We come now to a potentially shocking text. In the first four chapter of 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul has urged these Corinthian Christians to be of the same mind and the same judgment (1:10). While they are fighting and arguing about all the wrong things, these Christians had neglected to take care of a serious sin that was in the church.
The Problem Stated (5:1-2)
The problem as it is presented in 1 Corinthians 5:1 is that there is sexual immorality in the church. We have noted many times in our studies that the Greek word that is translated here “sexual immorality” is a broad, general word for any sexual activity outside of marriage. But it is not even just sexual immorality, as Paul continues in verse 1. This is a sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among the pagans. Please remember the Corinth was renown for its sexual permissiveness, in a very similar way that our culture is today. Yet, even this was a sexual sin that the vast majority of people in the world condemned at that time. There is a man in the congregation who has his father’s wife, which the wording implies that he has married his stepmother. Now, while the sin is bad enough, Paul spends his time not talking about this individual, but the failure of the church to do something about it.
Notice the attitude of the church in verse 2. They are not mourning over this sin. They are not condemning this action. Rather, they are arrogantly refusing to take action. They are proud of this sin, a sin that even the world condemns. We saw this problem in chapter 4. These Christians are so arrogant and so self-satisfied that they excuse and do not seem to care about open, rebellious sin. Their arrogance has blinded them to the clear truth of God’s standard. Think about this: when a church is not mourning over sin, especially sin within their own fellowship, it is doomed. We must always be shocked and sorrowed by sin and never marginalize or accept sin.
Now we should take a moment and consider what Paul is instructing. Why is this sin supposed to cause the church to remove this person from their midst (5:2)? If this action is to happen every time a person sins, then there would be no one left in the church. If when you sin, we remove this person from the congregation, who would be left? No one would be left. So there are two critical components that must be understood as we examine this text. First, Paul is speaking about unrepentant sin. This individual is doing something condemned by the world and proclaiming his sin openly to the church, such that the rest of the church knows what he has done. This is so well known among the church that they are able to report this situation to Paul. This person is participating in sin and will not repent. Second, the church is in error because they are not addressing the sin nor mourning over the sin. Rather, the church is arrogant about the sin and therefore falls under condemnation also. Sin is never to be taken lightly. Unrepentant sins certainly cannot be ignored. Now, what is the church in Corinth supposed to do?
What Must Be Done (5:3-5)
Paul tells the congregation that they are to assemble together in this matter. People often get uncomfortable when these things are discussed before the whole congregation. But you will notice that this action was not to be a hidden thing. Rather, the church was to assemble for what Paul tells them to do.
Paul continues that they were to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Now what does this mean? You will notice that there is no explanation of this phrase that Paul uses. We have no explanation of what this looks like. Our context of this letter has shown the need for the fleshly to be removed from their thinking. This seems to be the idea here also, that this fleshly behavior and thinking this person exhibits would be destroyed by this act. But what is the act? The only thing we have from this text is that the person who is involved in unrepentant sin is to be removed from among you (5:2). The spiritual impact of this action is described here. The person is being delivered over to their sins, to Satan, to destroy the flesh. Jesus gives us a picture of what this activity looks like.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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 collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you 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, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15–20 ESV)
Sin is to first be handled by the person who has been sinned against. But if the sin does not stop, then one or two other people should be brought into the matter. Notice the reason for this: “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Bringing in Galatians 6:1, these couple other people who are brought in should be spiritual and attempt to restore in a spirit of gentleness. The elders are excellent people to bring in on these matters because they have been appointed because of their spiritual leadership and knowledge. If the sin continues and is not truly repented from, then the whole church is brought in. Notice in verse 17 that the whole church is supposed to try to bring this erring person back. However, if the sin continues and is not truly repented from, then Jesus says, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Verses 18-20 declare that this action is not just the church doing it, but is also actionable before God.
Please notice that this is exactly what Paul is instructing the Corinthians to do. We do not have further information about how repentance was attempted to be gained up until this point. But at this point Paul says that it is time for this person to be removed from among you because it is unrepentant sin. The reasoning is so important, as given in verse 5. The goal is save the person from his or her sin. The purpose of withdrawing is to save souls, not to punish. If we see the fruit of repentance in an individual, then we will not remove the person from our midst because the goal of saving the soul is being accomplished. Further, I have seen in far too many churches where these actions are taken backward. The church withdraws, then tells the congregation to try to bring the person back from their sin. This is not the proper order. I have also seen churches unwilling to remove the person and simply allow the sin to go on. We cannot do this because we desire for the person’s soul to be saved.
We know from the scriptures that true repentance is not saying, “I’m sorry.” True repentance is not even having sorrow for what one did. In 2 Corinthians 6:10 Paul says that there is a worldly grief but it leads to death. Godly grief, however, leads to a repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthian 6:10). Repentance bears fruit that is seen which leads towards salvation. This is the goal in these actions that Jesus and Paul give for dealing with unrepentant sin. We want a soul to return to the Lord as witnessed by their actions.
