Text: 1 Cor. 5:1-8
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Earlier this week, Thom Rainer, the CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, posted a list of the silliest church fights he’d heard of. Here are just a few: There was an argument over the appropriate length of the worship pastor’s beard. There was also a 45-minute heated argument broke out over the type of filing cabinet to purchase: black or brown; 2, 3, or 4 drawers. Another church had multiple business meetings dominated be arguments about whether the church should purchase a weed eater or not. It took two business meetings to resolve!. Then, my favorite was a fight about using the term “potblessing” instead of “potluck.” You know, because we don’t believe in luck. The list had many more.
Now we can laugh at the silliness of all that, and I did. We can mourn the pettiness that can sometimes takes over the modern church, and I do that too. But I also think we should understand that all of this sounds silly precisely because we know what the church ought to be. And we only know this because of what God has shown us and by the partial good example we have seen as the church actually grew in maturity and overcame its natural selfish and immoral roots. You see, while we do have lots of silly fights in the church, I have actually never known of a church to be as bad as 1st century-Corinth. We actually have the luxury to make fun of ourselves, but the Corinthians were very much serious about their immorality And more than just having a scandal, the Corinthians gloried in their immorality! This is what causes Paul to get so worked up in our text this morning, and it is the occasion for his teaching on church discipline. We cannot imagine having to deal with what the Corinthians did, but we need to understand that Corinth was a real church in the real world. We have only gotten to where we are today because of the hard pastoral work that Paul and others put in. This morning, we see that church discipline, including excommunication, was one of the ways that Paul did that. Church discipline is therefore a necessary means of maintaining the integrity of the church and in bringing us into mature discipleship.
The Solidarity of the Christian Community
Before we can rightly talk about church discipline, however, we need to see the basic truth that underlies the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the church. For Paul the Christian Church is unified. It does not have to work to become unified. It just is unified by definition. And this means that whatever one of its members does necessarily affects the rest of the members as well. Every believer affects the whole church. There are no true individuals in the church. There can be no spiritual libertarians. We are all in the body of Christ together because we all just are the body of Christ.
One way that this is manifest is in how Paul says that he is present with the Corinthian community, even when he is not physically in Corinth. “I indeed, [am] absent in body but present in spirit” (vs. 3). This means much more than “our hearts and minds are with you.” No, Paul isn’t just saying that he will be thinking about the Corinthians. He will actually be there. Notice vs. 4: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is really present with the Corinthians by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and this allows for him to be present with them in their sacred assembly. This is directly analogous to what Jesus teaches about Himself in Matthew 18. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). Both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are passages which have to do with church discipline, by the way. In both of them we see that the Spirit makes distant things present so that they can partake in God’s power (see also: John 14:16-18, 16:13-15; Eph. 4:1-16; Rev. 4:2). Though Jesus is seated bodily in heaven, the Holy Spirit makes Him present to His people, and this especially happens in the context of the gathered worship. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t just do this with Jesus. He does it with all believers, past and present, as well as the angels in heaven, as we see in Hebrews 12:22-24:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
Again we see that familiar emphasis on the communion of the saints. It pops up all throughout Paul’s thinking, and it really does mean that Christians who are separated by time and space are nevertheless brought together by the Holy Spirit in a real and powerful way. In this case, the spiritual presence is so real that Paul can say that he will be present with the Corinthians when they execute their church discipline and that his spirit will actually participate in the action with them.
At this point a question of apologetics arises. If all of this is true, then shouldn’t we also consider the saints in heaven to be present and active with us in the church? Wouldn’t this support the Roman Catholic notion of the saints? There are lots of things to say in response to this, but the most simple point is that the saints being active and present in the life of the church is one thing, but our communicating with them and personally interacting with them is an entirely different thing. I actually do not think that there is a problem with the idea that the saints in heaven pray for the church on earth and share in our spiritual communion. This would flow from the same principles that we’ve just given as to how Paul can be present with the Corinthians. But notice that when Paul wanted to communicate with the Corinthians, and vice versa, he had to send a letter. These Christians could not simply use their spiritual communion to have direct access to one another. They didn’t pray to each other. No, they had to use earthly means— pen, paper, and courier. And so the same would go for the saints in heaven. The reason that we cannot communicate with them is precisely because they are in another world. We don’t have their address or telephone number. We can know that the Spirit unites us, but we leave all the workings of that up to Him. For purposes of prayer, it is the Spirit who we are told will take our prayers to God, and the only mediator is God’s Son, Jesus Christ. “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). The saints in heaven are real and active, but they are real and active in heaven.
Now this fundamental unity of the church is necessary for understanding the matter of church discipline. Church discipline is called for in certain instances because the things that one member does affect all of the other members. Indeed, it affects the body as such. And so when a member glories in sin, this means that the body of Christ is glorying in sin, which cannot be. And church discipline is effective. Its initial sanctions are ministerial and meant to correct and instruct. Its most extreme form, however, removes the person from the unity of the church, thus preserving the holiness and honor of the body by expelling the immoral brother. This also works for the salvation of the one who is excommunicated. Let’s take a closer look at this.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. (1 Cor. 5:1-2)
Here we see that there are actually two problems. The first is the case of immorality, porneia in the Greek. That term is a general one, but Paul then explains it for us, “a man has his father’s wife.” The fact that Paul doesn’t say “mother,” lets us know that a second wife or concubine is in view. This was outlawed by the Old Testament (Lev. 18:7-8), and as Paul tells us, even the Gentiles were horrified by such action. It was a high scandal.
