How to Deal with Sin in the Church – 1 Corinthians 5

Protecting the Church through Holiness

So far Paul has dealt with the church’s division and their idolatry of worldly wisdom, both of which would serve to destroy the church (3:17) if they continued. Now, in chapter 5, he turns to another issue that had the ability to destroy the church and nullify its reason for existence and that was their arrogance and lack of submission to biblical authority. In this chapter Paul points to a specific case of sexual immorality and he teaches the church how to deal with such sin, but rather than spend much time focused on that specific incident, he is ultimately focused on the church’s immorality and arrogance for fear that they will not fulfill their purpose of representing Jesus.

Paul begins by addressing the church with regard to the man who is living in sexual immorality. As it turns out, a member of the church is sleeping with his stepmother (we know it was his stepmother because Paul used the phrase “his father’s wife” rather than “his mother”). Exasperated, Paul proclaims that sin such as this isn’t even acceptable among the pagans, and yet the church was proud! We don’t know if they were arrogant in spite of what was going on or because they were tolerant of it, but either way, Paul was enraged.

Of course it’s easy for us to see how corrupt of an idea sleeping with one’s stepmother is, but I want to be sure that we catch the thrust of what Paul is saying here in that he is speaking against all sexual immorality and the necessity of purity within the church.  The word that Paul uses for sexual immorality here refers to fornication which would include anything from adultery, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, or any kind of perversion.

Part of the problem for this church was the culture they came out of. The Greek view of life was the idea that sex was a biological urge just as much as taking a drink of water or sleeping or eating. So for them, any type of sex was just natural – whatever happened, happened. Sadly, that isn’t too far off our culture today.

Now, of course, God had made himself abundantly clear about how He felt about sexual immorality. Any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage was absolutely forbidden by God. Deuteronomy 22 is one example of God’s guidelines regarding sex and it shows how important sexual purity is to God. Immorality has always been unacceptable to God.

The same idea is extended into the New Testament as well. Jesus spoke of immorality and adultery and the apostles did as well. In the next chapter we will hear Paul even delineate a list of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God and listen to who he includes in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. He says,

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

In other words, that kind of living is incompatible with God’s kingdom. Paul mentions this again in 1 Corinthians 10:8 reminding them of what happened in Moses’ day when he went up on Mt. Sinai saying, “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.” 23,000 people died because of sexual immorality! And why did God react so strongly? Paul tells us a few verses later in that same chapter (v. 11) saying, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” So the Bible is very clear about sexual immorality and the church at Corinth knows this, but yet, they have not only allowed it, but they are proud of themselves with regard to how they feel they’ve handled the situation. Obviously Paul disagrees, so he explains what they must do.

This is important for us to study and understand, because sin cannot reside in the church. Paul’s point in this passage is that the church must be different from the culture. We must be a light in the darkness, a city on a hill for the world to see. So when sin is flagrant and continual and not repented of within a church body, we must deal with it or God will be forced to deal with it on our behalf. Notice, that I said that we must deal with and discipline sin that is continual and not repented of. We are not to become Pharisaical and nit-picky tattle-tales, however, it is our job to deal with our brothers and sisters who attempt to live in continual sin so as to redeem them and bring them back from their sinful trajectory. The first things we need to understand about church discipline are the method and the objective.

The Method and Objective of Church Discipline

1 Corinthians 5:1-5

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Paul is ashamed that they are proud of themselves for tolerating this situation and he explains that rather than pride they should’ve been mourning this impurity among them. Paul’s instruction is that they should’ve put out of their fellowship (or excommunicated) this man. Now I know you might want to object at first thinking, “Why would they do that? Isn’t that the opposite of what they should do? Doesn’t this man need to be in church?” But here’s the deal: this man needs to experience discipline in hopes that he turn away from his sin. That’s always the reason for discipline – you discipline to teach someone in hopes that they will make better decisions in the future. Scripture tells us that God disciplines us because He loves us. Hebrews 12:6-7, 10 says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children… 10 God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”

So Paul explains what they are to do in verses 4-5. He tells them that they are to gather together in the name of Jesus and to “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” Paul tells them to do this in the name of the Lord Jesus meaning that this is in obedience to Him and in accord with what He wants. Paul also says to do this in the power of the Lord Jesus, implying that it is with His authority that this is to be done.

What does Paul mean when he says to “hand this man over to Satan?” He means to remove him from the church “for the destruction of the flesh.” What does that mean? It means that the objective of turning him over to Satan is the hope that whatever is left of his fleshly desires can be destroyed.

