It has been well said that the opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. When we are tolerant of the misbehaviour of our children, we are guilty of hating them: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). So in the local church.
When a congregation tolerates what God declares intolerable, this indifference demonstrates a woeful rejection of the cruciform life, both individually and corporately. This lies at the heart of what Paul writes in the chapter before us. And what he writes to that ancient church is just as relevant for our church today. Chapter 5 informs us that the cruciform life calls for congregational exercise of church discipline.
Paul was outraged, not only over a sin of sexual immorality in the church, but even more over the indifferencethe congregation was demonstrating by its tolerance of such sin in their midst. An ongoing incestuous relationship involving a church member was being ignored. And because Paul loved God, and because he loved the Bride of Christ, he would not tolerate the congregational indifference. He expected them to take remedial action, right away. Love for Jesus Christ, love for the gospel of Christ, and love for the bride of Christ is the antidote we need against an insidious indifference to that which brings dishonour to the name of Christ, his gospel, and his Bride. “His dismay reveals a profound sensitivity to the holiness of God and a related concern for the holiness of God’s people” (Ciampa and Rosner). Paul believed what he wrote in 3:16–17.
In the quest for “relevance,” it is tempting for a church to be indifferent to sin in its midst. Because we live in a world that rejects authority, and therefore accountability, church discipline is shelved because it seems outdated and off-putting. “How can the church expect to attract unbelievers if it takes a strong stand against sinning church members?” it is asked. The answer is that indifference to sin in the church is not only intolerable to Jesus Christ, it is also a sure recipe for a church becoming impotent and irrelevant. We learn all of this in the chapter before us. In this chapter, Paul addresses the intolerable indifference towards sin in the church by addressing three main concerns:
- The Need for a Pure Membership (vv. 1–5)
- The Need for a Purified Membership (vv. 6–8)
- The Need for a Purged Membership (vv. 9–13)
In this study, we will examine the need for a pure membership under two headings:
- A Pure Membership (vv. 1–2)
- A Powerful Membership (vv. 3–5)
May the Lord use our time in this study, and in our next two, to equip us to guard against indifference to sin the life of our church.
A Pure Membership
The apostle Paul was deeply disturbed as he received credible word of debauched sexual immorality by a church member in Corinth. He writes to address this directly:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
(1 Corinthians 5:1–2)
His use of “actually” speaks to the widespread “common” news nature of this sin. It seems that everyone was aware, not only in the church, but also in the wider community. “Anyone at Corinth who spoke of the church in that city mentioned the fornication among Christians” (Grosheide).
Paul makes the immediate judgement and gives the apostolic command for this church member to be removed from membership. The member’s habitual wicked behaviour is such that the congregation is not to treat him as a believer. His profession of faith is no longer credible. After all, Christians don’t sleep with their stepmothers; Christians do not habitually engage in sexual sin (see 6:9–11).
Whatever else Paul is saying—and he is saying a lot—he is saying that the membership of the church is to be made up exclusively of Christians: those whose lives manifest the character of Jesus Christ whom they claim to follow.
Therefore, Paul’s instructions concerning church discipline are driven by the theological understanding that church membership is to be regenerate church membership. The thrust of this entire chapter is Paul’s God-driven, Christ-centred, Spirit-compelled passion for the local church being characterised as a pure membership (believers only) of members who live with purity. The church at Corinthians was failing woefully. Their failure to live a cruciform life (chapters 1–4) was revealed for all to see in 1 Corinthians 5. Shockingly, their failure to be Christo-centric led to their being pornographic.
The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” porneia. (I mention that to show its connection to pornography, not to show off the Greek I know!) It is sometimes translated “fornication,” but it covers a wide range of sexual sin, including premarital sex, extramarital sex, and unnatural sex (as well as what we call pornography). Coupled with the opening portion of chapter 6, the church at Corinth was more pornographic than Christo-centric.