Now, it’s amazing that this sin could even be accepted by the Corinthians in the first place. The fact that it was indicates that they probably had a mistaken theology. The Corinthians believed that since they were already “mature” and “reigning” (1 Cor. 4:8), that they could set aside the law, even the moral law. They believed that they could do this and brag about it because it testified of their spiritual status. That’s why Paul has criticized them for an immature understanding of what God has done in Christ.
Now that’s the first problem Paul deals with. But then the second problem comes up, and it turns out to be the bigger problem. The Corinthians are not mourning this sin as they should but instead are “puffed up” by it. This is actually one of the things that they have been boasting about (as we saw in 4:19). “Your glorying is not good” (vs. 6). This action is one big taunt from the Corinthians towards those who they think are weaker and not-yet enlightened. Paul rebukes them and says that they must now kick this offender out of the church—“that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.” Later on in vs. 13 he says, “Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’” This is where our understanding of excommunication comes from.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (vs. 4-5)
We can see that this is an official act on the part of the whole assembly, including Paul who is present spiritually. It is done “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and with his power. The result is that the immoral brother is handed over to Satan, afflicted externally, but eventually saved.
This all presumes that the offender refuses to repent, of course. The problem is not simply that the sin exists. We are all sinners, and Jesus is clear that He has not come for the righteous (Luke 5:32). The problem is the glorying in the sin. Excommunication is never handed out simply because of the sin in view. It is always conducted because the person refuses to repent and refuses to “listen to the Church” (Matt. 18:17). After an extended period of obstinacy, the rebellious person must be removed from the fellowship of the church and regarded as an outsider.
Unfortunately church discipline is not practiced by many churches today. It is seen as mean or vindictive, and so people prefer to adopt less confrontational options. On one hand, I can understand. I don’t like confrontation. Confrontation takes a lot of work, it exhausts your energy, and it can often create unseen blowback. But we have to remember that the Bible says we should use church discipline, in those circumstances where it is called for, in order to provide salvation. “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). The temporal judgments and hardships, whatever they may be, are never the goal. They are always means to bring the sinner to repentance, back to Christ, and to salvation. The Church never excommunicates because it is angry. Excommunication does not mean, “This person is certainly going to Hell.” Excommunication is an act of love meant to strike the person with the terror of the law so that they might be saved. This is what Jude means when he writes, “And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:22-23).
The process of church discipline is always gradual and patient. It begins, as Jesus teaches in Matt. 18, with individuals going to one another to resolve grievances. This does not apply in the cases of public scandals affecting many people, but for ordinary sins it does. If the private counsel fails, then two or three witnesses should be brought. If those also fail, then “the church” should act as one, which means through its official governing body. The governing body can itself decide to take various steps, but the most extreme action is excommunication. This means barring the person from the communion of the church, including the Lord’s Supper, charitable support, and the fellowship of the saints. The excommunicated person should be treated like a non-Christian and an outsider to the body.
In our day, however, this judgment is often belittled. “Oh you’ve been excommunicated by the First Associate Reformed Evangelical Church (Continuing Synod, Southeastern Region), have you? Wherever will you go now?!” That line stings because it’s true. We know that people can always find another church, and easily. But this is not a criticism of the action of discipline. It’s a criticism of the state of the church in general. When those few faithful churches who do believe in discipline administer a sanction, there are a hundred churches ready to disregard it. When they do this, they are participating in the kind of sin that Paul is condemning! They are enabling the sinner to deny that his sin is sin, and they are harming the reputation of Christ’s church. This seems like an insurmountable problem, and it’s not merely a problem for Protestants. No, the Roman Catholic Church, supposedly the most unified and powerful church on the planet, almost never excommunicates even its most high-profile offenders, and the certainly don’t inquire about the conditions of the new converts they receive from other churches.
This is a problem faced by the whole church. The Christian Church as whole must recover the practice of discipline. That can only begin by preaching, teaching, and believing in it. We need to take our membership vows seriously, and we need to hold one another accountable. This doesn’t mean that we should be busy-bodies, but it does mean that we should know one another, have a meaningful relationship with one another, and be able to speak into each other’s lives. And then we must start practicing what we preach, even if it means we are one of the few oddball churches out there. Let God be true and every man a liar! We will do what God commands.
And so we will do our part. We will be faithful. We will believe. And we will believe that this is one way that God changes people and brings them to salvation.
The People are the Feast
I want to conclude this with one final observation. Paul brings up the topic of the Christian “feast” at the end of this discussion. He writes:
Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:7-8)
Getting rid of the leaven is obvious. Leaven is here a symbol of sin, and casting out the immoral brother removes the leaven. But notice that there’s also a positive action. As we purge the old leaven, we also “keep the feast.” This does not simply mean that we partake of the Lord’s Supper. We do do that, but that’s not actually the New Testament counterpart to the Passover. It’s a common error to assume that, but it is not what Paul says. Look closely. The fulfillment of the Passover is Christ’s death, and then the New Testament “feast” is the church itself, living together in sincerity and truth. This includes the Lord’s Supper, but it goes beyond that. We “keep the Passover” now by being the church and by doing so sincerely and truthfully. We keep the Passover by living together, holding one another accountable, and honoring our promises. We keep the Passover by respecting church discipline, and we keep the Passover by living together in a joyful, powerful, spiritual community.
We’ve said a lot today. But let’s not miss the obvious. We do all of this because we want to tell the world what Christ has done for us and what He is doing for the whole earth. God has mercy on sinners but He judges sin, and the church is the ordinary place where this experience is seen and felt in this life. We testify what we believe to be true, and we do so in order that the whole world might be saved.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Let us purge the old leaven and be a new lump. Let us grow up into the Body of Christ.
Let us pray.