Church Discipline: Taking Sin Seriously (1 Cor. 5:1-13)
When a friend’s car began to behave in a strange manner, I volunteered to bring it home to take a look at it. I took my daughter, Jenny, and a friend by this fellow’s house and exchanged cars with him, which meant I had to drive his car past the girls’ school on the way home. Just as we approached the school, the car began to behave very badly, missing and backfiring noisily so that we sounded like a very troubled version of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang! As we passed by the school, I looked back in the mirror just in time to see my daughter and her friend, without any signal, dive down into the seat. They did not want anyone to see them in that old, sickly car. The car was no status symbol—I would have ducked myself, but someone had to drive.
If likened to an automobile, the church at Corinth is a wreck. The engine barely runs (on just a few cylinders), the transmission slips, and the wheels are about to fall off. The irony is that the Corinthians drive about in this car with heads held high. They are proud of their car (church), and they let everyone know it.
In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul introduces a shameful problem in the church. The Corinthians proudly attach themselves to certain leaders, whose teaching seems to disclose a “wisdom” not known or taught by other teachers, and certainly not by Paul or his fellow-apostles. These cliques and factions are undermining the unity of the church and are a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In chapters 5 and 6, Paul calls attention to two other problems plaguing the church: immorality and lawsuits.
Chapter 5 is not actually about the immorality of one church member, as much as it is about the pride and passivity of the entire church in response to this sinner. It is not until the end of chapter 6 (verses 12-20) that Paul exposes the evil of immorality. We see then that chapters 5 and 6 are a unit. Chapter 5 introduces the matter of immorality and the obligation of the church to exercise discipline. Chapter 6 takes up the issue of Christians taking each other to law courts (verses 1-11), and then concludes with Paul’s teaching on immorality.
We might look at chapters 1-6 in this way. Chapters 1-4 address “in house” sin, sins that are not recognized or regarded by the unsaved. These first four chapters speak of divisions which are neither biblical nor godly, those based upon leaders, pride, human wisdom, and power. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with sins which are being practiced in public, while the world looks on in amazement. Chapter 5 exposes a situation in which the Corinthians should divide; that is, they should separate themselves from one who professes to be saved, but who is living in sin. Not only those in Corinth, but others elsewhere are aware of the immorality of this man in the Corinthian church, and even the pagans are shocked. In the first 11 verses of chapter 6, Paul shows how unholy divisions have been taken into the public view, when believers are taking each other to court to settle their differences. In verses 12-20, Paul returns to the issue of immorality to show why this is such a great evil.
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.
Even though far removed from the Corinthians, news reaches Paul of immorality in the church. Paul’s introductory words, “It is actually reported…,” are instructive. The translation “actually” expresses Paul’s shock and dismay. But the same term is rendered “commonly” in the King James Version. The emphasis here falls on the fact that the immorality in the Corinthian church is common knowledge. Thus, the New Jerusalem Bible renders Paul’s words, “I have been told as an undoubted fact.…” I am inclined to think Paul intends us to get both of these nuances. Paul is shocked that immorality is taking place in the church, and that this fact is such common knowledge that no one doubts it.
It is bad enough that Paul hears of immorality in the Corinthian church, but what Paul has yet to say is even more disturbing. While it is possible, even likely, that immorality is commonplace in the church, Paul turns to a specific instance. It seems that this is a “worst case scenario;” that is, there are other cases of immorality in the church which may have been known to Paul, but the specific instance he refers to is the situation in which a son has taken his father’s wife. Paul’s words seem to inform us that this is not a “one night fling,” because he says, “someone has his father’s wife.” The sin is still going on as Paul writes! Whether or not the father is alive is unclear. Whether this man is married to his father’s wife is also not clearly indicated. Neither are we told that the woman is a professing Christian. We do know that Paul does not instruct the church to cast the woman out, but only the man. It is very clear that a man is living immorally with his father’s wife, something which would be shocking to an Old Testament saint (Leviticus 18:8; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20), something which was forbidden by the apostles (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), and something which is considered taboo by the pagan Corinthians.
And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst.
