First Corinthians 5 is a most important chapter for the local church to understand. This is not merely because it deals with the matter of church discipline but, more importantly, because these thirteen verses instruct us about the nature of the local church and its priority to the Christian. It teaches us about essential and meaningful church membership.
We saw previously that the local church is to be a pure membership, in the sense that its membership is to be composed of regenerate people; that is, its membership is to be composed of those who have been born again, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain for sinners. This requires that each in the congregation do their utmost to know one another and to love one another as each of us take seriously our responsibility for the keys of the kingdom; keys of admission and of removal given to us by the Door of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
If the local church takes membership seriously—if it takes seriously the gospel of the slain and risen Passover Lamb—it will take sin seriously. It will not be indifferent to that which God’s word defines as intolerable. Such a local church will take seriously passages in Scripture like the one before us. They will embrace, with a broken heart, the discipline called forth in the life of their church.
The topic of church discipline is too often approached simply as a task that churches are to carry out without a biblical theology undergirding it. But unless the congregation understands biblical teaching concerning the nature, characteristics, and purpose of the local church, church discipline—if carried out at all—will often be done haphazardly if not harmfully. It is for this reason that chapter 5 must not be approached merely as a manual for church discipline. Rather, the chapter must be approached with the mindset, and with the heart-set, focused on the immense privilege of being members of God’s called out assembly, God’s called out people, God’s called out church (see 3:16–17).
As noted previously, I believe the case can be made that the idea of the local church being God’s temple cast quite an influential shadow over this chapter. The reason Paul was so passionate about confronting and condemning intolerable behaviour in the church is because the church is to be holy. In fact, as we will see in this text, the church is holy. And that indicative demands the imperative to be holy. Because the church is God’s holy lump, it is to be characterised by holy lives. The church is therefore to be increasingly a purified membership. We will study this three-verse section under the following headings:
- Purification is a Corporate Concern (v. 6)
- Purification is a Corporate Commitment (v. 7)
- Purification is a Corporate Celebration (v. 8)
Purification is a Corporate Concern
Purification is a corporate, and reasonable, responsibility. Paul writes, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (v. 6).
Having given apostolic and therefore authoritative instruction to remove the individual from the membership—excommunication—Paul now moves from concern for the individual (v. 5) to concern for the congregation. Their arrogance had desensitised them to that which was imperceptibly destroying their church. He therefore writes, “Your boasting is not good” (v. 6). While they were boasting how great they were, they in fact were an example of what a Christian church is not. Concerning this church member who was engaging in gross immorality (and probably greed), he instructed the church, with apostolic authority, to excommunicate him because that was not the way Christians live. There was a corporate responsibility to declare, not only the negative (this is not the way Christians live), but also the positive (this is how Christians live). Paul held the congregation responsible for corporate purity.
As we saw previously, Paul was not necessarily suggesting that they were boasting in this man’s sin (though, due to a warped, gnostic-influenced theology, they may have been doing so). Rather, this congregation seems to have had a problem with arrogance. They were guilty of sinful pride, assuming they were a great church, being greatly gifted. Yet how in the world could this church be arrogant when there was corporate indifference to sin in their midst? The word “good” points to that which is attractive, that which is beautiful. But there is nothing beautiful about tolerating that to which God is intolerable. This is inexcusable, as Paul makes clear by his rhetorical question, “Do you not know a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” Or, in a contemporary paraphrase, “Don’t you know that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch?” For this reason, the congregation was to remove the bad apple, lest others begin to live in such an evilly rotten way.
“Leaven,” of course, is yeast, and is used in Scripture as a metaphor for something that spreads almost imperceptibly, yet powerfully.
When making bread, a small piece would be left, stored sometimes in water, to be used to make the next batch of bread. The leaven would spread throughout the new lump and all would be leavened and raised. When it comes to the growth of the kingdom, the gospel is like leaven, resulting in the expansion of the kingdom (Matthew 13:33). However, when the leaven of false doctrine spreads, it ruins lives and churches (Matthew 16:6–12; Galatians 5:9). Likewise, the leaven of false ideologies of political leaders is corrupting (Mark 8:15). So here: Unaddressed sin can, like leaven, be influentially corrupting, affecting the “whole lump” of the local church (see, for example, 1 Timothy 5:19–20).
Paul’s rhetorical question implies, “Don’t you care about the damage caused to the church by your toleration of leaven?” He assumed they knew all about the influence of leaven. In other words, their problem was not ignorance, but indifference. This is lamentable.
Paul wanted them to realise the potential contagion of sin so that they would sobered and humbled to embrace the purity of church members as a matter of corporate/congregational concern.
