1 Cor. 5:9-13
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.
For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore“put away from yourselves the evil person.”
This morning we come to a complex, challenging, and enriching passage. We are continuing the topic of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5, but now Paul says that we should not “keep company” with immoral people who claim to be Christians. This is a call to purity, but at the same time, Paul also says that we do not judge outsiders, leaving the world as a mixture of believer and non-believer for God to judge in His timing. We are to maintain a separation from the world when it comes to the internal makeup of our church, but we are also allowed to live in the world and work with that world in our public lives. We can be “in” the world but not “of” it, and we learn when and when not to “judge.” What we see is that the Church is not called to judge outsiders but instead to reserve judgment for itself. Judgment is for insiders.
Do Not Keep Company With…
Paul begins this section with the call to separation. “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people” (1 Cor. 5:9). The “epistle” he is referencing is a previous letter that is now lost to us. We are starting in the middle of an ongoing conversation, and Paul is explaining what he meant in the face of the Corinthians’ own questions and challenges. The general point is this: “do not keep company with” sexually immoral people. This expression could also be translated “do not associate with” them. The word means to mix together or create a close and intimate relationship with them. Paul is saying that Christians must not have any sort of spiritual communion with unrepentant sinners. Christians can have a general sort of friendliness, kind conversation and warm feelings, but they cannot encourage immoral people in their sin, and that means that you cannot present yourself as being allied with them.
Now, what kinds of people does Paul have in mind? The first are “sexually immoral people.” The Greek term here is a variation of porneia, a general word which appears frequently in Paul’s writings and the same word which was used earlier in 1 Cor. 5 to describe the man who has taken his father’s wife (see 1 Cor. 5:1). This word can apply to more extreme forms of sexual immorality like homosexuality, pederasty, and incest (for example, 1 Cor. 6:9-10), but it can also be very simple. Any and all sexual activity outside of the bond of marriage is included under the term porneia, and all such activity is considered sinful and forbidden for Christians. Members of the church may not continue to engage in such sins.
But this is actually not the only sin which warrants excommunication. This is important. Paul adds to this, “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person” (vs. 11). Coveting, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and extortion are listed right alongside porneia as serious sins which cannot be tolerated in the church. What do each of these terms mean?
Covetousness could be explained as simple greed. It is the desire to always have more and the refusal to be satisfied or content with what you have. It also has the sense of wanting what belongs to someone else, and so we can add a bit of jealousy to the greed. It is a violation of the 10th Commandment.
Next comes idolatry, which is a violation of the 2nd Commandment. This will be a topic of interest in chapters 8-11. We will treat it in more detail when we get to those chapters, but for now we can say that it includes the worship of anything other than the true God, as well as all inappropriate worship methods and rituals. Religious syncretism is especially condemned.
“Reviling” is abusive speech and slander. It has to do with constant criticism of others, the tearing down of their status and reputation, and being verbally abusive. We might explain this today by calling someone a trash-talker or a backbiter. They way we speak about a person demonstrates how we regard their name and reputation, and it is serious business. Reviling is also included in chapter 6 in the list of sins which will prevent a person from inheriting the Kingdom of God.
Drunkards are those who given over to much wine. Paul does not call for a total prohibition against alcohol. Instead, he’s talking about an ongoing pattern of being drunk. There is not necessarily a set-limit to how much alcohol a person is allowed to consume, but once they become unable to make wise decisions and conduct themselves appropriately, they have crossed the line. Paul elsewhere points out that drunkenness can cause one to tell inappropriate jokes or engage in other immoral activity (Gal. 5:21, Eph. 5:4). Eventually, drunkenness becomes a sort of slavery, where the person loses control over even their ability to drink or not. As Christians who believe that moderate alcohol use is permissible, we must also be on guard against drunkenness. It is a serious sin which God condemns.
The last sin in this list is extortion or swindling. It is actually a form of robbery and has to do with cheating people out of their money or possessions. Bribery, cheating, and exploitation are included here, as well as all dishonest dealings in business. Extortion is covetousness put to action, and it gives one person gains by defrauding others.
This all leads to an important observation. Sexual sins are currently very high-profile in our culture, and so they rightly receive a lot of attention by concerned Christians. This is natural given the state of the controversy. You also do not find very many people who openly brag about their extortion or covetousness. However, we know that these other sins do exist and are prevalent. We shouldn’t underestimate them. They are listed right there alongside sexual immorality. To be Biblically faithful, we must oppose them all, and so there can be no place for sexual immorality, covetousness, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, or extortion in the church. Christians, therefore, should not conduct business in such a way that encourages greed and discontentment, they should not tolerate religious syncretism in their churches, they should not be revilers who always shoot off at the lip, and they should not let their drinking turn into drunkenness. Each of these sins, if continued in, can warrant the discipline that Paul is advocating.
What Kind of Punishment?
Having said all of this, what does Paul want to happen to such sinners? He says “not to keep company with” them, and later he adds, “do not even eat with such a person.” At the very minimum this refers to the Lord’s Supper, and so it is a call for excommunication. This is what we saw earlier in verses 5 and 7, as Paul said that the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife should be expelled from the church. But the way that Paul adds, “not even to eat with such a person…” in verse 11 does seem to indicate something more.
