often going in the completely opposite direction.
And, remember, this was all being done under the veneer of Christian liberty. They honestly believed this was a result of the freedom of the gospel. Having come out of the slavery of Greek paganism or Judaistic legalism they were drawn by those who told them they were now free. But they weren’t heeding what Paul had taught them about this freedom being free to serve the Lord rather than being free from the moral law.
And just think about what this was showing to the world around them! They who have their own sense of right and wrong could see quite plainly that these Christians weren’t living the Christ-like life.
And isn’t that what the world around us sees when the sins they openly espouse are then exhibited by Christians? Don’t be in any doubt that they note our sexual immorality much as they won’t care for any of their own. As quickly as the news spread everywhere about this Corinthian Christian man’s sexual immorality, so will the news about what they have seen us do!
But what is even more shocking here is the response of that man’s fellow believers in Corinth. Rather than follow the words of Galatians 6:1 about restoring the one caught in a transgression they did not look out for themselves. And the warning in Galatians 6:1 about keeping watch, in case they were tempted, they ignored. In fact, rather than being terribly sad about this sin amongst them, and so being firmly loving with this offender, they let it pass.
Imagine that in the dangerous police operation! How would it work out when officers looked out first for themselves than their colleagues? The answer is clear. This is disorder not order. It is the way to defeat. Each of those officers would be individually picked out and eliminated. And so the devil extends his sway.
Why church discipline is not here (5:6-8)
But now we skip over from the first two verses to the verses 6 till 8. And we do that because Paul picks up in verse 6 from where he left off at verse 2. It was in verse 2 that Paul makes it clear there are those in Corinth who are full of themselves. They are arrogant – or proud, as other versions translate it. They have placed themselves apart from and over and above the Lord. They aren’t humble under the Word – they know better! So commencing verse 6 with saying that their boasting is not good he picks this strand up again.
And he does so because he is going to show what this evil does amongst them. By using the illustration of a little leaven leavening the whole lump he brings out the way their attitude impacts on all of God’s people there. This is why he goes on in verse 7, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” Leaven, which was an old piece of dough that began to ferment, was a cheap alternative for yeast, By adding it to a new batch of dough it made the bread lighter through fermenting the whole loaf. But the longer this process went on the more likely it was that the dough would become unfit for eating and even poisonous. So, when the dough went off it had to be thrown out, and the process began again.
Much as those Corinthians thought they were now free to do whatever they felt led to do, they actually only show how enslaved they are! By stating “you really are unleavened” challenges them to be what they are in Christ. Like Israel of old had to completely rid itself of any leaven in preparing for the Passover so they need to get rid of anything that hangs over from what they were before they were saved. But as long that old leaven remained there was malice and evil amongst them.
In the same way, by allowing the offender to stay within the fold, they kept that bad influence which would only continue to spread and infect many others. Once you have one rotten apple those other apples around it will soon be rotting too. And this doesn’t only apply in regard to sexual immorality. There are all those other areas in doctrine and life that become diseased because the rot wasn’t cut out at its core. How much don’t we know this through the history of sister denominations in different parts of the world who became swallowed up by the ideas and lifestyles of the world? How could it be that the once strongly orthodox Reformed Churches of the Netherlands now come to the point of having women in all the offices of the church? In the words of verse 7, it was not cleansed out when that leaven first appeared. There wasn’t a looking to the Lord in all things, but, rather, as was said by representatives of those churches, “we had to take into account the society we live in.”
We don’t need to go to denominations on the other side of the world to see this either. What about the way we live in our families and our other relationships every day? How much aren’t we caught in the snare of the world? We have to be aware how much the world impacts our personal views. This means comparing and weighing up our assumptions with the past, and, more importantly, with what is biblical. Is what we’re thinking and doing truly looking to the Lord – whether it’s our views on entertainment, politics, marriage or education?
Then we believers need to keep this question before us: Why has Christ gone all the way to his doing and dying on a cursed cross if it wasn’t to have a people for himself – a people who gloried in him first of all and in all?
Think of the rich covenantal imagery in this: This is directly related to the Passover, the annual commemoration of the deliverance from Egypt in ancient times. The Israelites after clearing out any leaven from their homes offered up their lamb or young goat so that the destroying angel would pass over them. They were saved, and so those who had been slaves in Egypt came out from there as the people of God. The analogy is clear – they are being reminded that Christ’s death delivered them from the most terrible danger. Instead, they were made into being no less than God’s own chosen and precious race.
This is why Paul goes on in verse 8 to speak about celebrating the festival. The old life has gone – it’s now the time to put on the new. No more ought there to be those acts of the sinful nature – the fruit of the Spirit has to prevail! Thus malice and evil are replaced by sincerity and truth.
How church discipline is practised (5:9-13)
Verse 9 is clear about the context in which this church discipline is to be practiced. There isn’t an issue over what sin this is about. While the word for ‘immoral’ covers a range of sins, they are a certain kind of sin. And he further clarifies that he’s not speaking here about those who are not Christians who commit such sins. In verse 10 he makes it clear that we still have to live in this world – indeed we have to be a light and salt in a dark and thirsty world. But now he’s focused on those inside the Church.
You have a look at the list in verse 11. What does being sexually immoral and greed and idolatry and slander and drunkenness and swindling have in common? They are sins committed against other people. Another name we call them is “public sins”.
So it is a sin which is quite obvious. And from what we know of the Corinthian church it was clearly so! The example at the heart of this chapter is a vivid example of this sin. They all knew about it! Verse 2 says they were proud of it.
