Handling a scandal

What is the primary purpose of hospitals? Put simply: to help sick people get better. Therefore, the most important measure of a hospital is not its beauty, the friendliness of the staff, or its sophisticated equipment. The measure of a hospital is its ability to make hurting people better. If a hospital doesn’t do that, everything else is a waste of time. I don’t know anyone who goes to a hospital for fun and games or to admire the architecture. Everyone I know who goes to a hospital has only one question: “Can you fix what’s wrong?”

Likewise, the church is God’s spiritual hospital. It is called to open its doors to people who are sick with sin, addictions, burdens, and hurts. They are welcome to come into the church because it is God’s hospital. That means the pastors and other spiritual leaders God has appointed are physicians of the soul, under the direction of the Great Physician. If a physician diagnoses disease in your body, if the tests show that you are suffering from a malignant tumor, don’t get mad at the physician if he has to operate. That is what physicians are supposed to do. Similarly, some people who come to church don’t want to be operated on. They want to hear the music come over the speakers. They want to hear the doctors talk about the situation, but they don’t want to go into surgery.

This is ludicrous! If you have cancer you want a doctor who’s going to take your condition seriously. You don’t want a doctor who says, “You’ve got a lump… I’ve got a lump…all God’s people have lumps. Don’t let it get you down. You’re okay, I’m okay.” You want your doctor to operate…and quickly!

In 1 Cor 5:1-13, Paul writes a timeless message to a church that is on the operating table. Although the apostle Paul is not a medical doctor, he understands the need to remove spiritual cancer. Paul believes sin is a cancer that infects the church. So he urges us to purge the church of sin for the church stands or falls together. In this passage, Paul will show you a patient’s chart that reveals the disease he is suffering from and the prescribed cure.

  1. Refuse to toleraterebellion in the church (5:1-8). In the first eight verses, Paul presents two problems. There is a problem with an immoral man. But secondly, and even more importantly, there is the failure of the church to take sin seriously. In 5:1, Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” The phrase, “It is actually reported” means that the immorality is well known, notorious, and public. This is no secret scandal; it is on the front page of the Corinthian Times. To make matters worse, the “immorality” (repeated twice in 5:1) is that of a son having sex with his stepmother. Notice, Paul does not call the woman the man’s “mother;” instead, he uses the phrase “father’s wife,” which in its Old Testament usage means “stepmother” (e.g., Lev 18:8). Furthermore, the word “has” denotes an ongoing sexual relationship. This man and woman are “living together” (“cohabiting,” NET), despite the Old Testament prohibitions of a man having sexual relations with his father’s wife. What makes this sin so abhorrent is this type of behavior was not even tolerated among unbelievers! Talk about a black eye to the cause of Christ!

This wicked report must have been incredibly humbling for Paul. Paul planted the church at Corinth and invested 18 months in the lives of these people. Once Paul left, Apollos came and followed up his work. The church was without excuse! They had been privileged to sit under the preaching of two of the greatest preachers in world history. Yet, the sad reality is: Christians continue to sin regardless of who is preaching and leading. Frequently, biblical preachers can unwittingly breed pride in the congregations they serve. The people proclaim, “Our preacher preaches the Word!” “We know the Word.” “We eat meat, not broth.” Consequently, these church members assume they are spiritually mature when in reality they are not.

Let me ask a tough question: Are you involved in some sin that, if revealed, would devastate your loved ones and destroy any ministry you have? Okay, maybe you haven’t done what this man did, but are you involved in Internet pornography, or an emotional affair at work, or abuse of prescriptions drugs, or the greedy pursuit of wealth. Whatever it is, stop today! Get into an accountability relationship. Begin practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study. God will grant you plenty of grace if you come clean with Him and others.

[Obviously, the sin that we have been discussing should have been an outrage to the Corinthians. In fact, your stomach is probably turning right now. So how did the Corinthians respond to this scandal?]

In 5:2, we will see that the Corinthians responded with pride and disobedience. Paul writes, “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.” First, it is important to see that Paul does not attack the man who is guilty of this atrocity. Instead, he rebukes the church for allowing the “immorality” to go on unchecked.

Apart from 5:5 where Paul instructs the church “to turn this man over to Satan,” he says nothing else about the man. However, four times he charges the community to remove the man (5:2b, 5, 7, 13). Indeed, both the man and the church are guilty of sin before God—the former for the act of incest and the latter for its failure to impose discipline.

