One of the reasons I think it is good for us to learn about the letter of 1 Corinthians, is that it challenges us at times to look at things we might prefer to ignore. I find chapter 5 to be one of those places.
Imagine you are a doctor. You have a patient who comes regularly. One day you notice a growth under his arm. You run some tests, and find out that this growth is a cancerous tumor. You could remove it with surgery. You might also have to treat the patient with chemo or radiation afterward. Instead, you say, “No, let’s leave it alone. If we remove it with surgery, that will be a big hassle for the patient, not to mention all the mental trauma he will feel if we tell him he has cancer.” Of course, such a doctor would not deserve to practice medicine.
This is almost exactly what has happened in the Corinthian church. There is a cancer of sin growing in their church. Now, let’s be clear. It’s not just that someone has sinned. The New Testament makes it clear that no one is perfect, and we all fail at times. But in Corinth, a church member is living in sin. He is persisting in a sinful lifestyle openly with no attempt or intention to change.
The sin here is something that Paul calls (in the Greek) “porneia.” You may recognize that our English words“porn” and fornication are based upon this term. In the New Testament, “porneia” means any kind of sexual activity between people that takes place apart from couples who are married to each other. In this particular case, a man and a woman who aren’t married to each other are engaging in sexual activity. It is a man and his father’s wife – probably his step-mother.
This isn’t an isolated incident. It is a repeated pattern of behavior. Even worse, no one in the church seems to have anything to say about it. In fact, Paul says “and you are inflated with pride instead of filled with grief.” This could mean that the Corinthians are proud in general (which Paul has already chided them for), but in context, it appears that they are actually proud of the fact they have welcomed and accepted someone with an immoral, and even incestuous lifestyle.
Paul says instead of pride, they should have been filled with sorrow. This is important to pay attention to. Even when a judgment must be made and action must be taken, it should not be done with anger, or even righteous indignation. The presence of a fellow-Christian who persists in a pattern of sinful behavior, should be cause for mourning in the church. It should cause us grief to have to take an action that makes a person aware of their sinful lifestyle. It should cause us grief that this person may have to leave the church.
Paul says that if the Corinthians had appropriately responded and been filled with this grief, the one who was doing this would be “removed from among you.” The Greek word used for “removed from” is an unusual one, and it occurs only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in this passage. The transliteration is “exairo.” I suspect that our English word “excise” comes from this term. The idea is exactly like the removal of a tumor.
Without wasting any more words, Paul tells them what they must do. The next time they meet as a church, they are to “hand over that person to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.” This is obviously a strange and difficult command. But it isn’t the only place in the New Testament where this idea is given. Paul writes to Timothy:
Hymenaeus and Alexander are among them, and I have delivered them to Satan , so that they may be taught not to blaspheme. ( Timothy 1:20)
It is difficult to know exactly what Paul means by these statements. He says to the Corinthians that this is for “the destruction of of the flesh.” It could mean the literal destruction of his body. Sexual promiscuity always carries with it a risk of disease, and in those days, before modern medicine, many people died of sexually transmitted diseases. So Paul could mean that. However, that was not exactly a sure proposition, and Paul often uses the term “flesh” to mean the impulses, habits and decisions associated with a sinful lifestyle. The idea then, would be that this man would indulge himself fully in a “flesh oriented” (sin-oriented) lifestyle until he is sick of it. However, this is also a tricky proposition.
I think there are two things that we can definitely know from this verse, however. The first is that the man is to be “handed over to Satan.” The idea in the Greek words is that this individual will no longer be entrusted to the care of the church, but instead, “entrusted to” or “committed to” the devil.
The New Testament clearly teaches that we are in a spiritual war. During the second world war, the Japanese soldiers continued to fight long after it was obvious that Japan could not possibly win. In fact, they typically fought to the death in individual battles, even after it was clear that the battle was lost. It is the same with the powers of evil. They have lost the war. But they will fight until Jesus returns and destroys them forever. So the picture here is this: the church is turning out this unrepentant man – sending him over to enemy lines. He will no longer have the protection or care of the kingdom of God, or of God’s people. He isn’t their responsibility any more. He will now be in the realm that is dominated by the Enemy. If you aren’t in God’s kingdom, you are the mercy of Satan’s realm.
Second, the purpose of all this is: “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” In other words, they aren’t turning him over because they are angry, or because they hope the worst for him. Instead, they are hoping for a positive result, the best possible result.
Now, the obvious question is, “how will turning him over the the realm of the devil cause him to be saved?” I think the hope is that this man will see the contrast between his life before he started down this path, and what it is like after. The idea is kind of like a medical diagnosis. If a person comes in limping into the doctor’s office, and an ex-ray reveals a broken leg, the doctor has a responsibility to tell the patient that her leg is broken. Perhaps the patient doesn’t want to believe this, or feels it isn’t a serious problem. The doctor can’t force treatment on her. But he can warn her, and refuse to give her something for the pain until her bone is properly set. Maybe if the patient limps around in pain for a few more days, she’ll decide she’d be better get the cause of the problem taken care of.