Let me explain how this works. When someone is removed from the church, which is often the primary place where they are loved, accepted, encouraged, and taken care of and they are placed back into the world system that is controlled by Satan, they experience the consequences of their sin. This can take place in many different ways, but ultimately what we find when we live in sin is a lack of fulfillment, joy, and purpose. Sin is a soul crusher and that’s what we experience when we are forced back into that worldly realm. So the goal of turning someone over to the world is that they will face the discomfort of consequences which often lead to repentance, whereupon there can be forgiveness and comfort as the individual is welcomed back into the church.

The Reason for Church Discipline

So that is the method and objective of church discipline, but why is this so important? Going through such a process is tough, and I think this is why the church so rarely conducts church discipline. It’s no fun to confront someone with their sin, and it’s hard to work up the courage to do so because we often question if we have any basis to correct someone else due to our own sinfulness. But God commands that we do church discipline and Paul explains why that it.

1 Corinthians 5:6-8

“Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Paul explains that “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” We might say “one rotten apple spoils the barrel.” It’s crucial that they understand that sin and immorality spread like wildfire so they must get rid of it at once. What do we do when we find out cancer is present? We either do surgery to cut it out or we poison it (along with the rest of our body) because if it doesn’t die, we will.

Let me give you a biblical picture of leaven. In Paul’s day, when you would bake dough, you would get the dough all ready, and you would put it together and put in whatever receptacle it was to be baked in; and you would always take a chunk of it off, so that if you had a whole pile of dough, one little piece was held back. That one little piece was rolled into a ball, and it was put in water. That was leaven. The reason is that, over a period of time, that would sour in the water and then it would be taken out when you started to make new bread, and it would be put into the new bread as a starter. That sour dough would be used to permeate that new bread to get it started. So leaven has the idea of permeation or spreading throughout something. But leaven mainly has the idea of something from the past brought into something in the present. This is an important idea for us to capture. Paul is telling the church not to let this sin from the culture of their past to come into their new life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 explains that in Christ we are a new creation, the old is gone and the new has come. So it is dangerous for us to flirt with our past way of life because it has a way of corrupting us.

So the symbolism that Paul gives us is that the leaven represents something of the old life being taken and put into the new. That’s why they were to make unleavened bread at their Passover celebration. It symbolized the fact that they were to separate from the old life. God wanted total separation for them. In the same way, as Paul points out in verse 7, we recognize that Jesus died as our Passover lamb to free us from the bondage of sin and release us to a life of holiness. So we have to ask ourselves: Why would we take some leaven from the old life and integrate it into the new? Paul’s point is that we must implement church discipline when necessary because it protects the church from being permeated by evil.

Judging Others?

The last thing I want to touch on is judgment. You may have balked back in verse 3 where Paul said that he had already passed judgment on the immoral man. I believe most Christians misunderstand judgment by taking one passage of Scripture out of context and applying it to all situations. Often I hear people quote (or misquote) Matthew 7:1-5 which says,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The problem with quoting this is twofold: a) This passage teaches that the individual, who judges someone else when he is personally guilty of equal (or even greater) transgressions, is not genuine in his criticisms and secondly, b) there are other passages in the Bible (like Matthew 18) that command us to judge others. So how do we reconcile this? It has to do with context. The fact that Paul was not sinless, yet he did not hesitate to “judge” the man in our passage today is one example of the fact that we must judge in certain contexts. The principle we need to understand is that when we judge it must be with the good of others genuinely in view (cf. Gal. 6:1).

Paul teaches the church here in verses 9-13 that they must judge their fellow believers so as to protect the righteousness of the church. He says,

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.””

Paul had taught them previously about the importance of not letting sinful leaven into the church, but he wanted to make sure they understood that he was NOT saying to stay away from all sinners. In that case, Paul explains, you’d have to leave the world! This, by the way, is another thing that is misunderstood. Often Christians congregate in our own little bubbles so that we are not contaminated by the world. But we are to be IN the world, just not of it. We have to be around nonbelievers to we can tell them about Jesus! But Paul goes on to explain here that while we are not to judge those outside the church we ARE to judge those inside the church. We are not only to judge an immoral person who claims to be a Christian, we are not even to speak to them! It’s God’s job to judge unbelievers, but it is our job – hear this – it is our job to judge those inside the church who are living in sin. We are not to judge every time someone messes up, but if they are swimming in sin, we are to attempt to rescue them and if they don’t want rescued we are to turn them loose in hopes that they will feel the burden of their sin and repent. Unfortunately, the opposite is practiced all too often by the church. We judge those on the outside and blindly approve of everyone on the inside.

In order to maintain a healthy and righteous church, we must be sure to follow Paul’s instructions here regarding the importance of purity within the body of Christ that we might continue to be a lampstand for Christ.

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