A Case of Church Discipline
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 5:1–13
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-- 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
People will sometimes tell me that they are looking for “the perfect church,” as if such a thing has ever existed. I remember the advice given by a veteran pastor, who said, “If you ever find a church with no problems, don’t join it. You’ll ruin it.”
Perhaps you have come across the poem that was likely written by an anonymous pastor, that reads...
“I think that I shall never see
a church that’s all that it should be.
A church whose members never stray
beyond the straight and narrow way.
A church that has no empty pews,
whose pastor never has the blues.
A church whose deacons always deak,
and none is proud and all are meek.
Where gossips never peddle lies,
or make complaints or criticize.
Where all are always sweet and kind,
and all to others’ faults are blind.
Such perfect churches there may be,
but none of them are known to me.”
It has been well said that “rather than being a hotel for saints, the church might be better described as a hospital for sinners.” That certainly seemed to be the case with the 1st-century church in Corinth, to whom the Apostle Paul addresses this letter. In fact, chapter 5 gives us a perfect example of their spiritual condition.
I remind you that the closing verses of chapter 4 serve as the bridge or transition away from the first main section of this letter, in which the writer has taken great pains to distinguish between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. Now entering into a new section, he begins addressing various disorders within the church that needed correcting.
You see, the church at Corinth was not only a divided church, but it was on its way to becoming a disgraced church as well. There was sin within the assembly and, although everyone in the church seemed to know about it, no one was doing anything to correct it.
And while no church is perfect, human imperfection is never an excuse for sin. Just as parents must discipline their children in love, the Bible teaches that local churches must exercise discipline over the members of that body. Having said that, let’s be clear about something...church discipline, when it is carried out in a biblical manner, should never be considered the responsibility of a small group of “pious policemen” out to catch an “offender.” Instead it is the God-assigned task of the entire church, namely a group of brokenhearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family.
Many of us come from churches where discipline was never practiced and rarely mentioned. If those pastors happened to stumble upon this passage, church discipline was likely explained away as an antiquated vestige of the ancient church.
But before we excise this chapter from our Bibles, we had better take a step back and reconsider its application to the modern church. Too many church-goers are being fed (in the words of another) “a watered-down version of Christianity being repackaged to present a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of a Christ without a cross.” Sad but true, but may that never be said of this church.
In chapter 5, Paul is going to tell us that there is a ground, a goal, and a grace associated with church discipline, and he will build his case upon three main premises. The first of these is found in verses 1 and 2, and it is...
The seriousness of personal sin (verses 1-2)
We seem to be living in a time when people are becoming more and more desensitized to sin...at least to its seriousness and its consequences. In many cases we have grown comfortable with our sinful behavior, as well as that of others. We tend to shrug it off as “human weakness” rather than the “fatal flaw” that it actually is. In these days leading up to Good Friday, we would all do well to read and meditate upon the passion narratives found in the Gospel accounts. The awful price that our Lord Jesus paid for our sins as He hung upon the cross surely was for more than our trivial “shortcomings.” Forgiveness of great sin on our part required a great cost on His part.
As we enter into this chapter, Paul has some harsh words for the church in Corinth regarding an open sin involving one of its members that was being ignored. A “report” had come to him, perhaps from “Chloe’s people” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11), that a case of “sexual immorality” was going on under their noses. Throughout this chapter, the writer uses a broad term (“πορνεια”) that could refer to “sexual sin” of any sort. In this case we are not left to guess what it was. We are told that “a man (had) his father’s wife.” She was believed to have been his “stepmother,” and not his “mother,” or else he would have said so (cf. Leviticus 18:7 and 8). The use of the verb “has” suggests an ongoing relationship—either of marriage or cohabitation—rather than a “one night stand” or an occasional dalliance. We don’t know all the facts about the case, but it seems that the members of this church did.
Both Roman and Jewish law forbade such relationships. They were clearly forbidden in Old Testament passages like Deuteronomy 27:20 (also 22:30), which says, “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness.” Part of the reason for this prohibition was in order that God’s people not adopt the unnatural customs and practices of heathen nations around them. So, when Paul writes that such sin “is not tolerated even among the pagans,” those words carried a strong apostolic admonition.
