“Dealing with Immorality in the Church” (1 Corinthians 5:1-8)

Until this point, Paul has been dealing with the problem of divisions in the church.  Now he moves on to a second problem, which also threatens to infect the entire body…

“Be what you are.” That is the constant message of the NT writers.  The message of the gospel is that through faith in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness of our sins and stand before God in the righteousness of Christ, just as righteous as if we had never sinned.  That is the truth of justification – being declared “not guilty” before God’s judgment seat because of the righteousness and sacrificial death of Jesus.  That is our standing if we are in Jesus.  That is what we are.

But there is a gap between our standing in Christ and the way we live our lives.  God calls us as His people to work at closing that gap.  Since we have been declared righteous, and holy, in Christ, we are to live righteous and holy lives.  Paul says it at the very beginning of this letter, in his greeting in 1 Cor. 1:2. He says the Corinthians are those “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” They have been set apart as holy to God through their faith in Christ.  Then he goes on to say they are “called to be saints” – holy ones. Since they have been declared holy and righteous in Christ, they are to live holy and righteous lives.

Paul’s burden in this passage is: Since Christ has delivered us from sin, we must remove sin from us. We must remove it to reclaim those caught in sin, and to preserve the purity of the Church.

1. To reclaim those caught in sin (vv. 3-5)
Paul calls attention to the particular sin in 1 Cor. 5:1. Paul has heard a report about the sexual immorality that exists in the Corinthian Church.  You may remember back in 1 Cor. 1:11, when Paul began addressing the divisions in the church, that he had heard of the problem from those of Chloe’s household.  But this report seems to come from a much broader source.  The word for “actually” can also mean generally speaking, everywhere.  It seems that the Corinthian church had become notorious for the sexual immorality they permitted.  The city of Corinth was infamous for this kind of immorality in the ancient world.  Not far from the city, on the highest peak of the nearby mountains, stood the temple of Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love and beauty.  The temple was served by a thousand female prostitutes.  The goddess was worshipped through sexual relations with these prostitutes.  With this kind of influence, to practice immorality in the ancient world came to be known as “Corinthianizing.”  Prostitutes were known as “Corinthian girls.”  The church in Corinth was obviously having a difficult time overcoming the sins of its culture.  In fact, they are known for even going beyond what was permitted in their culture.

The example Paul cites is one of incest – “a man has his father’s wife.”  In the Bible, the phrase “to have a woman” implies marriage or at least an ongoing sexual relationship.  The woman is not called the man’s mother, so it appears to be a situation where a man’s father had remarried and then died, or perhaps was divorced, and his son then married his step-mother or at least had an ongoing sexual relationship with her.  This was a clear violation of God’s regulation of marriage in the OT. In Leviticus 18:6, sexual relationship with one’s father’s wife is forbidden.  And, in Deut. 22:30, taking one’s father’s wife in marriage is forbidden.

Even the permissive Greco-Roman culture of that day did not allow this kind of incest.  But for some reason the Corinthian church tolerated it.  Paul’s directive to them at the end of 1 Cor. 5:2 is: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”  What does he mean by this?  We see as we read further.

Though he was not in Corinth physically, Paul says in 1 Cor. 5:3 that he is with them in spirit. Charles Hodge points out that this phrase means more than the way we use it today.  By saying he is with them “in spirit,” Paul does not mean he is only thinking about them, but that he has a presence of knowledge about the case, and authority, and power over it, even though he is not physically present. He is saying that he does not have to be physically present to render a judgment in this matter.  In fact, he has already passed judgment on the case and decided the penalty.

He instructs the church to carry out his judgment, not only on His own authority, but for the sake of Christ.  In 1 Cor. 5:4 he says they are to carry it out when assembled “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and “with the power of the Lord Jesus.”  In Matthew 18, after Jesus gave His disciples instructions about dealing with sin among one another, He ended by promising in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”  Not only is Paul with them in spirit, but Jesus Himself is ultimately the One carrying out the discipline in His Church.

Paul has judged in 1 Cor. 5:5 that the offender should be “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”  We encounter this phrase in 1 Tim 1:20 – Paul says he has delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.”  The context and this parallel passage seem to indicate that he is referring to ex-communication – being put outside the communion of the Church.  The writers of the NT clearly distinguished between the domain of the world, which is under the power of Satan, and the domain of the Church, God’s Kingdom, which has Christ as its head.  In John 12:31 (among other places), Jesus calls Satan the ruler of this world.  1 John 5:19 reads: We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.  In Acts 26:18,  Paul says that Jesus sent Him to preach to the Gentiles, in order to deliver them from the power of Satan to God.  In Col. 1:13, He tells those believers that Christ has delivered us from the power of darkness, and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son He loves.

What Paul is saying is that in excommunication, this process is reversed.  To be “delivered to someone” was a technical term used by the police and the court systems.  It meant ‘to hand over into the custody of someone.’  In the Church we are said to be in the custody of Christ.  In the act of excommunication the person is transferred back to the world, the domain of Satan.  They are treated as an unbeliever by the Church and barred from the Lord’s Table.  They no longer have the assurance from God and His Church that they are protected from Satan’s power.

Paul says in v. 5 the purpose of this transfer is “for the destruction of the flesh.”  Paul may have had physical consequences in mind connected with excommunication. There are times in the NT when physical consequences accompany God’s discipline.  Paul will even inform them later, in chapter 11, that many of them are sick, and some even have died, because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper.  Sometimes physical problems are God’s discipline for sin, but not always.

Paul also often refers to our sinful nature, with its carnal desires, as “the flesh.”  In that case, if the person is a true believer, they will not want to be outside the Church and will suffer pain and wake up and repent, overcoming or destroying their sinful nature in that matter.  The goal of church discipline is that the offender might be moved to repentance – for it is in repentance and forgiveness that we are saved.  Paul says that the goal is “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”  He is talking about the Day of Judgment.  He is presuming that this person is a believer.  But he needs to be brought to repentance of sin.  The impurity of unrepentant sin must be removed from the Church.  But the goal as far as the one caught in sin is to reclaim him.

Church discipline is very much neglected today, so I want to draw attention to some things here.  The Reformers thought Church Discipline was so vital that some of them considered it one of the marks of a true church.  Without it, a group perhaps ceases to be a church.

Note that the churches Paul established had some way of determining who was “among them.”  He doesn’t say in v. 2 and 13, “let him be removed from your meetings.”  He says “let him be removed from among you – the people of God.”  It is evident that the early church practiced some sort of membership.  One’s relationship with Christ was carried out through the church.  In our individualistic culture, many see the Church as an optional or loose connection in their lives.  Many churches don’t even practice membership, and many believers caught in sin just bounce from group to group unchallenged.

Note that the local body bears the responsibility to deal with sin in its midst.  Paul uses his authority as an apostle to judge the matter, but he directs them to carry it out, and implies that they already should have done so.

Note that the purpose of disciplining church members is for their good.  Many tend to view it as being “against” the one charged with sin, but that is not the case when it is carried out Biblically.  Sin is a tyrannical master that leads to destruction.  The purpose of church discipline is to reclaim the one caught in sin according to their righteous and holy standing in Christ, free from the bondage of sin.

The second reason we must remove sin from us is…

2. To preserve the purity of the Church (vv. 6-8)
Paul’s main concern is not this person’s sin, but the fact that the church has tolerated it.   He says in v.2 that they are arrogant about it.  We don’t know exactly why they would be prideful about something like that.  Perhaps they thought it was an expression of their freedom in Christ from the Law.  In 6:12, Paul is responding to one of their slogans, which was “all things are lawful for me.”  They seemed to think that their freedom in Christ meant “anything goes.”  Theirs was a greatly mistaken arrogance, though.  Paul says that they should have mourned this sin instead.  It was a sad reflection on the church and her Lord, Jesus Christ.

In v.6, Paul emphasizes to the Corinthians that their “boasting” is not good.  Paul reminds them that this sin which they surprisingly are arrogant about could have a devastating effect, because sin tends to spread (1 Cor. 5:6b… Paul asks…).  Paul “borrows an illustration from the kitchen”  here.

