IMMORALITY WITHIN THE CHURCH

1 CORINTHIANS 5:1-13

When my older brother was still a teenager, he came home from work complaining of a sharp pain in his side. He went to his bedroom and lay down, hoping that it would go away, but it continued to persist. After two days, the pain had grown steadily worse and finally my parents drove him to the hospital. When the doctors examined him, they found that his appendix had bust and that he was in need of an immediate operation. They quickly wheeled him into the operating room and put him to sleep and cut into his body to remove the diseased organ.

The doctors later told my brother that if the operation had been delayed for another day, he would have died as the toxins from the bust appendix poisoned his body.

The church at Corinth was in need of a similar operation. There was within the church a diseased part of the body that was poisoning the rest of the church. Paul, like a skillful surgeon, makes his diagnosis and calls for the immediate removal of that part of the body which is infected with the disease of immorality.

 

A DEADLY DIAGNOSIS

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife. 2 And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst. (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

The morality of the city of Corinth was much like the morality of Fort Lauderdale. It was commonplace to hear of couples who were living together outside the bonds of marriage and homosexuality was considered to be an acceptable alternative.

The believers of the church at Corinth had been saved out of that immorality. They had been called by the righteous Son of God to be pure and holy and set apart as a special people to the service of God.

There was a problem. They still lived in the city of Corinth. While living within this city, they began to be influenced by its low moral standards. Instead of living like Christians, some of them began to live like Corinthians. In this way, immorality crept into the church.

Paul had heard some disturbing news from Corinth. Reports had reached him of a crippling disease that was infecting the wholesomeness of the church. Like a cancer, it was slowly spreading its poison throughout the body. It had now reached a point where the immorality that was going on within the church was even surpassing that of the pagan city of Corinth.

There was a case in the church at Corinth in which a man was living in open incest with his fatherís wife. Presumably this was his stepmother.

Not only was this kind of relationship forbidden in the Scriptures (Leviticus 18:7-8; Deuteronomy 22:30), but it was not even practiced among the Gentiles. Such a practice was even considered to be immoral in the ungodly society of Corinth. The Corinthian Christians had managed to shock a city where homosexuality and adultery were commonplace.

There are several things we ought to note about this situation:

a. This is an on-going situation.

Paul speaks in the present tense (someone has his father's wife). He is not referring to a sin that took place once and then was followed by sorrow and repentance. He is describing a continuing relationship that is still in progress.

b. There is a member of the church involved in this situation.

The one who was involved in this sin was a member of the church at Corinth. He was still accepted as a member of the Christian community, even though he was living in open immorality.

This person is claiming loyalty and devotion to Jesus Christ while he is living a sinful lifestyle. He is passing himself off as a follower of Christ while living a life that is in accordance with Satan.

c. The church has been tolerant of this situation.

Paulís complaint is not merely that the sin has taken place, but that there has been no outcry within the church to have this sinning member removed. There has been no exercise of any form of church discipline. The sinful condition was allowed and accepted by the rest of the church. The only attitude that the church had manifested in the face of this sin is that of arrogance.

The sin that had reared its ugly head in Corinth was only the tip of the iceberg. Its presence brought to light a more sinister problem -- that of spiritual arrogance.

Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn" (Matthew 5:4). Instead of mourning over the sinful condition that had infected their church, the Corinthians Christians became proud and arrogant.

They had rationalized their allowance of this sin in their midst by claiming that it was a sign of their liberty. They were using the concept of grace to excuse sin.

Many years ago, I found myself sharing the gospel with a little girl who lived in the neighborhood. I explained to her that we have all sinned and that Christ died to take away sin. I told her that she needed to believe in Christ to have her sins removed. As I was summarizing, I asked her, "What do you have to do to go to heaven?" She thought for a moment and then replied, "Sin a lot!"

Some of the Corinthian Christians seem to have suffered a similar misconception. They reasoned that, if Christ died to pay for sins, then it is okay to sin a lot.