It is likely that the Corinthians were boasting despite the immorality, rather than because of it. They were boasting in the social status of the son while ignoring his offense. However, this is utter nonsense! When you go to a hospital and find out you have cancer, anything else you can brag about doesn’t matter. You don’t want to brag about your bank account anymore. You don’t want to brag about the neighborhood you live in anymore. You don’t want to brag about the car you drive anymore. You don’t want to brag about your looks anymore, because all of that is irrelevant now. When you have cancer there is only one issue on your mind, and that is, “Get this mess out of my body!” What is true of the individual is true of the church. If a man or woman in our church is in sin, it doesn’t matter how much money they make, where they work, where they live, or what they drive. The only thing that is relevant is they have a spiritual cancer.

Paul is ticked because the church has not “mourned.” The question is, “What should they have mourned?” Paul expected them to grieve over the shame brought on the church by the incest. Instead of dismissing the sin or boasting in the person, God expects the church of Jesus Christ to deal with sin. God calls us to purge the church of sin for the church stands or falls together.

[The Corinthians responded poorly to this church scandal. So how does Paul expect them to respond? What is the right course of action in a case of blatant, rebellious sin?]

In 5:3, Paul writes, “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” Paul may be small, but he carries a big stick—a “rod” to be exact (4:21). He is able to make the judgment while absent because he has sufficient facts. He doesn’t need to call the immoral couple in for extensive marriage counseling. The couple is having sex outside of marriage—that is all the information he needs. Paul has already judged the man, but notice he does not say anything about the woman because she is not a part of the church at Corinth. This principle of not judging those outside the church will be brought up later in 5:9-13.

Paul expects Christians to judge one another. Of course, at this point you may be recallingMatt 7:1 where Jesus said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” This is the most quoted verses in the world today. Yet, very few people read Jesus’ words in context. Jesus says that we can judge, but first we must judge ourselves. Before we can take a speck of dust out of our brother’s eye, we must first take the Redwood tree out of our own eye. Jesus doesn’t want hypocritical judging.

In 5:4-5, Paul now specifies what the appropriate judgment on the immoral man should entail. He puts it like this: “In the name [i.e., the authority] of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord JesusI have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” To “deliver” (NASB, ESV), “turn” (NET, HSB), or “hand” (NRSV, NIV) a person over to Satan means to dismiss that person from the church into the world (i.e., the realm of Satan). The primary meaning of the “destruction of the flesh” is the purging of the man’s sinful propensity. This phrase does not necessarily refer to his physical body being destroyed. The goal is this man’s repentance and restoration to the church family. Now, if he refuses to repent, the Lord may bring financial, emotional, and physical problems. Eventually, the Lord may have to take his physical life. Yet Paul typically designates “flesh”‘ and “spirit” as the whole person, as viewed from different angles. “Spirit” means the whole person as oriented towards God, while “flesh” means the whole person as oriented away from God. The “destruction of one’s flesh” would thus belong to the same kind of imagery as in “crucify” it (Gal 5:24; cf. Rom 7:5-6). By putting this man outside of the church community, Paul is seeking to “destroy” what is “fleshly” in him, with the purpose of having the “spiritual” in him come out. The goal, then, is for this man to be “delivered/restored” or be found “healthy” and “whole” “in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Probably it saved him from a worse verdict when Christ would evaluate his stewardship of his life at the judgment seat.

I recently talked with a couple who told me that the wife’s mother and grandfather had committed adultery. This wife said, “I will not repeat this sin and pass the sin of adultery down to my children.” I said, “Good, because we won’t let you!” The impressive thing to me about this couple is that they welcome church discipline. Both the husband and the wife want the church to discipline them if they were to grievously sin against the Lord. My prayer is that this couple will be typical of other members in our church family. We’ve got to quit seeing church discipline as a negative. We’ve got to see it as a loving act of confrontation.

But you may be saying, “What he does is his business.” This may be true in our world, but it is not true in the Word! When a Christian sins, it’s not just his business. It’s our business. Would you say to a loved one who has cancer, “Well, that’s your business? It’s up to you whether you want to go to the hospital or not?” If someone is hit by a car, would you say to him while he’s lying in the ditch, “This is your business? I don’t want to interfere?” That’s not how families work. When one member of our family is in pain, all of us share the pain. That’s how the church is supposed to work.

