RPM, Volume 12, Number 51, December 19 to December 25, 2010

1 Corinthians 5:1-5

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, picking up at Chapter 5, verse 1 and working through to verse 5 of that same chapter. If you are new to this series, let me begin our time by summarizing what we've seen so far in this letter.

Paul's letter to the Corinthians is a letter to a church troubled by all sorts of issues - some of which they are aware and others of which they, apparently, are NOT aware of, partly because of their immaturity and partly because they have been led astray by some unhelpful teaching and unwise leadership.

The first issue which Paul addressed in this letter was the matter of DIVISION within the church, division which was caused by a number of factors, mostly centering around their understanding of wisdom and leadership. After dealing with this largely INTERNAL matter which was affecting their unity and witness, Paul moves in chapter 5 and 6 to discussing several EXTERNAL matters which were not simply an "in house", family squabble but which were known, and no doubt gossiped about, in the surrounding community and which affected their purity and witness. While the three issues raised within chapters 5 and 6 are not the same, they are nevertheless not entirely separate and, as we shall see over the next few weeks, Lord willing, they do have some things in common. With that as a very brief introduction, let me pray and we'll begin....

(Read 1 Cor. 5:1-13)

The Corinthian Church had a problem. The problem related to a matter of sexual immorality that was being practiced by someone in the congregation. Now, before we look at what the problem itself was, I think it is important to simply stop and recognize that Paul is describing what is happening as immorality. In other words, Paul is clearly operating from a position which holds that there are certain behaviors which ARE acceptable for those who call themselves Christians AND there are certain behaviors - and in this case sexual behaviors - which are NOT acceptable for those who call themselves Christians.

Now where does Paul get such an idea from? Well, as you may remember, Paul is a Jewish man who grew up under the instruction of some of the finest teaching available on God's Word to his people Israel, recorded in what we know as the Old Testament. Even though these same teachers did not understand a great deal about their own Scriptures - specifically as they related to Jesus Christ - they nevertheless would have communicated faithfully to Paul many things about the history of God's dealings with the nation of Israel.

In particular, they would have surely focused on the first five books of the Old Testament - i.e., those Scriptures that were authored by/through Moses, which includes books such as Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Now these books contain a great deal of instruction for God's people which was related, largely, to how they were to conduct themselves in a way which gave honor to God and which set them apart - i.e., made them "holy" and distinct from the beliefs and practices of the rest of the world.

One area of conduct which God spoke to them about, through Moses, was the whole area of sex and, specifically, which forms or degrees of sexual relationships were appropriate and which forms or degrees of relationship were out of bounds. So, for example, in Deuteronomy 27:22-23 it says, "Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.... Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law." In verse 20 it says, "Cursed be anyone who lies with his father's wife, because he has uncovered his father's nakedness...." In other words, he has shamed his father which is simply an expansion of what is said in verse 16 of the same chapter, "Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother...." which itself, is an echo of Ham's sin against his father, Noah, in Genesis 9:20-27.

Now, the thing that I want you to see in all of this is not simply that God has always had certain sexual patterns which were to be upheld by His people, nor do I simply want you to see the Old Testament basis for Paul's comments in 1 Cor. 5 - though I DO want you to see those things. But what I want you also to see is what this says about how Paul viewed the Corinthian congregation - which, if you will remember, was largely composed of persons from a non-Jewish background.

In other words, what I want you to see is that Paul saw a direct continuity between the ethnic nation of Israel, many centuries before, in the Old Testament - he saw a direct continuity between those people AND the church - the people of God - in his own day. God's standards, God's promises, and God's purposes which were expressed in terms of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament are now the inheritance and birthright of God's new nation - the Church. Now, to be sure, the Corinthians had not yet fully grasped this reality, but there is no question that this was something that Paul desperately wanted them to grab a hold of.

Now, friends, that has tremendous implications for the Church today - too many to enumerate, but for now please notice two things about Paul's pattern of application here. Firstly, and in a more general sense, because Paul's tendency is to emphasize the continuity between God's purposes in the Old Testament and God's purposes for His Church today - that ought to affect the way we read the Bible. That is, we are not to regard the Old Testament as an interesting artifact of ancient history useful only for anecdotes and illustrative material from time to time. The Old Testament is God's Word for God's people in this and every age.

Second, and more specifically, please notice, again, HOW Paul is using God's revelation. What is Paul saying to the Corinthians? He is saying that they are to be constrained in their sexual practices by a written revelation from God that was delivered to a people and culture that was not their own and which was different to their own and which existed long centuries ago.

