The rally cry in our world today is the word “tolerance”. We are told that we are to be tolerant of each other and anything deemed intolerant is considered to be “hate speech”. In Canada recently a couple was visited by the police because they dared to write a letter to the county board stating they disagreed with a gay rights policy. The police were investigating “non-aggressive hate speech”.
Let’s quickly state the fact that the people calling for tolerance are often the most intolerant people around. They believe in tolerance as long as you are acting and believing in a way that They feel is right. They have no tolerance for those who disagree with them.
In this atmosphere when tolerance is king the words of 1 Corinthians 5 are met with hostility. You will hear expressions such as “narrow-minded”, “puritanical”, “judgmental” and “right wing extremist” as people refer to this text. People react to this chapter rather than listening to it and trying to understand what Paul is saying. I believe if we listen . . . we will be surprised at wise these words of Paul are.
THE NEED FOR DISCIPLINE
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)
As we read Paul’s words it becomes clear that there was a man in the congregation who was part of the church who was “having an intimate relationship” with his Father’s wife or his step-mother. We don’t know whether dad was still living or had died. Since the woman is not addressed in Paul’s letter, it is possible that she was not a part of the church; she was not a believer. Therefore the church had no jurisdiction over her.
Paul called this relationship immoral. He pointed out that even the pagans knew that this kind of relationship was wrong. In the Old Testament such behavior was considered to be incest even though the man and the woman were not biologically related. The fact that she was his father’s wife made her a part of his family and any kind of sexual relationship with a family member is incest.
The sin was bad enough. But Paul was infuriated by the response (or lack thereof) of the church. Paul said they were “proud”. It is likely that the church was proud of how “open-minded” they were. Perhaps they were proud of the fact that they were not “judgmental”. You can almost hear them saying, “Who am I to Judge? I don’t agree with what this man is doing but he is a good man. We all make mistakes.”
Paul rebuked the church for their foolish pride. Paul says they should have been grieving over this behavior and they should immediately excommunicate the man. In other words, they should kick him out of the church. In 6 Paul gives his reason for such drastic and decisive action.
Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul is really giving two reasons why church discipline is necessary. First, blatant sin compromises the body of Christ. Let me draw you a picture. Let’s say a young man goes into the local military recruiter’s office and signs up to be a Marine. He survives boot camp and reports for duty. One day he is tired of being a Marine. He doesn’t want to go where his orders have sent him so he just goes home. What happens? The man is in BIG trouble because he has gone AWOL (absent without leave). He can be arrested and imprisoned.
Why make such a big deal over this guy’s desertion? Why not just let him go home if that’s what he wants to do? It’s because the military needs to be able to count on its soldiers. If they let people go home any time they want it would eventually be impossible to defend our borders because you would never know if the troops would be there.
Why are people charged with perjury when they lie in court? It’s because the system cannot be effective if witnesses will not tell the truth. If you allow people to lie on the witness stand the system of justice will crumble.
Both pictures illustrate the need to stop decay before it destroys the foundation of these institutions. In like manner, Paul is saying that when blatant sin is tolerated in the church, the foundation of the church is under attack. If this sin is not addressed, the foundation will erode.
Paul used the example of yeast. A little yeast will eventually work its way into all of the dough. We might be more comfortable saying, “One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch”. If a rotten apple is left for awhile with other apples, all of the apples will go bad. In the same way, when we ignore immorality in the church, the church’s moral foundation is compromised.
We live at a time when Divorce and adultery are just as common in the church as in the world. Unmarried believers regularly live together outside of marriage. Gays are being ordained. The church has watered down its standards and has lost its ability to act as salt and light in the world. We have lost our influence. Society is paying for it.
Second, Paul says that “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.” I think Paul is reminding us that Jesus died to set us free from our sin. Paul argues that as His forgiven children, we should be living differently. Christ came to change our lives! He gave His life so we could live differently from the rest of the world. We should be living in stark contrast to the rest of the world. We should be living with sincerity and truth rather than with malice and wickedness.
