Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2016
When I was very young I remember getting an infection in a cut on my finger. Where I grew up back in the early 50’s we did not run to the emergency room for things like that. Some of us were still somewhat in the “dark ages” and used a lot of home remedies. My Dad was a medic in the army, but he was not always there to take over. One of my Grandfathers thought applying pipe tobacco was the best cure for cuts. But for my infected finger the treatment by one of my Grandmothers was to wrap it with bread soaked in milk. It’s a wonder I still have all my fingers. But in spite of all that, the infection went away. I give more credit to my body’s natural defenses than to the soaked bread.
But there were still times when we knew that the home remedies weren’t enough. Once while running through a field near our house, I stepped on a board with a nail in it. That rusty nail pushed right up through my sneaker and on a good distance into my foot. I pulled it out and hobbled home to get it treated. That time my Dad was there. It meant a trip to the emergency room to get a tetanus shot.
Though some of the old remedies were crude and might have done more harm than good, we knew that a little infection left untreated can be a disaster. Just one little bacterium can cause the loss of a limb or a life if it was allowed to multiply and spread.
A little contamination can spoil food, or ruin a good crop in the field. It does not take much to start with, but if left unchecked it ruins everything around it.
Anyone who has had a course in biology knows that micro-organisms grow very fast when they are in a place that supplies what they need to survive, and nothing is done to stop their growth.
There is always some level of what we call “germs” in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and on things we touch. Usually the immune system takes care of them before they become a problem. When they take hold, they multiply in us and make us sick.
This every-day physical principle has its counter-part in the spiritual world too.
evil infected ideas and practices in the church.
In 1st Corinthians chapter 5 Paul deals with a particular case that illustrated the problem. One of their members was having an intimate relationship with his step-mother. That was something even beyond what the pagans allowed. What made it even worse, was that the church just accepted it and did not do anything about it.
In the first 5 verses Paul told them to remove this person from the church until he repented. The hope was that by delivering this member back into the kingdom of Satan, he would see the horrors and offensiveness of his sins and sincerely repent. If he was truly a redeemed child of God, he would humbly come back to the church repenting and ready to be restored.
But the church was not following this principle. Those impressive but deceptive leaders, were promoting dangerous ideas, and immoral attitudes that saw nothing wrong with incest.
to the church, not just to the individual sinner.
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.
The Corinthians were actually proud, boasting about their tolerance of immorality. They thought it was mature of them to allow this moral liberty.
The fallen soul looks for ways to excuse its sins. It invents a strange sort of tolerance. They tolerate certain sins as acceptable, but become intolerant of those who remind them that it’s not acceptable. They attack those who try to follow God’s ways as if they were just narrow minded, old-fashioned bigots. They might even quote parts of God’s word out of context – which confuses things even more. They brag about being more tolerable, while intolerably condemning the faithful.
Paul compared this with how a little leaven effects a whole batch of dough. Making your own bread dough was a common daily process back then in every home. They knew that you add just a little bit of yeast, but as it sits it effects the whole batch of dough. Since everybody was familiar with this, it made a good illustration for spiritual lessons.
Some times leaven represented something good in Scripture, and some times something bad. In Matthew 13 Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to leaven. It was to effect the whole world. But in Matthew 16 Jesus used it to show how the false teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees was spreading its infection through God’s covenant nation and destroying her.
In this case, the leaven represented something bad that was infecting the whole church. The impurity was not only the fact that there was incest in the church. The impurity included the fact that the church was not dealing with it. Apathy toward real moral dangers is as corrosive and as deadly as the sins it allows.
He told them to clean out the old leaven. Their old ways were infecting the new life they had in Christ. The mission of Jesus was to defeat the poisonous infections of sin. His obedient life, and his death on the cross, purified his redeemed people from the old leaven to become a new batch of dough. When he paid for their guilt, it made them able to grow in godliness. One day, in the final resurrection, they would be set totally free from the power of sin. Now that they were given new life by God’s grace, they were not under sin’s bondage any more. There was no excuse for letting the old ways continue unchecked and unchallenged.
Paul dealt with them as true believers, but ones who were deceived and caught up in old habits. Satan loves to get our eyes off God’s promises, and get us distracted by the world’s values and ways. He loves to see the church back off on its offensive against sin. He wants us to neglect the hard duty of gently but bravely helping one another abandon sinful habits.
It takes a mature heart to cling to what’s right when wrong is so popular, and to dare to identify things God calls sin, when they’ve become accepted. Instead of proudly tolerating it, they need to purge it out.
