on church discipline for egregious sins

In recent discussions over at Sharper Iron, we got off topic on a particular thread by observations concerning 1 Corinthians 5 and its teaching with respect to church discipline. I will try to reconstruct some of the discussion here, then offer a bit more argumentation concerning the topic.

Larry Rogier used this illustration in making a point:

Let’s use an example: You find out that a man in your church is committing adultery. Is your first response separation? Or “stay in and work”? It better be the latter. But after a period of time of repeated counsel and work, biblical confrontation and prayer, the former becomes the biblical response. If you, after a year or more of working with an unrepentant adulterer are still “staying in and working” with him, you are biblically disobedient.

I objected on a point of fine distinction with respect to his illustration by saying this:

Hey, Larry, I agree with the gist of your post, but I don’t think you are right in your illustration. The apostle Paul makes it clear that you kick an adulterer out immediately. Read 1 Cor 5 carefully. Shoot first and look for repentance later.

My friend Chris Anderson chimed in with:

Don, buddy, I disagree. I think Scripture teaches that you don’t really discipline for a particular sin; you discipline for obstinate refusal to turn from that sin. And I think that fits I Cor. 5. So if a man committed adultery and repented, he would not be a candidate for discipline.

Well, all of that set the stage for some back and forth on ‘what does 1 Cor 5 really mean anyway?’ I am going to include snippets of the conversation here, then give you my commentary on 1 Cor 5, from our Bible Study Guide that I am compiling for our church and close with a few thoughts on the subject. I invite comments from Larry and Chris either here or on their own blogs.

In response to my objection above, Larry said:

I think you are seriously misreading 1 Cor 5. The point there is that they willfully tolerated such without addressing it. As Chris point out, the basis for church discipline is not a particular sin, but the refusal to turn from it. The only way you know a person has refused is if you have counseled them biblically. Correlating that with Matt 18, Gal 1 and other passages, we see that we must confront and counsel biblically, urging repentance. Only “if he does not hear the church” should church discipline be carried out.

To which I replied:

Well, I obviously disagree. I don’t believe there is ANY correlation between Mt 18 and 1 Cor 5. I am not sure what correlation you see between Gal 1 and those passages. And this obviously is not the place to discuss it. I am planning to blog some on this on my own site later, or perhaps we can start a new thread. I think that we would see whether repentance was genuine or not if we booted the adulterers from the get go, though.

And then Larry offered a post quoting mine above and interspersing comments and questions:

Larry: So you are saying 1 Cor 5 is not church discipline? What is it?
Quote = Don Johnson: “I am not sure what correlation you see between Gal 1 and those passages.”
Larry: Those who are spiritual are to restore those who are overcome in sin. That is the precursor to church discipline. The goal is restoration in purity.
Quote = Don Johnson: “I think that we would see whether repentance was genuine or not if we booted the adulterers from the get go, though.”
Larry: How so? How can you see repentance if you are not there to see it? Repentance manifests itself in the life.

What follows is my commentary on 1 Cor 5. I attempted to make it appear in outline format as I have it laid out in Word, but Blogger just isn’t conducive to that. I have turned it into mostly paragraph format, but I think you can see how I am working through the text. Verse references are bracketed like this (1).

1. From the report of division within the church, Paul turns to another very serious report, a report of gross immorality within the church (1 Cor 5.1-2).

The particular offense that revealed the sin of the church was a man within the church who was immorally involved with a woman who was his stepmother (1). The wording of the text suggests (but doesn’t conclusively say) that the man’s father may have died, and that the man was now living with his stepmother in a ‘common law’ relationship. The barest of details we are given here give rise to more questions than we can answer. This particular sin was prohibited both by the OT law and by Roman law, it was considered extremely improper, even by pagans. The greater offense, however, lay with the church: in their arrogance they had tolerated this deed, perhaps even congratulating themselves on their ‘Christian love’. Paul instructs that they should have mourned and expelled the man from the assembly (2).

2. Paul pronounces the judgement that must occur (presumably immediately upon their receipt of this letter): they are to assemble and expel this man (1 Cor 5.3-5).

Paul pronounces his judgement as an apostle and exercises his authority as if he were physically present with them – there was to be no deliberation on this question, only obedience (3). The judgement of the apostle demanded immediate expulsion of this individual, delivering him unto Satan ‘for the destruction of the flesh’ (4-5). The full meaning of the phrase ‘destruction of the flesh’ is not explained. Various interpretations have been offered, but it likely means a deliverance into the power of Satan in a way different from the way Satan has authority and influence over everyone in the world today. In Job, we see that the righteous man Job was delivered to the power of Satan by God’s permission. This deliverance is something similar, but presumably with less restrictions. Satan hates God and his creation. A man delivered to his power in this way would likely find himself under severe physical affliction, perhaps terminating in premature death. In any case, it is important to note that the process here does not involve the ‘three-step’ process described in Mt 18.15-20. There, the issue is bitter unresolved personal offenses between brethren (much like the troubles described in 1 Cor 1-4). Here the issue is blatant immorality, a blight on the church and mark on the testimony of Christ – there is nothing to discuss, judgement must be made.

