Genuine Christians And the Offender of 1 Corinthians 5
In the world of today it is not always possible to know who in the assembly of the church are genuine Christians and which ones are those who only have the appearance of being Christians. At times there is a tendency to think that these matters were much more clearcut, black and white, in apostolic days. This however is not really so, as we can see from 1 Corinthians 5. In this chapter Paul writes about an offender who is clearly a member of the congregation of the church at Corinth: Paul says (5:1) that “there is sexual immorality among you”, and in any case Paul disclaims any responsibility for passing judgement on outsiders (5:12a), whereas he has passed judgement on the man who has done this thing (5:3-4). The man is to be delivered to Satan with the intended purpose of his ultimate salvation (5:5) - but is he actually a Christian at this time, or not?
It may be that he is a Christian who has fallen back into sin (perhaps because of the apparent attitude of toleration towards sin, especially sexual sin, which seems to have been prevailing in the church at Corinth). Every minister of the gospel today is aware of the reality of this possibility; he has had backsliding Christians in his congregations; he has seen keen servants of Christ stumble and fall into sin and he knows the desperate relevance of the warning which Paul gives later in this letter (10:12), “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” Even the minister of the gospel himself is not immune from the possibility of such a fall.
If the offender is a backsliding Christian, the intention is that putting him out of the fellowship of the church and delivering him afresh to Satan - whose kingdom he left at his conversion - will compel him to face the seriousness of his sin. This he will do, of course, only if he first sees that the church views it seriously. Without the church’s fellowship, acceptance and support, without the ministry of the church and participation in the Lord’s Supper (implicit in the prohibition of 5:11, “With such a man do not even eat”), he is made to recall his old life and compelled to see that he cannot have a foot in both worlds, but must choose, for Christ or against him. In a situation which has some parallels with that of the Corinthian offender, King David was compelled to face his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-14), and was brought to repentance and restoration (Psalm 51).
Alternatively, the offender, though a member of the Corinthian congregation, may not have become a Christian at all, and may be seeking to continue living in accordance with his old standards of morality while attracted to the Christian message and Christian standards in other ways. But if he were merely an interested listener to the gospel it is hard to see that Paul would have acted in this way; for the man (even if unconverted) has obviously become accepted in the church at Corinth as “one of them”. Again, this possibility will surprise no one. The Parable of the Sower, the key to all the parables (Mark 4:13), warns that there will be those who give every indication of a genuine response to the Word which is sown but who fall away and by their falling away make plain and clear what otherwise was not: that they are not those in whose hearts the Word of God has been fruitful (Mark 4:14-20; Matthew 13:18-23; see also 1 John 2:19).
Jesus explained further in his next parable (Matthew 13:24-43) that in the field there will be weeds growing amongst the wheat. The Corinthian offender may be not yet a Christian but may think himself to be a Christian, and consider that his behavior is within the tolerable limits of Christian liberty. When the church takes a firm stand on the question of sin in their midst, this can bring the man to recognize his true situation, and thus to realize that he cannot hesitate between the two alternatives but must commit himself fully to Jesus Christ who said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23). Thus the church’s severe response to the man’s sin can lead to his ultimate salvation (5:5).
Some students of this passage accept a third interpretation of the situation: that the offender was indeed a Christian, but that he has, by his act of turning his back upon the moral standards of God, rejected Christ and lost his salvation. If the church now will act to reject the man from their fellowship, this will force the man to realize that he is no longer a member of Christ’s church, for his behavior is incompatible with his profession of faith. Being thus brought to see that he is once again an outsider and a lost sinner, he may come back to faith and receive salvation again.
It is possible that Paul and the Corinthians are more fully aware of the man’s spiritual standing than we are able to be, for we lack the fuller knowledge of the situation that they would have had. But it is also quite possible that Paul himself cannot be sure at this stage whether the man is a Christian or not. Certainly when he writes in more general terms of the church’s attitude towards those who are open and continuous sinners, he speaks concerning “anyone who bears the name of brother” (5:11) - referring to the situation where a person “calls himself a brother” (NIV) or has been accepted as a Christian by the church, but has then by his unchristian moral behavior called in question the genuineness of his Christian standing.
John’s First Epistle gives a very carefully balanced view of the situation: to commit an act of sin does not prove that a person is not a Christian, nor cause him to cease to be a Christian, for “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. ... If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10). Yet, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. ... Whoever says, ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments [that is to say, who continues in disobedience to his commandments] is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:1-4).
A similar balance is found in what Paul writes. In what follows (6:9-10) he sets before the Corinthians various forms of unrighteousness, from which (6:11) they have been forgiven, cleansed, and delivered. But these comments also make it starkly plain that those who persist in such behavior show by that fact that they are not of the people of God, and, they will not inherit the kingdom of God.
What Then Should We Do?
The application of the teaching of this chapter to the circumstances of today’s church will present many problems in practice. What are we to do in the church as a result of what Paul has said here? What is its relevance for today? This requires some thoughtful reflection. Ask yourself: if our church today finds itself confronted by a parallel situation, what are we to make of what Paul says, and, in particular, how is our church to respond to his teaching?
At its worst extreme of implementation, we can find the dissension in a church exacerbated, with two warring factions each “excommunicating” the other, or the more powerful group or party in a church crushing a minority with whom they differ. At the end of the first century, dissension still divided the Corinthian church - though at that time it was a dispute between the elders and the young radicals in the church - and this was the occasion for the writing of 1 Clement, the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. Disputes of modern times can often be due to “personality clashes”, or are frequently concerned with doctrinal issues or questions of worship, liturgy, sacraments, church order or practice, or the like. Now, without denying the seriousness of such issues, one should nonetheless recognize that they differ from the question of publicly-known immorality and the church’s attitude towards the scandalous behavior of one of its members.