Yet, an important question remains: Why should a church practice church discipline? There are a number of critical reasons.

To glorify God. God commands His children to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:16). Consequently, the Lord disciplines us so that we can share in His holiness (Heb 12:5-11). As a father delegates part of the discipline of the children to the mother, so the Lord has delegated the discipline of the church family to the church itself (1 Cor 5:12-13; 2 Cor 2:6).

To purify the church. Sin is a spiritual cancer that cannot be allowed to grow. Sin that is not dealt with can corrupt the entire church. The health of the church requires its removal through repentance or excommunication.

To restore the sinning believer. Church discipline should focus on restoration, not judgment and condemnation (Matt 18:15; 2 Cor 2:5-8). We are not to be vultures, preying on fallen Christians. We should, however, be like divine physicians restoring those members who are out of joint with the body of Christ (Gal 6:1).

To deter the church from sin. The discipline of an individual reminds everyone that sin and righteousness are serious matters. Discipline instills godly fear, which is a significant deterrent to sin (1 Tim 5:20). Deterrence was the result of the discipline of Ananias and Sapphira, for “great fear came over all who heard of it.”

To maintain a credible witness before the world. The world observes the behavior and life of the church. When the church acts no differently than the world it loses its credibility (1 Pet 2:11-18; 3:8-16; 4:1-4). Moreover, on a practical note, church discipline is a powerful tool in evangelism. People notice when our lives are different, especially when there’s a whole community of people whose lives are different. When churches are seen as conforming to the world, it makes our evangelistic task all the more difficult. We become so much like unbelievers they have no questions they want to ask us. May we so live that people are made constructively curious.

Now that we have considered the rationale for church discipline, we need to address the question that you may be asking: “What sins warrant church discipline?” Am I going to be disciplined for doing 40 in a 35 MPH zone? Briefly, church discipline focuses on those things that clearly affect the whole body. The New Testament mentions some guidelines in specific areas of sin in the church that call for discipline.

Divisiveness. A self-centered individual who brings division within the church is to be warned twice and then removed. He or she is turning aside from the command to strive for unity in the body. Divisiveness can come from many sources, including misuse of the time and propagating wrong doctrine in nonessential areas.

Conflict between believers. When two believers do not settle a dispute privately and it spills over into the church, the leadership must become involved. The goal must always be to follow the steps of Matt 18:15-17 and preserve the bond of unity (Eph 4:3).

Doctrinal deviation. If false teaching is not swiftly dealt with the entire body will be adversely affected (Titus 1:10-11). It is critical that the church be purged of false teaching. A little false teaching can lead to a church split.

Undisciplined living. If a man does not work, he should not eat (2 Thess 3:10). God has very little patience for lazy Christians.

[The notion of church discipline goes against our modern grain. We tend to think, “Now let’s be patient and understanding. What about grace and compassion? Why do we have to put him out? Why do we need to take action in her case?” Verses 6-13 will explain.]

Paul writes, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?” Paul informs the Corinthian church that the primary problem is not the sin of the immoral man; rather, it is the pride of the church. He uses the illustration of a piece of leaven. Leaven is a little lump of bread dough that is saved out of the batch. It is allowed to ferment or sour, and then it’s used in the next batch of bread so that it will rise. A little bit of yeast can make a whole loaf rise. The Jews associated fermenting with rotting, so leaven became a symbol of corrosive evil.

Most interpreters assume that the leaven is the incestuous man. But this is not what the context says. Rather, what is infecting the congregation is their boasting about their toleration of this man. That is what Paul wants to get rid of among the believers in Corinth. If to accomplish this the sinful man has to be expelled (cf. 5:13), so be it. But Paul does not see the sin of this man’s immorality infecting the congregation, as though that is the rottenness; rather, what is affecting the church is the sin of their pride. If they can get rid of that sin, which is eating its way through the congregation, then they stand a chance of being a “new batch without yeast.”

I am not the best Math student, and there is a reason for that. When I was in middle school, I had a Math teacher that my class drove into retirement. During class periods several students smoked weed, rode bicycles in the classroom, and used the teacher’s answer guide to complete work assignments and tests. It was absolute chaos! I never recovered from that year. The spirit of rebellion in my class affected my ability to learn and grow.

