CHURCH DISCIPLINE 1 Corinthians 5–6
“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you’ ” (1 Cor. 5:12–13).It is the responsibility of believers to keep the church morally pure.
Christ’s church represents Him on earth. Thus it is vital that the church be pure, holy, and self-cleansing. First Corinthians 5 makes it clear that persistent immorality requires discipline by the local congregation, and that if a believer fails to respond to discipline, he or she is to be cut off from fellowship. It’s important to note several things about discipline. First, it is NOT exercised over differences in doctrine. It is NOT exercised over differences in conviction. It is NOT exercised over divergent opinion on procedure, or questions about motives. Church discipline IS exercised only in cases where a believer openly and persistently engages in practices which Scripture identifies as sin. In such cases, the church is not judging so much as agreeing with God’s verdict that certain behavior is sinful. Church discipline is not to be vindictive, nor an attempt to punish a wrongdoer. It is to be a loving attempt to restore a sinning brother by acting out on earth the interruption sin causes in our fellowship with God. It is an obedient response to the Lord, who calls us to maintain a pure and blameless reputation as we represent Him.
Paul called for expulsion of an immoral brother (5:1–8), but not isolation from immoral non-Christians (vv. 9–13). Legal cases should be settled within church (6:1–8), as befits saints (vv. 9–11). Sexual immorality is unthinkable because of the believer’s union with Christ (vv. 12–20).
Understanding the Text
“Put out of your fellowship the man who did this” 1 Cor. 5:1–3. Who is responsible for church discipline? You are. I am. The “you” in Paul’s directive is plural, indicating that members of a congregation are accountable for the purity of the local body. Matthew 18:15–17 is usually understood to give a pattern we can follow. First go to a brother alone. If he repents (stops doing what was wrong), drop the issue. If not, bring along another person and confront him again. If he repents, drop it. If not, bring in the leaders of the church. If he will not listen to them, inform the church as a whole, and “expel the wicked man from among you” (v. 13). This process isn’t an easy one to follow; many Christians would rather just look the other way. That happened in Corinth. And it happens in modern churches too. Yet through Paul the Lord tells us that, even though it hurts, church discipline must be enforced. “Hand this man over to Satan” 1 Cor. 5:4–5. Long ago God told the serpent who had hosted Satan, “You will eat dust all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:14). Some commentators have observed that while Satan eagerly seeks the believer’s life, all he ever gets is the dust of our bodies. Our souls—our essential self—is safe with God (1 Cor. 5:5). Many see a reflection of this thought here. Expelled from the church, with the protection of believers’ prayers withdrawn, the person under discipline is handed over to Satan “so that the sarx [the body, the flesh, not ‘sinful nature’ here] may be destroyed” (v. 5). The sinning believer is out of fellowship, yes. But not out of Christ! Dust is still all the devil gets. “His spirit [is] saved on the Day of the Lord.” “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” 1 Cor. 5:6–8. Like yeast, malice and wickedness can quickly infiltrate and corrupt the spiritual life of a local congregation. Church discipline isn’t an option. It’s a necessity. “Not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral” 1 Cor. 5:9–13. Christians aren’t party-poopers, always going around with a disapproving glare, pointing out the sins of others. Christians are partygoers, meeting others with a happy smile, always ready to lend a helping hand. Somehow many Christians have the idea that unless they jump all over non-Christians and condemn their sins, they imply approval. Not at all. Everyone who gets to know us soon becomes aware of what we don’t do, and would not do. But we don’t judge non-Christians. We let the Holy Spirit convict. What we do is to associate with wicked folks when in good conscience we can, to show by our holy and happily lives that there’s an alternative. We need to be the kind of persons unsaved folks turn to as an alternative, not turn away from as an aggravation. “You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is. . . .” 