Rather than grieving such blatant sin, the Corinthian church seemed rather to be boasting in their liberal tolerance. Their “open-mindedness” toward sexual sin revealed their “arrogant” spirit, something Paul had already rebuked them for (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:6, 18-19). What these believers could not see was that by failing to deal with a blatantly sinning member, they were inviting the judgment of God upon the whole church.
Therefore, in no uncertain terms, they are forcefully instructed, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” It is noteworthy that the “removal” of this sinning member is alluded to no fewer than six times in this chapter.
Lest we think that Paul was merely passing judgment based on his own opinion, let me take you back to Jesus’ teaching on the subject of church discipline, found in Matthew 18. We do not have time to look in depth at this text this morning, but I want you to understand that it was Jesus Himself who first invested the authority of the local church to discipline an erring member. Paul was not overstepping his apostolic authority in the case before us.
I am reading from Matthew 18, verses 15 through 20:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
This passage has been greatly misunderstood and misapplied. The reason for that is because it has been removed from the context of church discipline, where it clearly belongs. Here Jesus is prescribing definite steps in the disciplinary process. The case in 1 Corinthians is an application of Jesus’ prescription. In fact, the case in Corinth had proceeded to the point of removing the offender from the fellowship of the local church. Neither he nor the church at-large had taken his sin seriously, and that oversight needed immediate correction.
In verses 3 through 5, Paul begins to explain why such a drastic course of action was necessary. The seriousness of one’s personal sin was affecting...
The sanctity of the people of God (verses 3-5)
Another word for “sanctity” is “holiness.” As it relates to the church, Al Mohler, the President of Southern Seminary, has reminded us of that which we sometimes forget:
Throughout the Bible, the people of God are characterized by a distinctive purity. This moral purity is not their own achievement, but the work of God within their midst. As the Lord said to the children of Israel, “I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44a). Given that they may have been chosen by a holy God as a people carrying His own name, God’s chosen people are to reflect His holiness by their way of living, worship, and beliefs.
Although Paul was not physically present at the time, and could not address the matter of the sinning believer personally, he does so through this authoritative written pronouncement. Having been made aware of the situation existing in Corinth, he renders apostolic “judgment.” It is stated in verses 4 and 5: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus (in other words, when the church has officially gathered) and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Note, first of all, that the responsibility to exercise church discipline does not fall upon the elders, church leaders, or a select few. Instead it is an action to be carried out by the corporate body...the members of the local church when they come together. The rationale is that the church is a covenant community. Though “outsiders” may look at the church as merely a social structure, the Bible presents it as gathering of people “called out” (“ekklesia”) by God under His Lordship living in mutual agreement in obedience to the Scriptures. As members of Temple Hills Baptist Church, we remind ourselves of that each time we say our church covenant together.
With respect to Paul’s phrase, “My spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus,” Gordon Fee explains it this way:
Paul does not mean in some vague way they are to think about him as though he were actually among them, but is not really so. Rather, when the Corinthians are assembled, the Spirit (capital ‘S’) is understood to be present among them...and for Paul that means that he, too, is present among them by that same Spirit.
The reasoning here is based upon Paul’s earlier description in chapter 3, verse 16 that believers—both individually and collectively—are “temples” in which God’s Spirit is said to dwell. Therefore, to be with them “in spirit” means much more within this context than how we typically use the phrase today.
But it is the final statement of this section that has caused the greatest level of consternation. Specifically, to what does Paul refer when he speaks of “deliver(ing) this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”?
By referring to “the flesh,” Paul does not mean the physical body. Repeatedly, the New Testament uses this term (“σαρξ”) in reference to “the natural man,” such as we saw in chapter 2 and verse 14. It speaks of “basic human drives and instincts” that war against the Spirit of God, who resides within every believer (cf. Galatians 5:17). These “desires” must be overcome by the indwelling Spirit if any Christian is to live a life of victory over sin.
With that in mind, we want to be clear what is being prescribed here. Paul isn’t pronouncing a “curse” or a “threat of premature death,” per se, although it could potentially lead to that. To hand the offender over to Satan meant to turn him back out into Satan’s sphere, outside the caring and edifying environment of the church, where God is at work. To be concise, it was to exclude the man from the community of faith. What that meant was because the sinner had remained unrepentant, the church was no longer able to affirm his salvation. That did not mean that the man was unregenerate, but it did mean that he was living as if he were unregenerate. His removal from the believing community does not at all mean that he was forbidden from attending public gatherings of the saints. In fact, just the opposite was true. The hope is that he would continue to sit under the hearing of the Word, repent, and seek restoration to the local body. The immediate effect, however, was that he was not to be regarded as a member and, therefore, was not granted participation in the privileges of membership, including the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
I recognize that these are hard things for many of us within the contemporary church to accept. But the reason for the difficulty is not that the Bible is not clear. It is rather because we have gotten away from the Bible’s teaching regarding church discipline for too long and have adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward sin and repentance. It is not until we understand its import—namely that the reputation of Jesus Christ is at stake—that it again becomes as an essential mark of a healthy New Testament church.
