1CORINTHIANS 5:1-13 – TOLERANCE OF INCEST IN THE CHURCH
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
Paul has now finished his rebuke regarding the teacher-based divisions in the Corinthian church. However that same human pride which caused those divisions, and which ran contrary to the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, also expressed itself in a number of other problems, both practical and theological, within the church. Paul now begins to address the problems that were evident in the way the Corinthians were living. The first of these is the church's tolerance of obvious and unrepentant immorality.
A. A PROBLEM OF TOLERANCE – 5:1-13
Read 5:1-5. Answer these questions:
 What was the immoral issue in question?
 Who did Paul rebuke?
 What was wrong with the church's attitude?
 What instructions did Paul give to the church?
 In whose name and power was this action to be taken?
 Suggest what these phrases from verse 5 mean:
'hand this man over to Satan'
'so that the flesh may be destroyed'
'and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord'
Read 5:6-8. Answer these questions:
 What attitude of the church does Paul rebuke?
 What does he use as an example of the spread of evil?
 Suggest why he refers to Christ as 'our Passover' in this context?
 What does Paul contrast with 'malice and wickedness'?
 Suggest why he makes this contrast.
Read 5:9-13. Answer these questions:
 What had Paul written in a previous letter?
 How had the Corinthians misunderstood his instructions?
 What made their interpretation impossible?
 What was his intended meaning?
 What is Paul's final instruction?
A.1 The Corinthian arrogance
Paul has spent the first four chapters of his letter addressing the arrogance of the Corinthian church. This arrogance expressed a mindset that was contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified. In these four chapters Paul's focus was on the failure to discern the difference between God's wisdom – a wisdom known only by God's revelation in Christ and by the Spirit – and human wisdom, a wisdom which is accessible by human learning and expressed by human eloquence. The exaltation of one teacher above another on the basis of his learning or eloquence, and the self-glory the Corinthians derived from this exaltation, drew Paul's accusation of arrogance.
Now he turns to another evidence of this arrogance. In this instance they are glorying not in their various teachers, but in their own expression of tolerance. They are glorying in, they are boasting of, they are arrogant about, their tolerance of an extreme expression of wickedness.
Paul says they are 'proud' [verse 2] – the same word used in 4:6,18,19, and meaning 'puffed up' - when they should have been filled with grief.
Paul says their 'boasting is not good' [verse 6]. Paul has used this word, or its relatives, several times already in this letter: no one may boast in God's presence [1:29] in anything other than the Lord [1:31]; boasting in human teachers is outlawed by the gospel [3:21]; and boasting is outlawed by the gift nature of everything the Corinthians possess [4:7].
Even though Paul had previously instructed them not to associate with such an immoral person, they have ignorantly and arrogantly assumed Paul was talking about people outside the church, not people inside the church [verse 9ff], as if they, the church, were above the imposition of such a standard of behaviour and such a judgment.
A.2 The Corinthian tolerance of evil
The particular instance of immorality that they are arrogantly failing to address:
Is not even practised among 'pagans' [verse 1], yet it is present and tolerated in the Corinthian church. In the context of the city of Corinth that is quite a statement! Immorality thrived in Corinth. Immorality was an accepted part of pagan worship in Corinth. But even in this culture of immorality, this particular practice did not occur, nor was it sanctioned.
Is an on-going relationship [verse 1]. The 'has' clearly indicates this. This is not a one-off indiscretion. This man is co-habiting with his father's wife. Paul's issue with the Corinthians is not that they have overlooked a passing affair; it is that they are doing nothing about an on-going immoral relationship.
Is 'among you' [verse 1]. The man involved is an accepted member of their fellowship. [There is no evidence in this chapter that the woman is also part of the fellowship; there is no command to put the woman out, so we can probably infer that she was not part of the group.] But the man definitely is. He is one of them. Worshipping with them. Accepted by them. Known by the local community to be a member of the church. Paul is not concerned with their tolerance of the behaviour of someone outside the church, but of someone within their fellowship.