They not only excused sin in their midst, but they were proud of its presence. They were proud of their "gracious attitude." Their pride led to arrogance.

Pride is like that. A proud heart has the effect of blinding the eyes to that which is wrong. But Christianity is not a religion of pride. We have nothing about which to be proud because everything we have has been given to us.

 

A PRESCRIBED TREATMENT

For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.

In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 5:3-5).

Paul moves from the diagnosis of the disease to its treatment. He calls for an immediate operation. He calls for a surgical removal of that part of the body that has been infected.

Up to this point in his epistle, Paul has been calling for the unity of the church at Corinth. Now he points out that there is also a need for division. There are times when the church of God needs to be divided. This is such a time.

Notice that we have a continuous chain of thought in these three verses. In the Greek this is a single sentence. The main clause looks like this:

For I... have already judged him... as though I were present... to deliver such a one to Satan.

Paul imagines himself present in Corinth and tells them what he has already done in his own mind with regards to this matter. He pictures himself at the meeting of the church. He stands during the meeting and speaks a solemn word of rebuke. He directs the body to remove the sinning member from its midst. This is the principle of church discipline.

The church is to exercise this discipline "in the name of our Lord Jesus." There is a reason for this. The church has no authority of its own. The only authority it has is that which has been delegated to it by Jesus Christ. This authority includes the authority to exercise discipline.

"And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 And 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-gatherer. (Matthew 18:15-17).

Jesus sets forth the process by which church discipline is to function. When you first become aware that another member of the church is involved in some specific sin, you are to go to him in private. It may be that he will listen to your reproof and that he will repent. At that point, the church discipline has reached its desired objective -- the restoration of the sinning believer.

If this sinning believer refuses to listen to you, then you are to take one or two other Christians with you and once again confront him with his sin. If he repents of his sin, then you have accomplished your purpose and the matter is at an end.

If the believer refuses to listen to you and to the others who have come with you, then the sin is to be taken before the ruling body of the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to be removed from the church. He is to be considered a pagan and treated as though he were "a Gentile and a tax-gatherer" (18:17).

The discipline against the rebellious Christian does not end here. Christ continues in the following verses:

"Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst." (Matthew 18:18-20).

The church is given some very real authority here. It is given the authority to bind and to loose both on earth and in heaven. It is given the power-of-attorney for our Lord.

Notice what I have said. I did not say that the pope of the Roman Catholic Church has this power. I did not say that the pastor of your church has this power. It is the church as a collective group that is given this authority.

This is exactly what Paul is describing when he speaks of when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus. This is the meeting of the church. At this meeting, the church is to move as a unified body in expelling that member that is infected and that has repeatedly refused to be cured.

This has been a troublesome verse for Bible scholars. There are two primary interpretations that have been suggested.

Which view is the correct one? I believe them BOTH to be correct. This act includes the removal of the sinning man from the assembly of the church, but it goes far beyond that. This man is handed over to Satan. The mighty hand of Godís protection is removed. Satan is given full reign to do to this man as he wishes.

That is what happened to Job. It is not that Job has sinned. He had not. He was not the victim of church discipline. Yet his body was nevertheless handed over into the power of Satan. His possessions were destroyed, his family killed and his body tormented with disease. It was by the hand of Satan that all of these calamities befell him. Why would God allow one of His special children to undergo such torment?

The reason the sinning member of the church is to be expelled from the church and delivered over to Satan so that his body will suffer destruction is for his ultimate spiritual benefit.

I have to admit that this sounds a little far fetched on the surface. It reminds me of when my father used to take off his belt to spank me. He would say, "This is for your own good." Frankly, I was more than a bit skeptical.

Do you want to know something? He was right! It was for my own good. My daughter heard similar words from me when she was little and she was probably skeptical, too. But now she is grown with children of her own and she believes it, too.

