The church in Corinth was afflicted with many spiritual ailments. One of these is discussed in 1 Corinthians 5. Let us consider this case.
A Serious Problem (1-5)
In addition to the division that plagued the Corinthian church, a moral cancer was eating away at its vitals. There was a “buzz” stirring the congregation because a brother was living in fornication with his father’s wife (his stepmother). The conduct was so outrageous that in some respects it eclipsed even Gentile debauchery. Perhaps more shocking was the fact that the church was not deeply saddened by this sordid situation; instead, they were “puffed up” (cf. 4:18). The same kind of pride that fueled their divisiveness was at the root of their immorality. The offender should already have been dealt with by means of a corrective action, but such had not been done (v. 2).
Paul thus asserts his apostolic authority. Though he was not there to orchestrate the correction, he had sufficient information to “judge” (render judgment on) the matter. The brother was guilty! This is a clear example illustrating that not all “judging” is wrong (cf. John 7:24). Some is mandated. Therefore, by the authority of Christ (cf. Matthew 18:20) the church was to assemble, and in a formal way remedy this problem. Paul’s leadership in the implementation of the procedure was consistent with the power of Christ; it was not by his independent initiative.
The “offender” (nothing is said of the woman; presumably she was not a Christian) was to be “delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” What is the meaning of this phrase?
- It is not capital punishment for church heretics, as practiced by historic Catholicism and early Protestantism.
- It was not physical death, as many commentators allege.
- It was designed to “save” the spirit of the person (v. 5b).
- The procedure was the equivalent of “putting away the wicked” person, and withdrawing one’s fellowship from the individual (vv. 9, 11, 13; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6).
- The ultimate goal was that the fornicator might “destroy” his ungodly “fleshly” urge, and reclaim a life of purity. See also 1 Timothy 1:20.
The Church Must Act (6-8)
The church must desist in its “glorying” (cf. “puffed up,” v. 2) and get serious about morality. Did they not realize that the entire congregation could become infected, just as leaven permeates dough? As the Old Testament passover required the purging of all leaven, even so, Christ is our passover, and in our lives we must rid ourselves of malice and wickedness, and pursue the unleavened bread (figuratively speaking) of sincerity and truth.
Principles of Operation (9-13)
In an earlier (unpreserved) epistle, Paul had admonished the Corinthian saints to “have no company with fornicators.” He had not meant to include pagan fornicators. Christians cannot avoid all associations with the world. While we are to have no fellowship with the world’s sinful practices (Ephesians 5:11; 1 Peter 4:4), we are not to isolate ourselves as hermits, e.g., in monasticism. Instead, our “light” and “salt” must be allowed to influence others (Matthew 5:13-16).
The matter is different with renegade church members. After formal disciplinary action, the faithful Christian is “not to keep company” with: fornicators (those engaged in illicit sexual intercourse), the covetous (brothers obsessed with materialism, either to obtain or retain), idolaters (those who place “things” or “persons” above God), revilers (verbal abusers), drunkards (people who become intoxicated—to whatever degree), and extortioners (those who take from others by force or inordinate pressure). These are specific actions worthy of radical “surgery” (vv. 9-11). While we are not licensed to discipline the world (God will handle that), Christians do have the moral responsibility to check outrageous sinfulness in the church (vv. 12-13a). The impenitent wicked are to be expelled from church fellowship (v. 13b).
The Discipline Worked (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)
In his second letter to the Corinthian church (written perhaps eight months or so after the first letter), Paul appears to discuss the disciplinary case addressed in 1 Corinthians 5 (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). His comments reveal that the greater part of the church had yielded to his previous instruction, and the fornicating brother had been disfellowshipped. Moreover, the withdrawal had been effective in that the rogue brother had abandoned his sinful activity. Here is Paul’s statement (v. 6), as paraphrased by noted scholar James Macknight. “And seeing he [the fornicating brother] is now penitent, sufficient for such a person, both in degree and continuance, is this punishment which was inflicted upon him by the greater number” (Apostolical Epistles, Gospel Advocate, 1954, 216).
From this we learn the following:
- The punishment of fellowship withdrawal was inflicted.
- While some (a minority) refused to honor it, the majority did.
- After a forceful and sustained isolation of the offender, sufficient to produce a convincing result, the apostle urges the Corinthian saints to “forgive” and “comfort” the penitent brother, that sorrow over his sin might not “swallow him up” in grief, and prevent his continued fidelity.
From this episode we learn this truth. Sustained and stubborn rebellion generally cannot be cured quickly. In a disciplinary action the church must be “tough,” and let the offender feel the full measure of the consequence of his or her sin. When it becomes apparent that the offender truly has changed, in contrast to a quick, “I’m sorry” that is yet void of fruit (Matthew 3:7; cf. Jonah 3:10), he or she should be warmly embraced and encouraged in faithfulness.