Church Discipline

I Corinthians 5

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2010

We have been studying I Corinthians. The Church at Corinth was the church with all kinds of problems. The first problem the church had was the problem of divisions. People in the church were separating into cliques. Some were saying, “I follow the Apostle Paul. He started the church”. Others said, “I follow Apollos. He is a much better preacher.” Some of the Jews said, “I follow The Apostle Peter.

Jesus said that he was the rock of the church. He was the only one of the three who followed Jesus around for three years and heard his teaching and saw all of his miracles.” We looked at that in chapters one and three. The second problem the church had was the problem of immorality.

He writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality (πορεία) among you” (5:1). Paul deals with that problem in chapter five and chapter six. It is a chapter that is very relevant to our own day. Paul gives us both a problem and a solution to the problem in this chapter. Let’s read I Corinthians 5.

Questions from I Corinthians 5

Paul said in I Corinthians 5:1 that there was a man in the church who was living with his father’s wife. I want to begin by asking several questions about this statement. One of the best ways to do Bible study is to ask questions about the text. In fact, that is a good way to study any book in school. It is a good reading strategy, because it involves critical thinking.

1) Was this his biological mother?

No. If this woman was the man’s mother, he would have called him his mother. Instead, he calls her “his father’s wife”. He was having a sexual relationship with his mother in law or step mother.

2) Where was his father?

He may be either dead or they may be divorced. We don’t know. We do know that the sin is incest, not adultery.

3) How is this considered incest?

Isn’t incest something that can only be committed with blood relatives?  This question is answered in Leviticus 18. If you haven’t read this before, I have to warn you that this chapter that is rated R for adult content.

In the OT you were not allowed to have sex with blood relatives (Leviticus 18:6-7, 13-14) you were also not allowed to have sex with step-mothers (18:8; 20:11) or step-sisters (18:9) and daughter–in–laws (18:15), sister-in-laws (8:16).

All of this was considered incest in the Bible. Incest in the Bible was NOT limited to blood relatives. Stepmothers, stepsisters, daughter-in-laws, sister-in-laws were considered just as much a part of your family as blood relatives.

4) How were the Corinthians supposed to know that this was wrong?

The usual answer is from the OT. They would know it is wrong from Leviticus 18 but the Church at Corinth was a predominately a Gentile church. Are Gentiles under the OT Law?

Paul seemed to say that this OT law in Leviticus was binding on Gentiles in the Church at Corinth. We are not under the Law of Moses but the moral law is eternal. Incest is wrong in the OT. It is wrong in the NT. Apparently, even the pagans knew that this was wrong in Paul’s day and they had never even read Leviticus 18.

The Two Sins in I Corinthians 5

There were two problems Paul deals with in I Corinthians 5. There are two sins here, as James Boyer notes. There was the sin of the man and the sin of the church. What about the sin of the woman?

Paul doesn’t address her. Was this a double standard? No. Apparently, she was not a member of the church. Paul does not instruct the church to cast the woman out, because she wasn’t even in the church. You can’t practice church discipline on someone who is not in the church (cf. 5:12). What are some characteristics of this sin?

The Sin of the Man

1) It was a Shocking Sin

What was the sin? The sin was sexual immorality but that is not as shocking today or even in Paul’s day. The specific form of sexual immorality that was taking place in the church of Corinth was incest.

Paul said that it was a sin that even the pagans didn’t commit (5:1). It is sad but it is a fact that sometimes you see things in the church that you ever see in the world. Sometimes unbelievers live better than believers.

It was done by someone who claimed to be a Christian. It was done by a man who was a member of the church of Corinth who was in good standing. He claimed to be a Christian and was living worse than the unsaved. That does not mean necessarily that he was saved (cf. 5:5). Many people in the church are not necessarily saved.

2) It was a Persistent Sin.

This was not something that happened one time. It was a sin that was still taking place. Paul was writing about a man that “HAS (not had) his father’s wife”. The sin is still going on as Paul writes. It is a present tense verb means “goes on having his father’s wife”. This was an ongoing relationship

3) It was a Public Sin.

