1 Corinthians 5:1-10 (Purge the evil person from among you!)

1corinthiansChapter 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.

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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14 Responses to 1 Corinthians 5:1-10 (Purge the evil person from among you!)

  1. Gary says:

    A substantial and inescapable factor in 1 Corinthians 5 is societal norms of what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior. I Corinthians 5 is limited in its authorization of the exercise of church discipline to behaviors that would be condemned by the larger society.

  2. Skip says:

    Gary, 1 Corinthians 5:11 is very explicit in condemning sexual immorality by a member who claims they are a Christian. Sounds very unequivocal. I don’t see Paul using societal standards as the basis for this verse. Paul spoke by inspiration from the Spirit.

  3. Gary says:

    Paul refers to societal standards in verse 1. This is the only example we have in the New Testament of church discipline being exercised for sexual behavior so context is very important.

  4. Gary says:

    For example societies differ on which kinship relationships are taboo for incest. One society may allow a uncle and his neice to marry and another may not.

  5. Skip says:

    Paul specifically says the behavior is so bad even the world thinks it’s bad. Not, we will apply the world’s standards of immorality to Christians. The world’s standards keep falling. But maybe you aren’t saying that the world’s sexual standards are equal to a Christian’s sexual standards.

  6. Dwight says:

    Skip is right. Here Paul is saying that the sin is so bad among the Christians, that even those who are not Christians see it as deplorable. In this way he is showing just how bad of a sin it is that they are ignoring. Now we like to make this a church issue, but really it is a Christian issue, that is handled by those who are assembling. He is writing to the Christians in Corinth and admonishing them for acting like he is still a brother and associating in that way, when they should be separating him from them in all matters social, except to teach him. This is called sexual immorality and they are to collectively determine not to fellowship with him individually.

  7. Gary says:

    My point is that societal standards for sexual behavior are inextricably a part of the 1 Corinthians 5 scenario and therefore are an important part of the basis for Paul’s call for church discipline to be exercised. So 1 Corinthians 5 is not a basis for the exercise of church discipline for sexual behavior that does not violate societal standards. It may be that other parts of Scripture would provide such a basis but 1 Corinthians 5 does not.

  8. Gary says:

    An example that may be closer to home is that Church of Christ doctrine on divorce and remarriage fundamentally changed in the last decades of the 20th century in tandem with societal change on divorce and remarriage. In 1950 a Christian in Churches of Christ who had what was deemed an unscriptural divorce and who then remarried might well have been the subject of church discipline were he to attempt to remain an active member in good standing of his congregation. Such an exercise of church discipline in 2014 in mainstream Churches of Christ would be unthinkable. Societal standards of sexual behavior and what constitute sanctioned sexual relationships definitely impact the exercise of church discipline.

  9. Jim Haugland says:

    Also two or more witnesses were required before one is considered guilty. This prevents a person from being falsely convicted from gossip or slander.

  10. Price says:

    Isn’t it interesting that Paul is leaning on the moral conduct code of the Mosaic Law !! It seems that there are some things that didn’t change from one covenant to the next !

  11. Gary says:

    Price, I agree that Paul is incorporating part of the moral conduct code of the Law of Moses. What concerns me, however, is when others go beyond Paul’s limited incorporation in passages like 1 Corinthians 5 and try to bind the entire Mosaic moral code concerning sexual behavior on Christians today. It inevitably becomes a picking and choosing process of projecting one’s own agenda and biases onto all other Christians. For example the Law prohibited a man who divorced his wife from remarrying her if she had remarried another man even if her second husband died or divorced her. I don’t think any of us would have a problem today with a divorced couple remarrying each other. The law also called marital sex during the woman’s menstruation an abomination. That rarely gets mentioned today. But some take other prohibitions in the Law and try to apply them today as if we were all still Jews living before Christ. It’s a slippery slope in my opinion.

  12. Skip says:

    Societal standards for sexual behavior keep declining while Biblical standards never change. Unfortunately the church keeps lowering standards in practice.

  13. Dwight says:

    In some circles this would be called shunning. This percieved harsh action is rarely done to those who turn from Christ and is too often done to those who are still in Christ, but have a differences of thought on things.

  14. Dwight says:

    In the Law the one wh was divorced had as much as a right to remarry as the one who divorce since the divorce broke the bond of the marriage, so they were no longer man and wife. This point is overlooked in Matthew 5, where only divorce for any other reason than sexual immorality keeps them man and wife. Jesus didn’t change many things when it came to marriage and divorce, but corrected them on what God’s will was. Many things in regards to uncleanliness was done away with though, animals, washing, etc.
    We in the church are pretty uneven with scriptures when it comes to God’s will on these things. Even betrothment was under God’s will and was the staging for marriage as they were man and wife before they were even married in this state. This is routinely overlooked and would solve alot of issues today if we even considered it an important concept.
    Then we interrogate Christians in regards to those who have married again and yet we find Jesus not doing this or calling for this action.

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