Corinthian Hot Potato   1 comment

Paul had just ordered the Corinthian church to expel a sinning Christian for the purposes of disciple. You should go back and read last week’s post if you haven’t already. Casual readers of the Bible or those who use search engines to cherry pick will accuse Paul of being abusive at this point, but it’s important to recognize that he had a long-standing relationship with the church at Corinth and this wasn’t the first time he’d communicated with them on this point.

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.

This is not the first letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Paul indicated in verse 9 that he had previously written to the Corinthians on the subject of separation. In that first letter, he instructed them not to associate with immoral people, including unbelieving sinners of all kinds, those who are immoral, those who are covetous, those who swindle, and those who are idolaters. The Corinthians either misunderstood or twisted Paul’s words to mean something other than what Paul intended. They apparently had the Pharisaical notion that equated holiness with separation from unbelievers. Now, Paul clarified his instructions. He wasn’t talking about avoiding contact with unbelievers. In Corinth in the 1st cenutry or the United States in the 21st century, there is no way to avoid contact with unsaved sinners. The only way to avoid “the world” is not to live in the world. I don’t know about you, but I like electricity and running water and access to a grocery store. That requires a job and living at least on the edge of society. Besides, Christians are not tasked with avoiding sinners. We’re supposed to live among them in such a way as to reveal Christ to them (see Matthew 5:13-16; 1 Peter 2:9-12)

Image result for image of church disciplineThe Christian must rub shoulders with the world in order to be a witness to the lost. What a Christian cannot do is participate with the world in sin. We are to be in the world, but we are to be unlike the world, living out the life of Christ as lights in a dark place (see Ephesians 5:3-14).

Paul never meant for the Corinthians to try to keep the church out of the world. They were supposed to keep the world out of the church, meaning that those who profess to be saved must live like they’ve been saved. Among those practices, we should not embrace a believer whose profession and practice are in contradiction to Biblical teaching. The Corinthians were not to associate with a person claiming to be a Christian, who continued to live in sin. Immorality is not the only basis for church discipline. Paul touches on them briefly — there’s covetousness, idolatry, slanderous speech, drunkenness, or swindling. Fellowship with someone who falls into this category is forbidden. This does not simply mean that this person is disfellowshipped from the meetings of the church. It means that individual believers must withdraw any manifestations of fellowship. This includes the sharing of a meal, which in biblical times was an intimate act of friendship (see Revelation 3:20).

Church discipline is a form of judging that is not only permitted but required. We’re not supposed to judge outsiders, but the conduct of those who profess Christ are to be scrutinized. God will judge unbelievers at the proper time. Some unbelievers will be saved by the grace of God and, like us, escape the wrath of God through faith in Christ. Others will be judged by God, but this is not our responsibility. The bottom line for the Corinthians is that they must put this immoral man out of their church.

This last expression, “Remove the evil person from among you,” is virtually a quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7: 

Suppose a man or woman is discovered among you – in one of your villages that the Lord your God is giving you – who sins before the Lord your God and breaks his covenant by serving other gods and worshiping them – the sun, moon, or any other heavenly bodies which I have not permitted you to worship. When it is reported to you and you hear about it, you must investigate carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thing is being done in Israel, you must bring to your city gates that man or woman who has done this wicked thing – that very man or woman – and you must stone that person to death. At the testimony of two or three witnesses they must be executed. They cannot be put to death on the testimony of only one witnessThe witnesses must be first to begin the execution, and then all the people are to join in afterward. In this way you will purge evil from among you. Deuteronomy 17:2-7

The expression is similar to that found elsewhere in the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 24:7). What Paul called for in the New Testament church is not significantly different from what Moses communicated to the nation Israel. We forget that God dwelt in the midst of His people in the Old Testament and thus the Israelites were required to remove sin and sinners from their midst. In the New Testament, Paul informed the Corinthians that God now indwells His temple, the church. They too must remove sin from their midst, because a holy God indwells them. In both cases, it is recognized that removing the sinner may include death. This is a serious step that can only be taken by Christians who take sin and God’s commandments seriously.

It’s hard for us in this day and age to read Paul’s words to the church of Corinth. He’s reminding the Corinthians of their duty to play a part in this process by removing the wayward and willful sinner from their midst. That raises several important issues for 21st century Christians.

Whatever happened to sin?

