Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2016
A Difficult Obedience
1 Corinthians 5:1-5 (ESV)
One of the problems we struggle against in our world is what I call the “Bo Peep Syndrome”. Her solution to the problem of lost sheep was to leave them alone and they’ll come home. Very different than the solution offered by our Good Shepherd who would leave the “ninety and nine” to seek out the lost sheep.
But ignoring a problem is the easy way only if we don’t look too closely. One of the ways parents harm their children is by being too permissive. They ignore correcting rude or selfish behavior figuring they’ll just grow out of it. The sad reality of it is that they do not just grow out of it. But it’s the easy way for parents to excuse being responsible and really helping their children. Sometimes it’s because parents never learned to discipline without being harsh.
One of the problems with modern approaches to education is a failure to teach responsibility. Teachers who let students do what they want usually lose control. They train students to be unable to get serious about a deadline or finishing hard tasks.
Political leaders often cater to the voters’ vices rather than promoting good policies. It’s easier to get votes by promising people what they want, rather than what they need. They are willing to let a society hang on to its sins, as long as they get elected.
World leaders often appease terrorists and rogue nations rather than stopping their evil. But if we reward lawless aggressors they just get more lawless and aggressive.
There are some things that are best left alone. However, where we have a God-given duty, we need to speak up and do what we can to help. When those God’s charged to help fail to do so, they are not just minding their own business, they are being irresponsible. They become co-conspirators with evil.
We all have a duty in the world to be light to dispel its moral and spiritual darkness, and to be salt to enhance its flavor and preserve it from the spoilage of sin. But in the church, among those who say they are Christians, we have a special duty to deal with sin and rebellion, even though it’s a very hard and difficult obedience.
Dangerous men had stolen the hearts of the Corinthian church. They intrigued God’s sheep with presentations that seemed very appealing. But when error rules in hearts, lives are left unguarded against sin. Wrong beliefs, values, and practices are excused with clever words. In Corinth, some very serious offenses against God were being overlooked, even permitted.
Paul’s letter now deals with those specific errors.
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.
Paul was very disappointed by reports he received about their church. Immorality was being tolerated and ignored among them. The word for immorality here is the Greek word “porneia” (πορνεία). We get our English words pornography, and pornographic from that Greek word. It refers to sexual activity that ignores marriage as the only right place for sex.
Any time sexual acts or thoughts go beyond the marriage bond, it’s immoral. It offends God, harms his people, and destroys the image of Christ and the church which marriage was instituted to represent.
Corinth was a very immoral community. That was its reputation in the world. Even the pagan Romans saw it as a city that had gone over the edge with sexual license. Many ancient Greek terms for immorality were based on the name of the city. The verb “to corinthianize” (Κορινθιάζειν) meant to have sex outside of marriage. Prostitutes were often called, Corinthian girls or Corinthian companions. The temple of Aphrodite on the Corinthian Acropolis sanctioned prostitution as a religious rite.
Though many Corinthians became Christians, they continued to struggle with this sexual liberty. It’s not easy for people to abandon the cultural standards they were raised to see as normal. Every day they were faced with temptations, and surrounded by attitudes they were raised with.
It’s not easy to overcome our past sinful habits, particularly when the world around us continues to accept and promote them. But they need to be overcome. It’s our duty to God, and to one another in the church.
This is why it’s important to avoid music, television shows, movies, magazines and web sites that trivialize the sanctity of marriage and promote sexual themes. They train the mind to dwell on these things, and influence our desires and values.
The answer of Scripture is in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Minds busy with moral things, things that honor God, will find it easier to avoid tempting thoughts, and to resist falling back into past sinful patterns.
The particular immorality that was being permitted was extreme.
It was the kind of thing of which even the pagan nations did not approve.
One of the members of the church was having an immoral relationship with his father’s wife,
probably his step-mother. If it was his actual mother a different word would likely have been used.
Of course there were some of the more barbaric cultures that allowed incest like that.
But even the sexually free Roman and Greek cultures did not allow that extreme.
Yet the church seemed to be tolerating it. They were doing nothing to correct the problem.
God’s word is very clear about this. Deuteronomy 22:30 says, “A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness.”
Some Rabbis during Paul’s time had invented a principle of their own that modified God’s law. Rabbi Akibah taught that converted Gentiles didn’t have to keep this law. Maybe this was part of the justification the Corinthians were using to allow this.
Like these Rabbis of the first century, many churches today follow dispensationalism. Similarly, it invents theories to make the moral law only apply to ancient Israel. We see churches rejecting the Creation Sabbath as if it was the same as the Levitical Sabbaths added at the time of Moses. Some promote fictional pictures of Jesus as if they could behold the Savior yet have no response of worship. Some today even allow sex outside of marriage. One by one the 10 Commandments are being rejected by false teachers in the churches. Of course these sins can be forgiven with sincere repentance, but they should not be excused.
Paul makes it clear. God’s moral principles do not apply to just one group of people or period of history.
God records this extreme case here for our instruction too. It teaches an important principle of church discipline. We need to preserve the purity of the church in every case.
2. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
Their attitude was not honoring to God. Instead of mourning for the sin that had invaded their spiritual family, they were arrogant, proud of it. Just as we mourn for the dead, we should grieve when sin, the cause of death, moves in. Sin should not be defended, relished or excused. But in Corinth the spiritually immature church arrogantly allowed it among them.
