Biblically wise counsellor, Diane Langberg, recently tweeted, “God grant that we should be more afraid of sin than of its exposure. Sin hidden or buried within a God-ordained structure (such as a marriage or church) is hardly success.” Paul could not have agreed more, as the contents of 1 Corinthians 5 make clear.
Though the believers at Corinth presumed that their church was a “success”—even boasting in it—they were, in fact, dismally failing, evidenced by their toleration of intolerable sin. Their sinful tolerance needed to be exposed, followed by the expulsion of a sinful church member. Refusal to follow through would exasperate the leaven-like influence of sinful toleration, with potentially destructive consequences. This is a short thirteen-verse chapter, but it packs a powerful punch.
Having examined the importance of having a pure membership (as opposed to a mixed membership of saved and unsaved members) (vv. 1–5), and then emphasising the need for each member to pursue an increasingly holy, purified membership (vv. 6–8), we will now conclude our study by dealing with the sobering matter of excommunication (vv. 9–13), the purging from church membership of an unrepentant covenant-breaker. This is serious. It is sobering. It is required. Every church member must be equipped.
The practice of church discipline is often misunderstood, and therefore it is a missing element in a majority of local churches. But a biblical understanding and practice of church discipline is necessary for the multi-generational health of a local church for, as John Dagg, over a century ago, wrote “When church discipline goes, Christ goes with it.”
Jesus will not stay in a church that is tolerant of sin (see Revelation 3:14–22—note that Jesus was standing outside the door of the church!). Paul was burdened that the church of Corinth was precipitously close to divine judgement. The walls were about to come tumbling down on the church (3:10–17). Paul was seeking to restore the church to holy health as expressed in pure and purified membership. He wanted them to experience corporate celebration of the gospel, of their Saviour, their Passover Lamb who had been slain for them (vv. 6–8). This would require the difficult act of church discipline, the painful congregational action of excommunication.
It is very likely that the reason the church would not confront and condemn the wickedness of their member because he was wealthy or a person of standing in the community. Acknowledging perhaps what Paul said that there were not many “noble” in their church (1:26–28), the few they had made them nervous to confront them. After all, if they removed a wealthy or prominent member, what would become of their church in the eyes of the world? Of course, what they should have been thinking was, “If we don’t confront this sinning member, what will we be in the eyes of our God?”
In the verses that remain, we will address several important principles and practical applications to do a very hard thing. It is essential we follow God’s directives. We will see that purging the church of leaven requires at least three things:
- Purging Requires Dissociation (vv. 9–11)
- Purging Requires Discernment (vv. 12–13a)
- Purging Requires Dismissal (v. 13b)
Purging Requires Dissociation
As we begin, we must pause and consider the responsibility of the congregation in this matter of church discipline.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 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.
(1 Corinthians 5:9–11)
At the risk of annoyingly repeating myself, only the congregation has the authority to discipline a fellow church member. Jesus gives this authority to his church (5:4–5; Matthew 18:15–20). Consider several important observations.
First, church membership matters. In fact, the subject matter of this entire chapter assumes the priority of church membership. Stephen Um writes,
Without some kind of formal, covenantal commitment to a body of believers, accountability cannot occur. Though a good and respected friend of mine leads his church to discipline non-members who “informally are members,” I don’t believe there are grounds for this. Non-members should not be admitted to the Table and therefore there is no Table accountability.
Second, the congregation must be equipped for this responsibility. Church leadership is responsible for the spiritual maturity of the local church (Ephesians 4:1–16). As members mature, they are being equipped to do their job (“the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ”). One of the works of ministry, which is for the sake of building up the body, is to confront and address sin in the church. For this reason it is essential that the congregation be well-informed concerning their responsibilities.
Third, assembly is required. It is essential that the church be gathered to fulfil this responsibility. In earlier days, pastors would sometimes ask why our evening attendance was exceptionally higher than most churches. I half-jokingly responded that announcing that church discipline was going to happen had a way of drawing in the curious if not the committed. I was being facetious, of course, yet sadly this has too often been the case. For this reason, I have been hesitant to make such announcements, for if the only reason the majority of our members gather on a Sunday night is to hear some juicy news, then Jesus Christ is not pleased.
The church needs to be assembled as a congregation if it will maximise both its maturity and its responsibility. When we gather, morning and evening, the weightiness of worship takes place, including the weighty privilege of prayer and, sometimes, the weighty responsibility of addressing specific sin in the church, even to the point of expelling an unrepentant church member. Each member has a responsibility in this. It is a tragic shame when church members, not providentially hindered, are unaware of congregational decisions, especially with regard to matters of discipline.