The sin of this one man is but the tip of the iceberg. Other cases of immorality (acceptable to the Gentiles!) can no doubt be revealed. But while Paul is distressed by the sin of this one man, he is even more disturbed by the sinful response of the church. They have “become arrogant,” and at the same time, are virtually doing nothing to correct this matter. Paul is distressed by the arrogance of the saints at Corinth. We have already been told of their arrogance in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. Now Paul speaks of it in relationship to this case of immorality.
We could understand this arrogance in relation to this sin in the church in several ways:
First, the Corinthians may be proud of this man’s sin. In the secular world, this “pride in sin” is evidenced by those who parade their sins publicly on television talk shows. Something similar may be happening at Corinth. Remember that in the pagan religions of Corinth, immorality was practiced as a part of their heathen “worship.” The Corinthians could have redefined the rules so that this sinful act is looked upon as enlightened Christianity. Do you think this suggestion is groundless? I encourage you to read about the false teachers in 2 Peter and Jude and to read the accounts of the teaching and lifestyle of David Koresh on his compound just an hour’s drive from Dallas, Texas.
Second, the Corinthians might be puffed up and proud, not because of this man’s sin, but because of the “loving way in which they deal with him.” In this therapeutic age when the church is often looked upon more as a “support group” than a “holy temple,” church members refuse to discipline members and continue to embrace sinning saints, even when it is clear they have no intention of repenting of their sins, and even when they publicly persist in their sinful ways. If this is the case in Corinth, they would love the expression of our day, “unconditional acceptance.” I have never seen this expression in the Bible, but I often hear it on the lips of Christians. It is a banner some hold high. It is a banner some hold with pride.
Third, the Corinthians may be proud and arrogant, not because of this sin or their response to it, but in spite of this sin. We have already been informed about the pride of the Corinthians. Of what are they so proud? Well, they take pride in their leaders, in their message, and in their methods. They take pride in their “wisdom,” a wisdom which is worldly that looks down on the simple message of Christ crucified and the apostles who proclaim it. It may just be that these saints are so proud that they cannot or will not acknowledge or act upon the sins which are public and undeniable. J. B. Phillips seems to understand the Corinthians’ pride in this way, for he renders Paul’s words, “Are you still proud of your church?” The New English Bible reads, “And you can still be proud of yourselves!” Pride is the result of turning from the truth. Pride keeps one from seeing the truth. The Corinthians maintain an attitude of pride when the situation should produce mourning.
The last part of verse 2 indicates that while the Corinthians should excommunicate this man from the church, they have not done so. Paul also gives us insight into why the Corinthians do not act and what would change this. These saints are proud when they should be mourning. Pride is what keeps the church from expelling the wayward and willful saint. Mourning is what should be taking place in the church, and if it does, the saints will expel the immoral man.
When my wife has gone to school for the day, I am left at home alone. Our cats know that when my wife leaves and the front door closes, a whole new set of rules are in place. Our cats love to jump up on the table. If there is a clothes basket filled with clothes, so much the better. What they really love is a basket full of warm clothes, just out of the drier. I almost never make the cats get down. When I do, it is because Jeannette is home. But those cats look so cute all curled up in a clothes basket. I’m proud of our cats, and that is why I don’t correct them, even though I know that what they are doing is wrong.
Now, if one of our cats broke its back and was in terrible pain, Jeannette and I would mourn. We would be deeply saddened by this malady. And even though it would break our hearts, we would take him to the vet and have him put to sleep. I do not seek to correct that in which I take pride. I do seek to correct any situation which causes me to mourn. Sin should cause the Corinthians to mourn, but it does not. Instead, as strange as it may seem, these saints continue to be puffed up with pride. One can hardly expect a proud church to commence the painful process of correction. At this point, Paul simply says that this person should be removed from their midst. In the next verses, we shall see the form that Paul expects correction to take, the correction in which Paul himself is a participant.
3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
What a great excuse Paul has for not getting involved in this ugly situation in Corinth. After all, he is far removed. What can he do? Well for one thing, Paul can write a letter. For another, he can act even from a distance. Paul describes the discipline process in verses 3-5, and he speaks of himself as an active participant. He thereby sets the example and hopes the Corinthians will follow.