Leaven is yeast, an agent which makes dough rise.  If you have ever made bread or rolls with yeast in them, you know that you only put a little bit of yeast in.  But when you put it into the lump of dough and give it time, it works its way through the entire lump and makes it expand to twice its original size, or more.  You put the rolls in a warm place at bedtime, and by morning the yeast has worked through the lumps so they have grown.

So, leaven became a common metaphor in the Bible for the corrupting influence of sin.  Paul’s point is that a relatively small amount of sin, even one sin, if it is not dealt with properly, can spread its influence throughout an entire church body.

Therefore, Paul urges them in 1 Cor. 5:7a…
Here Paul uses other familiar terminology describing the person who is in Christ by faith and has been made alive by the Holy Spirit.  In His second letter to the Corinthians, He will remind them that in Christ we are new creations.  The old things have passed away.  All things have become new.  Specifically, what makes us “new” is the presence of a new spirit within us – the Holy Spirit Himself.  The Holy Spirit is the One who applies the saving work of Christ to us and seals us in it.  When He does that, He places us in Christ, in whom we are declared holy in the sight of God.  That is our position in Christ.  So, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their position in Christ.  He says “you really are unleavened.”  You really are righteous and holy in Christ.  Therefore, live in your daily lives what you already are in Christ.  Live in purity and cleanse out any sin among you in order to preserve the purity of the Church.

Again, notice the importance of living out our Christian faith in the context of the entire church body.  We are to be concerned not only about our own personal purity, but the purity of our entire church body.

In the second half of v.7, Paul gives another reason for removing sin from our lives…
Up until the time of Christ, Passover  represented the greatest redemptive event in the life of God’s covenant people.  After 400 years of bondage in Egypt, God called Moses to deliver His people.  When Pharaoh would not listen to Moses, God brought various plagues upon Egypt, but protected His own people.  The last and greatest plague was the plague of the firstborn.  Every firstborn male in Egypt was to die.  But the Israelites were instructed to take a lamb without blemish and sacrifice it as a substitute for their firstborn.  They were to take some of its blood and smear it on the doorposts of their houses.  When the angel of death went throughout Egypt that night, wherever he saw the blood, he passed over, and the people were spared.   After the plague of the firstborn, the Egyptians sent the Israelites out of their land immediately.  They did not even have enough time for their bread to rise, so they ate unleavened bread.

The Passover Lamb was a symbol pointing forward to the sacrifice of Christ.  He is the One whose sacrifice delivers us from spiritual bondage and death.  When His righteous blood is applied to us, the angel of death passes over, and we receive eternal life.  God commanded the Israelites to observe the Passover in the first month of their year.  The feast associated with Passover was the feast of Unleavened Bread. As part of this feast, the Israelites were to remove all leaven from their houses for seven days, and bake unleavened bread.  They were to remember what the Lord had done for them in delivering them from their affliction in Egypt.

In v.8 Paul says that we are to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread – not as the Jews did with physical bread, but by setting apart our lives to God and removing the old leaven of sin from them – the leaven of malice and evil.  We keep the feast (continually, the original verb is in the present tense) by practicing the unleavened, righteous traits of sincerity (purity of motive) and truth (purity of action).  He says that Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed.  We are free from the bondage of sin. Therefore all who celebrate His saving work and claim it for themselves must devote their lives to Him by removing sin from themselves.

What is it that is leftover from your sinful nature that still needs to be cleaned out?  Are you harboring what you think of as a “little” sin?  Something which you think is too small for anyone else to notice?  If we take sin seriously, then we will realize that any sin left to itself will spread throughout our lives.  We will repent of it and seek to remove it from our lives.  Do you realize that if you are in Christ, you stand as holy before God already, and sin has no rightful place in your life?  Do you see sin rightly as bondage from which you have been delivered in Christ?  We must be at constant war with sin in our lives.  And, we must be willing to correct other believers in love when they are caught in sin, for their own sake, and for the sake of the purity of the entire church.

In Christ, we are pure – holy and righteous. Let us be more and more what we are.