Assuming a pure membership (i.e. believing members), church members will take seriously the presence of the leaven of sin in our midst. Each member will be cautious about its corrupting effects and therefore will not tolerate indifference towards it, either in our lives personally nor in the church corporately. Several tentacles arise from this.
Church members will define as leaven what God defines as leaven. His word and his word alone identifies what is and what is not sin. Church members will take Scriptural action to remove that which is in opposition to, and therefore that which is a threat to, the holy purity of the church.
Church members, not only church leaders, are called to this. I have been particularly struck by this passage with how much responsibility Paul places upon the congregation for its welfare. Therefore, I have been profoundly reminded about the importance of church membership and its corporate power.
The practice of this chapter assumes meaningful church membership. David Prior writes concerning why, generally, there is so little church discipline: “Sheer lack of genuine fellowship between brothers and sisters in Christ is the most common and the most destructive. Because Christians are not used to sharing their lives in any real way, it seems out of place (if not presumptuous) to talk in terms of preserving a proper standard of Christlike behaviour.” It is for this reason church membership is to be approached seriously, both by the applicant and the congregation.
Purification is a Corporate Commitment
Purification requires corporate removal. Paul writes, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (v. 7).
It is one thing to be concerned about a matter, but often another thing to be committed to dealing with that matter. Here, Paul exhorts the congregation to prove their commitment to corporate purity by cleaning up the membership roll. And anyone who has ever done such a thing well knows that great commitment is required.
Just Do It
Knowledge is important (see v. 6), but applying that knowledge is equally important. It seems that, often, the move from theory to practice is a great challenge in the Christian life. The theoretical knowledge that inactive indifference to intolerable sin in the church is corrosive and destructive is essential. But to then actively deal with it requires commitment to Christ and to his church. No one, I think, enjoys confronting a fellow church member over sin, but if the church will grow in purification and sanctification, and will grow up into Christlikeness, then each member must be committed to doing what the Scripture calls them to. Together, we must be committed to the cruciform life. The local church being cruciform is to be a corporate concern.
The phrase “cleanse out the old leaven” is metaphorical, reminding us of the feast of unleavened bread, which followed the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. At that feast, established in Exodus 12 on the eve of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, God’s people were to make unleavened bread because they would be leaving Egypt in haste. Once the lamb was slain and the blood applied, they were to flee. The feast emphasised this leaving of the old life behind as for seven days their homes were to be swept clean of any and all leaven. Paul applies this to the church, pointing them to make haste to flee from remnants of the old life. And this meant fleeing those who chose to act like Egyptians.
A similar idea is found in 2 Timothy 2:21. That context is also related to the local church. Paul is saying to Timothy that he needs to separate from those who are corrosive in their attitudes and behaviour. The contemporary usage of “toxic” applies well here. Timothy is to avoid “toxic” people and their influence. If the great house (church) is to remain a great house, then vessels that defile it are to be removed, protecting everyone in the house. So here.
Though this perhaps comes across as harsh (to a fragile culture), it is actually a kindness. Though being cut with a scalpel is painful, when the aim of the cut is to cure, it is seen as an act of kindness. When I see the scars on my body, gratitude rather than anger is my response. So it is with church discipline.
The song says that “the first cut is the deepest.” Having witnessed many church discipline situations, I will testify that each cut is just as deep. It is painfully tragic when the congregation is no longer able to affirm a member’s profession of faith. But as the church pursues purity of life, hard judgements must be made as we seek to discern what resembles the leaven of the kingdom of God in the life of a member and what resembles the leaven of wickedness.
Behave What You Are
Having exhorted the church members to commit themselves to purity by carrying out discipline, Paul reminds them why they should do this. That is, since they are “a new lump, as you really are unleavened” they are to live like it. The indicative—“a new lump”—leads to the imperative—“cleanse out.” “Behave like you are. Since you are a new lump, live like it. And look like it.”
Paul introduces the metaphor of the Passover lamb to motivate this corporate imperative: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed [for us—NKJV].” Note how Paul grounds the command (imperative) in this indicative of what God has done through Jesus Christ. This is always how the Christian life is to be lived.
We look to the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ for our motivation because we look to the Lord Jesus Christ for our justification and our sanctification. We look to the Lord Jesus Christ for our glorification. And when we do this corporately, we will share in the passion for purity.
Most of the Corinthian Christians were Gentiles, which means that, unlike Jewish Christians, they would not be familiar with all that this meant—unless of course they had been instructed. I assume Paul did. Paul did not unhitch the Old Testament from the New Testament. He realised the continuity between the two testaments, especially regarding the atonement. He grasped that, just as the first Passover was the beginning of a new life for his old covenant people, even more was this true through the slain Passover Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. That is, God’s new covenant people too are delivered to newness of life. Unfortunately many in the church of our day seek to unhitch the old covenant from the new. This was never Paul’s approach.