Paul may be physically absent, but he is never spiritually absent. This is true not only of the Corinthian church, but of the other churches (see Colossians 2:5). Paul’s references to his prayers (see Romans 1:9; Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:3-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, etc.) and his personal knowledge of people in churches where he has never yet visited (e.g. Romans 16) are indicative of his spiritual presence beyond his physical local church. Many of the Corinthians are Paul’s spiritual children (see 4:14-16). He not only writes to them, but he makes every effort to obtain reports of how they are coming along. When word of problems in Corinth reaches Paul, he does not allow his absence to keep him from doing the right thing. He is with these saints in spirit, and so while the Corinthians have not yet done anything to correct the situation, Paul informs them that he has taken action. He has already acted as though he were present. He has done what he would do if he were present, and what those who are present should do. In following Paul’s example, they will carry out the kind of discipline which the Scriptures require.
15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 “And 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-gatherer. 18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:15-20; see also Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Titus 3:10-11).
This text in Matthew 18 is our Lord’s instructions to His disciples—the apostles—among whom Paul has been added as the replacement of Judas. What our Lord commanded the apostles, they were to instruct the churches, so that church discipline would be an on-going practice throughout the history of the church. More than any other text, Matthew 18 spells out the process of discipline. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 closely parallel those of our Lord. Let us consider some of the key elements of church discipline, as taught by our Lord and reiterated by Paul in our text.
(1) Church discipline is a process. Here, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks of the final step of discipline. Matthew 18 spells out the full process of church discipline, from the private rebuke of a single saint, to the collective expulsion from the congregation by the whole church. The reason Paul deals only with the last step of this process in 1 Corinthians 5 is that the willful rebellion of the sinner is evident, and his sin has already become public knowledge. Discipline must be as public as the sin.
(2) Church discipline is the obligation of the whole church. Paul speaks of the discipline process taking place when “you are assembled.” Our Lord instructed that the matter be told “to the church” (Matthew 18:17). In the Matthew text, it is assumed that this will happen after the wayward individual has been privately confronted. In the case of the immoral man in the church at Corinth, the matter has already become a matter of public knowledge. Consequently, the correction must be as public as the sin. We see in the Scriptures that the final step of discipline is taken by the entire church, when they have assembled. The Lord promises His special presence when such a gathering is assembled for discipline:
19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:19-20).
How often this text is misapplied, as though our Lord is referring to just any gathering of two or three saints. In the context, the gathering of but two or three is sufficient for the Lord to be specially present in this most difficult duty.
(3) Church discipline involves all of the local church, and it has implications for the church at large. Paul calls for the whole Corinthian church to be involved. This is a most difficult assignment, for the Corinthian church is divided into various factions that seem unable to work together on anything. Church discipline should be exercised in unity. But Paul goes even further than requiring the whole church to participate in this act of discipline. Paul, acting with the church in this matter, strongly implies that church discipline should be exercised more generally, by all the churches. In our day of great mobility and many churches to attend, someone who is under discipline usually finds it easy to simply attend elsewhere. It seems that word of discipline needs to be communicated to other churches, and that other churches have an obligation to honor that act of discipline if the wayward party attempts to “move his membership” to that church. It also suggests that newcomers to any church should be interviewed, to be certain that they are not under discipline elsewhere.
(4) Church discipline is to be done in the name and in the power of our Lord. The church acts on behalf of the Lord in carrying out discipline. This is why the Lord’s presence is promised in discipline. This is why Paul speaks of acting “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and in “the power of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4). We act on God’s behalf, and thus when we act, God acts as well (see Matthew 18:18-19).
(5) Church discipline delivers the sinner into the power of Satan. Church discipline expels the wayward and unrepentant saint from the church, from participating in its worship (i.e., the Lord’s Table), and from fellowship with individuals or small groups of believers. In so doing, the sinning saint not only loses the positive benefits of being a part of the church body, but is placed in the very dangerous position of being vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. In Paul’s words, the one who is disciplined is “delivered to Satan” (see also 1 Timothy 1:20). Satan is a destroyer, a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (see 1 Peter 5:8). When the church expels a wayward member, that person is given over to Satan, knowing that he delights in destruction. It is not a pretty picture, nor is it something any church should take lightly. When we deliver one over to Satan, we are simply giving the unrepentant Christian what he has chosen. To remain in sin is to be in the bondage of Satan (2 Timothy 2:24-26). To be disciplined is simply to hand that one over fully to Satan. Discipline confirms a choice that the sinner has already made.