[A.3 The particular sin
The man has his father's wife. This is understood to mean his step-mother, not his biological mother. Paul would have said 'mother' if that was the case. Various questions are raised about this relationship. Was the father still alive? Did the son force a divorce? Was the woman still legally married to the father? It is clear from the way Paul views the case that something terribly immoral is going on. It would appear that the son has stolen his father's second wife from his father. There has obviously been a decisive action on the part of the son, as Paul in verse 2 refers to the man as 'the man who did this', with 'did' in the Aorist Tense. The son deliberately took his father's wife, deliberately entered an immoral relationship with her which is on-going.]
A.4 What the Corinthian church ought to have done
Paul is amazed by the Corinthian reaction to this. His 'And you are proud!' [verse 2] is literally 'and you are puffed up' – where the 'puffed up' is a Perfect Participle: they had at some point in the past become puffed up, and they still were puffed up. Having become puffed up, they still are. Paul is incredulous. They ought, he says:
'… have been filled with grief...' [verse 2]. You ought to have mourned. This is not a thing to be puffed up about; rather it is a thing that ought to have immediately thrown the church into mourning [the verb is Aorist]. And that grief, that mourning, would have had the required result.
'… and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this' [verse 2]. In the Greek text this reads 'in order that (with the result that) he would be put out of your midst - the one who did this deed'. There is a clear resultative connection between the grief they should have felt and the putting out of this man. The appropriate grief would have resulted in the appropriate disciplinary action.
A.5 Paul's instructions
Paul's first instruction in this matter was given in a previous letter [verse 9]. In that letter his instruction was:
Do not associate with immoral people.
But they misunderstood him [either deliberately or not, but certainly as an expression of their arrogance] and took him to mean that they were not to associate with people outside the church who were 'immoral, greedy and swindlers, or idolaters' [verse 10f]. Paul points out that that if that was his instruction it would be impossible for them to obey. Christians would have to be removed from the world to do that because the world is filled with such [verse 10]. So he repeats his previous instruction, making his meaning unmistakable, and applying his instruction directly to the case in question, at the same time expanding it to cover other equally unacceptable lifestyles:
'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' [verse 11].
The verb translated 'you must not associate with' literally means 'you must not mix yourselves up together with'. By allowing the man to continue in their fellowship without correction and without repentance is contrary to this standard. This explains the reason for Paul's stand and Paul's instructions in verse 3 to 5 and in verse 13:
I have already passed judgment on the one who did this … verse 3.
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus … and the power of the Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan … verse 4,5
Expel the wicked man from among you … verse 13.
Although he himself is physically absent, he assures them twice that he is with them 'in spirit' [verse 3,4]. If they go ahead and follow his instructions they have his full support in taking the radical action he commands.
Note that this excommunication is not to be the work of one person, nor even of the elders. Paul's instruction calls for an assembly of the whole church. It is not something done in a corner. [We will look further at church discipline in point B below.]
A.6 The reason
It is interesting that nowhere in this chapter does Paul give the reputation of the church or the glory of God as the reason for the extreme measure he commands, although both may be unspoken reasons, as both are mentioned elsewhere in the scriptures, including elsewhere in this letter, as motivations for correct behaviour in the church. He states one clear reason, and infers another reason.
The clear reason is the ultimate well-being of the man:
' … hand this man over to Satan, so that the flesh may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord' [verse 5].
Paul is not concerned about the temporary embarrassment or even the anger of this man that could potentially result from his expulsion. He is concerned about his ultimate and eternal well-being – that he be saved on the day of the Lord, that is, on the Judgment Day.
The man 'calls himself a brother' [verse 11]. But the evidence of that claim is absent from his life. Indeed his claim is contradicted by his life. Such self-deception puts him in an extremely dangerous and vulnerable position as far as the Day of Judgment is concerned. He is going on merrily in his life, doing whatever he pleases, assuming that he is safe and secure against the judgment.
