1 Corinthians 5 – Confronting Immorality in the Church
A. The problem is addressed.
1. (1) The sin of an unnamed Christian in Corinth.
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!
a. The term sexually immorality is the ancient Greek word “porneia.” It broadly refers to all types of sexual activity outside of marriage (including homosexuality).
i. Originally, “porneia” just referred to going to prostitutes; but before New Testament times, the Jewish community used the word to refer to any kind of extramarital sex, including homosexuality. This is its sense in the New Testament.
ii. Commentators on the word porneia: “The Scripture by this word comprehends all species of unlawful mixtures.” (Poole) It “must be understood in its utmost latitude of meaning, as implying all kinds of impurity.” (Clarke)
iii. “Porneia” so often appears first in New Testament “sin lists,” but not because the first Christians had a lot of “hang-ups” about sex. Instead, it is because the area of sex was one of the most dramatic places where the ethics of Greek culture clashed with the ethics of Jesus. Sexual immorality was an accepted fact of life for the common person in Greek culture, but it was not to be so among the followers of Jesus.
b. That a man has his father’s wife: Apparently, someone was having an on-going sexual relationship (either as married or living together) with his stepmother (his father’s wife). The woman involved must not be a Christian, for she isn’t even addressed.
i. The verb to have is a euphemism for an enduring sexual relationship, not just a passing fancy or a “one-night stand.”
c. And such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles: Paul understood that this kind of incestuous relationship was considered taboo even among the pagans of their culture, yet the Corinthian Christians seem accepting of this behavior.
i. The ancient Roman writer and statesman Cicero said this type of incest was an incredible crime and practically unheard of. Truly, it was not even named among the Gentiles.
ii. It should have been enough that this is declared sin by the Bible (Leviticus 18:8, Deuteronomy 22:30 and 27:20); it should have been enough that the worldly culture itself considered it sin, but the Corinthian Christians didn’t seem bothered by it at all.
2. (2) The reaction of the Corinthian church to the sin.
And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.
a. And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned: As bad as the sin itself was, Paul was more concerned that the Corinthian Christians seemed to take the sin lightly, and they were unconcerned (have not rather mourned) about this behavior.
i. Previously in the letter, Paul dealt mainly with the “mental” problems of the Corinthian Christians: their wrong ideas about God’s power and work and His servants. Now Paul starts to deal with their “moral” problems. But the two are connected; their moral problems come because they aren’t thinking right about God and His world.
b. That he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you: Clearly, this was Paul’s solution to the problem – to take this notoriously unrepentant man away from the protection of the fellowship of God’s people. Yet, the Corinthian Christians were not doing this. Why not? How could this kind of thing be allowed?
i. Remember that Corinth was a city notorious for sexual immorality, and the pagan religions did not value sexual purity. It wasn’t hard for a Corinthian to think you could be religious, yet still act any way you pleased when it came to sex. Greek culture could matter-of-factly say: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children.”
ii. Wouldn’t they know it was wrong through the Old Testament? Though Leviticus 18:8 expressly forbids a man to have sex with his stepmother (The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover), some rabbis, such as Rabbi Akibah, said such a relationship was permissible for a Gentile convert to Judaism, because they were a completely new person, and their old family relationship didn’t count at all.
iii. More than anything, the Corinthian Christians probably allowed this in the name of “tolerance.” They probably said to themselves, “Look how loving we are. We accept this brother just as he is. Look how open-minded we are!” We should never underestimate what people will allow in the name of “open-mindedness.”
c. The Corinthian Christians were proud (you are puffed up) of their acceptance of this man; they thought it said something good about them! But instead of glorying, they should have grieved, both for the man and for what they must do to him (be taken away from among you).
3. (3-5) Paul’s prescription.