3. Paul’s concern in this matter is particularly for the church – the toleration of sin infects the spiritual life of the whole church and destroys the relationship between Christians and God (1 Cor 5.6-8).

Sin spreads in a Christian body like yeast does in bread (6). Paul uses the picture of Passover, one of the most important festivals of the Jewish calendar. At Passover, the house was scoured to make certain every particle of leaven had been purged from the house, an act symbolizing the purging of evil that Christ, the Passover Lamb provided (7). Continuing the metaphor, Paul urges the Corinthians to worship God in spirit and in truth, in purity and holiness, as partaking of the unleavened bread of the Son of God (8).

4. From the particulars of this case, Paul changes the subject to teach the proper relationship of the believer with fornicators (and other sinners) of this world, as opposed to those found within the church (1 Cor 5.9-13).

Here Paul alludes to his previous letter (see comments on ‘the rest of Ac 19’, just prior to the introduction to 1 Cor in Study Guide 13), where he had instructed them not to have company with ‘immoral people’. This letter no longer exists, though the fact of its teaching makes the sin of the Corinthians more serious: they had previously been instructed on this subject (9). Paul clarifies that by this instruction he had not meant to forbid all contact with immoral people (or other kinds of sinners) ‘of this world’ for that would mean total removal from society (10). What Paul means by his prohibition is that when a professing Christian is guilty of one of these gross sins demanding expulsion, he was to be completely shunned in every way by the believers, going as far as refusing to partake a meal together (11). It is not the business of the church to judge outsiders, but to judge insiders when it comes to these matters (12). God is the judge of those on the outside (13a). You (the church) are to judge those guilty of these sins on the inside, therefore the command is ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves’ (13b, Dt 13.5, 17.7, 17.12, 21.21, 22.21).

The most pertinent part of the commentary to this discussion is the last bit of Point 2, where I compare 1 Cor 5 with Mt 18. I would also like to submit a notion with respect to Mt 18, although I won’t take the time to prove it here. (I do want to write more fully on Mt 18 in a later post.) I think Mt 18 is largely misunderstood and over-applied. The Lord isn’t giving us a law of the Medes and Persians that must be followed in every case of church discipline. He isn’t giving us a template for dealing with errant teaching and errant teachers far and wide. He is dealing with personal conflicts and jockeying for position and place (politicking) among members of the local assembly. He is laying out principles to follow, not a law to be maintained or exactly followed in every case. We should follow it and apply it with WISDOM by faith without making it a LAW of the church.

To answer Larry’s last questions, then. First, I do see 1 Cor 5 as a church discipline passage. I just don’t think that Mt 18 and 1 Cor 5 are talking about the same thing. Church discipline in some cases requires Christians to employ wisdom in resolving disputes between themselves. They shouldn’t resort to the courts (Mt 18 and 1 Cor 6.1-8 are much more closely related than Mt 18 and 1 Cor 5.) They should try talking to each other, try to involve others, take it to the whole church if necessary. 1 Cor 5 has nothing to do with that. Paul is addressing a cancer in the body. You cut cancer out, you don’t keep it in. Certain egregious sins are a blight on the testimony of the church and simply cannot be tolerated.

As to correlating Gal 1 with this issue, I see where you are going Larry, that appears to be a ‘slip of the keyboard’ and you probably mean Gal 6.1. Again, I would find that passage more closely related to the wisdom of Mt 18 rather than the commandment of 1 Cor 5.

Finally, I made the comment that if you boot the fornicator out, you have an opportunity to see how genuine the repentance is. Larry wonders how so. Here is how: the fornicator who is coddled within the body may repent, but may only be doing so to protect self-interest. He can say the right things, change public perceptions, hide his sin deeper, and be even more deceptive than before. If you boot him out, he has nothing to gain by persisting in “repentance”. Now we can see if he really means it. Fence the table from him, put him under the church’s censure, insist on his expulsion from fellowship, and you will see whether he has been reformed. Many commentators suggest that this is indeed what happened in Corinth and Paul then instructed the Corinthians to reinstate the penitant. See 2 Cor 2.4-11.

The whole issue is complicated by 1 Cor 5.11, where Paul lists additional sins that fall under the category for which he gives the commands in 1 Cor 5.3-5. It appears that when a professing believer commits an egregious sin, he should be expelled from the assembly. Use the rod, and don’t be moved by the tears, until a test of time has passed and genuine repentance is evident.

The modern church is rather loose in its morality. I believe that one of the major areas where the church is lax is failing to obey 1 Cor 5. It makes me wonder if the Lord will find faith on the earth when he returns. Oh Lord Jesus, Come!

As I said, I do invite the comments of Larry and Chris, or anyone else interested in this discussion. I would like to work through these passages in detail, and the questions or comments that arise, especially pointing to specific features of the texts involved are most welcome. I may deal with such questions in future posts rather than in the comments section, however.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Comments

  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Don,

    I wanted you to know that I looked at this post and will comment, but I need to look at it in more depth to give an answer, but I haven’t and still can’t carve out the time. My first reaction is that 1 Cor. 5 and Matthew 18 are related, even as other passages are also related, because they are all about discipline in the church.