There are parallel passages that come to mind. For instance, 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15:
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. …if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
“Do not keep company with him” is a parallel to what Paul says here in 1 Corinthians. It seems to suggest a level of physical separation, what some have termed “shunning.” In 2 Thessalonians the person is still counted as a brother, however, which is hard to get our minds around, while the passage in 1 Corinthians is specifically aimed at the problem of a false brother, one claiming to be a brother but who is refusing to repent. This lets us know that there are certain gradations or steps in the disciplinary process. The person continuing in sin should no long be treated as a member in good-standing. This might begin by simply noting their sin and removing certain privileges. A temporary suspension from the Lord’s Supper could be in order, and the other families in the church should show their general disapproval of the sinful lifestyle. They cannot have the same kind of warm and full fellowship while the person in question continues to reject the church’s admonishment. This should not be cruel, however, and may never involve verbal abuse or hateful feelings. As Paul writes, we must “not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
In 1 Corinthians, though, it seems that things have gotten more extreme, and the person is eventually expelled from the church. They are no longer treated as a believer, but as one who has been delivered over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
One final observation is necessary about this point. In order to support this form of church discipline, Paul appeals to an Old Testament text which calls for the death penalty. When he says “therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’” in verse 13, he’s actually quoting a verse that appears five places in Deuteronomy. Deut. 17:7; 19:19; 22:21, 24; and 24:7 all use that exact phrase, and in each of those passages, God is commanding the death penalty for various offenses. This is fascinating. For one thing, it shows that excommunication is to be regarded as a spiritual death penalty. This does not necessarily mean that the excommunicated person is going to end up in Hell, since Paul does hold out hope for the future salvation in vs. 5. But it does mean that, for the time being, they are to be regarded as spiritually dead. As far as we know, and based upon their own example of hard-heartedness, they are outside of Christ and without spiritual life.
This is also fascinating because it shows one way that the Mosaic Law has been transformed by the work of Christ and how it is applied in a new way by the Apostle Paul. Those verses in Deuteronomy originally called for physical punishment, the stoning of the offenders. But here in 1 Corinthians, Paul is applying them in a new way, in a sort of sacramental way. The civil law may or may not deem a certain sin worthy of death (that’s a more complicated conversation for another day), but the Church does not need to bear the sword or prescribe physical punishments. Instead it gives out spiritual punishments, the highest of which is excommunication, the removal of a person from the realm of eternal life and back to the realm of death in the Old Adam, in the flesh.
This means that excommunicated persons are to be considered spiritually dead and therefore to be treated as non-Christians in need of evangelism. This also explains Paul’s final point, that we are to judge ourselves while not judging outsiders. Excommunicated persons are both judged and not-judged at the same time. We judge them only while they are insiders, while they are claiming to be brothers. But once we remove them from our association, we then do not judge them. We do not try to remove them from the earth or remove ourselves from ever associating with them in the world. Instead we begin to again evangelize them, calling them to rejoin our ranks and be saved.
Don’t Judge Those Outside
Now, if all of this wasn’t enough to think about, Paul adds one more level to the conversation. He says that we are not to judge those outside of the church but to leave them to God’s judgment on God’s timing:
Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. … For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (vs. 10, 12-13)
These verses are all connected to Paul’s explanation of his earlier letter. He does want the Corinthians to separate themselves from immoral brothers and not keep company with them. However, he does not mean that they have to maintain an absolute separation from all sinners. Paul is not calling for life on a commune, and he is not so foolish as to suppose that we won’t run into serious sinners all of the time as we live our lives. This explanation probably also indicates that Paul had gotten pushback from the Corinthians. When he called for church discipline, it seems that they responded by mocking him, saying that in order to do what he was saying they’d have to basically make a total break with the whole world. Paul responds by saying that he is not here talking about their relationship to the world but rather to other people who claim to be brothers, to professing Christians.
This tells us a few things. It means that Christians can still socially intermingle with non-Christians. You can live alongside of non-Christians. You are free to shop at stores owned and operated by non-Christians. You can be a citizen of a non-Christian country, you can claim the legal benefits of that citizenship (as Paul did in Acts 22:25), and you can even hold public office, though there may be some considerable challenges that come with all of this. Christians need not be separatists. This is an important point for life today. We are no longer in a predominately Christian society, and those of you work in the cities really experience this. You don’t have to run to the hills. You can continue to do your business in those places. Take care of yourselves, but leave the duty of judging those places to God.
This also tells us that a person must first be an insider or a church member to be under the church’s jurisdiction. The church does not place “judgment” upon outsiders. We certainly state what God has said concerning morality, sin, and salvation, but the church has no temporal power over non-Christians. We have ministerial power but not magisterial power. We speak the Word and leave the results to God. This shows us the limits of church discipline. Excommunication turns an insider into an outsider. We certainly let the person know what this means spiritually, but that is the end of the church’s reach. We leave the rest to God. “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? … those who are outside God judges” (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
Any understanding of “shunning” has to take this into account as well. Church discipline does not call for nor does it allow any kind of universal disowning or hating of the person in question. They can be “blocked” from religious fellowship, and they must know that they are under this kind of discipline, but then that’s it. We cannot make a person change, and we shouldn’t exert a lot of energy or send ourselves into spiritually dark places trying to do God’s work for Him. Speak the truth and then move on.
Perhaps the final point to be made here is quite simply that Church is called to preach to itself first and foremost. There is a place for the prophetic critique of injustice in the world, but that is actually not the Bible’s top priority. Instead it says that judgment begins in the House of God (1 Peter 4:17). If you find that you are always preaching against “the other guy’s sins,” then there’s a problem. If you use up all of your spiritual energy on sins that aren’t a temptation for you, then you are probably a Pharisee. Paul says that we should judge ourselves. Let’s be strict on ourselves and light on outsides. We should be known as a people who maintain moral purity by disciplining our own members. And we should be able to do all of this while we continue living in this world.
This all takes faith. It takes confidence that what God has written is enough. We take care of our business and leave the rest to Him. And we have faith that the ordinary means of grace and discipline of the Church is a primary way that God brings the gospel to this world.
Let us pray.