The particular sin that Paul addresses was that of a man in an illicit sexual relationship with his stepmother. No mention is made of the father, so perhaps he was dead and his son has married his father’s wife. Regardless, this was debauched behaviour, condemned by Scripture (Leviticus 18:1–8; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20). Such behaviour was considered debauched even by “pagans.” In fact, Roman law prohibited such a relationship (which was saying something for the Romans!).
The word for “pagans” is often translated “Gentiles,” which is interesting because the majority of members in this church were Gentiles. Paul was therefore seeking to remind them that, now that they were in Christ, they were different (see Ephesians 4:17).
From the words “among you,” coupled with “actually reported,” it is clear that this wickedness was notunknown to the church. They were well aware of it. Yet despite this awareness, they were “arrogant” (cf. v. 6). “Pride and arrogance had not only led to divisions among them, but to a callous insensitivity to sin. Pride had made them blind to the condition of the sinner and to their own sin of complicity” (Ciampa and Rosner).
Since there is no punctuation in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, it is uncertain whether the phrase “and you are arrogant” should end with an exclamation (as in the ESV) or with a question mark, as though Paul was asking the question with sarcastic disbelief. That is, “This debauchery is occurring in broad daylight before your church—by a church member—and yet are you really puffed up about it?” Perhaps the statement should end with both punctuations as in, “What is wrong with you?!” We need to unpack this a bit.
The church at Corinth struggled with arrogance (4:6,18,19; 8:1; 13:4). Perhaps because of their rich endowment of spiritual gifts (1:4–7), combined with the contagion of Corinthian materialism and pride of skill including rhetoric, the church boasted in its “success.” Perhaps it was a large church and perhaps it experienced unusual popularity compared to other congregations undergoing persecution. Whatever the reason, they thought they were the bee’s knees. Paul used this report of unaddressed debauchery to question the sanity of their pride.
How could they possibly be arrogant when a church member was living in such open sin while the church denied the faith through their inaction? They should be ashamed to the point of repentance.
Whatever else Paul was saying, we must see that, though he was outraged by the sexual sin, their toleration was more outrageous than the deed. Their indifference was inexcusable and deeply offensive. They failed to take seriously either sin or their fellow church members. Jackman applies this to our day: “We are so used to individualizing the ethical teaching of the New Testament, that we readily overlook the responsibility of the whole congregation for the right conduct of its individual members.” We must do better than this.
From the previous four chapters we probably are not far off the mark to surmise that the guilty individual was a person of some stature in the larger society; perhaps, as some have suggested, even a wealthy patron of some sort. Therefore, self-interest fuelled the congregation’s sinful tolerance of what even pagans wouldn’t tolerate. Whether that was the case in Corinth, all too often church history has “actually reported” such wicked compromise. That is, sometimes individual Christians and even whole congregations allow themselves to be for sale.
Years ago, a man in our church, whom the church was pursuing in terms of Matthew 18:15–20, came to see me and told me that if the church did not stop reaching out to him he would withhold his giving. The church did not stop pursuing him. I assume he withheld his giving, but the church remained financially healthy. The church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not for sale. It is the bride of Christ, not the prostitute of the unregenerate.
Let’s stay here for a moment because we need to grasp the sobering truth that pride goes before a fall, not only of individuals but also of entire congregations. The arrogance of the Corinthian church was their undoing. Their pride of “success” or prosperity, or perhaps the pride of popularity, blinded these believers to the presence of wickedness in their midst. Pride blinded them to Christ’s expectations of his people. Pride blinded them to the message of the cross—the power of God to forgive, reconcile, and renew the repentant believer (2 Corinthians 5:17). They were behaving like fallen creatures, not like those re-created in Christ Jesus. In effect, they failed to see that the church is different than the world (5:9–12). Paul’s statement (v. 2) was meant to stun them into repentance, resulting in a serious response—the response of excommunication. Related to this was their need to “mourn.”
The word translated “mourn” is used two ways in the New Testament, one with reference to grief over death(Mark 16:10) and the other with reference to grief over sin (Matthew 5:4). Perhaps both are intended here.