If the world sees that following Christ has made no real impact on the way that we are living, they conclude that the gospel is powerless. God’s glory is diminished when Christians don’t live like followers of Christ.
THE PROCESS OF DISCIPLINE
Paul’s answer to the problem is the exercise of church discipline. But how do we apply this discipline? Paul wants us to understand that the church is not called to be the policeman of the world. Nor are we to isolate ourselves from everyone who lives in a way contrary to the Word of God. We are, if you will, to police ourselves. Paul says we are not to associate with those who call themselves “brothers” who engage in these blatantly sinful behaviors.
Paul gives some specific advice to the church.
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, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (vv.4-5)
First, they were to gather in Jesus’ name. Their actions were not to be that of a lynch mob. Our actions are to be Biblical and consistent with the character of Christ. The church has too often been guilty of lying in wait for people. There are horrible stories of elders and deacons spying on church members to “catch” or “confirm” the sin of someone. I do not believe Paul would ever advocate such a mentality or behavior.
They were to take decisive action. I think it is important to interject here the words of Jesus in Matthew 18,
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
I think these words point out that “excommunication” is a last resort. Notice the sequences that Jesus gives us.
- Talk to a person privately. If you have a problem with another believer (or, I believe, if you see another in sin) you should talk to them privately. There are many times when we are doing things that we know are wrong but we seem powerless to overcome them. We need someone to help us. We don’t need a posse, we just need a friend. Sometimes what we THINK is going on isn’t what is really going on. We can be mistaken. We must always talk TO someone rather than ABOUT them.
- If the person is unresponsive to your concerns as a friend, Jesus said we are to bring a couple of additional friends with us (believers the other person would respect). The idea is to convey the seriousness of what is happening in such a way that things can still be handled semi-privately. This shows that it is not just one person who is concerned.
- If the private confrontations don’t work, then Jesus said the matter should be brought before the church. The person should be brought in, confronted with their sin and (if they are unrepentant) they should be cast out of the church. Instead of merely “giving up” and concluding that it is “no use”, we are to keep “turning up the heat” in the hope that the person will repent of their behavior.
Finally, notice that the actions are to be redemptive in purpose. The words of Paul are very strong, “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” I believe Paul is instructing the church to kick this man out of the church (into the domain of Satan) in the hope that this extreme action will wake him up.
We sometimes hear people talk about “tough love”. Tough love is something you do as a last resort. It is when you have tried talking to the person, you have exacted various consequences for behaviors, but nothing has worked. In a last ditch effort to help the person “wake up” you do something drastic:
- You refuse to bail them out of jail
- You ask the person to move out of the house
- You commit the person to a treatment facility
- You fire them from their job
- You withhold your financial support
We call it tough love because it is very difficult to do. However, make no mistake, it is meant as an act of love. It is drastic action that is designed to save your relationship or to save the life of another.
This is what excommunication is supposed to be about. It is a final attempt to bring a person to a point of repentance and change. It seems like a harsh action but it is really to be an act of love. This kind of church discipline should never be entered into in a spirit of anger and vindictiveness. It should always be entered into with tears and deep prayer. This is a drastic act made necessary by a desperate situation.
THE PROBLEMS OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Having said all of this the question remains: Why is this kind of discipline so rare in the contemporary church? There are Barriers to church discipline. The first barrier is the church’s history of abuse in this area. The church was involved in burning those “convicted” of being witches. Some who were considered to be heretics during the Inquisition (many of whom have since been considered saints) were executed by the church. The Ku Klux Klan advertises itself as a Christian organization. The Crusades are a black mark on Christian history. Our history of excess is a barrier.
Second, there is the nature of today’s church. In Paul’s day there was THE church in Corinth. The full influence of the Body of Christ could be brought to bear on the wayward believer. Today this is more difficult. If a person is confronted with their sin today they are likely to simply go to another church that is ignorant of the problem and will welcome them as a new member. If one church tries to warn another church they might be sued for slander!