(6) While Satan has the power to destroy the flesh, he does not have the authority to destroy the spirit. At Satan’s request, he was given the authority to attack Job, but this authority has always had boundaries. Given God’s permission, Satan could do so much to Job and no more (see Job 1:12; 2:6). Satan does not have the power to spiritually destroy one who is saved by the blood of Jesus Christ:
27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. 29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).
Satan’s destructive powers and desires extend only as far as the flesh:
“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
“And the nations were enraged, and Thy wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to give their reward to Thy bond-servants the prophets and to the saints and to those who fear Thy name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18).
(7) Church discipline is only for those who are saints or for those who profess to be saints. Paul makes it very clear in verses 12 and 13 that church discipline is for those who are inside the church, and not for those who are outside. The Lord makes the same point in Matthew 18:15, where He begins, “If your brother sins. …” The final outcome of church discipline is that a believer who willfully remains in sin is treated as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer (18:17). Association with the believer under discipline is to be terminated, but he is still to be regarded as a brother, and not as an enemy (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
(8) Church discipline is not a final judgment which condemns one to eternal hell, but one which has the goal of the sinner’s repentance and final salvation. Church discipline is to be exercised for the highest good of the sinning saint. Consequently, Paul makes it very clear that “turning one over to Satan” in church discipline is not a final act of condemnation, but an action taken with a view to the wayward saint’s repentance from sin in this life, or at least his spiritual salvation in the next. Discipline is a severe mercy, which is painful to those who discipline, and to the one disciplined. It is mercy in that it seeks the highest good of the wayward saint.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7 Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
In verse 2, Paul indicates that the response of the Corinthians to this great sin is just the opposite of what it should be. They should mourn and then remove this one from their midst. Instead they are puffed up with pride and do nothing about this evil. Paul wants to be absolutely clear that the arrogance of the Corinthians is not good. Why not? Because it is destructive. We surely know it is harmful to the man living in sin. But now Paul seeks to show us how destructive failing to deal with sin is to the church. He does so by an Old Testament ritual, which was fulfilled in Christ, but also has much application to the New Testament saint.
Paul turns his readers to imagery of leaven, and the way a little bit of leaven can change the whole lump of dough in which it is found. The sinner whom the Corinthians embrace and fail to put out of the church is likened to a little leaven placed in a lump of dough. If left there for long, it changes the whole batch of dough. If this sinner is allowed to remain in the fellowship of the saints at Corinth, he will contaminate the entire church, just as Achan brought harm to the entire nation of Israel (see Joshua 7). By removing this man from their midst, the church at Corinth not only seeks the sinner’s restoration, they also promote their own purity.
Now Paul begins to fine tune this leaven and lump analogy, turning to a specific celebration in the Old Testament. Paul reminds his readers of the feast of unleavened bread, which was to begin immediately after the Passover lamb was sacrificed:
1 “Observe the month of Abib and celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 “And you shall sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God from the flock and the herd, in the place where the Lord chooses to establish His name. 3 “You shall not eat leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), in order that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. 4 “For seven days no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory, and none of the flesh which you sacrifice on the evening of the first day shall remain overnight until morning” (Deuteronomy 16:1-4).
After the Passover was celebrated, the Feast of Unleavened Bread commenced. The Israelites were to go throughout their dwellings, seeking to find any leaven and remove it. They were to eat unleavened bread. Leaven is a symbol of sin, and the Passover lamb was a prophetic foreshadowing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul calls Him “Christ our Passover” (verse 7) and reminds us that He has been sacrificed. If Christ is our Passover and He has been sacrificed, what is to follow, given the Old Testament prototype? The leaven is to be removed. Since Christ has been sacrificed, we are not to harbor sin in our lives, but to seek to identify sin and remove it. Week after week when we celebrate the Lord’s Table, we are commemorating the fulfillment of Passover. This is no mere ritual; it is a reminder of what should follow the sacrifice of the Lamb—cleansing in the camp! The leaven in the Corinthian church (the camp) is this sinner. He must be removed. What better time and place is there than in the meeting of the church, where the Lord’s Table is celebrated?