It’s the same idea here. A repeated pattern of an unrepentant, sinful lifestyle is a serious problem for spiritual health. If a person refuses to even repent and try to address the issue, maybe they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, with the hope that they will come back and repent.
There is another aspect to all this. The first thing, as we have said, is that the unrepentant sinner is putting his own spiritual life in danger. But the second aspect is that tolerating this sort of behavior within the church is a danger to the others who are part of the church. Paul says, “Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough?” In other words, when the church begins to compromise, it is a serious problem that has far reaching effects. Compromise, false doctrine and sin have a way of spreading. Just as a little yeast can affect a large ball of dough, so a little compromise can affect a church. For the good of the individual, and for the good of the church, Paul tells them to remove the person who won’t repent.
This is not the only place in the New Testament that tells Christians to take these sorts of actions:
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)
There is an aspect to this that churches often miss, and it is because these miss this point, many Christians are held in contempt. Paul makes it very clear in verses 9-13 that this teaching is for dealing with unrepentant, persistent, lifestyle sinners within the church. This is not an approach we take with those who are not Christians, those who are not a part of the church. Paul says: “For what is it to me to judge outsiders?”
Too many churches do this backwards. We preach sermons about all the sin and immorality in the world around us. We talk about the problems of others. But we don’t address the problems within our own group. That’s one reason Christians are called hypocrites all the time. We point out the sin of people who have nothing to do with us, and ignore the persistent, unrepentant sin of our own friends and fellow-christians. It’s like a mother who keeps telling everyone else to discipline their children, while all the while, her own children are running wild.
There is sin and immorality in the world – don’t be surprised about that, and don’t get sucked into it. But it is none of my business if a man who is an atheist wants to live an immoral lifestyle. Telling him he is living in sin won’t accomplish anything, since he doesn’t even believe in sin. However, it is my business if someone in our own church is persisting in sin and is not repenting from it. It is your business too, if you are part of the church.
Now, I want to reiterate something. I’m not talking about picking on everyone who fails in a moment of weakness. Paul is talking here about a Christian who is willfully continuing to do what he knows is sinful. He is persisting in it, and he is not repentant. It is not a moment of weakness, but rather, a continuing pattern of behavior. We need to use the same guidelines. If I see someone in our church drunk once, I might talk to him about it, or maybe I’ll just pray for him. But when I see that getting drunk is a regular part of his lifestyle, a pattern of behavior, we’ll talk for sure. And if he refuses to repent, and claims that it isn’t sinful and it isn’t a problem, then I will be filled grief, as Paul said the Corinthians should be, and, depending on his response, that grief might have to lead to separation.
Now, there is one thing nowadays that makes this all different from when Paul wrote this. When Paul wrote, there was only one church in Corinth. They probably met in several different homes, but they saw themselves as a single church. So the persistent, unrepentant sinner who was kicked out, had no other church to go to. He couldn’t feel good or spiritual about himself by just showing up at a different church where no one knew him.
Nowadays, that is exactly what some people do. They leave one place if they are confronted with their persistent, unrepented sins, and go somewhere else where no one knows them. I only want to say this: spiritually speaking, they are playing with fire. That is like going to a new doctor, because your old doctor wants to treat the disease that is killing you, instead of just giving you pain medicine to alleviate your symptoms. You might be able to cover up your symptoms somewhere else, but you’ll only end up dead.
So, what does this mean for us today? I think there are two major applications, just as Paul had two major concerns. The first is for us as individuals. Is there any way in which we might be persisting in a sinful lifestyle? By the way, I think that at any given time, the answer to that for the majority of disciples would be “no.” But it is possible that someone reading this might be caught in a persistent pattern of sinful behavior – sin that you are not repenting of. If so, now is the time to repent. All we need is in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, your spirit is already perfect. Let the Spirit rule, not your flesh. Repent, seek help from other believers, and leave it behind.
The other application is how we view sinful behavior in others. The sins of those who do not claim to be Christians are not really our business. Of course we should pray for those people, and try to lead them to Jesus, but there is no purpose in telling them to stop sinning if they don’t even know the Lord.
If we notice a fellow-disciple fail, like we all fail from time to time, we should pray for her. Maybe we could also ask her if she needs help or encouragement. We could remind her that she is forgiven, and already made perfect in her spirit in Jesus.
If we notice a persistent pattern of sinful behavior in another believer, we need to prayerfully take the steps that Jesus and Paul give us.