First, they should have been mourning their sin as well as the sin of their fellow church member. Though the individual would carry the responsibility for his wickedness, the congregation, of course, would—or at least should—share the sense of shame that one of their own would dishonour the name of Jesus Christ (vv. 4,7).
The local church is a family, and when a family member lives dishonourably all (should) feel the sorrow. When a church member sins in such an open and grievous way, the congregation suffers because of its concern for the fame of the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The accusation that “the church is full of hypocrites” is a slam against what Jesus Christ loved and died for. Morally fallen leaders sometimes bring such a stain on a congregation that it never recovers in the eyes of many in the community. Think of the negative impact on loved ones we are trying to reach (including our children) when they see awful sin in our church. Proper mourning over sin in the life of a church member should produce humility and prayer. It should send the message, “This is not how Christians live!”
Second, they should have been mourning what appeared to be the spiritual death of a fellow church member. Paul writes, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” These are sobering words. These are tragic words. These are frightening words. Paul is saying, “No longer treat him as one who has spiritual life. Rather, treat him as one whose name is not in the Book of Life. Treat him as one who is spiritually dead.”
Paul was not making an absolute, final judgement about this person’s spiritual condition, for he understood that the individual might be a true brother (see vv. 11–12). Rather, he was making a judicial verdict, based on this church member’s present habitual practice: that his sin belied his profession of faith. His profession of faith could no longer be affirmed as credible and hence the congregation was to remove him from the membership.
The word translated “remove” means “to lift up and take away.” Obviously, this was not a physical removal but rather a serious call to lift up his name from the membership roll, removing his privileges of membership. And as we will see in a few more verses, this was extremely serious. The Lord wanted his church composed of a pure membership.
I am reading a book by John S Hammett called Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, which addresses the subject of biblical ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church. In this book Hammett, an American, laments that, in many Baptist churches in his country, the membership list is much longer than the average Sunday attendance. On average, thirty to forty percent of those who are church members actually attend church (and about the only time the attendance improves is when there is a member’s meeting and the disgruntled want to have their say).
Hammett concludes, and I believe correctly, that the problem is that these churches have a mixed membership—a membership of regenerate and unregenerate; saved church members and unsaved church members. The church membership, as in Corinth, is not a pure membership and this must be rectified.
The Barna Group often carries out surveys among local churches and has concluded that, effectively, church members do not live any differently than non-members. In other words, there is little difference between Christians and non-Christians. I disagree. I think their polling is faulty when they simply adopt someone’s profession of faith as genuine. Because a respondent’s name is on the membership roll of a church, they assume that respondent is a believer. Related to this are surveys informing us of the high statistics of young people who go to university and lose their faith. Nonsense. The problem is that, too quickly and irresponsibly, the church has affirmed professions of faith and baptised those who should never have been baptised. Paedobaptism is a huge culprit here, but Baptists can be just as guilty. With bloated membership rolls, we can expect such alarming stats.
Church, may God help us to not make a mockery of the name of Jesus Christ. Rather, may we be careful to aim for a biblical approach to having a pure membership: a membership of the regenerate. We must look for evidences of grace and, when all we see is glaring evidence of worldliness, we should no longer affirm one as a Christian. This is not only the responsibility of the elders but also of the congregation.
Sexual Sin and Church Membership
In our day, the perversion of sexual sin is pervasive, including in the lives of church members. Sadly, it seems that we have become so accustomed to sexual sin that we are almost as indifferent as the Corinthian church. As evidence, consider Donald Trump’s popularity. This man claims to be a Christian and yet he is a known adulterer (a serial one via his many divorces). He is on tape saying the most vulgar things about women and yet “Christians” join in applauding this arrogant man.
Men who are disqualified from the pastorate are rushed back into the pulpit and into the limelight, even suing other Christians to do so. Brothers and sisters, rather than looking down upon the Corinthian church, we should be sobered by how enculturated many church memberships have become. We need to cling to the Scriptural teaching that, when a person is born again, they are saved from their sin, not in their sin. Our membership is to resemble this truth.