In his book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, Andy Stanley argues that modern Christianity relies too much on the Old Testament. The problem with the modern church, he writes, is “our incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives.” I couldn’t disagree more.
First, in my experience, modern Christians don’t reach back enough into the old covenant. When it comes to the Old Testament, too many congregations are biblically illiterate. But, second, he is wrong because, if we don’t look back to the old covenant, we will not appreciate all the God has done under the new covenant. And the metaphor Paul uses with reference to Jesus as our Passover Lamb is evidence.
I think Paul grounded this congregation in the account of the Passover lamb to teach them about their greater deliverance. By the shedding of the blood of a sacrificial lamb, God’s people were delivered from bondage of slavery in Egypt. But by this sacrifice they were also able to be constituted as a new people, one that was to serve as holy priests unto God (Exodus 19:5–6). The appropriated shed blood of God’s appointed lamb resulted in a “new lump,” a people designated as holy. But, unlike the old covenant people of God, the blood-shedding sacrificial death of Jesus Christ produced a people not only designated to be holy, but a people declared and determined to be holy. We have been sanctified by his blood (1 Peter 1:2) and hence called saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul wants them to realise who they are and to live like it.
This is why the Lord’s Supper is such a help. As we reflect, remember, repent, and rest in our Saviour, we are renewed in our commitment to holiness. And this is why, in our church, discipline is often carried out at the Table. The Lord’s Supper casts the shadow of the cross on the congregation as we corporately identify and cast out the leaven.
Again, the basis upon which Paul claims they really are “a new lump” is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul continues to be informed by the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified (2:2). He continues to point the church to the message of the cross. He continues to point the church to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Reformers argued that one of the essential marks of a true church is the right preaching of the gospel (the word of God). We need to realise that grace and holiness in the local church flow from the gospel. For instance, when the gospel of the free grace of God is preached and believed and feasted upon (see next point!), the congregation is increasingly gracious and forgiving. As Paul exhorts elsewhere, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). But this is not a cheap tender-heartedness, for the same gospel that demands that we forgive also demands that we be holy(Ephesians 4:17–24, 25–31).
Therefore, as the congregation focuses on Jesus Christ sacrificed as the atonement for our sins, we will be moved to holiness and to gracious living. How can we look at Jesus as the propitiation (atoning sacrifice) for our sins and then be indifferent about that for which he died? Our sins, which caused him the grief of alienation from God, and which were the cause of Jesus suffering God’s wrath—on our behalf—must never be treated lightly by his church.
Some are opposed to church discipline on the supposition that those who exercise it will become faultfinders, judgemental, inflexible. Because of indwelling sin, this, of course, is always possible. But it is not possible when the congregation is united in their commitment to loving Jesus Christ, It is impossible when the congregation is continually being nourished by the gospel because the cross of Jesus Christ humbles us. And when humbled, it is impossible to be harshly hardnosed at the same time.
Purification is a Corporate Celebration
Finally, we learn that purification results in corporate rejoicing. Paul writes, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (v. 8).
The fourth century pastor, John Chrysostom, said, “For the true Christian it is always Easter, always Pentecost, always Christmas.” The nineteenth century Swiss theologian Frederic Godet echoed, “The Christian’s Paschal feast does not last a week, but all his life.” This is precisely the point Paul is making when he writes, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Paul is calling the congregation to leave the old life and embrace the new life. He is pointing them to gospel reformation. And there is a continuum of this throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament.
Old Covenant Shadows
We have seen that Paul views the local church as the temple of God, and therefore the need to treat it as it really is: God’s holy dwelling place. Failure to do so brings destruction (3:16–17). Well, the local temple in Corinth was a mess and God’s judgement was about to fall (judgement always begins at the household of God [1 Peter 4:17]). Therefore repentance, renewal, and reformation was required before they could rejoice in a gospel feast. Ciampa and Rosner helpfully point to Old Testament shadows of this truth.
In 2 Chronicles 29:1–5ff, we have the account of Hezekiah cleansing, repairing, restoring the temple. Interestingly this is followed immediately by the restoring of the Passover, which had not been observed for a very long time (30:1–5ff). The result was a time of glad celebration (30:22–27). They cleansed the temple of God and then celebrated the gospel of God.