Only those who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord are saved [Romans 10:9]. Although this man says he believes, he doesn't appear to do so. What does appear is that all he is believing is the promise of salvation, without believing in the One who makes the promise. He is not believing in Jesus Christ as Lord – as the one who not only secures salvation but also, because he is God, has the right to rule his life.
So Paul says 'hand him over to Satan'. How we are meant to understand this is a bit of a puzzle. There are a number of possible interpretations, which depend in some way on how we understand 'so that the sinful nature may be destroyed'. Note that the Greek text, and the 2011 NIV have 'flesh', where the 1984 NIV has 'sinful nature'. Also, the word translated 'destroyed' can also mean 'killed'.
Here are three possible interpretations:
 Put him out of the church and back into the world, which is the kingdom of Satan, the place where Satan has sway in and over human hearts and lives. There he will see the true and horrific reality of unrestrained sin. His 'flesh' [his human mindset that glories in self and sin] will be destroyed. He will come to repentance and restoration.
 Hand him over to Satan giving Satan freedom to afflict the man with physical suffering – a literal interpretation of 'that the flesh may be destroyed'. [People who take this view liken this to what God did with Job – 'he is in your hands' [Job 1:12; 2:6]. But such a view seems to overlook the fact that Job was praised by God – quite the opposite of this man.]
 Hand him over to Satan and his condemning accusations [the name 'Satan' means 'the accuser']. Removal from the church will sever him from the word of grace contained in both the preached word and the Lord's Supper. If he is a genuine believer Satan's accusations will drive him to humble himself [the destruction of the mindset of 'the flesh' which exults itself against God and his command], he will admit his sin, repent of it, and be restored.
Whichever interpretation we accept, we need to keep in mind that 2Corinthians 2:5-11 speaks of the forgiveness and restoration of a particular 'sinner', who is most likely the man referred to in 1Corinthians 5. Note that Satan is also referred to in the 2Corinthians passage – forgiveness is to occur 'in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are aware of his schemes'. [If both passages speak of the same man, then the man is indeed a genuine believer, even though his life was currently denying it.]
The inferred reason is the nature and reality of our salvation
This reason is inferred by Paul's statements about 'yeast' and 'Christ our Passover' [verse 6-8]. To understand this it is necessary to know the historical narrative and ritual instructions of Exodus 12 and 13. The relevant facts from these chapters are:
The Israelites were required to cleanse all yeast from their homes and eat nothing with yeast in it for seven days prior to the Passover [12:15].
This was to be commemorated annually, with the same absence of yeast [12:17-20; 13:3-7].
Anyone who ate yeast during these periods was to be excommunicated from Israel [12:15,19].
They did not take any leavened bread with them when they left Egypt [12:34,39].
Although there are exceptions, yeast is regularly used in the Bible as a symbol for sin, and this is what Paul is doing here. Back in Exodus, those who were saved from the death of the firstborn by the death of a lamb on the first Passover night ate no yeast in the seven days leading up to the Passover, and took no yeast with them when they were delivered from Egypt and crossed over the Red Sea by God's sovereign redemption.
Brought forward into the Christian context and the fulfilment of the Passover symbol in the death of Christ, Paul's meaning in 1Corinthians 5:6-8 is this:
Christ, the real Passover lamb, has died to redeem you from sin; just as the Israelites had to get rid of the yeast, just as they took none with them when they were redeemed from physical slavery, so you who are redeemed from spiritual slavery, from slavery to sin and Satan, must get rid of sin. It is out of place. And, like yeast, it spreads.
But Paul is not simply applying this symbolism of yeast to the particular sin of incest. Even more important than that, Paul is concerned with the arrogant attitude of the church that left this sinner unrebuked and uncorrected. Note what he actually says:
'Your boasting is not good …' [verse 6]. It is this arrogant attitude of some [4:18] towards sin, this arrogant tolerance of sin, that he does not want to spread through the church. The 'boasting' – this arrogance - is the 'old yeast' that he commands them to get rid of – so that they 'can be a new batch without yeast' [verse 7]. It is clearly not possible to have a church without any 'sin' – that is made clear in 1John 1:8,10. And that is not what Paul means, [although that is always the standard towards which the church corporately and Christians individually should be aiming, responsive to the promptings of the indwelling Spirit who is transforming us into the image of Christ [2Corinthians 3:18].] Human pride, human independence from God, has always been the chief antagonist of God's good work both for us and in us. The same pride by which they held themselves above the message of Christ crucified, here is expressing itself in proud tolerance of the sin in their midst.