The sanctity of the people of God is under scrutiny today by the world, and in many cases rightfully so. That is often because the world sees so little difference between our manner of life and theirs. That ought not to be! Repeatedly in the Old Testament, the Lord charged His people, saying, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45). And lest we think that God has lessened that requirement for those who are living in the so-called “age of grace,” it is repeated in the New. Writing in his first letter, Peter gives us this command,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
One may wonder why the woman who was equally involved in this immoral relationship was not addressed. Why is only the man called to account? The answer appears to be that he was a member of the covenant community of believers, and she was not. Paul will allude to the difference in the manner in which the church is to handle the sin of the believer and that of the unbeliever in the closing verses of this chapter.
The appropriate application of church discipline is necessary because of the seriousness nature of personal sin and because of the sanctity of the people of God. There is a third premise for discipline that is mentioned in the latter half of this chapter, and it is...
The status of the local church (verses 6-13)
In verses 6 through 8 Paul employs the familiar biblical illustration of “leaven” in discussing the pervasive nature of sin. The language in this paragraph takes us back to the original Passover when the Lord freed His people from Egyptian bondage. In preparation of the release that He would effect, the Lord told the children of Israel to “remove leaven out of (their) houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened...that person shall be cut off from Israel” (Exodus 12:15). No leavened bread was permitted to be eaten during the Passover.
“Leaven” or “yeast,” when added to dough, causes it to ferment and rise. It permeates the entire loaf. In a similar way sin, when it is not addressed and removed, permeates the entire church. A more modern phrase—“one rotten apple spoils the entire bushel”—captures the thought.
Paul’s urgent command is to “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” The argument here is that their positional cleansing had already taken place. In other words, their sin had been forgiven by the blood of Christ. They were “a new creation. The old (had) passed away...(and) the new (had) come” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). It happened because “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The Lamb had been slain on Calvary, and yet they had not ridden themselves of their old sinful habits. Therefore, Paul exhorts them to become in practice what they already were in position. They had not done this, and consequently, they were tolerating sin in their midst.
In urging them to “celebrate the festival,” he is urging them to bring their lives into conformity with holy living and moral purity. To borrow another illustration, thisthat local church was ill and required “transplant” surgery. The “malice and evil” needed to be removed and replaced with “sincerity and truth.” They needed reminding that Christ had died not only to cleanse them, but also to transform them.
Paul continues to emphasize the importance of the local church maintaining its standing in the sight of God and in the eyes of the world in verses 9 through 13. The “letter” he mentions in verse 9 is the so-called “missing” epistle that would have exchanged hands some time earlier. Although we do not know the full content of that letter, we are able to ascertain from this paragraph that Paul had addressed the subject of “associating” with “sexually immoral people” in that one as well. So now he takes the opportunity to clarify what they had misunderstood in his earlier correspondence.
In exhorting them to not “keep company” with the “sexually immoral,” here he makes it clear that he was not speaking of unsaved people—those he calls “outsiders.” Those were the very people they should be trying to evangelize. But in order to do that, then their own behavior could not be characterized by the same sins being committed by those they hoped to reach. Therefore, as he reinforces in verse 11, “Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality.” It is Christians—their fellow church members who are guilty of such sins, and not the unsaved people of the world—from whom they must withdraw.
And although “sexual sin” is the main topic of this chapter, it is not the only transgression that Paul cites as worthy of inciting discipline. He goes on to list “greed,” “idolatry,” “reveling, “drunkenness,” and “swindling.” With such fellow believers they were “not even to eat.” The reference here may have been to the common meals shared by the church body, but certainly a reference to the Lord’s Table is in view. Paul will address that matter in greater depth when we get to chapter 11.