Fourth, congregations need to trust their leadership in matters of discipline. When something intolerable needs to be confronted and disciplined by the congregation, the leaders will lead the way. Sometimes, as in our text, the situation is so obvious there is little need for detailed explanation. The majority of the congregation will see the obvious and will appropriately deal with it (2 Corinthians 2:5–6). But many cases requiring congregational involvement are not so simple or clear, and therefore a trusting relationship with the elders is required.
For example, there are matters of which the elders are aware and which they have spent considerable time addressing, counselling, and discussing among themselves. Once all the facts are gathered, and a decision is made that the congregation needs to be informed, there may have been twenty hours or more of various investigations and discussions. There is no way that the elders can share all of this information with the church. But having shared sufficient information, and having answered questions that can be appropriately answered, when the elders recommend a course of discipline, the congregation, in most cases, should be able to trust the recommendation and to respond accordingly.
And being on the same page with one another is at the core of these verses in 1 Corinthians 5.
Right and Wrong Dissociation
Paul had written an earlier letter to the church giving various instructions, apparently including instructions concerning this matter. This is interesting. It would seem that this situation had been going on for some time, and their delay in following apostolic instruction increased their guilt.
When they received the letter, it seems that they misunderstood, assuming that, as Christians, they were to dissociate themselves from meaningful contact with unbelievers that were living debauched lives. They thought they were to have no contact with “outsiders.” As Paul explains, that was neither his intention nor his instruction. On the contrary, they needed to interact with those who gave no pretence of faith in and love for Christ while they were to separate from those living wickedly while claiming to be Christians.
The word “associate” means “to mix up together” or “to keep close and intimate company with.” Paul had written telling them that if someone claimed to be a brother or sister—a believer—and yet lived like they belonged to the devil’s family, they were not to be mixed up with such.
Paul’s listing of egregious sin is not exhaustive but rather representative of the leaven of which he had written earlier. Sinful behaviour, if left unchecked, would corrupt the whole “lump” of the congregation. Among that leaven was sexual immorality (any illicit sexual behaviour), greed (actively displaying covetousness, which Paul calls “idolatry” in Colossians 3:5), swindling (extortion or robbery), and idolatry (pagan religious practices).
It should be noted that Paul was not writing of those who stumbled along the way into these areas; rather, he uses a grammatical form indicating that these sins characterised such people. They were not merely guilty of an act of sexual immorality were sexually immoral; they were not merely covetous at Christmas but continuallycovetous; they didn’t occasionally cave into peer pressure and offer a cow as a sacrifice for their ancestors but were worshippers of false gods. Paul lengthens the list in v. 11 adding “reviler” (a verbally abusive person), and “drunkard” (a self-explanatory category). Again, Paul was not commanding excommunication for an occasional fall-down but for persistent behaviour that characterises the individual as verbally abusive or a drunkard. As in v. 1, when it is a commonly-known characteristic, the congregation should dissociate from such individuals.
Before examining the command “not even to eat with such a one,” we need to pause and consider the tendency for Christians to form what many have called cultural ghettos, separating themselves from those who are in the greatest need of the light of the gospel. If the Corinthian church was under the erroneous assumption that they were to be isolated from the world, it is not surprising that incestuous behaviour resulted. When the church tries to “go out of the world,” avoiding that which is non-Christian, it becomes ripe for self-righteousness. And when self-righteousness gains a foothold, blindness and indifference to sin in our midst may not be far away.
It is true that Christians are to separate from sinful behaviour and from false doctrine in professing churches, but this is a far cry from separating from those who need the light of the gospel, which is declared by our lips and displayed by our lives. Rosaria Butterfield is a faithful sister in Christ who was converted when, as a vocal lesbian feminist, a conservative Presbyterian pastor invited her for lunch and befriended her. As she witnessed the faith of the household and heard his gentle but uncompromising gospel witness, God worked in her life and saved her. Humanly speaking, where would she have been if that pastor had chosen to instead shun her? Many share similar testimonies.
Jesus was known (and slandered for) being a friend of tax collectors (also known as greedy and swindlers) and sinners (typically a category used to describe the sexually immoral). He never compromised his commitment to the Father or to his law while doing so. It is interesting that he ate with such. Paul was aware of this and thus his appeal.