The remedy is a hard one, but it’s what God demands of us. We have a responsibility to look after one another and encourage each other to do what’s right. This is how Jesus taught us to deal with sin among us in Matthew 18.
The first step should be a very private, humble, and personal attempt to help the person. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. ”
If that fails, Jesus tells us to get some help but still to deal with the problem privately. 18:16, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
If the person still ignores your encouragement and warnings the next step has to be taken. There comes a time when a person who persists in sin needs to be dealt with by the church. 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Telling it to the church doesn’t mean making a public announcement. Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, God’s church, his covenant family, is represented by men ordained to be Elders. They act as a court of the church to make careful judgments according to God’s principles.
Their judgment has real God-given authority. Jesus said in verses 18-20, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
This means that when the court of the church comes to a clear judgment, and they have followed God’s rules, God in heaven honors their decision regarding the church on earth. The court of Elders is responsible for admitting believers to membership and the sacraments. and for removing them from membership and the sacraments.
It does not mean they decide a person’s eternal salvation. It means either they bind them to the outward church as communicant members, or they loose them from the church and communicant membership.
When a person is removed, it’s because they failed to show evidence of regeneration. Their refusal to repent and abandon things clearly wrong according to God’s word, requires that we treat them as non-members, as those outside the church. But, what makes their rebellion even worse than the behavior of the unchurched, is that they bear the covenant mark of baptism.
The removal of members should never be done lightly. It’s always a last step. It shouldn’t be done harshly or with an arrogant judgmental attitude. It’s to be done humbly and solemnly showing Christ-like gentleness and compassion.
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 wrote this while in Ephesus, unable to be with the Corinthian church as it judges this case.
But he was present with them in the decision they had to make.
Even from this distance he led them in what they should have been doing, but were not.
There was no room for debate about the wrongness of what was reported.
Paul was careful not to name the person committing this incest.
But he made it clear that anyone who had done these things is inexcusably guilty.
Evidently the evidence in this case was clear and undisputed.
Paul gave his opinion as a formal judgment for them to approve in his absence.
1. It’s given in the name of our Lord Jesus. It’s by Christ’s authority, delegated to his church in Scripture, that the judgment is made.
2. The Elders should formally assemble to determine this case as a church court. Elders, Pastors or Apostles have no authority to judge on their own. It’s only when they are formally assembled that they bear the keys to the Kingdom of God. If found guilty the person must be removed from among them.
There are some who interpret these words differently. How is this person to be delivered to Satan? And how is his flesh to be destroyed so that his spirit might be saved?
These are admittedly hard phrases to understand. But the context here and in the rest of Scripture clears up the confusion.
There are some who imagine that this means some physical harm is to be done. Some have said the church had the power to curse him with some horrible disease. Others say they were to execute the guilty person. But how could executing the person save his spirit? How could they then avoid Christian fellowship with him as verses 2, and 6-13 imply? And who was to do this executing? Rome didn’t allow church executions, and the Old Testament Levitical justice system wasn’t transferred to the church. None of these explanations fits with the whole picture.
There is a far more consistent interpretation. A person removed from the church by the discipline of Matthew 18 would be considered part of the kingdom of Satan instead of the kingdom of God.
The word for flesh here is “sarx” (σαρξ) , it’s not the word for “body” which is “soma” (σωμα). Paul has consistently used the word for “flesh” in this letter to mean “fleshly lusts”. We would assume he means the same thing here. In the final day of judgment a person’s soul is not saved apart from his body. In the resurrection the whole person is saved, body and soul. But the Bible does say a person’s spirit can be saved, delivered from fleshly lusts.
Probably Paul means that:
1. By excommunicating the unrepentant from God’s kingdom they are delivering him over to the kingdom of Satan.
2. His fleshly lusts could lead a straying believer to spiritual conviction. This would stir him to end (destroy) his fleshly desires leading him to repentance, and restoration.
A note on this verse in the old Geneva Bible says, “The goal of excommunication is not to cast away the excommunicate that he should utterly perish, but that he may be saved, that is, that by this means his flesh may be tamed, that he may learn to live to the Spirit.”
This view seems to fit best with the testimony of God’s word as a whole.
The hope of discipline in the Spiritual family, at every level, is to restore the wandering sheep.
The world advises permissiveness and tolerance. That’s the easy irresponsible way. It only makes sin easy and leaves its destruction and poison to spread and devastate.
God’s way is sometimes a difficult challenge. But the right thing must be done. For the honor of God, for the purity of the church as it shines as a light to the world, and for the reclaiming of those sinking in the grip of sin we need to do the hard things, though we do them humbly.
It’s the right thing to do, the good thing, the hard but loving thing. It’s the way God tells us to reach out to the renegade soul.
True self-less compassion is often very hard. But we need to bring ourselves to do the hard things even toward those who may be the least appreciative at the time. Yet we dare not hesitate to do what God promises to bless.
We are thankful that this last stage of discipline does not take place often. But the first stages of positive encouragement and kind, humble correction, are the way we regularly try to help one another as a spiritual family.
We should never let the infection of sin spread in the hearts of those we love, not our children, our spouses, our friends, or members of the church. As for ourselves, we need to keep your own hearts pure and honoring to God. Sometimes that means listening humbly to the warnings of Christian friends, or the warnings of the church. This is how we shine as lights to the world and keep Christ’s family a good testimony to the world.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)