It is every Spirit-filled pastor’s dilemma — what do I do about the vast number of people who are willfully sinning against God? Here’s a Bible study/commentary I wrote last year when Jeff and I pastored a church:
Paul is incredulous now. He has actually received a report (!!) that the Corinthians are practicing immorality. The Greek word translated as “immorality” is porneia (4202), which means harlotry, including adultery and incest. Lest we think that we’re off the hook as long as we don’t cheat on our spouse or have sex with family members, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary identifies porneia as meaning extramarital relations of any kind.
This particular kind of immorality is especially loathsome to God, though we must remember that ultimately, sin is sin to God. The immorality noted here is that a man “has” his stepmother. That means he is having marital relations with her. There is no indication that he has actually married his stepmother. Neither is there any indication that the man’s father is dead, in which case she would be released from her marriage vows to him. She is still identified as “his father’s wife.” This sin is unheard of in Corinth, even among the riotous unbelievers who live there!
The Corinthians should be mourning (pentheo 3996), grieving over the sin of the man. Note that there is no mention of his stepmother sinning. Paul writes that the responsibility for the sin lies with the man, “the one who had done this deed.” It may be that he is having or has had relations with his stepmother against her will.
Rather than grieving, the Corinthians are boasting about the whole matter. How? The text doesn’t say. Some commentators say they boast by tolerating the sin. Expositor’s Bible Commentary says this: “Paul again alludes to the pride of the Corinthians. This time it was a pride that, rather than cause them to mourn over the shocking sin, allowed them to tolerate such a sinner in the congregation. Paul presses his judgment of the case by saying that he is with them in spirit and has already passed judgment on the offending person.” I have a hard time disagreeing with the EBC. Where does the pride element come in? We’d rather have a congregation full of sinners than empty pews.
But it may be that the Corinthians’ boasting is associated with the Gnostic teaching that we can sin like crazy in the body, because the body is sinful, but that our spirits remain holy despite the body’s sin. I don’t know the answer to this, but I am really uncomfortable every time I approach this Scripture. Are we to be a hospital for sinners, or a haven for saints that removes sinning Christians until they come under conviction and repent?
How does this Scripture compare with the defeat of Israel at Ai, because of Achan’s sin (see Joshua 7)? How does this Scripture compare to Jesus Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18, where He says if a sinner remains unrepentant (that is, he keeps sinning even after he’s been counseled), he should be treated as an unbeliever?
I am very uncomfortable with allowing unrepentant sinners to be among us, and Jeff has come to agree. We see that we must preach truth to those who are sinning. How do we do that if they are not allowed to come to church? My only answer to that would be to create a penitent band (see paragraph below), and invite our whole congregation to go to it rather than Sunday worship.
Then I think of Jeff and me, after we were saved but before we were purified and cleansed and filled. We were sinning against God and going to church every Sunday. What if we had been “put out” by the congregation? Would we have gone away from the church rather than go into a penitent band? If so, our blood would not be on their heads.
What should the Corinthians’ response have been? Paul goes on to say that they should have disciplined the sinner, removing him from their midst. Let’s discuss this. Why should sinners be removed from the church? Isn’t that where they learn not to be sinners? ( I am being facetious; the Bible clearly identifies Christians as those who have recognized they were sinners, asked the Lord’s forgiveness when they came to faith, repented from their sinful ways, and are in the process of sanctification until they are filled with the Holy Spirit, after which the process continues, but there is no longer willful disobedience against God after the Christian is filled.) Paul clearly teaches here that sin is not to be tolerated. My discomfort increases now. Our church would be empty if we put out the sinners, for we have gamblers, immoral people, and coveters in our midst, as well as those who refuse to forgive. Jeff and I admonish such people privately, and preach against their sin publicly, without naming names. But Paul says “Put them out!” But as the NICNT commentator says, if an American church puts out a sinner, that sinner might just move on to the church down the street that tolerates sin. So, he reasons, what good does it do to put them out?
John Wesley’s answer to this dilemma was to create “penitent bands,” which I have alluded to. Wesley took the sinners out of the congregation, but placed them in a small group of fellow sinners. The band was led by a Spirit-filled leader. The sinner remained in the penitent band until he came under conviction and turned from his sin. These bands provided a way to continue to admonish those who are disobedient to God. If they turned from their sin and repented, they were accepted back into the congregation, but not until they underwent a period of monitoring to see if the repentance was truly from the heart, and not just lip service.
Paul has already judged this man, just as if he were present. What? We aren’t supposed to judge, are we? Doesn’t Jesus teach that? When Jesus taught in Matthew 7, He was speaking to the hypocritical Jews who had logs in their eyes. Let’s go there. So we see that we indeed are to judge sin, if we are not ourselves sinning. How are the Corinthians to deal with the sin of the man who has his father’s wife? Publicly, when they are assembled. They are to publicly ban the sinner from the congregation. What will that accomplish? The congregation will have a healthy fear of God, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Let’s go there and watch Peter judge sin.