1 Cor. 5:9–13. “Must” is a pretty strong word. But it’s the word Paul used. Don’t worry about making the world holy by criticizing unbelievers. The world is simply being itself. Do worry about keeping the church holy by disciplining fellow believers. The church needs to be itself too! “Take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” 1 Cor. 6:1–6 Paul wasn’t asking Christians to accept the role of victim. In New Testament times, ethnic communities had a significant amount of self-government, including the right to settle disputes by applying their national law even if they weren’t living in their homeland. So Paul implied here that Christians, who are citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, ought to settle their legal disputes among themselves, applying the laws of Christ’s heavenly kingdom rather than relying on earthly courts. The shame was that the folks in Corinth either did not think of appointing a panel of fellow believers to settle disputes, or else were unwilling to. I do watch one TV program each day when I can. It’s “The People’s Court,” which comes on here at 10 A.M., about when I finish half my day’s writing. The program concludes with a line we Christians ought to modify. The host says, “So, if you have a dispute you can’t resolve, don’t take the law into your own hands. Take it to court.” Paul said, “Take it to church.” “You yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers” 1 Cor. 6:7–11. I got a letter the other day from “Peacemakers International,” a Christian ministry that seeks to help Christians resolve disputes in a biblical manner. It urged those who received it to get involved in a dispute between a well-known Christian and a believer who worked for him for some time, and finally has been taken to court. Not that it’s over one of those “trivial cases” Paul mentioned in verse 2. Some serious charges are involved. The problem is, the “victim” has been willing to take it to a panel of Christian lawyers to settle out of court. But the other person has not—and has used verse 7 to condemn the brother who finally brought the suit! What if the victim is willing to use a biblical procedure, and the perpetrator is not? “Peacemakers” says, “Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). And there’s no injunction in Scripture about taking one of them to court! “The wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God” 1 Cor. 6:9–11. An apt paraphrase is, “The wicked are headed for hell.” And Paul then went on to list behavior that requires such punishment: adultery, homosexuality, criminal behavior, alcoholism. Don’t think though that even such acts cut one off from the possibility of grace. Paul said, “That is what some of you were” (v. 11). That’s were. What a Christian becomes, after he has been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus, and is an ex-adulterer, an ex-homosexual, an ex-criminal, an ex-alcoholic. Don’t let anyone who practices such sins deceive you by claims that he or she is a citizen of God’s kingdom now.
Sex and Sandwiches(1 Cor. 6:12–20)
He was young. Good-looking. And he ardently challenged Billy Graham in a question/answer period after the evangelist’s televised talk to college students. Why all this fuss about sex? If a person is hungry, he eats a ham sandwich, doesn’t he? If he feels the urge, why not have sex and satisfy that hunger? The question, though I saw the program about 15 years ago, reflects our society’s blatant move toward pagan sexual standards. It also reflects the attitude of some Christians in Corinth, whom Paul quoted as he returned in these verses to the question of immorality. “Everything is permissible for me,” Paul himself said of food choices (v. 12; cf. Rom. 14:14). And “God will destroy” this sinful body and replace it in the resurrection (1 Cor. 6:13). Why make such a big deal about what a person does with this meaningless ol’ body anyway? Paul’s threefold response answered the question about sex and sandwiches as well as the Corinthians’. That casual pagan attitude toward sex fails to see that the body is important. The body is meant for the Lord, as a tool through which He performs righteous acts (v. 13; cf. Rom. 6:16–18). The body is important enough that God has determined to resurrect it (1 Cor. 6:13–14). The body is even now joined to Jesus Christ through our spiritual union with Him. Can we take Christ to visit a prostitute? (vv. 15–17) In paganism, sex really is trivial. The casual attitude, the adolescent snickers, even the heated passion that constantly leers from movie screen and TV tube, all suggest that sex and sandwiches are on a par. Only Christianity affirms that life here on earth has more significance, and that our bodies were created for higher purposes. Our bodies are temples of God’s Spirit. Our bodies are instruments for His use. Our bodies—all we are and have—were bought with a price. We Christians are determined to use our bodies only to glorify Him.
Sex isn’t trivial, because you and your body are special to the Lord.
“Sex has become one of the most discussed subjects of modern times. The Victorians pretended it did not exist: the moderns pretend nothing else exists.”—Fulton J. Sheen