Later, King Josiah did something similar. He restored rightful temple worship followed by celebration of the Passover (2 Kings 23:1–23; 2 Chronicles 35:1–19). The temple was cleansed and the gospel was celebrated. But this same pattern was repeated after Israel’s return from exile under the leadership of Ezra. Ezra restored temple worship, followed then by observance of Passover (Ezra 6:13–22). Cleansing was followed by celebration. Ciampa and Rosner then point to Jesus, who cleansed the temple at the time of Passover (John 2:13–22). He cleansed with a promise of celebration as the true Lamb was sacrificed.
The point of these passages, as in 1 Corinthians 5, is that there was a connection between cleansing the temple and the celebration of Passover. God’s people will only truly be a people of praise and celebration when they are purified. This is the principle foreshadowed in the old covenant and now being fulfilled in the new covenant. Aren’t you glad we have not unhitched the Old Testament from the New Testament?
The Celebration is to Be Corporate
Paul exhorts, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival,” moving the celebration beyond the merely individual to the congregational. We are to enjoy our celebration of salvation in Jesus Christ in communion with others. The local church is to be a people united around the Passover Lamb praising and serving him together (see Revelation 5:6). The local church is to be a holy and happy people together.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, there is a connection between being holy and being happy. Happy churches are holy churches and holy churches are happy churches. I don’t mean care-free churches, I don’t mean problem-free churches, and I don’t mean trial-absent churches; I mean happy in the biblical sense of being blessed. As in, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for of such is the kingdom of God.” As in, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” As in, “Blessed are those who are meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” As in, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And what happiness that is (Matthew 5:1–12)!
The Celebration is to Be Continual
The exhortation comes in the form of an active verb, implying that the celebration is not a once off occurrence but rather a continual communal celebration. It has often been observed that the Christian, unlike the old covenant people, has been redeemed to continually offer the sacrifices of praise (Hebrews 13:15) rather than annually (which, sadly, the old covenant people failed to do). We are to be continually celebrating the gospel of Jesus Christ. David Prior comments, “The festival celebrations have already begun and should be a permanent feature of the redeemed community.”
Regardless of the kind of week we have experienced, when we gather, we should do so to experience corporate cleansing and renewed commitment to love and honour and serve our Lamb who was sacrificed for us. But we will not do this if we are indifferent to sin in our midst, which brings us to our final observation.
The Celebration is to Be Credible
Pauls contrasts “malice and evil” with “sincerity and truth.” The first grouping is harmfully damaging to the body of Christ, whereas the second pairing is helpfully constructive to the body of Christ. The first grouping is a hypocritical way for God’s people to live whereas the second grouping is the genuine and expected way to live. Those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, yet whose lives contradict their lips, may indeed join in the celebration, but their worship will be merely a sham, a charade. Paul will have none of that. Rather Paul exhorts that their corporate celebration be characterised by credibility by what Leon Morris describes as “purity of motive” (sincerity) and “purity of action” (truth). This is what characterises the credible congregation, the congregation which refuses to be indifferent about that which is intolerable because it can’t be indifferent about that which corrupts the feast. MacArthur comments “We are called to celebrate our Passover in Christ not with an annual feast but with constant devotion to purity and rejection of sin. Discipline in the church assists in this celebration by removing impurities that will contaminate and corrupt it. It preserves Christ’s Body from the permeation of evil.” This empowers the church for effective evangelism.
The idea of a church being happy while at the same time disciplining sin seems counterintuitive. Celebration and excommunication just don’t seem to go together. But, of course, biblical truth is counterintuitive for, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:11–13; cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5–8).
There is a story of divine judgement in the early church, which well illustrates what we have been looking at the last couple of weeks. It is a story that is counterintuitive to common assumptions.
Acts 5 records the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about their offering to impress others. They were not marked by “sincerity and truth” and God killed them. Now, to many church growth “experts,” this might seem to be a strange way to develop a CV of popularity for a new-found religion. In fact, we are told that the immediate effect of word getting out about this intolerant church is that “no one dared to join them” (Acts 5:12–13). The church was deemed too serious a thing to be a part of. It was seen as dangerous when it came to accountability; leaven was certain to be exposed and expelled. But something interesting immediately follows: The church experienced explosive growth. Not only did the people hold this credible church in high esteem (v. 13) but many were converted: “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (v. 14). In fact, what follows is even more amazing, for we are informed that people brought to the church those who were lame and sick in order to be healed (v. 15). Now, think about that. Two perhaps physically healthy individual members of the church just died but those who were perhaps nearing death came to be healed.
The point to see is that this church took holiness seriously and this actually made them respected and relevant in their community. Not everyone, of course, held them in high esteem, but God had his people, and they were drawn to a gospel-centred people characterised by sincerity and truth.
Brothers and sisters, a purified church is a church which pleases the Lord and which he can powerfully use to propagate his gospel. Let us be that kind of church.