In Corinth, the sinner Paul is commanding them to expel will be without the protection of the Lord, once he is banned. Satan will sift him like wheat, and Paul believes that the man’s carnal, sinful nature will be destroyed in that process. All of this, which seems so “mean” and “heartless,” is done to save the sinner from hell, in the day of the Lord.
What does Paul’s judgment and words do to the doctrine which is taught in many churches, that we are expected to continue to sin against God? How about the argument that we are all sinners and thus may not judge sin? Paul would not tolerate such an argument! As Christians, we are no longer to sin. We are to have dominion over sin. We are to be cleansed and purified and filled with the Holy Spirit. Then we are able to judge the sinners among us, because we are filled with the Spirit, filled with the love of God, and have Christ’s mind and God’s heart.
Why does Paul require the Corinthians to publicly ban the sinner from the congregation (v. 5:4, “when you are assembled”)? Well, if one sin is “allowed” with no evidence of discipline toward the one sinning, why not another, and another, and another? Or if one sin is “allowed,” then someone else might decide to do that same sin. This is what has happened in the American church today. Frankly, I would establish a penitent band immediately at our church, and there would be no one at our worship services until those sinners stopped sinning and turned away from their sinfulness.
In our own church, one man’s sin led another man to think we think it is OK to live together outside marriage. One woman’s sin led another woman to think we think it’s OK to gamble. One man’s taking his girlfriend to Beano led another man to think we think it’s OK to take his girlfriend to a place where she can sin the sin of gambling. One couple thinks it’s OK for their daughter to cohabit with another person, that God doesn’t care about that any more, and she uses the fact that we have a cohabiting member of our flock to support the validity of her belief. Do you see where sin among the congregation can lead? We pastors say, “Do not sin,” and yet we have people sinning in our congregation. We admonish them in private, but publicly, the impression is that we tolerate the sin because the sinner remains among us. Beloved, we can’t have leaven in our dough, for it will spread through the whole lump.
Oh, that those who are sinning would repent, so that we would be able to celebrate what the Lord Jesus Christ has done, assembling as an unleavened body, no sin in our midst! I believe the Lord would move mightily among us then, and there would be no sick among us. Oh, that we would worship together in sincerity and truth, rather than in malice and wickedness. Lord, help me to know what to do with our flock that willfully sins against a holy God, despite our teaching, our admonition, and our warnings to cease sinning immediately and repent!
This is evidence that there was a letter that preceded 1 Corinthians (“I wrote to you in my letter”). It seems that Paul has been exhorting this disobedient group for some time.
Again, when Paul writes of not associating with immoral people, he is not talking about the immoral unbelievers in the world, those who covet and swindle and worship all kinds of idols. He wrote to them not to associate with those who say they are Christian and yet are immoral or covetous or idolaters or revilers or drunkards or swindlers. They are not even to eat with such a one! What does that say about those who sit in the pews in our churches in America? Not only are we not to worship with most of those who are in the pews, but we are not even to eat with them. There is to be no evidence, even to an outsider, that we tolerate sin, even from our infants in Christ.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says of these verses, “Here Paul teaches that though it is logical for the church to exercise spiritual discipline over members in its fellowship, it is not for the church to judge the present unsaved society. Paul now concludes (v.13) on the basis of the preceding argument that the wicked man . . . must be put out of the church. This he commands by quoting somewhat loosely from Deuteronomy 22:24 (a context of adultery) and from Deuteronomy 24:7 (a context of stealing). The strengthened form of the negative (ouchi, “Do you not (ouchi) judge those within the church?”) is used with the indicative verb in this question. This arrangement of negative word and verb means Paul expects a positive response: ‘Are you not to judge those inside [the church]?’ ‘Yes [we are to judge them]’ is the expected reply.”
Paul repeats his remedy for this particular problem at Corinth. He has done this five times: Verse 4 “remove;” Verse 5 “deliver such a one to Satan;” Verse 6 “clean out;” Verse 11 “not to associate;” and Verse 13. “remove.”
There is a sinner among them, contaminating the rest of the congregation and blaspheming the name of the Lord by his actions. The Corinthians have been reluctant to deal with the sinner, and are therefore tolerating him. Or perhaps they are boasting in their “freedom” to sin. Whatever the case, Paul says they must judge the sinner and expel him. Outsiders are under God’s judgment already. But as for this man who calls himself a Christian and yet sins, he should be removed. His removal is the discipline required so that he may eventually be saved. What? Paul considers that the sinning “infant in Christ” is in the same state as an unsaved man at the moment, though he is a church member! Do we not tremble at such words?