Paul appealed to the real hope God had give to the Corinthian believers. Christ our Passover has already been sacrificed, and we are partakers of his victory. The Jews, even the superficial ones at that time, would not dare sacrifice and eat the Passover Lamb if the leavening yeast had not been carefully removed from their homes first. In the same way believers shouldn’t let the leaven of old sinful habits remain when they partake of Christ.
When we rest in his work of grace, the old leaven needs to be replaced with things that honor God. In place of the old ways of immorality and apathy about it, we should fill our hearts with the bread of God’s revealed truth. We should satisfy our hunger so much with the good and right things that we have no appetite left for the old ways.
there must be a separation from the unrepentant.
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.”
Evidently, Paul had written a letter before this. There’s nothing in the earlier part of this Epistle he could be referring to. Some think this might refer to a letter to Corinth which was not preserved in Scripture.
It’s also possible that he’s referring to his two letters to Thessalonica. Paul was in Corinth when he wrote them, so he might have made a copy for the Corinthians to read too. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul wrote, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” The Greek word for “keep away” (“stellesthai” – ςτελλεσθαι) means “to avoid” or “to keep away from”.
And in 2 Thessalonians 3:14 Paul wrote, “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.” The original word for “nothing to do with” (“sunanamignusthai” – συναναμιγνυσθαι) means, “mingle, associate, mix together”. It’s the exact same expression he uses here in 1 Corinthians 5:9.
Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to misunderstand what he’d written before, or to misapply it. He did not want the manipulative teachers in the church to twist what he said as if it only applied to those outside the church.
Those outside the church, who were never admitted by profession of faith and by submission to the covenant sign of baptism, are not under the church’s authority. There is nothing the church has a right to exclude them from. They are in the hands of God to deal with them by the civil authorities, and by his own judgments. Our duty to the unsaved in the world is not to withdraw from them. God calls us to live in the world without being of the world. As Jesus said, we are to be light to the world, and salt to the earth. Paul did not mean we should withdraw to become an isolated culture of our own.
He was talking about how we should deal with a person who claimed to be a brother. This sinner was a member of the Corinthian Church, and no one challenged him. The dangerous teachers in Corinth were excusing the sin of incest in this case.
Paul was warning the church that they needed to deal with members who persist in immorality. If we faithfully and lovingly follow the steps in Matthew 18, as we saw in the previous study;
- We first try to counsel and encourage such a person privately as friends.
- If that does not help we discretely get someone else to help us convince them.
- If that fails the church represented by its Elders tries to get them to abandon their sins.
But when all this fails and the person rejects God’s ways and refuses to repent the church must take the final step of removing the person from membership.
The time had come to disassociate from this unruly brother. Since the person involved had already been confronted and persisted in his sin, and there was no one challenging the charges, it was time for the church to take the final step of excommunication.
This separation involves the whole church. It wasn’t just about his formal membership. The people were not to fellowship with him in the same way as if nothing had changed. It’s never easy to disassociate from those who were once part of our church family, even when they get involved with harmful beliefs and immoral habits. But it would be cruel to encourage them or let them think their sin was unimportant. It’s not unloving to withdraw from them. It’s one of the most loving things to do.
This isn’t personal shunning. Nobody has biblical authority to decide on their own to disassociate. But when the church judges them after the steps of Matthew 18 have been exhausted, it would be unkind to act as if nothing had changed. This is the method God commands and promises to bless. To avoid this hard process is to openly defy the direct teaching of God’s word.
This passage together with what Jesus taught in Matthew 18 shows 3 reasons for disassociating:
First: excommunication shows them the severity of their sins. It points out that their obedience is to the kingdom of Satan, rather than to Christ’s Kingdom. The hope is that by this serious action the person will come to his senses and repent. Restoration is always central in the discipline of an erring church member.
Second: By removing the incorrigible sinner the reputation of the church is preserved. No one should be able to point to the church as place where sin is hypocritically excused.
Third: By removing those who refuse to submit to God’s ways and to the authority of his church, a bad influence is removed from the congregation that could infect it’s weak members. If not removed, they would be like a contaminating leaven in the bread of the church.
The attitude we have toward excommunicated sinners is not the same as toward the world.
On the one hand, we treat the excommunicant in a way similar to how we treat the unsaved:
- We should treat them evangelistically, to lovingly call on them to come repentantly to Christ.
- We are to be nice to them and show the fruit of the Holy Spirit toward them.
- We have no business treating them with condescending pride or hatred.
On the other hand, there is a difference. We do not treat them exactly as we do the unsaved. These former members bear the sign of God’s Covenant; they were baptized. Just as with the circumcised of the Old Testament, this sign isn’t to be worn casually. Those marked out as Christ’s, but who consistently live as if they were still lost, bring disgrace on the church and confuse the purity God commands of us. There is always sin and imperfection in every Christian and in every church. But believers help one another deal with their sins, and encourage them to repent of it.