Why This Must Be Done (5:6-8)
Notice Paul returns back to the problem in the Corinthian church. They have been boasting about this person’s sin. They are not mourning. They are not taking action. They are not trying to bring about repentance. They are rejoicing in sin. So Paul tells them that they do not understand the consequences of such thinking. If we rejoice and glory in sin, then that is only going to lead to more people choosing to sin. If we by our actions indicate by any means that sin is acceptable and glory in your sinful behavior, then we are encouraging other people to sin because we are not showing how sin is condemned by God.
Paul uses an analogy of leaven describe this point. Paul describes Jesus as our Passover. During the Passover all the unleavened bread was to be removed from their homes as it was the Feast of Unleavened Bread during the time of Passover. Paul’s point is that since Jesus is our Passover lamb who has been sacrificed, there must not be leaven in our lives. The leaven represents willful sins. We do not celebrate what Jesus has done for us in his sacrifice with malice and evil, but with sincerity and truth (5:8). As a church our proclamation can never be that your sins are acceptable or minor. Our proclamation must always be to repent from your sins and seek forgiveness. Your sins have separated you for your God and there is no hope until you repent. Christians are to be separated from the old life, not celebrating it. We are to make a clean break from sinfulness. Without a consistent message of purifying ourselves from sins, more people will accept sinful behaviors in their own lives, which is spiritual disaster.
What This Does Not Mean (5:9-13)
Now Paul wants to clarify to make sure the Corinthians understand what this does not mean. This does not mean that we withdraw from people in the world. We have to associate with the world to be able to teach them. We are supposed to be the hospital to the spiritually sick. Jesus did not come to save the righteous, but the sinners and that is why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. We must welcome sinners into our worship. Sinful people must come here and we must desire that so they can hear the gospel and be saved. Paul says that for us to not associate with the world would mean that we have to leave this world which is not possible. We are to deal with those in our church fellowship, according to verse 12. We are not taking these actions against people who do not claim to be Christians.
Paul’s point is carefully made in verse 11. “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.” If you call yourself a Christian and you are willfully and unrepentantly practicing these sins, then this is going to be the outcome. Unrepentant sins cannot continue without action from the church. We are not going to pretend that your soul is saved when we know it is not. When we are made aware of such sins, we will come to in the manner that is presented in Matthew 18. But if anyone chooses to continue in their sins, then removing the person is the necessary outcome to try to impress upon that person that their sins have spiritually doomed them and they need to repent.
Please notice the end of verse 11. “Not even to eat with such a one.” Why is this said? What is the point of this instruction? Eating together connoted more than friendliness in ancient culture. It indicated a social bond (Garland, 189). The point is that we would not want to communicate a Christian who lives in unrepentant sin that everything is fine and our relationship can remain the same. The relationship cannot remain the same because the unrepentant sinner is in rebellion to God. How can we tolerate that or pretend that everything is acceptable? If I have you over to the house and we are eating together, then I am communicating to you that everything is good in our relationship together and with God. How could we dare communicate this to someone whose soul is lost? I believe this is just as important to consider when it comes to family. Again, please notice that Paul is not talking about the world, but a Christian who is living in unrepentant sin. We want to communicate to them that their souls are in jeopardy and not act like things are the same. This requires tough decisions on our part on how to communicate this but it is important that we do.
So what do we learn? First, we must mourn over unrepentant sin and not ignore it. There is a great temptation to simply ignore sin, doing nothing and saying nothing. But we must address unrepentant sin. Jesus tells us that it begins with an individual to the other individual. If true repentance does not occur, then one or two more people are brought in to address the issue. If true repentance does not occur, then we will bring in the church to address the issue. Now everything is trying to rescue the soul. If true repentance does not occur, then Jesus that we treat them as a tax collector. Paul says we remove the person from among us.
Second, the purpose for any of our actions is because we are trying to rescue a person’s soul. We understand the weight of God’s heart for those who stray away.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19–20 ESV)
Every soul is important. Every soul matters to God. It does not matter what the person has done. It does not matter what the sin is. It does not matter what the person did against you. Every soul matters to God and we are the ones who must act as restorers.
Finally, when a person shows the fruit of repentance and turns his or her life back to God, then we rejoice and receive the person back. In the parable of lost things, recall the rejoicing that is pictured when one person repents. Finding one lost sheep or one lost coin or one lost son is important to God and leads to great joy. Do you remember what the response of the older brother was when the lost son returned in Luke 15? He would not participate in the joyful celebration. He held it against his brother, angry about all he had done against his father (15:30) and how he himself had not done those kinds of things (15:28). If the Father is rejoicing, how much more should we rejoice and be glad when any person returns to the Lord! May we have a heart for lost souls that will apply God’s principles to saving people who have once been followers of Christ and turned away from him. May we desire their salvation and let that always be the reason for what we say and do as individuals and as a church when reaching such people.