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.
a. Absent in body but present in spirit: When Paul mentions his spirit being present, he isn’t speaking of astral-projection in the early church. He is truly represented in their midst by his letter, which was a valid spiritual extension of his apostolic authority.
i. In other words, Paul didn’t have to be there to exercise his authority; distance didn’t make him any less an apostle.
ii. Paul pushes his authority hard here (have already judged), but not too much, because he recognizes that it must be done in the name and power of the Lord Jesus (in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ).
b. For I indeed . . . have already judged: Is Paul disobeying what Jesus said in Matthew 7:1-5? After all, “judge not, lest you be judged!”
i. Paul is not being disobedient in the slightest way. Jesus’ command in Matthew 7:1-5 forbids hypocritical judgment, and judging others by a standard that we ourselves do not want to be judged by. Paul is perfectly willing to apply the same standards to himself that he is applying to the Corinthian Christians.
ii. Some judgment is permitted, and some is not. “While Christians are not to judge one another’s motives or ministries, we are certainly expected to be honest about each other’s conduct.” (Wiersbe)
c. How could they deliver such a one to Satan? By putting him outside the church, into the world, which is the devil’s “domain.” The punishment is a removal of spiritual protection and social comfort, not an infliction of evil.
i. God often protects us from the attacks of Satan, even when we never knew about the attacks (Job 1:10 and Luke 22:31-32).
ii. The fact that so many can leave many churches without a second thought shows how weak those churches really are. Shouldn’t they be places a person under discipline, put outside the fellowship, would miss? But doesn’t it also say something about a Christian if they can willingly neglect the assembling together of the saints – and prefer their isolation?
iii. Paul’s command also served the important purpose of removing any false feeling of security the sinning man might have among the fellowship of Christians. They couldn’t just ignore his sin, and let him ignore it, pretending it wasn’t there. If the man refused to face his sin, the church must face it for him, for his sake and for their sake.
d. The purpose of putting this man outside the spiritual protection and social comfort of the church was the destruction of the flesh, not the body, but his rebellious flesh.
i. This man, though a Christian, was at this time given over to the sins of the flesh. Paul says that as they put him out, the man will be given over to the sinful consequences of his flesh, and the hope is that by wallowing in the results of his sin, the sinful impulse of the flesh in this particular area will be “destroyed.”
ii. As Christians, we do continual battle with the flesh, because though the old man is dead, having been crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6), the flesh lives on, having been “educated” in sin by the old man, the devil, and the worldly culture around us. God now calls us, in partnership with Him, to do to the flesh what He did by Himself to the old man: crucify it (Galatians 5:24). Paul hopes that putting this man out of the fellowship of the Corinthian Christians will lead him to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires.
iii. The words deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh were used to justify terrible torture during the Inquisition, but this isn’t what Paul means at all. Paul isn’t talking about destroying the man’s physical body, but addressing the spiritual power of his sinful flesh.
e. That his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus: The goal of the discipline is clear – the salvation, not the destruction, of his spirit. Though this man’s conduct was clearly sinful, and needed severe correction, Paul does not write him off as forever lost – the effective use of church discipline may yet see him to salvation.
i. All discipline in the church is to be carried out in this attitude of restoration, not condemnation. As Paul also wrote, And 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. (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
ii. “Church discipline is not a group of ‘pious policemen’ out to catch a criminal. Rather, it is a group of brokenhearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family.” (Wiersbe)
f. Paul does not say the church should take away the sinning man’s salvation. The church does not grant salvation; it certainly cannot take it away. But there are cases, for the good of the sinner, and for the good of the church, when someone should be put out of the congregation.
i. Some call this “excommunication” or “disfellowshipping” a person. They are to be put outside the congregation until they repent. In today’s church culture, this rarely brings a sinner to repentance, because they can so easily just go to another church and pretend that nothing happened at their old church. Or, it is easy for them to play the victim, and act as if their former church was cruel towards them. While it is true that some churches have been cruel towards their members, and have unjustly put some out of the congregation, it does not mean the church should never practice the Biblical principles Paul teaches here. It is to be done, for both the good of the church and the good of the sinner.
g. So, “There was to be a meeting of the church, where Paul, spiritually present, would, in the name of Christ, and in the exercise of the miraculous power with which he was invested, deliver the offender to the power of Satan.” (Hodge)
B. The rationale for purity in the church.
1. (6) A little sin influences the entire group.
Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
a. Your glorying is not good: Again, the Corinthian Christians were proud and pleased to ignore this man’s notorious sin! They thought it showed the whole world how “loving” they were. But you don’t show “love” to a body by being kind to a cancer!
i. We can rightly say Paul is more concerned about the sin of the entire church (especially the leadership), than the sin of the individual man. Both are important, but the sin of the church is worse.
b. A little leaven leavens the whole lump: The leaven mentioned isn’t merely yeast, but a pinch of dough left over from the previous batch, as in the making of sourdough bread. This is how bread was commonly leavened in the ancient world, and a little pinch of dough from the old lump could make a whole new lump of dough rise and “puff up.” In this way the work of leaven was thought to illustrate the work of sin and pride. The presence of a little can corrupt a large amount.
i. In this light, the Passover command to purge the leaven had a health purpose. This method of fermentation, used week after week, increased the danger of infection or food poisoning, so at least once a year, the Israelites started from scratch.
2. (7-8) We are to live a perpetual Passover feast.
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.
a. Purge out the old leaven: At the Passover feast, all leaven was to be removed from the house, and nothing with leaven in it was to be eaten for a whole week. Paul says that just as the Jews were concerned to remove all leaven from their midst, so the church should have a concern to remove such notorious, unrepentant sinners from their midst.
b. Christ, our Passover: Paul’s connection between the purity of Passover and the Christian life is not a strange stretch. Jesus is in fact our Passover Lamb, whose blood was shed that the judgment of God might pass over us. So, we are to live in the purity that Passover speaks of.
i. Our Christian lives are to be marked by the same things which characterized Passover: salvation, liberation, joy, plenty, and purity from leaven.
c. Since you truly are unleavened: Paul’s point is both clear and dramatic – you must live unleavened because you are unleavened. “Be what you are” is the basic message of the New Testament for Christian living.
i. “Salvation in sin is not possible, it must always be salvation from sin.” (Spurgeon)
d. Sincerity and truth: These are two strong guardrails for the way of the Christian life.
C. The principle of Christian separation.
1. (9) Paul told them, in a previous letter, to avoid sexually immoral (porneia) people.
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.
a. I wrote to you in my epistle: Where is this previous letter from Paul? The apostles wrote many letters to churches which we no longer have. Certainly such letters were inspired to speak to that specific church at that specific time, but not to all the church for all time. So, such letters were not preserved by the Holy Spirit, through the church.
b. Keep company is literally to “mix up together.” In the context of social relations it means to “mingle with,” or “associate with” in a close way.
2. (10-13) Paul clarifies the principle of separation.
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.”
a. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world: Paul did not want the Corinthian Christians to expect godly behavior from ungodly people. To disassociate from sinners in a sinful world would mean we would need to go out of the world.
i. Surprisingly, this is exactly the approach many people take to holiness and Christian living – to get as far away from the world as possible. This was the whole spirit behind the monastic movement in the early and medieval church.
b. Instead, without approving the sin of sinners in this world, we should expect that they would be sinners.
i. It should not surprise or offend us that those who do not yet know Jesus are covetous. Literally, the word means those “who must have more.”
ii. It should not surprise or offend us that those who do not yet know Jesus yet are extortioners (harpax in the ancient Greek). The word describes those who steal by violence.
iii. It should not surprise or offend us that those who do not yet know Jesus act as a reviler, describing a person who is a character assassin.
c. But the Corinthian Christians were to expect Christian behavior from their fellow Christians, and they were not doing this! Instead, Paul commands that they were not even to eat with such a person.
i. In the culture of that day (and in many cultures today), eating with someone is an expression of friendship and partnership. In some cultures, if a man eats at your table, you are bound to regard him as a friend and a partner. Paul warns the Corinthian Christians they cannot continue in Christian fellowship with a notorious sinner who calls himself a Christian.
d. What have I to do with judging those also who are outside? . . . those who are outside God judges: Unfortunately, too many Christians are busy judging those outside of the church (which is God’s job only) and are neglecting purity within the church.
e. Do you not judge those who are inside? . . . Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person”: The Corinthian Christians were failing to judge where they should have made judgment. They should not have “winked” at the notorious sinner among them, and they should not have considered themselves “loving” for doing so.
i. We must remember both reasons why it was important to deal with this sinning man among the Corinthian Christians: not only for the sake of purity in the church, but also for the sake of the man’s own salvation (1 Corinthians 5:5).
2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission