(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

This is a passage largely ignored by preachers. It has also given rise to some nonsensical observations by conservative commentators. Authoritarian pastors have unwisely used 1 Corinthians 5 to justify a purge of dissidents from their churches. Finally, the lessons learned from a correct interpretation of the passage are difficult to implement today due to the changed nature of the church. There was only one church at Corinth!

(B) A grave moral lapse.

Paul described it in these words: A man has his father's wife. v1

(1) The nature of the offence.
The young man hadn't married his father's wife. That is not what Paul wrote. The young man has his father's wife. In other words he is sleeping with his step mother - not his actual mother. If he had been sleeping with his mother Paul would have said so. This would have been a far graver offence. Nor does Paul indicate that the man was sleeping with his father's widow. The father is still alive, a fact confirmed by his second epistle: So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did wrong or the injured party. 2Cor7v12.

(2) We can imagine what happened.
A Christian youth is living at home with his middle-aged pagan parents. His mother dies and his father marries a much younger woman - nearer to his son's age than his own. The son and his step mother spend a lot of time together and it is clear the young woman prefers his company to that of her husband. Before long they fall in love. The father would have been wiser to marry someone of his own age!

(3) Wrong behaviour.
What the young man did was very wrong because he:

  • (a) Persuaded his father's wife to be unfaithful.
  • (b) Stole the affection of his father's wife.
  • (c) Showed disrespect for his father. He hardly honoured his father!
  • (d) Was a shocking witness to unbelieving Gentiles.

    The gravest kinds of immorality are where we wrong others - deceive, cheat, steal, defraud and traduce.

    (C) Unforgivable inaction.

    The church members at Corinth did nothing about the immoral young man's behaviour. Paul indicated how they should have reacted: Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this. v2.

    Why didn't the Corinthian church take disciplinary action? Paul provides the answer: And you are proud! v2. The Corinthians believed that they were superior Christians. They were self-congratulatory and tremendously pleased with themselves.

    The believers at Corinth were proud of:

    (1) The overall quality of their church.
    They were so convinced of how wonderful everything was that there could be no problems and no erring brothers and sisters.

    This is quite a common feature of English schools. The senior managers are so full of themselves, so convinced of their leadership prowess and so proud of their school that there is an unwillingness to recognise that any bad behaviour exists among the pupils. There are no disruptive, rude children, no bullies, no drug pushers and no feckless, lazy students. As a consequence there is no need for a structured system of discipline and as a result teachers suffer in their classrooms! Totally unacceptable conduct is never punished. How could it be? It doesn't exist! Such establishments are among the very worst in existence.

    This was the state of affairs in the church at Corinth and it is the state of affairs in modern churches all over the world. It means that totally inappropriate behaviour in Christians goes unchecked and the reputation of the church suffers.

    (2) Their spiritual health and vitality.
    It is possible the Corinthian Christians considered that there were so many strong, mature believers in the fellowship that a few immature, wayward ones could be accommodated without too much trouble.

    In England there are certain schools that are judged by their local authority to have a good disciplinary record and strong staff. These are sometimes sent awkward, anti-social pupils who have been suspended from other schools. Even two or three really difficult children will affect the atmosphere in a school and exploit such weaknesses as exist.

    No church is going to remain unaffected by a handful of problem Christians. Eventually they will cause difficulties and dissention unless disciplined by the fellowship as a whole. It is dangerous to be complacent about the very smallest outbreak of skin cancer.

    (3) Their inclusiveness.
    It is possible the Corinthians were proud of their inclusiveness. Like the Church of England Corinth was a broad church. In Anglicanism all shades of opinion are welcome. Much is made of tolerance and love. Just as Jesus accepted publicans and sinners so does the Episcopalian Church. This is an approach I am very sympathetic to! Unfortunately it can result in condoning behaviour that is immoral. It is not appropriate for practising homosexuals to be clergymen! Parsons should not be drunk and disorderly. Jesus ministered to prostitutes and extortionists in the hope that they would repent!

    (4) Their understanding.
    I expect many Christians at Corinth understood only too well how the young brother fell in love with his stepmother and ended up sleeping with her. I expect some blamed the father for marrying someone young enough to be his daughter.

    During my time as a schoolmaster I participated in many discussions about problem children. One of the very good things about my last school was that such pupils could be brought up during our daily briefings. This sometimes put our headmaster on the spot but to his credit he never abandoned this policy. More often than I liked, pastoral staff would explain that a pupil's behaviour was understandable in view of his difficult home life. The impression was given that now we knew why a boy behaved badly no further action was needed. I would invariably protest at this juncture and say something like: "When X goes out into the big wide world his employers are not going to make allowances because of his background and upbringing. They will just sack him! We will do X no favours if we fail to discipline him." My interventions were never warmly welcomed.

    Churches that have what is called a grown up attitude to immorality are worldly. The Corinthians were in Paul's estimation worldly. So, too, are those Christians who have a liberal, permissive attitude to wicked behaviour. The tragedy is that so-called progressive churches boast about their liberalism.

    (D) The need for judgment.

    (1) Misdemeanours requiring action.
    Paul gives a list of serious misdeeds the church should take action against: I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. v11.

    When such misdemeanours are evident amongst Christians the church is damaged and acquires a deservedly bad reputation among unbelievers.

    So let us look briefly at Paul's list:

      (a) Sexual immorality includes paedophilia, practising homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and promiscuity.

      (b) Greed. This could include a lot of categories! Business men who exploit cheap labour are greedy. The shareholders of big supermarkets who screw suppliers to maximise profits are greedy. Top executives of public utilities who award themselves big bonuses are greedy. There are all sorts of greed - greed for advancement, greed for fame and greed for recognition.

      (c) Idolatry. Anyone who puts something else in God's place is an idolater. This can be the Bible, a system of theology, a religious leader, traditions and rituals. The Pharisees were idolaters because their interpretations of the law were more important than God, himself. Such was their love of custom and tradition that they rejected God's son.

      (c) Slander. It is possible to slander a race - like the Dutch Reformed Church, another religion or branch of Christianity whether it be Roman Catholic, Charismatic or Calvinist. It is also very wrong to misrepresent another person maliciously and to spread lies about them. I know of a pastor who put his arm around a woman to comfort her and she spread rumours that he was sexually harassing her. Paul would advocate putting such a woman out of the church.

      (d) Drunkenness. A habitually drunk Christian is a disgrace. The British are remarkably tolerant of drunkenness!

      (e) Swindling. Anyone who cheats is a swindler. Ananias and Sapphira were swindlers because they pretended to give to the early church the proceeds from the sale all their land whereas they kept some for themselves. They were punished! (See exposition on Acts5v1to11.) It is wrong to simulate sickness for sympathy, to raise money for charity and take a cut or to claim powers that you don't possess - like spiritual healing. Charlatans of all sorts should be expelled from the church.

    (2) Of church members only.
    Paul wrote: What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

    I hear a lot of sermons in which the preacher condemns the people of the world. Paul says that is not our business. That is God's business: God will judge those outside. v13. Christians are responsible for discipline inside the church. A preacher has to address the faults and failings of Christians.

    (3) Discernment is needed.
    No church should expel members for:

      (a) Trivialities. The Pharisees were quite prepared to excommunicate someone for healing on the Sabbath. They strained out the gnat and swallowed a camel. So it is wrong to discipline Christians for smoking , moderate drinking, owning and watching TV, playing sport on Sunday afternoon, plastic surgery, gossip and so on.

      (b) Disagreeing on points of doctrine based on interpretations of Scripture.

    People should only be excluded from church life for acts of gross immorality.

    (4) Continued inaction.
    It is remarkable how little notice many churches pay to Paul's list of types of unacceptable behaviour. The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.A was remarkably tolerant of priests who molested children. Anglican Bishops are unwilling to take action against clergymen who practice homosexuality or who are habitually drunk. In my part of Suffolk I knew of two parsons who were chronic alcoholics. Everyone knew that they were alcoholics but nothing was done about it. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa embraced racism instead of expelling its racist members. Sad to say one or two of the Grace Baptist churches that I know so well give succour to people who idolise the Authorised Version of the Bible. I wonder when was the last time a person was asked to leave his church because he was greedy!

    (E) Remedial action.

    Paul's proposed remedial action for serious immorality has already been mentioned. There are four points I want to make about it:

    (1) It was drastic.
    Paul leaves the Corinthians in no doubt what should happen to the erring brother: Put out of the fellowship. v2. Expel the wicked man from among you. v13. You must not associate with ..... . v11. With such a man do not even eat. v11.

    The flagrant sinner must be cast out of the church and ostracised by every church member. This is very drastic action - far worse than giving the sinner a good whipping!

    (2) It was a whole church decision.
    Discipline was not left to the leaders. It wasn't the responsibility of a caste of priests to give penance! It was something the whole church had to do. It wasn't even something that Paul, with apostolic authority, could undertake himself - although he would be with them in spirit! No church member was expected to opt out - to absent themselves from the meeting to decide the matter. It is known for Christians to stop away from a church meeting where they have to take responsibility for an unpleasant decision.

    I have heard Christians pour scorn on the democratic principle of church government. Such critics laugh at the idea that the early church was democratic. It is therefore worth noting that the decision to expel the immoral brother was taken by a majority. Paul wrote in his second letter to Corinth: The punishment inflicted on him by the majority. 2Cor2. The only way a church can come to a majority decision is if there is a vote of some sort!

    (3) The purpose of drastic church discipline.
    Paul wrote: Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. v5.

    Some commentators have very strange ideas over what Paul means by handing the man over to Satan. They reckon that Satan was being invited to make him physically ill - to afflict him as he supposedly afflicted Job. To support this view Paul's description of his thorn in the flesh is quoted: A messenger of Satan. Another reference cited is Jesus' description of the deformed woman: Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has kept bound for 18 years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? Lk13v16.

    There are Christians who still talk about illness in these terms; arthritis, gout, cancer, malaria - are each sent by Satan.