In 1 Peter 4:17 we read, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” In drawing the present discussion to a conclusion, Paul puts forth a pair of rhetorical questions in verses 12 and 13 intended to reinforce the point that it is the God-granted responsibility of the every local church to maintain the purity of its testimony. Nothing less than the reputation of God and His Christ are at stake.
Therefore, Paul closes with these words, “Purge the evil person from among you.” It is a phrase found no fewer than ten times in Deuteronomy, which was the message God gave to the new generation as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. That same Lord has no less stringent command for His church today.
The goal of church discipline is the spiritual restoration of fallen members, and its purpose is the strengthening of the church for the glory of God. It is essential to the building and maintenance of a healthy local church, and is as Jonathan Leeman has expressed it, “how the church protects the name of Jesus.”
I am fully aware that church discipline is sometimes practiced in an abusive manner by those with a heavy hand. In no way does the Bible condone that. At the same time, that is not reason to abandon its practice altogether. Loving and restoring church members is prescribed in the Scriptures as a means of preserving the testimony of the Gospel and the reputation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
With respect to each of the three premises put forth by Paul in this passage, the local church is thus exhorted to deal with sin their midst. It is never a pleasant task. In summary,
...regarding the seriousness of personal sin, the local church is instructed to mourn the sin. The Corinthian church did not judge blatant immorality in their local assembly because of arrogant indifference. A corrective measure was, therefore, prescribed.
...regarding to the sanctity of the people of God, the local church must judge the sin. Through the exercise of his apostolic authority, Paul ordered the Corinthian church to expel the unrepentant sinner in order that he might repent and be restored to fellowship.
...and regarding its status of the local church, it must purge the sin. Because sin had the capacity to spread like leaven, the Corinthians were instructed to remove the immoral person from the church role. The church must maintain its distinctiveness from the world.
There are some practical lessons that we can take from this brief but meaty chapter.
The first is a reminder that church discipline is not the responsibility of one or even a few. The specific sin that Paul addresses was known by all and, like “leaven,” it had contaminated the entire body. Regardless of whether it is immediately recognized, the sin of one member inevitably affects the whole. Therefore, the church corporately was called to follow the prescribed steps in applying discipline. This is the responsibility of the entire church. Failure to deal with a sinning member invites the very real possibility of God’s judgment upon the whole body.
Secondly, before church discipline reaches the “formal” stage that is described in 1 Corinthians 5, we must not forget Jesus’ instructions from Matthew 18. The application is that if we as members are looking after and caring for our fellow members in the local body as we should, then more “formal” steps in the discipline process would not be needed. We are not loving someone when we ignore or fail to confront the known sin of a fellow-member. Just the opposite is true. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for a brother or sister in Christ, as well as for the corporate church body, is to gently and lovingly address his or her sin and encourage their repentance.
Third, we must not overlook the fact that the ultimate purpose for such discipline is remedial, not judgmental. In Paul’s second letter to this same church, we learn that the action taken by the members seems to have produced its desired effect. Reacting to the discipline that been enacted by the church, the sinner appears to have repented and was restored to the fellowship of the Corinthian assembly (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:1-11).
In our loosely-structured associations with neighboring churches today, if a believer is excommunicated by one body all he has to do is simply go down the street to another church. Not only does that tell a woeful tale about the fragmented condition of the church-at-large, but it also says something about those who would quickly welcome one who is under discipline by another local body. Christ’s reputation is more valuable than that.
I need to add one more point by way of application before we close, and perhaps it is the most significant one to remember. To state the purpose of church discipline only in terms of motivating the repentance and restoration of the sinner, as important as that is, is to miss much of the Bible’s teaching on this subject. Remember, Paul’s teaching covers three emphases: the seriousness of sin, the sanctity of God’s people, and the corporate standing of the church before God and before the world. Sadly, it is this last point which is most overlooked. We must realize that church discipline is God’s gracious gift to His Church.
While there is no “perfect church,” we do have a perfect Savior...One who not only lived among us completely free from sin, but also offered the perfect sacrifice—the one required by a holy God—in order to pay the debt that our sin had incurred. Because the church is described in Scripture as His Body, it is therefore incumbent upon us to live accordingly. Disciplining church members who refuse to repent and forsake their sin is a necessary and biblical command in the process of that happening.
In this present age, we are the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus, testifying to the world that salvation and sanctification are possible through the power of His resurrected life. In this regard, perhaps the words of the 19th-century churchman, John Leadley Dagg, say it best: “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”