What Is the Meaning of, “Destruction of the Flesh,” in 1 Corinthians 5:5?
“In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul commanded those Christians to deliver a sinful brother ‘unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh’ (1 Cor. 5:5). This sounds like a very severe requirement. Could you comment?”
In this section of the apostle’s letter, he deals with a gross example of immorality in the Corinthian church. A man had become sexually intimate with his stepmother (the language is very precise – his “father’s wife,” as opposed to his own “mother”). The church members were not offended by the sordid situation; rather, they gloried in it. Such compromise called for the sternest rebuke. Deliver the offending brother to Satan for “the destruction of the flesh.”
Unfortunately, many have misunderstood this text. Some have used it as a pretext for a physical purging of the church of ungodly members (e.g., in the use of the death penalty). Roman Catholic history is saturated with the blood of those whom it considered “heretics.” Some Protestant reformers were equally ruthless on occasion.
It is amazing at the number of scholars who have advanced the position that the “destruction of the flesh” here refers to physical death. This view is at variance with the very spirit of the passage, which suggests the reclamation of the wayward brother’s soul by means of the “destruction.” “Deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” The destruction of the flesh is a remedial procedure, the design of which is for the man’s salvation. There is no redemptive value in mere death! A man put to death hardly has the opportunity for reformation.
The expression “deliver such a one unto Satan” is the equivalent of “put away the wicked man from among yourselves” (v. 13). It is a biblical idiom for the severing of Christian fellowship. It represents a dramatic expression of the literal formula, “have no company with” (v. 9), or the more specific admonition “with such a one do not even eat” (v. 11), i.e., refrain from ordinary social fraternization with such a one (cf. 2 Thes. 3:6).
One must note that Hymenaeus and Alexander had been “delivered unto Satan” in order that “they might be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20). If the “deliverance” was death, how does the subsequent clause make any sense? It was not anticipated that these gentleman would be doing post-mortem blasphemy!
What then, is the meaning of that ambiguous phrase, “for the destruction of the flesh”? The sense almost certainly is this: Turn the man over to Satan (i.e., back into the world community of debauchery), that he may reap the consequences of his rebellion (whatever physical and/or emotional disadvantages that might involve), along with distressing estrangement from a warm, loving association with the church. Under such circumstances of distress, if there were a remnant of conscience remaining, the rogue brother might well learn to “destroy” his baser, “fleshly” urges, and thus be reclaimed for the Savior’s cause.
This is a sensible approach to the text that does not thrust scripture into the realm of the absurd or the inconsistent.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.