Chapter 5 reflects a radical change in subject. After four chapters on the importance of unity and how very wrong — even damnable — division in the local church is, Paul shifts gears to discussion how the church should deal with incest among its members.
(1 Cor 5:1–2 ESV) 1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
Since Paul referred to a man’s “father’s wife” and not “his mother,” many conclude that a member is having sex with his father’s second wife. Paul is paraphrasing —
(Lev 18:8 ESV) You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.
— which immediately follows condemnation of sex with one’s mother (Lev 18:7), so that it’s unlikely the man was sleeping with his mother.
Roman law also forbade such relationships, making this sin particularly egregious. It was not merely a matter of not yet knowing how Christians behave. The man knew it was wrong before he decided to follow Jesus!
It’s hard to understand how the Corinthians could have been “arrogant” regarding this sin, unless they’d very badly misunderstood grace and Jesus words, “Judge not.” Perhaps they’d concluded that Christianity freed them from ordinary standards of morality. Paul plainly disagrees.
Paul commands, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” This is shocking to modern ears. It’s not that we wouldn’t see the sin in incest, but that we would be unwilling to expel someone from the church over it — especially in a large church. The leadership would be paralyzed by fear that the members wouldn’t support their decision, not to mention the fear of bad publicity or even lawsuits.
QUESTION: Would the members support the elders in such a decision today? What if the man denied that he was guilty? Would they take sides or support the leadership?
(1 Cor 5:3–5 ESV) 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Paul, as an apostle, clearly had the authority to insist that the church take this step. Today, we call this “to disfellowship,” whereas others prefer to say “to shun” or even “to excommunicate.”
The ancient Jewish synagogue had two levels of shunning that we’ll call, for want of better terms, excommunication and disfellowshiping. And I think the early church followed the same pattern. A member would be disfellowshiped to shame him or her into repentance and restoration — it was a “tough love,” last ditch effort. On the other hand, someone who was preaching error that might cause the damnation of members or who was preying on the members, such as a thief or sexual predator, could be excommunicated for the protection of the flock.
In both cases, the protection of the members is in mind, but in the first case, repentance is the goal, whereas in the second case, exclusion is the goal. We often get these confused in our teaching, but the scriptures demonstrate the distinction.
In the case of disfellowshiping for repentance, the church is told “not to even eat” with that person (1 Cor 5:11), because in that culture, eating together meant approval and acceptance. Moreover, the common meals — the love feasts — were at the core of Christian practice.
In 2 Thes 3:6, Paul instructs the church —
(2 Th 3:14–15 ESV) 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Again, notice the goal of bringing shame (in an honor culture!) — but out of love. The goal is to warn him away from such dangerous practices so that he’ll repent.
Obviously, this only works in a congregation where the love for each other is very important to the members. You can’t exercise this kind of discipline if the member could just as easily attend another church. It’s not that the other churches must honor your decision, but that your church should involve so much love that going somewhere else would be unbearable. It’s not about power but love.
Now notice the contrast with Paul’s much harsher language in —
(Titus 3:9–11 ESV) 9 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
A divisive person harms the congregation as well as the cause of Christianity. Now, we should remember that a divisive person isn’t someone you disagree with over how to use the money in the church treasury. The divisive person is the one who wants to divide over such things.
(Rom 16:17–18 ESV) 17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.
Paul’s language here is similar. It’s not all who disagree with us that “cause divisions.” Rather, it’s the ones insisting on dividing over the disagreements. In particular, it’s those who divide “contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” — being the doctrine Paul had just taught in chapters 1 – 15. And this includes, especially, those who divide contrary to Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith not works and by Paul’s teaching that we must not divide over disputable matters (chapter 14).
In both cases, the decision must be prompted by love, and the person being excluded should feel the love of the church and its leadership. But a divisive person must be excluded to avoid division. A predator must be excluded to protect the church. Hence, love for the congregation is paramount. You can’t allow children to be victimized by a predator or adults by a divider just because you so care about the predator or divider. The church comes first — but those excluded are still loved, just not at the cost of harming the congregation with their sin.
(1 Cor 5:6–8 ESV) 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul’s point is lost on most modern Christians. Under the Law, the Passover was preceded by a week in which no leaven could be in the house. This was taken as a symbol of purification in preparation for the celebratory meal.
Thus, Paul argues, that to worship together (the festival celebrating the Passover), the church must cleanse itself (remove the sinner), so that the church is filled with sincerity and truth, not hypocrisy and lies.
(1 Cor 5:9–11 ESV) 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
Paul had written an earlier letter, warning the church to stay away from certain overt sinners — but the church has misunderstood him, thinking they were to avoid sinners who were outside the church. Paul now plainly says that we must associate with sinners outside the church but not those inside the church.
The difficulty is that all of us sin. How do we tell which sins make someone properly disciplined and which sins are common to us all? How does the church decide?
Here’s my thinking. In both the Law of Moses and the New Testament (Hebrews especially), a distinction is drawn between intentional, rebellious sin and unintentional sin. The sin that is the greatest danger to the sinner is sin that is known to be sin and indulged in despite that knowledge. This can lead to the damnation of the sinner (Heb 10:26 ff).
Hence, sexual sin tends to get more than its fair share of attention because, frankly, that’s one area where we think we know the rules pretty clearly. Hence, cheating on your wife or engaging in premarital sex is plainly wrong and therefore almost certainly rebellious — for someone who grew up in a Christian home and so knows better.
Outside of sexual sin and criminal conduct, it’s hard to build a consensus on what sins merit discipline. However, in 2 Thess 3:14-15 (quoted above), the sin was likely a refusal to support oneself and so becoming a burden on the church —
(2Th 3:10-12 ESV) 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
It’s not that living off the government is a sin, unless the money is being received fraudulent — if the person isn’t really disabled, for example.