Paul continues his leaven illustration in 5:7-8, with this exhortation: “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” In these two verses, Paul couples the imperative to the indicative: Clean out the leaven so that you can start over unleavened bread, because that is what you are. The imperative to clean out the old leaven is predicated on the indicative: they are unleavened. In other words, Paul tells them to be who they are, to live like Christians. Who they are is revealed in what they do. What they do comes from who they are. Paul’s point is clear: Sin spreads in the church as leaven does in dough (cf. Gal 5:9; Mark 8:15). Sin always spreads and contaminates if left alone, just as poison, weeds, and cancer do. Eventually the whole moral fabric of the congregation would suffer if the believers did not expunge this sin. Thus, we must purge the church of sin for the church stands or falls together.

[Paul has warned us to refuse to tolerate rebellion in the church. But how should we live in this world with people who are rebellious and sinful? Should we judge them too? Paul answers these questions in the next five verses.]

  1. Refuse to stop reaching out to the world(5:9-13). In this section, Paul informs us that church discipline is for believers. In 5:9-11, Paul writes, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother [lit. “one who bears the name brother”] if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one.” It is widely accepted that Paul wrote four different letters to the church at Corinth. However, only 1-2 Corinthians have been included in the Bible. In one of his previous letters, the Corinthians apparently misunderstood Paul. They thought he didn’t want them to have any association with any immoral person. Paul clarifies and explains that this ban only pertained to Christians. When sinners sin, they are merely doing what they are supposed to do. Sin is a part of a sinner’s job description! The difference between a sinner and a saint is that a saint doesn’t have to sin anymore.

This means that our ministry is not to spend our time judging the world. That’s left to God. It’s none of our business. Too often we preach against the wrong sin. It’s easy to stand in the pulpit and talk about what’s going on in Washington and with the National Organization of Women and the ACLU. But we are not to judge those. Don’t ever get mad at the world for acting like the world. What else are they going to do? We need to confront the sin that is within the walls of our churches, within the lives of our people. That is our ministry.

Our ministry is to be one of influence. In 1 Corinthians 9, we will see that Paul was willing to become all things to all people in order to save some. Thus, he would never recommend leaving the world. He was an influencer of his society. Likewise, Paul expects us to lead the world. We must always be careful that we don’t find ourselves in a “holy huddle,” insulated from the world. We must get out of our “Christian bubble.” Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and He calls us to be “salt and light” (Matt 5:13-16). We need to stop cursing the darkness and instead extend the light and bless our community.

By the way, the word “associate” means “to keep intimate company with.” It doesn’t mean you don’t speak. It doesn’t mean when you see that rebellious Christian that you walk away. It doesn’t mean you become cruel and hard. But it means there is no intimate fellowship with this person. When you do talk with this wayward child, it must always be with the goal of restoring him or her.

Paul concludes chapter 5 with two pointed verses: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES” (5:12-13). Christians have no jurisdiction over outsiders and have no business usurping a task that belongs to God alone. Those outside are left in God’s hands, and the church has the responsibility to seek to win them over, not to nag, browbeat, or seek to control them. Many of us are trying to clean up the world’s fishbowl when all God asks us to do is fish. Jesus says, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). If you’ve been spending your time trying to scour the world, put down your scrub brush, pick up your fishing pole, and go for the fish!

Now that the dust has settled and we’re done looking at this passage, you may be asking the question: “But who cares? Church discipline never really works anyway.” When many people are removed from the church, they just move down the street to another church. Or worse yet, the person may discover he or she has more time on his or her hands. After all, Sunday morning is a wonderful time for golf or shopping.

On the other hand, for those who have come to experience the church as their true home—a haven in the storm, a sanctuary of rest, a source of life and strength—exclusion would bring terrible pain. To exclude a Christian from this circle of fellowship would have made a strong statement. Garland notes: Converts to Christianity already placed themselves on the fringes of society as religious misfits. Persons expelled from the Christian community might find it difficult to be integrated into society. Unlike today, when an expelled member can join another church down the street, expelled Christians in this era could find themselves in social limbo—neither fish nor fowl.

My heart is that our church would be a church that people would miss if they were ever asked to leave. If we are truly the family of God we need to cultivate this type of community, so that if anyone is asked to leave, the person will yearn to return and be welcomed back with open arms. We can begin to foster this type of family today.


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