'… as you really are …' [verse7]. They really are 'a new batch without yeast'. That is why their arrogance is so inappropriate – because that status 'new' and 'without yeast' is totally a gift of grace, and not at all the result of their own actions or ability.
'… For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed' [verse 7]. [Note that the Greek text reads 'for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us'.] Here is the reason they are 'a new batch without yeast': Christ has been sacrificed for them. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb saved the Israelites, so the blood of Christ saves those who believe in him. Not from physical death, but from that death that is the wages of sin, the just penalty, the condemnation and the judgment poured out upon human sin. The Israelites lived because the lamb died. Believers live spiritually because Christ died. Christ took their sin and their guilt and paid for it all. They are 'a new batch … without yeast', because Christ bore their sin. Sin has been dealt with by Christ's death. Sin has been exposed in all its offensiveness to God, by the death of Jesus. This death of Christ demonstrates, once and for all, the utter wrongness of sin. This death of Christ demonstrates, once and for all, what sin does, the penalty sin incurs, and the impossibility of any of us surviving sin's impact apart from Christ.
'Therefore let us keep the Festival …' [verse 8]. Paul is not speaking about Christians celebrating the annual Jewish Passover festival, but about us living perpetually in the permanent reality brought in by the death of Jesus Christ. Not seven days without yeast, but all our lives without sin. His death secured our freedom from sin, once for all.
'… not with … malice and wickedness but with .. sincerity and truth' [verse 8]. The terms 'sincerity' and 'truth' help us to understand what Paul means by 'malice' and 'wickedness', for he puts the two pairs in contrast with each other. The arrogance of the Corinthian church, and the tolerance of on-going sin that it expressed, are the opposite of 'sincerity' and 'truth'. As a 'new batch without yeast' the church should have been characterised by attitudes that reflected the gospel, attitudes that demonstrated their alignment with the truth, attitudes that pointed clearly to the foundational and indispensable truth that they were saved by grace alone in Christ alone and not by any contribution or worth of their own. But their arrogance is displaying that same human depravity that alienates the whole world from God – a pride, a self-conceit, a self-sufficiency and self-dependence that shuts God out and exalts self.
Paul, to put it briefly, is saying to his readers, and to us: be what you are; be what God has made you in Christ. You are a new batch, without the yeast of human arrogance and human self-sufficiency. So, be that new batch. Celebrate Christ by trusting in him alone, and not at all in yourselves.
B. QUESTIONS RAISED BY THIS CHAPTER
This chapter raises some difficult questions, most of them connected with the concept of judging.
B.1 Church discipline
Paul is obviously putting on the church in Corinth the responsibility of disciplining one of its members who is engaged in a specific and quite extreme sin. Paul does not see this as an optional responsibility, but as a necessary action, both for the well-being of the offender, and also because of the very nature of the salvation given to the church by the death of Jesus.
We will now look at instructions about church discipline given elsewhere in the New Testament.
Read these scriptures. What do they say about church discipline, or the lack of it?
It is quite clear from these texts that God authorises and expects church discipline. In some of the texts either an apostle or an appointed church leader has the responsibility. In others, the whole church is held accountable either for taking disciplinary action or for the failure to exercise discipline. The disciplinary measures are addressed towards either behavioural matters or matters of belief. The underlying perspective is that both moral sins and false teaching corrupt the church.
The aim of discipline in the above texts is:
The purity of the church's beliefs and teaching [ensuring God's truth is not distorted].
The spiritual well-being [repentance, restoration and renewal] of the offending party.
The prevention of the spread of either false teaching or corrupt behaviour.