Paul is not content to allow us to think that Christ’s atoning death, celebrated at the Lord’s Table, should only be applied to this man and his expulsion from the church. In verse 8, Paul broadens the application, indicating other forms of “leaven” which are all too evident in the church. The “old leaven” (this sinner who needs to be expelled) and the “new leaven,” that of malice and wickedness, must be put away. Malice and wickedness refers to that whole spectrum of “sacred sins” which are harbored and even nurtured in the church. They must go, and in their place there should be the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (verse 8). We are to put off the hypocrisy and the false wisdom we have embraced and return to purity of motivation and of doctrine.
9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler— not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
This is not the first letter Paul has written to the Corinthians. Paul indicates in verse 9 that he has previously written to the Corinthians on the subject of separation. In that first letter, he instructs them not to associate with immoral people. Paul’s previous instructions include unbelieving sinners of all kinds, those who are immoral, those who are covetous, those who swindle, and those who are idolaters. The Corinthians either misunderstand or twist Paul’s words to mean something other than what Paul intends. They, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, equate holiness with separation from unbelievers. When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul is not instructing them to avoid contact with unbelievers. There is no way to avoid contact with unsaved sinners, other than by means of death. The only way to avoid “the world” is not to live in the world. Besides this, our task is not to avoid sinners, but to live among them in such a way as to reveal Christ to them:
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 “Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a HOLY NATION, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:9-12).
The Christian must live in the world and rub shoulders with it in order to be a witness to the lost. What a Christian cannot do is participate with the world in sin. We are to be in the world, but we are to be unlike the world, living out the life of Christ as lights in a dark place:
3 But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; 4 and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not be partakers with them; 8 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; 12 for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. 13 But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14 For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:3-14).
Paul does not mean for the Corinthians to try to keep the church out of the world, but to keep the world out of the church. He means that those who profess to be saved must live like one who is saved. A person should not be embraced as a believer whose profession and practice are in contradiction. The Corinthians are not to associate with a person claiming to be a Christian, who continues to live in sin. Immorality is not the only basis for church discipline; there is also covetousness, idolatry, slanderous speech, drunkenness, or swindling. Fellowship with someone who falls into this category is forbidden. This does not simply mean that this person is excommunicated from the meeting(s) of the church; it also means that individual believers must withdraw any manifestations of fellowship. This includes the sharing of a meal, which in biblical times was an intimate act of fellowship (see Revelation 3:20).
Church discipline is a form of judging, a form which is not only permitted but required. Outsiders are not a proper sphere of judgment, but those who profess Christ are to be scrutinized so far as their conduct is concerned. God will judge unbelievers at the proper time. Some unbelievers will be saved by the grace of God and, like us, escape the wrath of God through faith in Christ. Others will be judged of God, but this is not our responsibility. The bottom line for the Corinthians is that they must put this immoral man out of their church.
This last expression, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves,” is virtually a quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7 from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament:
2 “If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, by transgressing His covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded, 4 and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. And behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed, to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death. 6 “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 17:2-7, emphasis mine).
The expression is similar to that found elsewhere in the Old Testament:
7 “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 24:7).
What Paul calls for in the New Testament church is not significantly different from what Moses communicated to the nation Israel. After all, in the Old Testament, God dwelt in the midst of His people, and thus the Israelites were required to remove sin and sinners from their midst. In the New Testament, Paul informs the Corinthians that God now indwells His temple, the church. They too must remove sin from their midst, because a holy God indwells them. In both cases, it is recognized that removing the sinner may include death. This is a most serious step, one which we will take only when we take sin and God’s commandments seriously.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 are sobering. They are meant to be. He has already written, “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Now, the Corinthians are reminded of their duty to play a part in this process by removing the wayward and willful sinner from their midst. Our text raises a number of issues. Allow me to summarize some of them.
Whatever happened to sin? Years ago, a secular psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin. Even this man realizes that evils have become too “psychologized,” and that a simple diagnosis of “sin” is needed. I can imagine the kinds of diagnosis we would have today for the malady of this Corinthian man, living with his father’s wife. We could delve into his past and probably find some excuse for “abuse.” Some would argue that he must have some kind of genetic predisposition (biological predestination?) for this kind of conduct. Others would argue that his conduct is normal, and that the problem in the church is with narrow-minded church members. Those who buy into the therapeutic mentality would prescribe long, intensive (and expensive) therapy. Many, I am sure, would tell us that this man’s problem is “poor self-esteem.” The cure is for him to “feel better about himself.” This would certainly mean that church discipline would be considered harmful, rather than helpful. For Paul, the diagnosis is simple, and so is the prescription. The problem is the sin of immorality, and the prescription is to remove him from the church. When the Bible is the standard for conduct, and it is viewed and used for defining sin and righteousness, the diagnosis of this man’s problem is not that difficult.