Brothers and sisters, one day, we will “go out of the world,” completely separated from sin and sinners. Until then, we are in the world. While aware that we are not be of or like the world, nevertheless, we are to very much be in the world, doing good by preaching and pointing to Jesus Christ crucified for sinners and risen to be their saving friend.
Of course, there are nuances in this matter of associating rather than dissociating with those enslaved by and to sin. Someone rescued by the gospel from drunkenness might need to stay away from pubs to avoid the temptation to stumble. But, by God’s wisdom (James 1:5), we can quite responsibly interact with the debauched for their good and for God’s glory.
In the ancient world, sharing a meal was a statement of fellowship, acceptance, and affirmation. The Lord Jesus frequently ate meals with people, both within and without the kingdom. Someone said with reference to this that we find Jesus literally “eating his way through the Gospels.” We need to keep this in mind when interpreting Paul’s command “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother,” if they are characterised by that which characterises a non-Christian, “not even to eat with such a one.”
Paul’s instruction is based on the reality that eating together conveys a message to participants and onlookers.When an unrepentant church member is excommunicated, we need to be careful of sending a wrong message. We might send a wrong message to the guilty person that everything is okay and their lack of repentance is acceptable. To eat with them is to affirm them in their sin. We might send a wrong message to the congregation that their decision concerning this brother or sister is not to be respected. We might send a wrong message to the community that that which is intolerable to God is actually not that intolerable to the church. We might send a wrong message to those observing that this is how Christians really think about sin and repentance, rather than sending the right message: “This is not how Christians live.” David Jackman helpfully observes
No Statute of Limitations on Church Discipline
When the congregation removes a member from its fellowship (which is what is meant by “excommunication”), it must follow through, faithfully practicing its implications. Half-hearted discipline is ineffectual. The goal of church discipline is not to clean up the membership roll. It is not merely to have a pure and purified membership but rather to have a church that brings praise and glory to its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to seek the restoration of the so-called brother who is guilty of covenant-breaking. This requires the congregation’s obedience to the full command of the Lord. Including the hard thing of dissociation. Failure to honour the Lord’s directive can result in further damage to the church—and to other churches—as well as further soul damnation to the so-called brother or sister. Let me explain.
Wiser than God?
Too often, individual Christians, and even entire congregations, are guilty of behaving as if they think they are wiser and/or kinder than God. They display this by continuing to fraternise (for true fellowship is impossible) with those who have been removed and purged from the membership of the church. When they interact, their conversation gives no hint that the brother or sister is unrepentant, having egregiously damaged the honour of Christ and his church. Assuming that ignoring their guilt and inviting them to normal social interactions will somehow soften them, they never call them to repentance and, worse, they listen to their self-justifications. Like prisons filled with people claiming to be innocent, often those who are biblically excommunicated by the congregation maintain their innocence making them even a more potent leaven.
Brothers and sisters, when the majority excommunicates a member (2 Corinthians 2:5–6), be faithful to carry out its implications. We are never to be rude. We are not to practice an Amish-style shunning. We are not to be cold or indifferent. But neither are we to interact as if everything is fine, as if they are not guilty and in need of repentance. When you interact with them, ask them if they have repented. Exhort them to repentance and remove yourself from their corrupting self-justification and slanderous accusations.
God knows what he is doing. We are not wiser than he is. And perish the foolish thought that we can be more compassionate, caring, or kinder than the God who sent his Son into the world that it might be saved rather than condemned eternally.
All this applies to inter-church relations as well! Local churches should respect the disciplinary decisions of sister local churches. Though sometimes local churches can get it wrong when it comes to discipline, nevertheless, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the congregation. When an excommunicated member comes to our church, we need to do our homework by contacting their former church. Discussions may need to take place with the leadership of the church for further clarity. Generally, we are going to exhort them to repent and return to their church for restoration. We are not going to assume that we are wiser or more caring than their former church. We expect the same respect from churches. Failure to respect the church discipline of another church does not help the guilty, and it can result in serious damage to the new church home. After all, leaven that moves geographically remains leaven.
One final question to be considered is whether an excommunicated member is permitted to attend corporate gatherings of the church. It depends.
Some sins are so egregious in their effect that it would be unwise to allow this. A person excommunicated because they are divisive should be carefully watched if they do attend. In some cases, it may be best to inform them that, until they have repented and made restitution, they are not permitted. But in a lot of cases, yes, an excommunicated person might be permitted to attend in order to be evangelised or discipled to obedience by the word. Remember that there are various shades of church discipline and so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Prudence will be required and therefore much prayer called for (James 1:5).