The reason the sinning believer is to be delivered to Satan is so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. The discipline of the sinning believer is an integral part of the salvation process.

This is important. When you first came to Christ in faith, you began a process. You were saved, but you also began to be saved. You were set apart and made holy, but that holiness also began to be worked out in your life in a very practical way You are not perfect, but you are better than you were. You are moving toward a goal. That goal is to be like Christ. God is very concerned that you reach that goal. When you begin to deviate from that goal and to fall into sin, God does something drastic to bring you back. He gives His people, the church, the authority to call you back and, if that does not work, He gives His people the authority to deliver you into the power of Satan.

Satan would love to get his hands on you. He would delight in doing to you what he did to Job. He would love to destroy your body. God will allow it if it means bringing you back to Himself. He will allow it if it means the saving of your spirit.

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "This is a little extreme, isnít it? Couldnít God just stand us in a corner and send us to bed without any supper?" Yes, it is extreme. But sin is also extreme. God wants His people to be free from sin and He will go to any length to accomplish that end. He even went to the extreme of sending His Son to die for us. That is how important your salvation is to God.

 

THE LESSON OF LEAVEN

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7 Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Paul now moves to illustrate the truths that he has been teaching. His illustration revolves around the use of leaven. What is leaven?

When bread was to be baked, a small piece of dough would be broken off and put to the side. This small piece would sit there for several days until it began to ferment and turn sour. Once it had turned sour, this piece of "leaven" would be placed into a sack of flour from which the next batch of bread would be made. It was this kind of process that caused the bread to rise when it was baked.

Paul uses the leavening process to illustrate what is going on within the church at Corinth. Just as a little pinch of leaven causes the entire lump of dough to be affected, so also, a little sin allowed to remain within the church will cause the entire church to be influenced by that sin.

Sin always has a negative influence. It is like gangrene. If it is allowed to remain, it will spread to the entire body. You can have a big church and a great Sunday School and an active evangelism program and be caring for the poor, but if sin is allowed to remain, then the church will ultimately die.

Only a little leaven is required to begin the process of fermentation. It quickly mingles with and permeates any product into which it is introduced. Sin is the same way. It has a tendency to grow and multiply itself until it has infected the entire environment. It is like taking a white glove and rubbing it in mud. You do not see the mud become "glovey."

This brings Paul to his conclusion. It is to remove the infected areas -- those who continue to live in sin. It is an exhortation to remove sin from the church. If there is sin in your life, then you are to remove that sin. There is a reason for this. It is so that you can become what you have been declared to be.

You are to clean out the old lump of leaven so that you can be a new lump because you already are a new lump. You are told to clean yourself. And yet, you have already been declared by God to be clean in your position. Your experience needs to match your position. You need to live like what you are. You donít live a holy life so that you CAN be holy; you live a holy life because you ARE holy.

As a result of such holy living, you will be a new lump. This is interesting. You would have thought that holy living would make you into something else that is not connected with leaven, but Paul says that you will be a new lump.

This tells me something about leaven. Leaven doesnít necessarily represent sin. Rather leaven represents INFLUENCE. It might be a bad and a sinful influence ("old leaven"). Or it might be a good and a positive influence ("new lump").

Here is the lesson. You ARE an influence in your world. The question is what kind of influence are you going to be?

The figure of leaven was closely tied in the Jewish mind to the Passover. The Passover and the week that followed was a time when every Jew was required to eat unleavened bread. This was to symbolize that they were Godís people and that they had left their old ways behind when they came out of Egypt in the Exodus.

Each year, they would eat the Passover lamb that had been sacrificed for them and they would eat unleavened bread and they would remember what God had done for them.

Now the image has changed. We do not look to a once-a-year sacrifice. We do not remove the leaven from our tables once a year. Our Passover is a continuing Passover. Christ died with respect to sin once and for all. He is the ultimate Passover Lamb. He died on the cross and the wrath of God passed over us and rested upon Him. That sacrifice needs never to be repeated.