Whatever happened to discipline (church and otherwise)? The Corinthian church fails to exercise discipline on the immoral man to whom Paul is referring. At the same time, Paul accuses the church of being arrogant. How can this be? I can think of one way. To exercise discipline is to acknowledge that you have done all that you can, and that you have failed. If we are thinking clearly as Christians, we realize that there is nothing spiritual which we can accomplish. We cannot save anyone; we can only proclaim the message of Christ crucified, and know that God, through His Spirit, will draw those to Himself whom He has chosen. We cannot bring about the sanctification of a believer. Once again, we can, as faithful stewards, do what God has given us to do, but we cannot produce the results. In Paul’s words, we may plant or water, but it is God who gives the growth.
In our arrogance, we can sometimes convince ourselves that, given enough time, we can turn someone from their sin. There is a great deal of emphasis on counseling in our culture, and even in the church. There is a place for counsel, but we often give ourselves and our system of counseling too much credit. We don’t want to admit failure, and so we refuse to take that final step of “removing the wicked person from ourselves.” Just a little more time, we suppose, and we can correct this person’s thinking. Church discipline is based upon the recognition that we have done what we can in the context of the church, and that God can turn that wayward person to repentance apart from us and apart from our ministry, whether that be teaching, or helps, or exhortation.
The church has unconsciously begun to think of itself as a “support group.” There are no doubt some senses in which we do function as a “support group.” But the support group mentality is a very dangerous one. Support groups can cause individuals to put their trust in “the group” rather than in God. Support groups often pride themselves for “being there,” no matter what the wayward one has done, or will do. The support group purposes to always “be there,” while the church purposes not to be there indefinitely for the one who refuses to heed a rebuke and to turn from willful sin.
The therapeutic movement within Christianity has propagated a term which, to my knowledge, is never found in the Bible. Those who frequently employ this term advocate a practice which is antithetical to the duty of exercising church discipline. The term is “unconditional acceptance” or “unconditional love.” The assumption is that we must love one another unconditionally. There is a sense in which this is true, of course. But we are not to “love” others unconditionally in terms of the way they wish to define love. To exercise discipline on a wayward saint is to love that person and to seek their highest good. To unconditionally accept that person is to never refuse to have fellowship with them, thinking which directly opposes Paul’s teaching in our text. “Pop” psychology and “pop” theology must never set aside biblical commands. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in chapter 5 end with a clear command. When called for, we will either obey this command, or we will sin.
Whatever has happened to church discipline? I have seen very little of it. Even when such discipline is taken, all too many church members are tempted to second-guess the church and to privately continue to fellowship with the one under discipline. This is a most serious matter, for if I understand the Scriptures correctly, to do so is to become a partner with that person in his or her sin.
Church discipline is one of those very clear duties of the church and of the individual Christian. Why, then, is it not practiced more often? I have previously suggested that arrogance may be one cause. I would also suggest that these days fear may now be a cause for not taking disciplinary action. We may be afraid to take a stand against sin because we are afraid of rejection. We may be afraid of appearing to be narrow and unloving. We may be unwilling to lose the friendship and the fellowship of those we love. Some church leaders are afraid of being sued for taking disciplinary action against a church member. It can and does happen. I suspect that it will happen more and more in the coming days.
Sometimes we are afraid that the work of God will be thwarted by church discipline. In several instances of which I am aware, a Christian leader was the brother in sin. That leader, when rebuked, would not repent. Sadly some faithless saints responded: “But the work that God is doing in this person is so great, we can’t afford to jeopardize it by exercising discipline.” God’s work is bigger than any man or any organization. God’s work is making sinners holy, to His glory. When a leader continues in sin, the church should discipline him publicly, as an example to all (1 Timothy 5:19-20). When any saint is placed under discipline, it serves notice to the world that the church does not accommodate sin.