Purging Requires Discernment
Returning to what he has said concerning dissociating from covenant-breakers in the church, Paul calls upon the congregation to make a judgement call: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (vv. 12–13). The call is to discernment. A distinction needs to be made between those in the world and those who are worldly who claim to be a part of the church. The church is to judge. In the space of a sentence and a half, Paul uses the word “judge” three times.
Most people know the verse, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). What most people don’t know is that that is not an absolute statement. Jesus warns against the sin of having a self-righteous judgemental spirit. That is always wrong, including when exercising church discipline. But there is a judging that is appropriate. We see so here.
The church is called upon to distinguish, to determine, and to conclude from evidence that sin has been committed, and then to respond accordingly. As Christians grow in maturity, they grow in their ability to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14). They also grow in their appreciation of God’s holiness and the value of the local church. This is what Paul expected of them. Now they need to make the righteous verdict.
The Judge of All the Earth
The church needs to discern who is “inside” and who is “outside” and to act accordingly. That is, we should expect righteous behaviour from church members and not expect Christian behaviour from those who are not Christian. Too often this is a problem.
Christians and local churches often spend too much time cursing the darkness. This is not helpful. God will sort out the world; the church is to sort out the church. This is precisely what the church is called to do. When the church focuses on how bad the world is, it too often becomes blind to what is happening in its own household.
We should recapture the category of “outsider” and “insider.” This will help in our expectation of both spheres. It will also help us to guard against the silliness of belonging before believing when it comes to church membership. That is, it will help us to not be ashamed of the fact that believers are different than unbelievers.
Purging Requires Dismissal
Paul ends the chapter with a no-nonsense command: “Purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). The church is called to dissociate from an unrepentant church member to point of dismissal from the membership.
The word translated “purge” means to remove or to take away and is only found here in the New Testament. However, its Hebrew counterpart is found often in the Old Testament. It is a particularly Deuteronomic term, where it is used of covenant breakers and Israel’s responsibility to remove such from among them. Consider a few samples:
Of false prophets, Deuteronomy 13:5 says, “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Of the worship of false gods, Deuteronomy 17:7 says, “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Of false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:19 says, “Then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Of a rebellious son, Deuteronomy 21:21 instructs, “Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” Of kidnapping and enslaving, Deuteronomy 24:7 commands, “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
In most, if not all, of these occurrences, the penalty was death. Of course, Paul is not suggesting capital punishment for unrepentant church members, but neither is death not on his mind. Spiritual death is the issue here. As we saw in v. 2, the church should mourn because a professing Christian who will not repent of sin indicates he or she is not born again. Unrepentant church members indicate, by their love for their sin, that they are “outsiders” under spiritual death.
Brothers and sisters, church discipline is a weighty responsibility and one that we must approach with great care and faithful courage. Yes, there are risks and uncertainties, but we must commit ourselves to obey the Head of the church for his glory and for the benefit of his body.
Though we have reached the conclusion of the chapter, we have thankfully not reached the end of the story. For that, we need to turn to 2 Corinthians 2:1–11.
In this text, we learn the wonderful fruit of church discipline, the fruit of corporate love. The unrepentant repented and was restored to the local church. It doesn’t always end up like this, but it is wonderful when it does. I know many who would testify to the powerful effect for good that congregational discipline had on them.
We want to always keep the gospel before us, in all of church life, including discipline. The reason there is a church is because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The reason there is church discipline is because the gospel needs to be promoted and preserved/protected. David Jackman writes, “Sin, tolerated in the church, remains one of the major hindrances to the spread of the gospel. Similarly, the greatest contribution that we can make to evangelism in our generation is to live lives of sincerity and truth that confirm and illustrate the reality of the message we speak.” And this includes sincerely loving God and our church members enough to use discipline when necessary. So much is at stake!
The gospel is about holiness. Too often, we lose sight of this. God saves us to make us holy. Jesus Christ was holy and therefore he alone could save us. But the gospel is also about hope. It is about the hope of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. This is why we discipline, and this man in 1 Corinthians was eventually thankful for it.
Everything we believe and everything do as a church must be driven by the gospel. This will fuel us with a right, humble, hopeful disposition as we seek to restore sinning members and, when necessary, remove sinning members. Because of Jesus Christ’s love, which is inexplicable to us; because of his sacrifice on the cross, which is almost incredible to us; because he rose from the dead, achieving what was impossible for us, we desire to repent of our sins, which are increasingly becoming intolerable to us. And so, looking to our Saviour, may we as a congregation refuse to become indifferent to the intolerable.