This was not something that was a secret. It was out in the open. It was public. It was common knowledge inside the church and outside the church. Everyone knew about it. That is why Paul passed judgment on the man without even hearing the other side. The facts were not in dispute.

4) It was a Remorseless Sin.

This man did not repent, apologize or feel bad about what he was doing. It is one thing if you commit a terrible sin and repent. Even Christians can fall into gross sins. King David committed adultery and murder but David repented.

This man was showing no signs of repentance. This man was committing this sin, didn’t seem to think it was wrong and had no intention of stopping. Church discipline is only for people who don’t repent.

The Sin of the Church

The second sin in the chapter is the sin of the church. Paul spent most of his time dealing with the sin of the church, not the sin of the man or the woman. The sin of the church is dealt with more than the sin of the man. What was the sin of the church? The sin of the church was to tolerate the man’s sin. They accepted it.

The world makes you think that intolerance is always wrong but the fact is that tolerance is sometimes wrong (Revelation 2:14-15, 19-20). Jesus criticized the Church of Pergamum church for allowing two heresies (doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans) in the church. He criticized the Church of Thyatira for allowing a false prophet in the church (Jezebel).

In fact, instead of being upset about it, the Corinthians were proud of it (5:1). Instead of crying, they were laughing. Toleration of sin is sinful. Do churches still do this today?

We have all kinds of churches today that not only tolerate alternative lifestyles, they are proud of them. They celebrate them. They are not only gay, they are proud they are gay (gay pride). They not only ordain homosexuals, they are proud to be the first denomination in the US to do this.

The Solution

What does Paul say is the solution to this problem? The solution to the problem is church discipline. Paul told the Corinthians to JUDGE the man (5:12-13). I thought that Christians weren’t supposed to judge people. Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1)? In fact, Paul told us not to judge people in I Corinthians 4:5. Are we supposed to judge or not judge people?

The Bible nowhere says that all judgment is wrong. Jesus didn’t say that and Paul didn’t say that. In fact, in John 7:24, Jesus tells us to judge people. In I Corinthians 5, Paul told the Corinthians to judge someone.

All judgment is not wrong. Certain judgment is actually COMMANDED in Scripture. People quote the Bible out of context all the time. There is a right and a wrong way to judge. What are some wrong ways to judge?

Wrong Ways to Judge People

1. It is wrong to judge people’s motives

We can judge actions, as we will see, but we should never try to judge someone’s motives (I Corinthians 4:5).  We have all had that happen at one time or another.  Someone has judged us because they thought they knew why we did something and were often wrong.  Only God can judge our hearts.

2. It is wrong to pass judgement on people over minor issues

There are essentials and non-essentials. The essentials are major doctrines that the Bible is clear on. Non-essentials are minor doctrines that the Bible is not so clear on and Christians can differ. These are the areas that we should not judge. Each one of us has the right to have our own personal conviction on these minor areas (Romans 14:1-6).

What are some ways that we can judge people? We can judge actions as wicked or righteous. We can also judge doctrine or teaching as biblical or unbiblical.

Church Discipline

How were they to judge him? Paul tells the Corinthians to excommunicate him. They were to remove him from the assembly (5:2, 7, 13). If you have got someone in the church committing incest and that person does not repent, kick him out. Excommunication is NOT a biblical term.

The word is not found in the Bible. It is not a biblical term but it is a biblical idea. Many churches do not do this but it is a biblical doctrine. It is commanded. It was something that the Church of Corinth was commanded to do. Some churches today do it and some do not. Other churches have abused the practice but that is no excuse for not obeying the command today.

Excommunication is necessary. Sin in the church is a cancer that cannot be allowed to grow (5:6). Sin that is not dealt with can corrupt the entire church. It is like spiritual cancer.