Every day is a Passover for us. Therefore we do not remove leaven once a year. Instead we are to keep the leaven of sin away every day.

 

LIMITS OF SEPARATION

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

Paul has told the Corinthians to separate themselves from the member who is sinning. He now moves to define the limits of which this separation is to have.

The Corinthians have a tendency to do everything to the extreme. There have been those who heard the message of grace and liberty who have assumed that it is okay to remain in sin. But there are also those who take separation to the point where they are separating from everyone and wonít even evangelize because it means talking to an unbeliever. And so, Paul defines the limits of separation. This separation applies only to those who claim to be Christians.

5:1-5

5:6-8

5:9-13

Separation Commanded

Separation Illustrated

Separation Explained

Believers ordered to separate from the sinning believer

Leaven illustrates the need for separation

Believers are not to try to separate from pagans, but only from the unrepentant who claim to be believers

This has been taken by some scholars to refer to a previous letter that Paul had written to the Corinthians. But such an interpretation is not necessary.

Paul has just finished telling the Corinthians not to associate with immoral people. That has been his message in the first part of this chapter. Now he is going to explain what he means by "immoral people."

Corinth was filled with immoral people. Outside of the church, there were hardly any people to be found in Corinth who could not be described as immoral people.

If the Corinthians are not to associate with immoral people and if there are only immoral people in Corinth, then that means the Corinthians believers will not be able to associate with anyone who lives in Corinth. Right? Wrong! Paul doesnít mean for them to disassociate themselves from all sinners. To do that, they would have to build a rocket ship and leave planet earth.

What Paul does mean is that the Corinthian believers are not to associate with an immoral person if that person is claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

You donít have to deliver a sinning unbeliever over to Satan because he already belongs to Satan. An unbeliever lives according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:1). He is by nature a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:2).

This separation that is commanded by Paul applies only to those who are "so-called brothers." It applies to the man who claims to be a Christian and yet lives a lifestyle that is like the world. Paul gives a list of sins that describe such a lifestyle:

He is an immoral person,

or covetous,

or an idolater,

or a reviler,

or a drunkard,

or a swindler.

I want you to notice something about this list. There are a lot more serious sins that are left out. This list doesnít say anything about murder or rape or armed robbery. It is made up of sins that would have been "socially acceptable" within the city of Corinth. But Christians are not to live like Corinthians. Christians are not to live like Americans. Christians are to live like Christ.

The man who claims to be a Christian and yet who continues to live like the world is to suffer discipline. He has been warned. He has been exhorted to repent. He has refused to listen. He has been put out of the church. Now you are to have nothing to do with him.

Every social contact is to be broken off with the man who claims to be a Christian and yet who continues to live in his sin.

It is not merely that he is not permitted to partake of the Lordís Supper. It is not only that he is excluded from the worship of the church. He is to be shunned by the Christian community until he has returned to repentance. He is not to be permitted to attend home Bible studies. He is not to be invited over for dinner. He is to be totally shunned. There are several reasons for this.

Does this mean that we hate the man who has fallen into sin? Not at all. But we do hate the sin in which he is involved and we cannot accept him as long as he lives in a way that is inconsistent with what he claims to be.

The story has been told and retold of a soldier in the Macedonian army who was brought before Alexander the Great on a charge of cowardice. Alexander heard the charge and then asked the man, "What is your name?" In a barely audible voice, the man replied, "Alexander."

"What is your name?" asked Alexander again? Once more, the wretched soldier replied, "Alexander." The king stood up before the man and ordered, "Either change your behavior or change your name."

That is what Jesus says to us. He has declared us to be righteous and holy. We have been made sons of God. We are a holy people. Now we are called to live accordingly. Are you a Christian? Are you living the part? Either change your behavior or change your name.

_____________________________

About the Author

Return to the John Stevenson Bible Study Page

Have a Comment?