Church at Corinth   Leave a comment

Yeah, we came back to it!


Because Corinth was a troubled church that used its God-given blessings for the wrong reasons and therefore needed discipline. Paul’s two (actually three)  letters to this church deal with many issues that exist in the churches today if we will just look beyond the 2000-year-old trappings and see that it is essentially the same.

Chapter 4 of 1 Corinthians talks about a moral cancer that was eating away at the church there. A brother in Christ was fornicating with his father’s wife and even the community around the church was shocked. The church itself was proud of being so open minded and accepting of human foibles.

Yeah — just like welcoming and affirming churches today, but I’ve already argued that many churches that are not welcoming and affirming have as deep an issue with other varieties of sexual sin and with other kinds of less scandalous sin.

I am not picking and choosing sins here. We need to get over the idea that God accepts some sins as less and others are greater. He doesn’t. We will answer for all of them.

Whatever the Corinthian Christians privately thought of their church member’s behavior, they were publicly accepting of it and proud of their affirming attitude. Paul dealt with both their attitude and the sexual sin harshly. Asserting his apostolic authority, he rendered judgment on the matter. Unless the church at Corinth wanted him to come there and discipline the church as a whole, they must discipline the individual sinner. The brother in Christ was guilty of adultery. Therefore, by the authority of Christ (Matthew 18:20) the church was to assemble and remedy the problem.

It’s important to note that the woman is never mentioned for church discipline. I think we can presume that she was not a Christian and so was not subject to church judgment or discipline. The offending brother in Christ, however, was to be “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”

What does that phrase mean?

  1. It is not capital punishment for church heretics, as practiced by historic Catholicism and early Protestantism. The early Christian church did not practice such. There’s no historical evidence that they did.
  2. It was not physical death, as many commentators allege. The historical evidence again says not.
  3. It was designed to “save” the spirit of the person (v. 5b), (which necessitates a living person, by the way).
  4. The procedure was the equivalent of “putting away the wicked” person, and withdrawing one’s fellowship from the individual (1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).
  5. The ultimate goal was that the fornicator might “destroy” his ungodly “fleshly” urge, and reclaim a life of purity. See also 1 Timothy 1:20.

Paul was very insistent upon the actions of the church in this regard. The church must desist in its pride and “glorying” (v. 2) and get serious about morality before the entire congregation became infected, just as leaven permeates dough. In the Old Testament, Passover required the purging of all leaven from the entire house. Christ is our passover, Christians, and we must rid ourselves of malice and wickedness, and pursue the unleavened bread (figuratively speaking) of sincerity and truth.

Paul had written previously to the church at Corinth. Although the letter was not preserved, Paul refers to it. He had admonished the Corinthian Christians to “have no company with fornicators.” He specifically mentions he had not meant to include pagan fornicators as Christians cannot avoid all associations with the world. While we are to have no fellowship with the world’s sinful practices (Ephesians 5:11; 1 Peter 4:4), we are not to isolate ourselves as hermits or monks. Instead, our “light” and “salt” must be allowed to influence others (Matthew 5:13-16).

Paul was discussing renegade church members and here the matter was altogether different. After formal disciplinary action, the faithful Christian is “not to keep company” with:

  • fornicators (those engaged in illicit sexual intercourse),
  • the covetous (brothers obsessed with materialism, either to obtain or retain),
  • idolaters (those who place “things” or “persons” above God),
  • revilers (verbal abusers),
  • drunkards (people who become intoxicated on alcohol or, I suspect, recreational drugs), and
  • extortioners (those who take from others by force or inordinate pressure).

These are specific actions worthy of radical “surgery” (verses 9-11). While we are not licensed to discipline the world (God will handle that), Christians have the moral responsibility to check outrageous sinfulness in the church (verses 12-13a). The unrepentant sinning Christian is to be expelled from church fellowship (v. 13b). Looking at that list, it appears there may be a lot of church members who are subject to church discipline.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church (written perhaps 6 months to a year after the first letter), Paul appears to discuss the disciplinary case addressed in 1 Corinthians 5 (refer to  2 Corinthians 2:5-11). His comments reveal that the greater part of the church had yielded to his previous instruction, and the fornicating brother had been disfellowshipped. The withdrawal had been effective in that the rogue brother had abandoned his sinful activity. From Paul’s statement in verse 6 we know:

  1. The punishment of fellowship withdrawal was inflicted.
  2. While some (a minority) refused to honor it, the majority did.
  3. After a forceful and sustained isolation of the offender, sufficient to produce a convincing result, the apostle urges the Corinthian saints to “forgive” and “comfort” the penitent brother, that sorrow over his sin might not “swallow him up” in grief, and prevent his continued fidelity.

Sustained and stubborn rebellion generally cannot be cured quickly. In a disciplinary action the church must be “tough,” and let the offender feel the full measure of the consequence of his or her sin. When it becomes apparent that the offender truly has changed, in contrast to a quick, “I’m sorry” that hasn’t been evidenced by fruit (Matthew 3:7; Jonah 3:10), he or she should be warmly embraced and encouraged in faithfulness.

There are very few churches that actually do this anymore. In fact, I can only think of the Amish and the Mennonites as practicing this form of discipline in an ordered and recognized way. Yes, they have some who leave and never return, but they also have a great many who return, repentant. An older lady in our church who was raised a Mennonite tells me that the beauty of this system is that when you repent, the church never brings it up again.

And, yeah, we’re going to discuss it.

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