Mourning a Death
When a church member is removed from the affirmation of the congregation it is like death and we should mourn. Sorrow accompanies true church discipline. We feel the loss. At least, this is true of those who understand what it means to be a church member.
At risk of the wrong people being troubled in their conscience, I must exhort us to examine ourselves as to whether we are truly in the faith. We must “test ourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). That is, are you sure you are saved?
John Owen pastorally writes,
Are you indifferent to your own sin? Towards the sins of others? To your congregational responsibilities and privileges? Brothers and sisters, this is a very serious matter. God will not be mocked for, if you sow indifference, you will reap God’s indifference as you face him on the day of judgement (Psalm 1:4–6).
A Powerful Membership
In vv. 3–5, we see that the goal of church discipline is not primarily punitive (though it is purposefully punitive); the goal is remedial. God has invested the local church with this kind of remedial power as it carries out biblical church discipline.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
(1 Corinthians 5:3–5)
We saw, in chapter 4, that Paul was willing to use his apostolic authority to carry out necessary discipline if those in the church did not repent (vv. 18–21). Here, we find something similar, but not identical. Here we see the principle that apostolic precept is foundational for a biblically, powerfully pure membership.
Paul was not suggesting when he said, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (v. 2). He was issuing an apostolic command, which he expected to be carried out. Though the church may be indifferent about what is intolerable before God, the apostles were not. Apostolic teaching is clear about church discipline. The congregation is to carry it out, by the power of Jesus Christ, with a view to powerful consequences.
In v. 3, Paul is saying that he had heard enough. He had sufficient information to form an authoritative verdict. He seeks to embolden for this difficult yet necessary responsibility by lending his apostolic support. Though he was not with them, he endorsed this action with the authority of an apostle. “Paul calls the congregation together not for protracted deliberations but merely to ratify his decision. The verdict is cast: ‘I have already passed judgment’” (Ciampa and Rosner). There is an important principle here that we need to apply. “He wants the Corinthians to realize what it means to live under the authority of God’s word. Its prohibitions are absolute, and its definition of sin is final” (Jackman). We too need this same attitude of submission to God’s infallible word.
Apostles, who laid the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), are no longer in the church, but their authoritative teaching remains. And it is just as authoritative as when they were present with a rod. The church is apostolically responsible to carry out what the apostles commanded. Let me put it this way: The apostolic doctrine—the inspired word of God—makes infallible and authoritative judgements that are not up for debate.
Just as the Corinthian church had no right to debate Paul’s command concerning church discipline, neither does our church. When the inspired word of God identifies sin and the biblical responsibility to bring discipline for it, we must do so. An apostle may not be present to carry out the discipline, but the apostolic word is present, and, most importantly, so is the Lord of the church, Jesus the Christ (v. 4).
Church discipline is bounded by what God’s word identifies as intolerable. That is, God identifies—in his word—what is to be judged by the congregation. This not only provides an infallible guide for church life, but it also guards the church from destructive and intolerable authoritarianism. In other words, the power for church discipline is not absolute power; it is defined and limited. This protects the church from becoming a cult. It protects the church from unbiblical binding of the conscience. It equips the church to be comprehensive in addressing that which is intolerable (see v. 11).
It is vital to see that Paul does not call on the leaders to discipline the unrepentant sinning member. Nor does he call for an apostolic council to do so. Rather, he recognises the highest authority to carry out the discipline: the congregation.
Paul expects for them to “assemble” (“to join together”) under the conscientious and recognised authority; that is, “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (cf. Matthew 18:20). As they purposefully and properly gathered to confront this sin, they were assured that they had the “power” (ability) for this task because it is a task given by “our Lord Jesus.” Further, they acted with the assurance that doing so was biblical, for the apostle assured them that “my spirit is present.” That is, they had his authoritative endorsement to carry out the discipline. Verse 5 then describes what this discipline looks like.
Removed to Another Realm
As the unrepentant member was “removed from among” them, they, in effect, were “delivering this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” What does this mean?