Yet Paul is also saying that this sort of sin applies to any member of the church whose behaviour was not consistent with commitment to Jesus Christ. That he has to write about it again shows that they had either misunderstood what he had written or had misrepresented it. And knowing the way Paul writes we can be pretty sure they had misrepresented it.
So Paul’s going to tell them all over again. While they may think that ignoring Paul’s first letter will make it go away, they’ve got another thing coming! It is just like we read in Ephesians 5 verse 11, because this deed of darkness has to be exposed to the light!
But first let’s define this particular kind of sin a bit further. What other types of sins are there than “public” ones? Well, there are “private sins” – you don’t get to know about them. That’s because they don’t come out into the open.
For example, someone thinks about how they could kill someone. They are that frustrated with this particular person they think about what it would be like if he were dead. But they don’t go and do it. That’s private – as long as they keep it to themselves! If they were actively to plan and murder that person then it is public, because now it’s involving other people.
Still, we can define this generic group of “immoral” sins even further, because it’s behaviour that either hurts others or blocks you from the needs of others. It goes right against the love Christians must have for each other. It’s the opposite of what chapter 13 later on holds up as the most excellent way!
Who church discipline is for (5:3-5)
Verse 13 logically leads us back to the verses 3 till 5. The Church is to judge those within it – not the pagans outside of it – and that’s exactly what the verses 3 till 5 do. And while Paul himself ends this section with verse 13, what he says in the verses 3 till 5 make just as much a suitable ending. You see, here is how the evil person is purged from the Church of Christ. This is the one aspect of judging the Church must do, for it is about those who are inside her.
It is a most definitive declaration the apostle makes in verse 3. By stating that, though he is not physically present with them, he is there in spirit, and as one there like that he has already pronounced judgment on the one who did this public sin. The language is emphatic. The Corinthians had failed in their duty. And while they continued not to do what they ought to do when they come together, Paul will do what he has to do from a distance.
In this way the apostle pictures the type of disciplinary meeting that should have been conducted. As he who is with them in spirit he, as the president of that assembly, has already passed sentence.
The Greek verb here is in the perfect. This strongly portrays a sense of conclusiveness to the sentence. He doesn’t name the offender, but he certainly exposes him for what he is and by what he’s done!
In verses 4 and 5 Paul pronounces the Lord’s punishment. In a long sentence we have the court room scene pictured with the Judge’s divine ruling. It is what should already have happened a while ago. And it might still not happen here below. But let them be in no doubt that this is happening all the same!
This is even more emphasised with what verse 5 adds here. To next declare that the church must deliver this man over to Satan indicates nothing less than excommunication. There has to be a cut made, removing the rot from the body altogether. Saying it by speaking of handing him over to the devil is acknowledging that it is in the realm where Satan holds sway that he truly belongs!
It is in 1st Timothy 1:20 where we find the only other time this expression is used. There, too, it is clear on the expulsion of two people out of the Church. And here it is consistent with verses 2, 7 and 13, where the sense of removing and cleansing and purging are very strong.
While “the destruction of the flesh” at first might seem to indicate the destruction of the sinful lusts it is difficult to see how handing someone over to Satan would have such a purifying effect. Wouldn’t you expect the opposite to happen? He would be swallowed up within that ungodly lifestyle.
It is more likely, though, that the apostle means here what he himself has experienced. Wasn’t his own ‘thorn in the flesh’ described as ‘a messenger of Satan’ (2 Corinthians 12:7)? And wasn’t what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 a severe example of this? Paul anticipates the solemn excommunication of this member ensuing in physical consequences. Being taken out of the secure realm of Christ’s Church means that this is a curative action. The “flesh” which represents this sinful world is destroyed so that “his spirit may be saved.”
The “spirit” here is the soul of that man. And so Paul looks toward this man being restored, which is the true spirit behind all church discipline. Unlike what some may say, there is no vindictiveness or ‘holier-than-thou’ approach. Satan is pictured here as being under God’s reign and can only do what he is permitted to do. Ultimately, it is through Satan that God will work to his own glory.
In conclusion it is vividly clear that above all what’s happening is not primarily for that offender’s good or the congregation’s correction but it’s all about the Lord God. Ending verse 5 with the words about this being the way his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord shows how much it all comes back to God’s plan.
Whenever something is not done to the glory of God – and thus to the up-building of his people – it is a neglect of faithful discipline. It’s when the saints fail to see how they should be doing this in their own physical and spiritual families that we have a recipe for disaster.
Obviously someone fell into temptation in the ancient Corinthian church. But even worse, in that situation his fellow believers failed to look to the Lord first of all and so deal with him immediately and biblically! That brought in the devastating destruction of their witness as Christ’s congregation in that place and time. And it’s what we do when we fail to call out ourselves and those around us going the wrong way. Then it doesn’t matter how many people “feel good” about what’s going on.
In a dangerous police operation it may be the last place any of those officers want to personally be. But how much then doesn’t something else kick in! This is what they have been trained and equipped to do. And it’s as they focus together on the right thing to do that we have the peace and security in our community.
How much truer shouldn’t that be for us spiritually in the church? It’s in looking to the Lord and his Word that we find our peace and security. It’s upon the Rock we must stand. When the cry goes out – ‘Man Down!’ – we are trained, equipped and ready to go!
Mr Sjirk Bajema is the minister of the Reformed Church in Oamaru.
See issue 47/5, June 2020 for more articles on this subject.
Image: Photo by Norbu Gyachung on Unsplash