Sometimes modern attempts to implement the Pauline teaching have had unscheduled consequences, where the “excommunicated” have taken the church authorities to court for alleged defamation of character. Moreover there have been occasions when a person has been put out of fellowship for relatively minor infringements of the behavioral code of a particular group when those offences were simply not to be compared with the sin being practised by the Corinthian offender.
And it all too frequently happens that a church will fail to take account of the repentance of an offender but will continue to punish him for a sin for which he has sought and received the forgiveness of God.
At the opposite extreme, one can find Christian groups who, mindful of the real dangers of intolerance and excess of zeal in enforcing a particular code of morals, adopt a policy of total tolerance which does not enforce upon its membership any church discipline for moral lapses. Thus there comes to be no difference between the moral standards and practices of its members and those of the non-Christians outside the church, so that the concept of the church standing for and witnessing to a specific standard of moral life is completely nullified. This in fact was the exact situation at Corinth which called forth Paul’s concern.
So then: what are we to do in the church as a result of what Paul has said here? Let us consider these issues.
First, let us recognize that Paul expected action to be taken. It is not possible to read this chapter and conclude that Paul was not serious about the matter. The Christian understanding of the Bible as authoritative and normative for church teaching and practice compels us to recognize that in similarly appropriate circumstances similarly appropriate action is required in the church today.
Second, we must note the seriousness of the offence. It was something that was so reprehensible that even the pagans condemned it; it had been continuing for some time and was still continuing; and it had become public knowledge in the church and (apparently) in the community as well. The seriousness of the sin must be commensurate with the seriousness of the action taken against it, as we seek to implement Paul’s teaching in today’s church. (Notice the kind of sins listed by Paul in 5:11.) We do not take drastic and extreme action against a culprit guilty of a minor misdemeanor. But nor do we allow serious, continuous, public sin on the part of a church member to go unchecked, unrebuked, and unpunished.
Third, just as this chapter presumes and implies prior attempts to bring the offender to a change of heart and mind, so must we first challenge such a person about his sin and give him time and opportunity for repentance - it is the gracious mercy of God to allow this first (see Revelation 2:21; 2 Peter 3:9). The clear evidence, found throughout Paul’s epistles, of his close familiarity with the teaching of Jesus makes it highly probable that he knew and had already followed Jesus’s teaching in such a situation (Matthew 18:15-17) in his previous comments about this man’s offence, which was, it seems, discussed in Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians (5:9-11). What necessitates drastic action now at Corinth is that the offender is unrepentant and the offence is still continuing. But if we were to act too precipitately in thrusting an offender out of our fellowship we may do more to prevent than to procure the favorable outcome that we seek.
Fourth, we are to act as a church. No one individual or group of individuals in a church is here being authorized to act on their own authority. Quite the contrary. We may consider that Paul the apostle had the authority to act himself against this offender. But it was necessary, and important, that the whole church be involved and be seen to be involved. They are to meet in formal assembly to consider the matter and decide what is to be done (5:4). There is absolutely no question about what Paul is telling them is to be done in this situation (see 5:3-5 and 11-13), but the point is that they are to do it (5:5a). The act of putting a person out of a Christian fellowship is an act of that whole fellowship formally assembled to discuss and decide the issue.
Fifth, we are to be completely clear in our minds about our objective. It is, through this discipline by the church, to censure the offender for his behavior with the purpose of bringing about his repentance and restitution, in hope of his restoration, and with a view to his ultimate salvation (5:5)
Sixth, we are to sever our association with a person who calls himself a brother (or who has been accepted as a brother) and who persists in flagrant sin - not only referring to immorality, but other serious sin (5:11). The circumstances of our doing this, through the act of a formal meeting, must be so clearly laid before the person in question that he understands what is being done, that it is being done by the whole church, that it is because he has failed to respond to the efforts of the church to help him to amend his ways, and that it is the last step open to us in our concern for his spiritual wellbeing and for our witness to the Lord in the world. It is to be made clear also that he will be welcomed back into fellowship when he has repented and made such restitution as the circumstances require. After making this clear, we withdraw our fellowship from the offender.
This is the point where the practical problem is most acute in our present denominational pattern, and with our modern mobility. The person concerned, if he wishes to retain his church links, simply goes to another local church or another denomination, once he is put out of our fellowship. What was meant to be an act of severe church discipline - the most drastic act of which the church is capable - becomes for the offender simply the occasion for a change of membership or denominational affiliation.
And when he links up somewhere else, he is not highly likely to mention the circumstances of his departure from his previous congregation or that he is under discipline from them. He has moreover a fresh opportunity of keeping concealed whatever the sin is that he is committing and which had come to light in his last church.
The apparent hopelessness in these circumstances of effecting any kind of actual church discipline has caused some to abandon the attempt as being about as successful as carrying water in a sieve.
Two comments should be made about this.
First, the fact that to a considerable extent the offender can “slip out from under” the discipline when the church acts as it should is no valid reason for the church failing to act as it should.
Second, the church which imposes this discipline can, through its leaders, seek to retain a contact (perhaps by an occasional visit) with the offender so that he is reminded that the church still loves him and cares for him though it cannot countenance what he is doing - and that in this attitude the church is reflecting the attitude of God.
If his former church learns that the offender has linked up somewhere else, should they inform his new church about their own action against the offender?
There is no easy answer to this question, and it may well depend upon the details of the specific situation. But they most certainly (through their leaders) can and should seek to make the offender aware that if he has not repented and abandoned his sin then his transfer to another local church solves nothing in regard to the serious fracture of his relationship with God; and if he has, then he is welcome to return to his former congregation. But in the latter case, the person concerned may feel a preference for making a new start elsewhere, and his former church may decide to consider this a reasonable outcome.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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