You’ve put your finger on several challenges that arise in interpreting Paul’s words. Let’s get the context in front of us —
(1Co 5:6-13 ESV) 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.
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.”
Paul’s insider/outsider distinction should be obvious enough. But who is an “evil person” and what does “judge” mean?
Well, we all sin, and so we’re all “sinners.” But I think Price correctly puts his finger on the distinction in his comment. The Law of Moses distinguished between intentional and unintentional sin. The text here doesn’t say “sinner” but “evil person” — and the NET Bible translator notes helpfully point out,
An allusion to Deu 17:7; Deu 19:19; Deu 22:21, Deu 22:24; Deu 24:7; cf. 1Co 5:2.
It’s a phrase repeated throughout Deu as the sentence to be passed against someone who has been tried and found guilty of certain sins: idolatry, a false prophet, a son who will not honor the voice of his parents, a betrothed woman and the man with whom she commits adultery against her fiance, someone who refuses to honor the verdict of the priests in a disputed matter, someone who testifies in court falsely out of malice (intentionally), someone who sells a fellow Israelite into slavery.
Now, the language Paul uses is used in these passages. What do they have in common? They are all sins committed with a “high hand” (Num 15:30). These are sins committed by someone well aware that his conduct is sinful and who chooses to commit the sin anyway. Contrary to decades of bad teaching in the Churches of Christ, ignorance of the Law actually is an excuse. In fact, the sacrificial system for obtaining forgiveness was only available for those sins not committed intentionally.
(Num 15:28-31 ESV) 28 “And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
And so, “evil person” doesn’t refer to someone who, in good conscience, worships contrary to your conscience. Nor does it refer to someone who sins unaware of the law he is violating. It’s for those in rebellion (Heb 10:26 ff).
When Paul requires us to disfellowship “the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters,” he is referring to those who violated core teachings of the local congregation (not that God’s law varies, but what we teach clearly enough to know that our members a understand a given sin to be wrong will vary). What moral commands we teach and emphasize to our churches will vary, but it should be clear to all that swindling others is a sin — making the sin almost automatically high handed. Although, there are cultures where those who steal by being clever are admired. A convert from such a culture would not be high handed unless and until taught better.
[From a comment by John F:
In Asian (Taiwanese in my experience) this cleverness is more clearly seen as dishonoring your family if you do NOT take advantage of a situation. Example, someone foolishly leave the key in their motorcycle; doing so opens the item to theft and dishonors your family. If I see the key, and how you have dishonored your family, I am free (expected) to take advantage for the benefit of MY family.]
On the other hand, as to a questionable matter, such as IM, mailing someone a tract does not make them “taught better” because they very well may, in all good conscience, disagree. It’s about having a heart that obeys what it knows and understands to obey.
Even so, David was forgiven for his high handed sin against Uriah and Bathsheba — despite the fact that no sacrifice was available for such a sin. Rather, we see a new approach to forgiveness of sin in —
(Psa 51:16-17 ESV) 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
The point of purging someone from the church by disfellowship is to produce a broken and contrite heart — which will allow that person to be restored. Hence, we are not to disfellowship those who already have a broken and contrite heart. It’s not about retribution but about shaping a member’s heart to be more like the heart of Jesus.
[Further from a comment by John F:
The primary purpose of disfellowship is restoration of the transgressor.
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. NASU
What too often is missing is “you who are spiritual” and a “spirit o gentleness.”
There is a UNIVERSE of difference in going to someone and telling them they are in spiritual danger — one person may sound like they like the idea of you going to hell, , and another sound like it will break their heart to see you lost. Which approach is likely to be more spiritually effective? (I think I know.)]
So that’s what I take Paul to be trying to accomplish here.
(I’ll not go into detail here, but where a member is working to harm the members, such as by stealing from the gullible or seducing the young, he is to be removed to protect the flock. Jesus’ command regarding a wolf in sheep’s clothing applies, and is a very different case.)