The reason why some churches that used to be conservative and believe the Bible are now completely liberal is that church discipline was not practiced. False teaching was tolerated in the church and now the whole church is apostate.

What they should have done is to have gone to the man and lovingly said, “This relationship with your step mom is unbiblical. It is not God’s Will. It’s ruining your testimony with the lost.”

If the man says, “I’m going to do it any way”, they should have said, “Well, then you can no longer fellowship here”. You can’t stop people from showing up at church. You can’t excommunicate people from worship but you can remove people from church membership.

You can withhold communion from people who are excommunicated and keep them from doing ministry in the church when they are living in open sin. You can also stop fellowshipping with him (5:9-11).

“Hand this Man Over to Satan”

That raises the question, what does Paul mean when he says, “Hand this man over to Satan, so that the body may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”? That has to be one of the strangest verses in the Bible.

What does this mean to hand people over to Satan? That sounds like a little scary. It sounds like taking Christians and throwing them to wolves. One preacher put it this way, “When was the last time you were in church and you were in church and heard someone say, ‘Today, we are going to take someone living in flagrant sin and deliver him over to Satan. Satan will you come out? We would like to deliver Jim to you. You can do whatever you want with him. He is now yours'”.

I think that John Calvin is right that this is Paul’s way of referring to excommunication. It means the same thing as “Expel the wicked man from among you” (5:13). If it just means excommunication, why then does Paul talk about Satan and the destruction of the flesh.

Let me try to explain it to you but it is a little complicated. I want to break this idea down with eight points that all come right out of I Corinthians 5:5 or are inferences from it.

What are the Lessons from I Corinthians 5:5?

1. The Church is outside the Sphere of Satan (Colossians 1:13; I John 5:19).

2. There is a hedge or umbrella of protection around every church member, just like there was over Job.

There are special benefits and blessings to being in a local church.

3. When a person who professes to be a Christian but lives in open sin (like incest) and refuses to repent or submit to the leaders of the church, the church can excommunicate him (i.e., hand the person over to Satan).

Does this make the church mean? The church by excommunicating him is just recognizing and acknowledging what he has already done. He has already handed himself over to sin and Satan.

He is living like a non-Christian and the church is just putting the non-Christian label on him. The church treats him like the heathen (Matthew 18:17) because that is how he is acting.

4. When excommunication takes pace and a person is placed back in the dominion of Satan, the hedge is removed and he or she may be exposed to physical suffering.

The only other place in the Bible outside Paul’s letters where “handing someone over to Satan” with these very words occurs is Job 2:6, which says, literally, “And the Lord said to the Devil, ‘Behold I hand him [Job] over to you. Only spare his life.’”

The next verse says, “Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”

5. Satan has the power to afflict the body.

Satan can cause physical suffering (Job 2:4-10; Mark 9:17-25). That is not to say that all sickness and disease is caused by Satan. The Bible distinguishes diseases caused by demons and diseases caused by other things. It clearly recognizes that not all illness is attributable to demons (cf. Mark 1:32-34).

6. God uses Satan for his purposes (II Corinthians 12:1-10).

He can even use Satan to bring a person back to himself.

7. There are limits to what Satan can do.

While Satan has the power to destroy the flesh, he does not have the authority to destroy the spirit. There were limits to what Satan could do with Job. First, God gave him permission to hurt his family but he could not lay a finger on Job (1:12). Then God gave Satan permission to attack Job but he could not take his life (2:12).

8. The purpose of excommunication is remedial, not punitive.

The goal of excommunication is not to consign a person to Hell but to restore him (II Thessalonians 3:14-15). It is the final act of the church to get a person living in flagrant sin to repent. It is not mean. It is not unloving. It is good for him (5:5). His body may be afflicted as a result but his soul or spirit may be saved in the process.

How effective is it? In the first century, there was only one church in Corinth. Today, if someone gets excommunicated from one church, they will just go to the church across the street. That is all the more reason why churches need to call other churches to see if people who left their previous place of worship left in good standing. They should work together.

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