Hello? Does this ring any bells? Is any of this sounding familiar? The next time a professing Christian tells you that you can't expect people in the 21st century to be guided in their sexual practices and expression by something that Paul wrote to people in another culture a long time ago - you take them straight to Paul and you ask them why it was okay for him to do that very thing, but now, somehow, it is illegitimate for the church today to imitate Paul, taking the exact same approach. Friends, if you don't know it, that argument is used all the time, especially as it relates to matters of sexual preference, such as, for example, homosexuality. But don't you be taken in by that argument.

Now this is not the place or the text to talk about homosexuality and how the church should respond to that - although we DO need to talk about it and we certainly will because some important things need to be said about how we must lovingly, but firmly respond to this issue which is only going to become more and more prominent in our society. Nevertheless, what I want you to see here, at the very beginning of this passage, is how Paul's manner of approaching a particular sexual issue in the Corinthian Church has a bearing on similar issues in our own day.

Now what was the problem in Corinth which had so provoked Paul to respond as he has? Simply put, the problem was "incest" or at least a form of incest. What had apparently happened was this: a man from the congregation - a professing Christian - had entered into a sexual relationship with a woman who was not a member of the congregation and who was, in fact, his own step-mother. We know that it is his stepmother because of the care with which Paul describes her as "his father's wife" rather than simply saying "his mother". Further, we can be reasonably certain that this person was not a member of the congregation because, if she was, Paul would have certainly directed some of his comments toward her and not just toward the man in the situation.

Now, as one commentator points out, sexual practices in the Corinth of Paul's day were very different to our own. As Witherington writes:

In the Greco-Roman world, extramarital sex [with mistresses or prostitutes and], indeed a wide variety of forms of non-marital sex that Jews and Christians would find aberrant, including various forms of incest, was not considered shameful.
So, on the one hand, you have to keep in mind that the people who were converts in Corinth would have grown up seeing Mom and Dad and various other family members modeling a very different view of sexuality - one which had very little restriction upon it - and they would have grown up thinking all of this was okay. This was "normal."

Then Paul shows up, God opens their eyes and ears to hear the Gospel, and they respond and begin to learn as God's Spirit works in their hearts, how very different God's people must be in the context of a godless society. And so, even though they were converted, they would have carried into their new church family a long history of accepting and even engaging in very different patterns of sexuality. As a result, this was something that was bound to be an issue in a church like Corinth, and it is something that would not go away easily. Of course, we are essentially no different, are we? We too enter into our life in Christ, carrying a lot of baggage from our past that we do not immediately or consistently or easily leave behind.

Nevertheless, even though the unbelieving Corinthian community had a very loose attitude toward sexuality, even they were offended by what was going on in the Corinthian Church - a man entering into a sexual relationship with his stepmother. Even they did not do that kind of thing.

Which leads us to consider an even greater problem in the Corinthian Church. And this is not to trivialize what was going on in Corinth - it was certainly an awful thing. But even more problematic than the sin itself - as bad as it was - is the fact that the Corinthians knew about the situation, and were not even UPSET about the situation and, in point of fact, were SHAMELESSLY admitting and speaking about and even boasting about what was going on, to other people.

Now, upon hearing something like that, some of you may be sitting there and you've just blown a circuit because you're thinking to yourself - "How could a church get itself into a situation like this? How could a church get to the point where they could embrace and even be proud of something such as this?"

Well, to answer that, let us back up a little bit. If you were here when we looked at chapter 4, you may remember how we saw that the Corinthian Church had an "over- realized eschatology" simply meaning that the Corinthians' clocks were all wrong.

Under the guidance of some false teachers, many believers in Corinth had come to accept that the end of the ages had come, that they were whole and complete, and that they would only go from strength to strength and glory to glory, that their rule and reign with Christ had already begun.

Well, combine that misconception with what Paul says in the passage before us this morning about their boasting and THEN include with that one of the Corinthian slogans which was being batted around - which Paul quotes in chapter 6, verse 12, and which we will examine later - when you put all those pieces together, you get a little bit clearer picture of a further aspect of the false teaching they were getting, namely this: the Corinthians, it would seem, had an extreme view of "spirituality" that was not balanced and which, most likely, promoted one biblical truth at the expense and, to the distortion of, other biblical truths. The Corinthians had come to see themselves as being completely liberated spiritually, from the flesh and the things of the flesh. In the Corinthian view, their spiritual nature was considered to be so distinct from their fleshly self that what happened with the one was believed to have no effect upon the other.