When church members persist in sin, and refuse to stop or to repent, they bear Christ’s name in disgrace. Therefore, we need to make it clear to them and to the world, that they no longer represent the church or show the work of Christ in their lives.
No one who is truly born-again can lose that eternal salvation. But we don’t judge the heart. God calls his church to look at the profession of faith and the fruits of the person’s life to determine if they should be considered part of God’s Kingdom on earth and admitted to the sacraments Jesus gave for his people.
When a person is put out of the church, we are not even to eat with him. He does not mean that there is some mystical contamination of their dishes, cups, or food like the Pharisees believed about the uncleanness of the Gentiles. But there is some sense in which fellowship around food is forbidden here in God’s word.
Some think it refers to not letting them join us in the Lord’s Supper. But that is included in the judgment of the Elders. That is what excommunication means. The warning here seems to go beyond this. It has to do with how the individual members of the church should treat the guilty person. Some limit this to fellowship meals sponsored by the church. But there does not seem to be anything in the context here that limits it that way.
So, taking it along with the other warnings in Scripture, it seems to mean that even in social contacts they must be clearly distinguished from the body of Christ. We should not sit down to fellowship around the table as if they were brothers in Christ. We treat them as if they were in need of salvation. But even worse than those who never confessed Christ, these have committed a deeper offense since they bear the covenant sign in disgrace. And if allowed to continue as part of the church family they bring in their spiritual subterfuge.
This is the leaven that needs to be removed. There is the leaven of those who commit outrageous sins without repentance, and of those who were urging them to be tolerant allowing these sins to be overlooked by the church.
There is a different kind of tolerance that should be in the hearts of God’s people. Instead of the world’s permissive tolerance that diminishes the offensiveness of sin. There ought to be an evangelical tolerance toward those unsubmissive to Christ.
- We humbly remember that they are the same as we would be aside from God’s grace. So there is no room for arrogance, only a cause for teaching, encouraging, and prayer.
- We lovingly urge them to repent and to come to Christ in submission to his authority.
On this basis we are there to humbly minister the gospel when the opportunity comes. But there must be no identifying such people with the church as if they were still part of it.
To be successful, this separation must be carried out consistently. When a person is removed from the church because of his unrepentance and rebellion, the other members need to support the judgment so that it does not seem trivial. All loving discipline is supposed to be hard on the person being corrected. Hebrews 12 is a classic passage about God’s principles of discipline. In verse 11 it says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
It’s not noble to ignore and enable sin in the church. This infectious leaven can destroy the testimony of a church to the world, and it can bring in bad influences where it can spread throughout the congregation.
teach us all some important things:
Bearing the sign of God’s covenant is not something to be taken lightly. We need to remember what it represents to us, to God, and to the world. When baptized members of Christ’s church persist in sin and refuse to repent, they dishonor the holy covenant they are called to promote.
And when we see others in the church who are comfortable living ungodly lives, we need to wisely, humbly, and lovingly do all we can to restore them.
There is a danger if we neglect our duty to preserve the peace and purity of the church. All communicant members of our churches (PCA) have publicly and before God promised to promote its peace and purity in the 5th membership vow.
The leaven of false teachings or immoral behaviors should never be overlooked. If we become aware of it, we need to personally and privately try to restore this person. If we do not succeed we need to get someone else to discretely help them. If this still doesn’t work, we need to report it privately to the church Session for their help. If that does not restore them, they must be removed from the church family until they repent. We all should support that judgment for the sake of restoring them as God commands us. And if they never repent, the church has been helped by removing a dangerous influence on us, our children, and those who come to worship and learn with us.
We can do our part to avoid it happening, by faithfully make use of the means God provides We diligently study God’s word to know what it says, and to recognize sin and doctrinal errors. We sincerely pray throughout every day for God’s strength and forgiveness. We attentively engage in every part of Christian Worship, specially regarding the Sacraments. And we faithfully do all we can to encourage one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
The church will never be perfectly free from sin. But we can be busy cleaning out the leaven. Infection needs attention. It should never be ignored: both the medical and the spiritual kind. Infections in our body should be cured, and in extreme cases the damaged part removed.
It’s the same with these spiritual infections. We first remove it from our own lives, and lovingly help others to overcome its poison, and when needed, we separate the unrepentant from the church for their own sake, for the sake of Christ’s name, and for the spiritual health of the spiritual family.
May God help us all to live pure and holy lives for the glory of Christ, and for the spiritual health of all those around us redeemed by grace alone.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)