The Mission of the Church: Justice, Part 5 (1 Cor 5:9-13 and Rom 1:18-26)

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1 Cor 5:9-13

To my way of thinking, this passage is at the heart of the question, and I’m thankful to the readers for keeping me on my toes as I’ve tried to apply it to public policy questions in earlier posts.

(1 Cor. 5:9-13 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.  12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

The quotation in v. 13 is from several passages in Deuteronomy dealing with sentencing someone for a crime — generally dealing with death or “cutting off” — meaning either death or expulsion from the Israelite camp — which meant likely death in the desert (Deu 13:5, 17:7, 17:12, 19:19, 22:21, 22:22, 22:24, 24:7). Paul is quite severe in requiring the church to “judge” one of its members for incest (likely with his step-mother) and expel that person until he repents. Paul is using what we’d think of as courtroom language.

But Paul makes it equally clear that we should not judge outsiders (v. 12). That is, we should not seek to punish them by excluding them from our fellowship. After all, if we refuse to associate with sexually immoral pagans, we’d have to leave the pagan world altogether.

Now, I’ll concede that Paul is speaking primarily of whom we associate with and not the enactment of civil law. But it seems inconsistent with Paul’s words for us to seek to criminalize the behavior we are specifically told not to judge. I mean, if I have them thrown in jail for premarital sex (which is really and truly sinful), then I’ll not associate with the lost — unless I volunteer in the jail ministry.

Paul’s logic is simple: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders?” How is it my business how the damned live — if they aren’t victimizing my neighbor? Paul even includes swindlers in his list — even though they have victims. But then he wasn’t writing to people who lived in a democracy. Whether to criminalize swindling was up to the Romans and Greeks in Corinth, not the Christians. I would think that, in a democracy, Paul would urge us to vote to criminalize fraud because love for our neighbors requires it.

Neither [Paul] nor they are to pass sentence on the people of the world in their present existence. The reason for that is simple: “God will judge those outside.” His judgment is future, a judgment in which the church will also participate (6:2). But for now, the church takes the world as it finds it. As God’s temple in the “world,” it is to offer a striking alternative to the world, and in that sense it must always be “judging” the world. But it is not ours to bring sentence against those who belong to another worldview, to another age altogether. The time for that judgment is coming.

Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 226–227.

The reason is (cf. “for” at the beginning of the verse; omitted by TNIV) that it is not the church’s responsibility to judge outsiders, in the sense of censuring their behavior and undertaking discipline to change them.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 219.

The ease with which the present day church often passes judgment on the ethical or structural misconduct of the outside community is at times matched only by its reluctance to take action to remedy the ethical conduct of its own members. We have reversed Paul’s order of things.

Bruce Winter, 1 Corinthians (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition; ed. D. A Carson et al.; Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1168.

The commentators agree that we, as Christians, do not get to pass sentence on and punish sinful behavior by non-Christians. We judge their behavior sinful by living differently and not participating in their sins. But now is not the time to punish unbelievers. God will handle that when the time comes.

However, in a democracy, where there are people suffering as victims of swindlers and other criminals, we would be irresponsible citizens not to call for punishment of those who commit frauds.

I return to the advice of Jer 29:7: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

Rom 1:18-26

This is a famously difficult passage, but we can’t ignore it.

(Rom. 1:18-32 ESV) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  

V. 18 is the theme sentence for what follows. Paul is saying that the pagans, without the prophets and the scriptures, are nonetheless on notice of God’s wrath even though the pagan suppress the truth about God.

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  

The theological term is “general revelation” as opposed to “special revelation.” God has revealed both his goodness and his wrath by his general revelation — even to those who don’t have the Bible or prophecy from God.

20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

God’s creation reveals God’s nature — especially his goodness and his glory.

So they are without excuse.  21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,  23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.  

But when the pagans rejected God and chose to worship idols instead, the pagans become “futile in their thinking” and worshiped created beings.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  

And so God revealed his wrath by giving them up to sinful lives. Their anti-natural behavior reveals God’s wrath.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;  27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.  28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,  30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Twice more, Paul declares that God gave the pagans over to sinful living. The Greek word translated “gave them up” is the same word used repeatedly in the early books of the OT for God delivering someone into the hands of their enemy for military defeat. Whether God is merely withdrawing his protective grace or God is actively pushing the pagans in this direction, the text is clear that God intends this result. He doesn’t intend that they be damned, but if they choose not to follow God, then God wants the disastrous consequences of their choice to be plain to all. He gives them over to being defeated by the dehumanizing, unnatural power of sin. He allows sin to win.

17. … The truth was accessible to them, but they suppressed it unrighteously and embraced the ‘lie’ in preference to it. Therefore ‘God gave them up’ to the consequences of their choice. And precisely here he has manifested his ‘wrath’ – that principle of retribution which must operate in a moral universe. …

18. The wrath of God is revealed. Not in the gospel (in which the saving ‘righteousness of God’ is revealed) but in the facts of human experience: ‘the history of the world is the judgment of the world’ (J. C. F. Schiller). The revelation of ‘the wrath to come’ at the end-time (1 Thess. 1:10) is anticipated by the revelation of the same principle in the on-going life of the world. ‘

F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 6; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 89-90.

The unnatural, dehumanizing sins committed by the pagans are the intentional evidence of God’s wrath against, not the sins in particular, but the pagans’ refusal to serve God, preferring to serve idols.

Therefore, if Christians were to gain control of the government and seek to criminalize the very behaviors that reveal God’s wrath, would they not be working at cross-purposes against God? But look at sin list. It’s not just homosexuality: “evil, covetousness, malice. … envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. … gossips,  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” By that logic, we shouldn’t even criminalize murder — which we started this discussion agreeing is an easy case.

In fact, it’s not easy to see why Paul includes murder, as pagans generally no more approved murder than the Jews did. His point seems to be that the pagans are so debased by their rejection of God that every kind of sin, no matter how despicable, is approved in their culture. And certainly there are examples among the Roman aristocracy of outright murder — including the assassination of Julius Caesar — that was approved by many.

So in a democracy there would seemingly be no crime at all that Christians could criminalize without risking thwarting the the “turning over” of God — since God has turned the pagans over to every kind of sin. But Rom 1 is not the entire story …

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to The Mission of the Church: Justice, Part 5 (1 Cor 5:9-13 and Rom 1:18-26)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    I’m eager to see the next chapter! If we’re not to speak against open sin by folks not in Christ, are we then not to oppose it? Surely we ARE to speak against open sin by anyone!

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