So, in light of that kind of thinking, one might very well engage in or continue in all kinds of sexual practices - and yet remain firm in the conviction that your standing and position with regard to God were safe and unassailable, no matter what you did with your body. So, to those who held this sort of view and were watching one of their fellow congregational members engaging in incestual behavior - such a person, from this sort of warped perspective, ought to be applauded for acting with such bold and courageous conviction.

Now, even with this kind of explanation, you may still be thinking to yourself - "Yeah, but I still find it hard to accept that a church could fall so far down in it's understanding...." Well, let us think about the situation in our own day. Have you ever heard another believer say something like this, "God's acceptance of me is unconditional and that means he has forgiven my sins, past, present and future, and that I am saved no matter what I do..." Haven't you heard people say those kinds of things? Maybe you have said it yourself.

Now, what many people mean by that kind of language - which is kind of clumsy and unhelpful from a theological standpoint - but what many people mean when they say things like that is that they are not saved by works - that God does not forgive them and receive them as his own because of something that they do. Now, if that is all that people mean by that phrasing - as confusing as it is - then that's okay. As a friend of mine says, "I'm down with that."

But, in my own experience, I have also heard people say those kinds of things in the church, and what they mean by them is precisely what the Corinthians had come to believe - that they were saved "no matter what they did" in their body and with their lives. For them salvation was this kind of eternal "get out of jail free" card that you keep in your pocket and go on to live your life as you please until you get to the end where you pull out your card, hand it to heaven's gatekeeper and waltz right in. Haven't you met people like that? I meet people like that all the time. And while they're not engaging in something as obvious as sex with their step-mothers or step-father, they might as well be and, in fact, exhibit the same sort of attitude in every other area of their lives - that what they do in this world with their lives, ultimately, doesn't matter to God.

However, friends, it DOES matter. This kind of Corinthian view that "you are saved no matter what you do" is a heinous, unbiblical, sub-Christian belief. If you have your head screwed on straight, and you understand what Paul says in places like Romans 6:1-14 or what practically the entire letter of James is devoted to saying, then you will know how wrong that sort of thinking is. The Bible nowhere teaches that "you are saved no matter what you do" - it never says that or even suggests that. True you are not saved by what you do or because of how you live but if you belong to Christ, then that will be manifestly evident in what you do and in how you are because being saved is not merely some legal declaration about your standing with relation to God but is in fact the result of a prior SPIRITUAL INVASION as God's Spirit takes up residence within you. Whenever God moves in, He always redecorates. More than that, he engages in an "extreme makeover" (apologies to HGTV). In short, He takes you just as you are. But he never leaves you just as you are.

The Corinthians, under poor leadership, had come to embrace some very damaging beliefs - beliefs which caused them to be proud and arrogant over things which should have saddened them and things which should have broken their hearts.

Well, because the Corinthians were not thinking clearly and had not dealt with matters as they should have, Paul has no recourse but to take a very hard line and demonstrate a very tough kind of love...

(Read vs 3-5 again)

Now, Paul's words here bring up the whole matter of judging and making judgments which is an important issue, but one which will be better dealt with when we look at the rest of this chapter next week. For now, and as we are fast running out of time, let me draw your attention to this act of church discipline that Paul describes for us here....

Now, even before you consider the details of what Paul says in verses 3-5, it is helpful to remember the wider biblical context and, specifically, what Jesus himself had to say about this matter of church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20. Clearly, Jesus' expectation was that this sort of thing was going to be a regular part of life in the Christian community and so he prepares his disciples, in advance, for that reality.

As a result, when you get to 1 Corinthians, and Paul's discussion about this man engaged in sexual immorality, you can see the influence of Jesus' teaching. It would seem that the man in question is one who is now at the end of the process described in Matthew 18. The impression we get is of someone who has made his peace with a particular sin and seems to have no sense of shame over his behavior and thus is not going to be responsive to the ordinary avenues of rebuke and correction. So, when a person gets to that point, to take the severe step of casting them out or "excommunicating" them is, as one commentator puts it, simply to "confirm the professing believer in a choice THEY have already made".

Now with that in mind, let's now think about a few of the details of what Paul says here which will help us to think about this matter of church discipline a little more clearly....

