1 Cor 5:1-13
In Romans 1:18-32, we looked at God’s response to sexual immorality in the world. In today’s Bible reading, Paul specifies our required reaction to sexual immorality in the church. Corinth was a notable den of iniquity. Sexual immorality (Greek: porneia, where we get our word ‘pornography’) was rife among the pagans and comprised any sexual activity outside of marriage both between and within the sexes. This was a huge area of conflict between the Greek culture of the time and the teachings of Christ, where sexual immorality is condemned (Mark 7:20-23).
At this point one of the Corinthian church members had become involved in an ongoing liaison with his father’s wife, an act of incest which was shocking even for the very liberal pagans of the day! The Corinthian church should have been horrified and taken swift action to help the man understand the error of his ways and repent of his behaviour; then stand with him in prayer as he moved forward in his faith. Instead they had become ‘arrogant’ and were boasting in this immorality! What kind of theology would give rise to this?
John Piper answers ‘We have seen it in Paul’s letters elsewhere. It says, “Let us sin that grace may abound” (Rom 3:8; 6:1). So it’s a theology that misunderstands the power of grace, and turns it into license. It’s a theology that misunderstands freedom and uses it as “an opportunity for the flesh”‘. We must be so careful not to abuse the good gifts that God has given us! Grace and freedom don’t mean that we can do whatever we like! They mean that we live in the undeserved favour of God, liberated from the sin that weighed us down. To think or act in immoral ways puts us back in bondage to sin and needs to be dealt with swiftly by repentance.
Paul’s prescription for the believer in Corinth is that he is put out of the church. There are two crucial aspects to this process. The first is ‘why’ and the second ‘how’. Why ‘put out’ a believer? Have you ever made yoghurt? No, me neither, but I did read up on it once, with the intention of doing so! Apparently, in order to start the yoghurt off, it’s necessary to take live yoghurt culture from a previous batch and add it to fresh milk. The live culture then ferments the fresh milk turning it into yoghurt. The same principle applies to making leavened bread. A small amount of dough is torn off from a previous batch and added to new flour to make it rise. In both yoghurt and leavened bread, a small amount of old product is added to a larger quantity of new ingredients and is sufficiently pervasive to change the structure and integrity of the larger mass.
These visual examples illustrate the power of one believer’s unrepented sin to infect the whole church. Everyone who knows about the transgression is guilty of the sin of omission if they do nothing to guide the believer to the right course of action. If some sins are treated as acceptable in the church, how long will it be before all sins are tolerated? How then would a church be different from the world outside? “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)
This is where the ‘how’ is so important. How do we help someone who has fallen into sexual (or indeed any) sin? What should our attitude be? Walter Wiersbe says “Church discipline is not a group of ‘pious policemen’ out to catch a criminal. Rather, it is a group of broken-hearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family.” Compassion and kindness are the tools God gives us to support those who are struggling. Our first course of action is to address the sin and give opportunity for repentance. However, if the believer does not wish to repent, then they can no longer be part of the church as they are openly defying God’s will.
When Paul talks of delivering the man in question to Satan for the ‘destruction of the flesh’, he intends the ‘removal of spiritual protection and social comfort, not an infliction of evil’(www.desiringgod.org). The ‘flesh’ represents our yukky side. John Piper, again, reveals ‘The closest thing to a biblical definition of the flesh is Romans 8:7-8 “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” So the flesh is the old “me” who used to rebel against God. In the flesh I was hostile and insubordinate. I hated the thought of admitting I was sick with sin. I defied the idea that my greatest need was a Good Physician to make me well. In the flesh I trusted my wisdom, not God’s. Paul’s desire is that by being cast out of the comfort of the church, the man will see he was acting in rebellion to God’s ways, not in line with them.’
Although the main focus of today’s passage is sexual immorality (adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual sex, prostitution, internet porn etc.), Paul extends the list to greed, idolatry, abusive criticism, drunkenness, and dishonesty. I am sure he could have gone on! How can we ensure ours is a healthy church? Being accountable is a good start. If we know we have a problem, in any area, it’s good to find a church member we can trust and ask them to pray it through with us. Sometimes old mind-sets and behaviours can take time to shift, but God always helps us! Jesus died to set us free from ‘the flesh’. Let’s live lives that honour God, in the grace and freedom of the precious gift Jesus paid for and protect the holiness and integrity of our church!