9 I have written 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 you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
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 man from among you.”
Now, most Christians readily enough accept the teaching of vv. 9-11. We understand that we are not to condone sins of this nature. However, we rarely teach–much less obey–vv. 12-13.
Paul plainly prohibits us from judging those outside the church. A Christian who slanders or is sexually immoral is to be disfellowshipped–shunned–in hopes of bringing the sinner to repentance to preserve his soul. But a non-Christian slanderer or sexual sinner is not to be judged at all. Why not? Because that’s God job–not ours. In other words, those outside the church are lost and will not be less lost because we judge or condemn them.
This passage has very real application for how the church is to deal with the world. It prohibits the church from imposing Christian morality on non-Christians via the power of the state. However, at least three exceptions come to mind.
First, the church stands in the shoes of prophets, such as John the Baptist, who became martyrs in order to speak truth to power. John fearlessly condemned the sins of Herod and so was imprisoned. Why risk his ministry to condemn someone who wasn’t about to change just because of John?
I think John condemned Herod because he couldn’t credibly condemn sin in the common people while ignoring the sins of the powerful. The examples set by the powerful will inevitably affect the morals of the rest if God’s people are afraid to confront them. (Therefore, it’s shameful that the Christian right has failed to condemn Scooter Libby’s perjury even though they readily condemned Clinton’s perjury. Falwell and Dobson have had nothing to say. The Christian right is hopelessly compromised by its association with power politics–but so is the left.)
Second, God’s people are called by John and the Old Testament prophets to oppose laws that oppress the vulnerable of society. When the legislature prefers the powerful to the poor, the church must–out of love–come to the defense of the poor.
Sometimes, what’s right depends on why you do it. The Alabama churches recently got together and defeated a lottery proposal. Well, there’s no reason for the churches to prevent the lost from gambling, and the saved need no laws to do what’s right. If the churches’ motivation was to impose Christianity on the lost of the world by force, the churches would have been acting in a most un-Christlike way.
But in this case, the churches opposed the lottery because it was designed to dupe the poor into making bad decisions in order to subsidize college expenses of the more wealthy–and the law was properly adjudged unjust and so opposed by God’s people.
When we act for the vulnerable of society, we stand on solid, prophetic ground. When we impose a Christian lifestyle on the lost, we do not.
Finally, the church sometimes properly presses for laws that are needed to protect all of us from evildoers. Rom. 13 teaches that this is a God-ordained role of government. Hence, we may fairly expect the state to punish murderers, thieves, and frauds.
This leads to a difficult distinction. We may certainly expect the government to impose a morality that protects society from evildoers, because we love those in the world enough to want them to be safe from murderers, thieves, and frauds. But we may not insist that government impose morality in general. We can’t ask the government to make people attend church (as actually happened during the Reformation and in Puritan New England). We can’t ask the government to impose prayer on non-Christian school children.
This leaves a lot of room for argument. I mean, does banning Sunday liquor sales (a big issue here in West Alabama) impose Christian values on the lost? Or would it be a loving means of preventing dangerous alcohol abuse? The answers don’t always come easily, but the questions should be clear enough.