First, notice that the action that Paul wants the Corinthians to take - casting the man out of the church - Notice that he wants them to take this action together. He sees it as the responsibility of the whole church. "When YOU - all of you - are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus... hand this man over to Satan...." This is not just Paul's action, nor is it merely the action of a sub-group or committee. Rather, it is the responsibility of the whole church. The reason for this is because what was happening, as we shall see next week, is something that was affecting the whole church. Therefore, when a church has to take the severe step of excommunication - it needs to do so carefully, it needs to do so firmly, and it needs to be done in a way which communicates the whole church's ownership OF and commitment TO the decision.

Second, notice that one consequence of the action was to place the unrepentant person in a position of real peril. "...hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.... " Now the language of "handing someone over to Satan" has some parallels in other places in Scripture. In 1 Timothy 1:20 Paul charges Timothy to hold to faith and a good conscience and says that "...by rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme..."

Therefore, Paul's language of "handing someone over to Satan" is picturesque language for the act of excommunication BUT it is not merely picturesque. It is descriptive of something very real that is taking place when the church initiates this severe form of discipline.

You may remember in the Old Testament, during the time when the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt how, on the night before they were set free, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and spread the lamb's blood on the doorposts of their houses and then instructed them to stay inside their houses until morning. As long as they stayed within their homes, under the covering of blood, they were safe. If they were to step outside of that protective realm, they would have been in mortal danger.

This story provides the conceptual material for understanding how Paul views this process of "handing a person over to Satan." For Paul, to cast a person out of the visible covenant community was to place them in harm's way - back into the world, out from under "the covering of blood," so to speak, and into the realm of Satan. Just as stepping outside of the home on the night of the Passover would have been perilous in Moses' day, so too for a person to be set apart from the "safe house" of God's covenant community constitutes a real danger for the person in question.

Now, as for the extent of that danger - it is hard to say, but it would seem most likely that when Paul talks about the "destruction of the flesh" he does not mean this literally but is instead referring to the hope that through this severe discipline, as one commentator puts it, the man's "fleshly desires and passions will be put to death." So, the act of casting a person out, then, is one which is not merely symbolic but which, in a very real sense, places a person in harm's way and may result in real and difficult consequences for the person involved, even physical consequences.

Third, please notice the particular implications of this action for a person in Paul's day. You have to remember that back then there was only one denomination. Therefore, to be cast out of the church was to really be cast out. I can remember when I was very young, living in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and there was this "club" of sorts for the kids in our neighborhood. And it was the ONLY club around - there was nothing else on offer. So, if you were "out" of the club, you were really out of it - there was no other option. Consequently, you did not take your "membership" lightly and you did whatever it took to make sure you remained "in."

Well, back in Paul's day it was that kind of situation. There was no other church to which you could go. There was no other denomination you could run to. Contrast that with our own day and you will see that one of the sad results of denominationalism is its effect upon church discipline. Because what happens is, people will be struggling with a particular sin or issue and, when the matter comes to light and they are confronted, rather than dealing with the matter and responding to discipline and growing through it they simply walk out the door and find another church down the street. And the sad thing is how often this happens and how little concern or care is taken by churches to find out if the people who are coming to them are, in fact, running away from a problem that surfaced while they were in another church. What is even worse is that sometimes churches will KNOW that a person who has come to them is under discipline in another place and they will not care. Friends, these things ought not to happen and, as we shall see next week, churches that persist in this sort of behavior, do so at their own peril.

Finally, please notice that the goal - the ultimate goal - of this severe form of church discipline is the restoration of the person. Paul says, "...deliver this man to Satan .... so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord...." In other words, carry out this discipline with the hope and intention of seeing the person respond with brokenness to his sin and in so doing, show himself to be a believer by his perseverance until the end. To be sure, being "handed over to Satan" may result in real hardship and real difficulty. However, the ultimate intent is not punitive but restorative. Paul clearly believes that genuine Christians are capable of all kinds of heinous behavior. At the same time, he also believes that they can and will respond to discipline - even severe discipline - and thus can be restored, by the grace of God.

Paul's instruction and example in this matter of church discipline are a model for the church today which will also, if it is a true church, find itself sometimes in situations where a similar sort of disciplinary action is required. When that time comes, we must be unified in our resolve, courageous in carrying it forward, and prayerfully hopeful for a good result.

Discipline is a mark - a necessary mark - of every true church. A church that will not discipline, is not a biblical church. A church that will not rebuke, is a church whose encouragements are empty and without value. A church that will not, when it is necessary, cast a person out, is a church for whom "membership" is a meaningless concept. The church must lovingly but firmly discipline professing believers who refuse to accept a biblical pattern of sexuality, especially when they do so before a watching world.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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