    I cannot accept this. Illness is the product of natural causes - not supernatural ones. The fact is: gout, cancer, malaria can all be treated without recourse to an exorcist! Nor am I happy about blaming the fall and human suffering all onto Satan. He is not even indirectly responsible for man's ill health. Adam and Eve of their own volition disobeyed God.

    So what does Paul, and Jesus for that matter, mean? When the young man who succumbed to temptation and slept with his step mother was put out of the church and into the world, Satan would seize on that to tempt him. Satan used Job's afflictions to put him to the test. Whenever we experience sorrow, disappointment or illness Satan will exploit it to tempt us. So illness and other set backs are closely associated with Satan. I think this is why Paul referred to his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan. Jesus knew that the woman was bound not only by her physical illness but also by Satan who used it to demoralise her and undermine her confidence in God.

    So once the immoral believer is expelled from the church Satan is going to tempt him to be:

      (a) Angry with his fellow Christians for their lack of understanding.
      (b) Resentful because he has been unfairly treated. There are others as bad as himself who have not been expelled from the church.
      (c) Bitter. The man tells himself that he is best out of the fellowship if that is what Christians are like - so narrow-minded and blinkered.
      (d) Obdurate. He decides to continue the affair with his stepmother as if nothing has happened. Why should he change?

    If the immoral young man resists temptation, passes the test and repents then he will have overcome his sinful nature. He will prove that he is a genuine believer and that his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord - the final judgment.

    (4) The difficult of exerting church discipline today.
    There is a price to pay for the fragmentation of the church. The young man at Corinth was bereft - cast adrift in the world and cut off from the warm and loving fellowship that he valued so much. Today a person excluded from one church will simply go to another. There was only one church in Corinth. In Bury St Edmunds there are about 20! They do not co-operate when it comes to exerting discipline!

    (F) A fatal infection.

    (1) A choice to make.
    What was the fatal infection at Corinth that Paul likened to leaven? Was it the young man's sexual immorality or the church's triumphalism - the overweening vanity of it's members? Which of the two alternatives acts most like leaven? A little leaven mixed into a batch of dough rapidly affects it all.

    Paul prefaces his remarks on the leaven with the observation: Your boasting is not good. v6. Not many Corinthians would sleep with their step mothers but many of them had become self-satisfied, complacent and puffed up. Triumphalism and liberalism result in permissiveness that allows many kinds of wickedness to flourish.

    (2) The infectious attitudes.
    Attitudes are infectious - it is these that are like leaven. It is the 'isms' that do so much harm to the church - triumphalism, legalism, formalism, cynicism, materialism, consumerism, ritualism, emotionalism, scepticism, liberalism and defeatism. If any of these spread through a church it will make the fellowship sick. Collectively they represent the old yeast of malice and wickedness. v8 Their influence is pernicious and mischievous.

    (3) A dangerous focus.
    Paul instructed the Corinthians: Get rid of the old yeast... . v7. At the Passover the Jews would search their houses to root out every last piece of leaven lest they should be contaminated.

    If the church focuses narrowly on sexual immorality or Sabbath observance there is the real danger of lapsing into legalism. Then the church becomes a place of rules and regulations - like the Judaism of the Pharisees in the time of Christ. Philip Yancey writes about the stifling legalism of his boyhood church in the Deep South of U.S.A. where the emphasis was on prohibiting short skirts, lipstick, dancing and the cinema.

    Paul wants the church to free of all the 'isms', to be bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. v8. If a fellowship is infected by an 'ism' Christ's truth is adulterated by something else.

    (4) Paul's admission.
    In his second epistle to Corinth Paul admits that it is the attitude of the church that concerned him rather than the particular sin of the erring young man. I wrote as I did so that the Lord could show how much you really care for us. That was my purpose even more than to help the man who sinned, or his father to whom he did wrong. 2Cor7v12. (Living Bible).

    I wrote to you as I did so that I could find out how far you would go in obeying me. 2Cor2v9.

    So Paul was exerting his authority in the hope that the Corinthians would show a very different attitude, be humbled and submit.

    (G) A happy ending.

    The young man who was expelled from the church was a genuine Christian. He experienced great sorrow and in Paul's words he was in danger of being overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 2Cor2v8. The man repented and stopped sleeping with his father's wife. So Paul was able to write: The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead you ought to forgive and comfort him..... . I urge you therefore to reaffirm your love for him. 2Cor2v7and8.

    The erring brother was only temporarily excluded. To use a sporting term, he spent some time in the sin bin. It brought him to his senses. I found that it was sometimes salutary to banish a child from the classroom. It gave the pupil time for reflection and sober self-examination. Some, if not all, did repent and their behaviour improved.

    One of the great tragedies today occurs when a Christian man leaves his wife to live with, and subsequently marry, a Christian woman who has left her husband. Two families are damaged and to make matters worse the two who remarry never repent. Without repentance there is no forgiveness. The erring couple will ultimately pay a high price for personal happiness.

    ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net