There are other tough questions related to Church discipline. The biggest question is: For what sins should we pursue church discipline? Paul said,
But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. (v.11)
Paul listed six specific sins which should cause us to “not associate” with a fellow believer. I’m inclined to believe that this was not an exhaustive list. It is easy to pick on certain sins (the ones we don’t struggle with) and point our fingers at them. But is that right? In our materialistic society, greed is like an aggressive cancer. Should we not confront this sin? And then there is idolatry (putting something before the Lord in our lives). Are we to kick out of the church all those people who put sporting events, family events, and hobbies above their commitment to the Lord? And what about the one who slanders another or gossips? Don’t these people destroy the church by their innuendo? Where do we draw the line? How do enforce these things?
Tough questions but let me remind you of the principles,
- Church discipline should only be used for things that clearly and obviously contradict the plain teaching of Scripture. We need to make sure we are not on our own personal crusade (it happens!)
- Church discipline is always a last resort. Most matters should be dealt with privately.
- Church discipline is only for when a person refuses to confess and repent
This kind of drastic church action, by definition, should be rare.
This passage isn’t about rounding up all the people engaged in some kind of sexual sin and kicking them out of the church. It is not about setting up courts in our sanctuaries. This passage is really about loving what God loves and about really loving other people.
If we really care about God we will want to honor Him with our lives. In fact, we will want that so much that if we should we begin to drift from God’s standard . . . we would want someone to tell us, to stop us, and to help us see the foolishness of our ways. Even if it takes drastic action we should want people to keep us from stumbling.
The place to start is not with a flurry of excommunications. The place to start is to look at our own hearts and lives. Ask yourself the tough questions. Where have you begun to drift from God’s standards? Are you making excuses for sin? Is your personal spiritual foundation eroding? What sin are you tolerating in your life that you should be working to eliminate? Are you pandering to lust? Are you giving other things priority over your service to the Lord? Has your language become coarse? Are you dishonoring your spouse? Are you being too harsh with your children? Are you spending your money foolishly? What problem area do you need to address in your own life?
Next we must determine to care enough about each other that we are willing to get involved. Our society’s emphasis on extreme tolerance is really a deadly thing. This kind of tolerance has two major problems: First, it leads us to water down the truth of God’s Word which ultimately leads people away from Jesus and from the life that comes only through Him. Second, it does not lead to greater love or respect but rather to greater indifference. It brings us to the point where we simply ignore what is going on in the lives of others. We simply determine to “live and let live.” That’s not love, its apathy. In the book of Judges the repeated refrain was, “and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Let me remind you that this was an indictment, not a commendation.
It is our job to relate to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are family. It is our job to look out for one another. Let me ask you something: do you know someone right now who is in trouble? Do you see someone headed for a fall? Are you willing to love that person enough to take them aside and say, “I am concerned about what is going on in your life and here’s why . . . . ? This is real love. This is the kind of think we hope that if the circumstances were reversed, our brother would do for us.
One more thing: when someone has fallen and turned from their sin in repentance, it is up to the church to extend mercy and forgiveness. Our goal is to help someone get back on the right path . . . it is not our job to beat someone up for their failures and mistakes. We all do foolish, stupid, and sinful things. We all have bad days and weak moments. We need to extend mercy and grace to each other.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 2 it is believed that Paul is talking about this man who was involved in this incestuous relationship when he said, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (2 Corinthians 2:6,7) The people of Corinth obeyed Paul, they apparently kicked the man out of the church. As a result, he had repented. Now, Paul says, it’s time to welcome him back to the church.
Church discipline is a very difficult subject. We need to be careful; we can’t be hasty. We need to exhaust every other possible means of turning a person away from their sin. But when every other means has been exhausted . . . we need to do what is hard so that the one bad apple might not spoil the whole bunch.