Study Notes for I Corinthians 5:1-5 (click here for Study Sheet)
Besides being divided into factions, the Corinthian church was becoming infected with blatant immorality. While Corinth was infamous for its promiscuity, the offense Paul confronted in this letter was almost unheard-of in that pagan society. A man "has his father's wife." The offense was bad enough, but Paul was horrified that the church was tolerating it. "You are proud!" he writes. "Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?"
The church, apparently, was minimizing this sin by being proud ("arrogant" in the NASB) of its "freedom" in Christ. They had rationalized behavior that was previously unacceptable to them by flaunting grace.
Paul doesn't tell them they should have been angry or defensive or afraid of this gross sin. Rather, he says they should be filled with grief. The NASB says they "have not mourned." The Greek word translated "grief" is the word used to express mourning for one who has died. The Corinthians, Paul is saying, should have mourned as for a death in their body when one of them fell into this egregious sin.
As the body of Christ, the church is intimately affected when one of its members sins. Just as gangrene in a foot threatens and compromises the whole body, so the sin of one member infects the whole body of Christ, and the body mourns the loss of spiritual health and power in the one member. If the church had been grief-stricken and had rushed to the spiritual aid of the offending brother, he might have been saved from his behavior before it became so deeply entrenched.
By tolerating their brother's offense, the church allowed a moral infection to run rampant among them. By becoming desensitized to the man's sin, they were becoming vulnerable to more moral failures. They were sending a message to new members that self-indulgent behavior was allowed. They were negating the call to holiness and the promise of victory that are hallmarks of walking with Christ. They were teaching deception.
They should "have put out of [their] fellowship the man who did this," Paul rebukes them.
Even though he was not physically with them, Paul assures the Corinthians that he has "already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present." And then he gives them specific instructions how to proceed.
"When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan" he says.
Paul sets up conditions for administering discipline. First, the body of Christ is to be filled with grief-mourning for the failure of part of itself. Anger, arrogance, fascination-none of these is redemptive. All of us are vulnerable to deception and sin. A moral lapse could happen to any one of us if we become careless in our relationship to Jesus. As the church, one in Christ and united to each other, the sin of any member is painful to all. The sin of any member compromises the integrity of the whole.
Second, the body must be gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus. Paul is very clear about this requirement-they are to gather in the name of their Savior and intercessor and king and priest: Jesus Christ. They are to be conscious that they have gathered as his representatives and in his presence. It is not enough to offer a prayer to God the Father before starting the meeting and then to proceed to disfellowship a brother. Before amputating part of itself, the body needs to be conscious of what it's doing. It needs to be representing the redemption of its Lord and king. It needs to be vulnerable to the pain of the surgery it's about to undergo. It needs to be representing the justice and mercy of the Savior to the brother or sister who is in moral and spiritual danger. This kind of participation and empathy is only possible through a personal response to Jesus' suffering. The church can only execute judgment in the name of Jesus.
Third, the power of the Lord Jesus must be present. The body of Christ is not to cut off a member of itself without being conscious of the power of Jesus, mediated by the Holy Spirit, being present. The Holy Spirit's work is to "convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8) The Holy Spirit also convicts us of the truth about Jesus. Only if the Holy Spirit is present can discipline be fully effective. The Holy Spirit reveals truth, mediates love and courage, and brings hope. The Holy Spirit will give the disciplining body discernment, wisdom, and compassion. He will give the offender a true sense of guilt, hope, and redemption if he or she can receive it.
Paul also says he will be present at such a meeting "in spirit". He will be in prayer with the church, and, as part of the body of Christ, he is united with his Corinthian brothers with an intimacy that shares the pain of the amputation they will experience.
Putting an immoral brother or sister out of the fellowship of believers is not an act of damnation. They must "hand this man over to Satan," Paul says, "so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." The world outside the fellowship of believers is Satan's territory. The church is God's; his spirit resides in it. To put a member out is to remove him from the protection of the members and the continual presence of the Holy Spirit. But this act, Paul quickly explains, is not for the sake of condemnation.
The goal in expelling an immoral member is to save him or her-and to protect the church. By putting the offender into Satan's territory, according to Paul, the church may be giving the person a chance for saving his spirit on the "day of the Lord." Outside the direct protection of the Holy Spirit, the person may experience Satan's direct attacks. This experience may cause the person to "wake up" to what he or she has lost. He may become ashamed of his or her rebellion and sin and turn back to the Lord.
Church discipline is never to be an act of self-righteous judgment executed by arrogant elders or board members pointing out with hidden glee the shortcomings of a fellow member. Discipline is for the purpose of making a disciple. Disciplining a fellow church member is only to be done as a product of grief, in the presence of Jesus, and as an act of redemption.
Our Response to Jesus
As Christ-followers we are obligated to be accountable to Jesus and to each other. If we harbor hidden sin in our lives or the wounds of sin in our hearts, we must open those secret place to our redeemer, the Lord Jesus. Those things will keep us separated from true fellowship if we do not allow him to heal them.
It is frightening to contemplate opening our secrets to Jesus because we'll have to look at them again. But not until we consciously admit how powerless we are over them and how wounded we are will Jesus have free access to them. Whatever we hold back from total honesty we hold back the healing power of the Holy Spirit.
The truth will set us free. And the truth is that Jesus wastes nothing, and he redeems everything we submit to him. Our most embarrassing secrets will become our most insightful strong points when we offer them to his transforming touch.
As Christ-followers we are called to mediate justice and redemption in the name of Jesus. In his name we offer him the secrets of our hearts, opening ourselves to transformation. His love will change us and make us whole.
And because we know the love and salvation of Jesus, we can bring justice
and redemption to our fellow members whose souls sorrow.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 23, 2000.