The preservation of the witness of the church.
Warnings to make sure your faith is genuine.
The exposure of those whose faith is not genuine, with the associated possibility that they will genuinely turn to the Lord.
B.2 The question of judging
All of the above texts assume that a definite judgment has been made or should be made: either to identify certain behaviour as wrong, to identify some belief or teaching as false, or to identify false/fake believers. The New Testament is full of such judgments and contains numerous commands that we should make such judgments.
This is a real problem for many Christians who are very much aware of, and afraid of disobeying, Christ's command not to judge: 'Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged …' [Matthew 7:1,2]. Some Christians are so afraid of disobeying this command that they shy away from making any judgment about anything that anyone else teaches or does. Some fall into a spiritual arrogance similar to that exhibited by the Corinthian church, justifying their refusal to judge by the rational that it is not 'loving', or it's 'legalistic', and they pride themselves as being 'loving' and not 'legalistic' because they refuse to make judgment calls about the beliefs or actions of other Christians.
But even in this chapter of Matthew where Christ gives this clear command and fearful warning, just a few verses on he begins to command us to make quite serious judgments, and continues to tell us to do so right to the end of the chapter:
His commands in verse 6 require us to make extremely divisive judgments about people.
His command in verses 13 and 14 requires us to make an eternally significant judgment about religious beliefs.
His warnings in verses 15-20 require us to make judgements about what people teach and how they live.
His explanations in verses 21-23 warn us not to be fooled by claims people make or 'Christian' things they do, but rather to note whether or not they are obedient to God.
His parable in verses 24-27 teaches us to assess the foundation on which people build their lives.
Similarly, Jesus commands us:
'Be careful … be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees' [[Matthew 16:6,11]
'Watch out that no one deceives you …' [Matthew 24:4].
'If anyone tells you … don't believe it' [Matthew 24:26].
It is quite clear that God requires us to exercise some form of judgment. And here we have to ask: in what way do these necessary judgments differ from the judgment that Christ prohibits in Matthew 7:1?
The judgments we are required to make are of two kinds:
 Moral judgments
These are judgments that God has already made. He has already judged what actions [including thoughts and words as well as deeds] are morally right and what actions are morally wrong. He commands us to assess actions on the basis of this already existing judgment. In making these judgments we are simply expressing our belief/trust/confidence in the word of God.
For example: God has said that adultery is a sin, that it is morally wrong. If we do not affirm that by expressing that same judgment, we are demonstrating a lack of trust in God and his command. It is really very clear: if God has said this is a sin, we also must say it is a sin. We do not have the authority or the ability to change the definition of sin that God has established.
 Truth judgments
These are also judgments that God has also already made. He has told us what is the truth, in distinction from what is false teaching. What he says, that is the truth. All else – all other truth claims, isms, ideologies, religions – is not truth. We are commanded to trust his judgment in matters of truth, and to make the same judgments.
For example: If we are confronted by someone who is denying the real deity of Jesus Christ, we must judge that person's teaching as false, because God has already done so. We are not making our own judgment, we are affirming the existing judgment made by God. We have neither the ability nor the authority to define or redefine truth. We must not change the definition of truth, or the boundaries of truth, established by God. Rather we are to hold to God's definition of truth and judge all other truth claims by that definition and that boundary.
The way a person lives and what a person believes or teaches give a fairly clear indication of the biblical integrity of their faith. If a person who claims to be a believer habitually pursues a life of sin, or if a person who claims to be a believer denies key biblical truths [both detected by the exercise of the above judgments], the Bible:
Commands the rest of us not to be deceived by that person.
In some cases, commands us to have nothing to do with that person.
Warns of the terrible possibility that this person may not be a genuine believer.
In some cases, indicates that the person actually is not a genuine believer.
It is in this context that 1Corinthians 5 fits.
There is another kind of judgment in the Bible, and it is most likely this kind of judgment that is forbidden by Jesus Christ:
By 'legal judgment' I am referring to the judgment that determines and defines a person's legal standing before God, the Judge of all the earth, today, and before Christ who will judge the living and the dead on the Day of Judgment.