Finally, the popular teachings and practices of the “church growth movement” have tended (whether consciously or unconsciously) to discourage church discipline. The church growth experts tend to measure the success of a church in terms of numerical growth. This movement seeks to attract unbelievers to the church by being “seeker-friendly,” by making unbelieving “seekers” (here is an oxymoron—see Romans 3:10-11; Ephesians 2:1-3) feel comfortable with the church and with the Christian message. How can this possibly be in the light of Paul’s teaching in chapters 1 and 2? The message of the cross is foolish. Divine truth concerning God is incomprehensible to the lost. Men and women are not saved by getting comfortable with God, but by becoming uncomfortable by the conviction of the Holy Spirit that they are sinners, that God is righteous, and that judgment awaits the sinner (John 16:7-11). When God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for their deception, the unbelieving world was not comfortable; in fact, it caused them to stay away from the church. Nevertheless, many were being saved (see Acts 5:11-16). Sinful men should not and cannot be comfortable in the presence of a holy God, save through the cleansing of their sins by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Men and women cannot come to faith without first becoming uncomfortable about their sin and God’s judgment. That is what being saved is all about—being saved from the wrath of God upon sinners.
Our duty to discipline provides a strong incentive for preventative action. We all know these words addressed to parents in the Old Testament:
6 “And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
We know this command comes from the Lord, and that we, as parents, should keep it. The following command is further motivation to obey the command to teach our children the way of the Lord:
18 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. 20 “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
If we lived in Old Testament times, and knew that we must stone our own child for being disobedient and rebellious, it would give us good reason to be diligent in performing those duties aimed at preventing such rebellion and disobedience in our children. Parents today—Christian parents—do not even spank their children. Many of them are proud of this fact, as though such discipline is brutal and primitive. It does not matter that the Scriptures teach us that spanking our children is one55 means of dealing with sin. Spanking provides a lesson that informs our children that sin has very real, very painful consequences. Hell, my Christian friend, is not going to be a “time out.” There may be occasions when a “time out” is appropriate, but there are also times when painful physical consequences are experienced. No, I do not advocate beating a child. No, I do not defend those who abuse their children. Yes, there is a time to spank, and most of us have forgotten when it is. If we will not spank a wayward child, when would we possibly “deliver someone over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh”?
Now for the bottom line. Why would we discipline a wayward saint, when we will not discipline ourselves? I find myself very passive and quiet about those sins in others which are present in my life as well. As we shall soon see in 1 Corinthians (e.g., chapter 9), the Corinthians have very little self-discipline. This being the case, why would we expect this church to be strong on discipline? If we would discipline others, we must first discipline ourselves. This discipline is not that which comes only from within ourselves (see Colossians 2:20-23), but which comes from the Spirit of God (see 2 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 1:4-7).
In the past, I have been involved in prison ministry, and on more than one occasion I have seen a commitment to take sin seriously. I was told of one occasion when a particular inmate was acting inappropriately toward a young woman volunteer, who came with a group to minister to the inmates. A number of these inmates were new Christians, who were serious about their own Christian walk and about obeying the Lord Jesus. They talked among themselves about this one inmate, who was acting inappropriately. They talked about 1 Corinthians 5, and concluded that they should “discipline” the sinning inmate. Given their violent past and their lack of depth in the Scriptures, they thought this man should be put to death and were actually ready to do it. Fortunately, a more mature Christian helped them come to a more accurate understanding of church discipline. But the fact is that these men were serious about sin and about obeying the Scriptures. Would that you and I were as serious about sin as they were! We must begin by taking up our cross, by mortifying the flesh daily. Then, and only then, will we be willing and able to deal with sin in the lives of others.
God takes sin seriously. That is why the cross of Calvary was necessary. God took our sin so seriously that He sent His Son to die in our place, to suffer the punishment for our sins. The good news of the gospel is that while God takes our sin seriously, and while our sin must be judged, He has judged our sins in Christ. To enter into this forgiveness, all we need do is to receive the gift of salvation which God offers to us by faith in His Son. When we see how seriously God has taken our sins, we see how serious we must be about sin as well.
55 Listen well. I am not saying that spanking is the only way to deal with disobedient children. I am saying, on the basis of the Word of God, that it is one means of doing so. To reject this means entirely is as wrong as constantly resorting to spanking as the only way to deal with children. Let us not err in either direction.