It means that the church member was being excommunicated—disfellowshipped—from the privileged and protective realm of the church into Satan’s territory (Ephesians 2:1–3, 12; Colossians 1:13; 1 John 5:19; see 2 Corinthians 4:4). As Jackman explains, “the realm outside the fellowship of the church is regarded as Satan’s sphere.” To be placed back into that sphere is a serious matter. As Prior explains, “We need to be clear about the radical nature of this discipline: the man is to be taken … out of the midst of the believing and worshipping community. This is excommunication, being unable to partake in the Lord’s Supper and therefore out of fellowship completely.”
This makes logical sense. After all, if one behaves as if they belong to the kingdom of darkness, they have no business pretending that they belong to the kingdom of light. But further, such removal protects God’s church—from God. Ciampa and Rosner helpfully observe,
The Safety of Church Membership
Those who are indifferent to church membership simply display their ignorance, whether wilfully or unwittingly. The church is a place of safety for those who align themselves with what God calls intolerable. To reject or dismiss this is not too far from dismissing the gospel, which gives one access to this protective and powerful people. Those who have been granted entrance are those who have been rescued from the intolerable domain of darkness through the cross and empty tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once we are in, we must never be indifferent to the power of the church, under Jesus Christ, to have a massive spiritual impact on those living intolerably. We see this clearly in the remainder of the verse, which we might call a remedial remainder and reminder.
Paul makes clear that the goal is the spiritual rescue of the former church member when he writes that the person should be delivered “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Church discipline is designed for the salvation of those who at the moment are pleased to live intolerably.
The phrase “for the destruction of the flesh” may refer to physical affliction (as with Job, who under God’s sovereign allowance, suffered at the hands of Satan yet, in the end, was truly “saved” from wrong theology to true theology). First Corinthians 11:28–32 certainly refers to physical chastening, but the idea here seems to be not the destruction of physical death (for how then could the person be saved?). On the other hand, Paul might be saying that, if the person is truly saved, physical death would guard him from continued digression to apostasy, from which there is no recovery.
A better interpretation is that the excommunication, putting the member outside the protection of God’s household, was a means of bringing the person to the end of himself, so that his sinful desires would lead to the desire for deliverance. Much like the prodigal son.
Church discipline is designed by God to make life so intolerable for the unrepentant that they will repent of their intolerable indifference, turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved. Thiselton comments, “Paul envisages that the offender, bereft of the approval and support of the community, will find his self-sufficiency and self-reliance eroded until he comes to reach a change of heart.” This is the mighty powerful effect that church discipline is partly designed to have. I know many who can testify this this reality.
Prior summarises this well: “It is hard to appreciate the extreme spiritual vulnerability created in a person, hitherto protected by, and privileged within the community of God’s people, once he or she has been excommunicated from such security. It is equivalent to being dropped, defenceless and disowned, in enemy-occupied territory.” Such misery puts to death the desire to remain in this condition leading to repentance and faith. The person is thereby saved, assured that on the day of judgement, rather than being indifferent, God will intimately embrace him as his own. Therefore “If, in the eyes of God, it is right and good for a particular person to suffer in this life in order that he or she might be saved, then let it be so” (Prior).
We must learn from this to repent of thinking we are wiser or kinder than God. More on this in studies to come, but shame on us when we treat excommunication as no big deal. Shame on us for thinking that compromising on the consequences of sin will help the unrepentant individual.
This is a sobering passage, but it is also a hopeful and salvific passage. We would miss the point if we did not see the power which God has given to his assembled, gathered people. As we live a cruciform life, we will be more sensitive to that which is intolerable to our Lord and thereby to us. We will not be indifferent to these intolerable attitudes and actions and together we will lovingly involve ourselves to guard the purity of the church while seeking to rescue the perishing, even those amongst the perishing who are fellow church members. May God give us grace to be a Christ-besotted pure and powerful membership, for his glory, and for our good. May God increasingly make us a cruciform-congregation, freed of an intolerable indifference.