The Bible makes it clear that all who believe in Jesus Christ will not come under judgment on that day, but are already, now, legally acquitted by the blood of Jesus. The Bible also gives those who believe in Jesus Christ many sure and certain promises of this present and future escape from judgment and condemnation.
Every time we see the words justification (righteousness) [dikaiosune] or justify [dikaioo] in the New Testament they are telling us about this legal acquittal by God – the escape from accusation, condemnation, judgment and penalty of sin. This escape, this legal acquittal, is God's gracious gift to all who believe in his Son.
On this basis Paul points out the wrongness of making a legal judgment about a person's eternal destiny on the basis of whether or not they have lived by the law.
Israel did not obtain 'righteousness' [that is, legal acquittal] because they sought it by works, not by faith [Romans 9:30-33; 10:3].
Because Christ is the end of the law, God's declaration of acquittal is for everyone who believes, not on the basis of keeping the law [10:4,5].
It is therefore wrong to make judgments about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell on the basis of law [10:6,7].
It is this kind of condemnatory judgment, that consigns a person to heaven or hell on the basis of whether or not they keep the law, that Jesus warns against.
Note: We are also forbidden to make judgments based on ritual observance. This is significantly in focus in Paul's letters to the Romans, Galatians and Colossians. In the New Testament it includes judging others on the basis of circumcision, holy days, the Sabbath, ritual cleansing, clean and unclean foods.
B.3 The difference between legal judgment and discipline
God's legal judgment condemns an unbelieving sinner; it does not create the condemnation; it confirms the already existing condemnation. It imposes sin's penalty. Read John 3:18,19.
God's preliminary implementations of his [legal] judgment, which are on-going and randomly global, are both warnings of the final judgment and gracious opportunities for repentance. There are examples of these throughout the Bible, from Genesis 3 right through to Revelation. Read, for example, Amos 4:6-13.
The Day of Judgment is the final legal judgment.
God's discipline seeks to correct and transform a saved sinner. Although it is because of the person's sin, it is not the imposition of the penalty of that sin, but God's method of dealing with that sin in his work of transforming this person into the image of his Son. It does not mean that God has ceased to love this person; rather it confirms and expresses the love of God for this person. Read Hebrews 12:5-13.
In human hands [or, rather, in our hearts, minds and mouths] both of these are twisted:
We apply God's legal judgment to our fellow believers, where we should only be making moral judgments and truth judgments.
We interpret God's discipline as God's judgment, and in doing so cause great grief and great guilt for either ourselves or our fellow believers.
So great is our self-centredness [expressed either in self-exaltation or self-negation; either in pride or despair] that we cannot cope with the moral judgments and truth judgments that are necessary for our moral and conceptual integrity. The arrogance that characterised the Corinthian church lurks in every one of us.
B.4 Judging in 1Corinthians 5
Paul uses the concept of judging several times in this chapter.
Verse 3: I have already passed judgement on the one who did this. He has already made a moral judgment on the basis of God's revealed moral standards. In addition, it is clear that he has already decided that a stern measure of discipline is needed.
Verse 12,13: What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? … God will judge those outside. The unbelievers, outside the church and making no pretence of believing, are not subject to the moral judgments and truth judgments of the church. Unbelievers make no real claim to believe in God or his Word or his standards. They are not even trying to obey God. They are unredeemed sinners. They do not know the truth. That is simply the way it is. Their morals and their beliefs are not the church's responsibility. Nor is it the church's role to implement God's legal judgment on them. That is God's role. Indeed it is the church's role to warn unbelievers of the impending legal judgment.
Verse 12,13: Are you not to judge those inside?… Expel the wicked man from among you. It is the responsibility of those who are members of the church to make moral judgments and truth judgments regarding those within the church, and to apply appropriate disciplinary action. Those within the church claim to believe – and such a claim, as far as God is concerned, includes belief in his moral commands and belief in the truth as he has defined it.