Dr. Karl Menninger, a secular psychiatrist, wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin. Though not a Christian, Menninger recognized that evil was become “psychologized”. Had the Corinthian sinner lived today, I can just imaging the diagnoses that would be applied to him in order to explain away his behavior. Here’s a man, living with his father’s wife, so a psychologist would probably look for childhood sexual abuse while another advocate would insist it’s a genetic predisposition. Some would argue that his behavior is perfectly normal and that the narrow-minded church people are the real problem. There were be long, expensive, and intensive therapy prescribed … perhaps to the man and woman, but more like to the church members since church discipline would be considered harmful rather than helpful. Paul’s diagnosis was simple, and so was the prescription. The problem was the sin of immorality, and the prescription was to remove him from the church. When the Bible is the standard for conduct, and it is viewed and used for defining sin and righteousness, the diagnosis of this man’s problem is not that difficult.

Whatever happened to discipline (church and otherwise)? The Corinthian church failed to exercise discipline on the immoral man to whom Paul was referring. At the same time, Paul accused the church of being arrogant. To exercise discipline is to acknowledge that you have done all that you can, and that you have failed. If we are thinking clearly as Christians, we realize that there is nothing spiritual which we can accomplish. We cannot save anyone; we can only proclaim the message of Christ crucified, and know that God, through His Spirit, will draw those to Himself whom He has chosen. We cannot bring about the right living of a believer. Once again, we can, as faithful stewards, do what God has given us to do, but we cannot produce the results. In Paul’s words, we may plant or water, but it is God who gives the growth.

In our arrogance, we sometimes convince ourselves that, given enough time, we can turn someone from their sin. There is a great deal of emphasis on counseling in our culture, even in the church. There is a place for counsel, but we often give ourselves and our system of counseling too much credit. We don’t want to admit failure, and so we refuse to take that final step of “removing the wicked person from our midst.” Just a little more time and we can correct this person’s thinking. Church discipline is based upon the recognition that we have done what we can in the context of the church, and that God can turn that wayward person to repentance apart from us and apart from our ministry.

The modern churches have unconsciously begun to think of themselves as support groups. There are times when we rightly act as a support group, but the overall support group mentality is a very dangerous one. Support groups can cause individuals to put their trust in “the group” rather than in God, priding themselves for “being there,” no matter what the wayward one has done, or will do. The support group purposes to always “be there,” while the church is called not to be there indefinitely for the one who refuses to heed a rebuke and to turn from willful sin.

The therapeutic movement within Christianity has propagated an assumption is that we must love one another unconditionally. There is a sense in which this is true, of course. But we are not to “love” others unconditionally if we are attempting to redefine what love means. To exercise discipline on a wayward saint is to love that person and to seek their highest good. To unconditionally accept that person is to never refuse to have fellowship with them, thinking which directly opposes Paul’s teaching in our text. Popular theories about psychology and theology must never set aside Biblical commands. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in chapter 5 end with a clear command. When called for, we will either obey this command, or we will sin.

Image result for image of church disciplineWhatever has happened to church discipline? I have seen very little of it. Even when such discipline is taken, all too many church members are tempted to second-guess the church and to privately continue to fellowship with the one under discipline. That’s pretty serious because, if I understand the Scriptures correctly, to do that is to become a partner with that person in his or her sin.

Church discipline is a very clear duty of the church and individual Christians. So why don’t we practice it? I think arrogance plays a large role in that, with a huge sidecar of fear. I think we’re afraid to take a stand against sin because we are afraid of rejection because we’re being viewed as narrow and unloving. We may be unwilling to lose the friendship and the fellowship of those we love. Some church leaders are afraid of being sued for taking disciplinary action against a church member. It can and does happen and I think we’ll see more court actions in the future.

Sometimes we are afraid that the work of God will be thwarted by church discipline. I know of several instances where a Christian leader was the brother in sin. That leader, when rebuked, would not repent. It would ruin their career. And, when the church became aware of it, they feared the harm publicity would do to the work of God. Some of those Christian leaders are still on the field. Brad and I left a church we loved because of it. God’s work is bigger than any man or any organization. God’s work is making sinners holy, to His glory. When a leader continues in sin, the church should discipline him publicly, as an example to all (1 Timothy 5:19-20). When any saint is placed under discipline, it serves notice to the world that the church does not accommodate sin.

Finally, the teachings and practices of the “church growth movement” discourage church discipline. The church growth experts generally measure the success of a church by numerical growth. This movement seeks to attract unbelievers to the church by being “seeker-friendly,” by making unbelieving “seekers” feel comfortable with the church and with the Christian message. If you’ve stuck with me through Paul’s teachings in Chapters 1 & 2, you know this is impossible. The message of the cross is foolish. Divine truth concerning God is incomprehensible to the lost. Men and women are not saved by getting comfortable with God, but by becoming uncomfortable by the conviction of the Holy Spirit that they are sinners, that God is righteous, and that judgment awaits the sinner (John 16:7-11). When God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for their deception, the unbelieving world was not comfortable. It caused them to stay away from the church. Nevertheless, many were being saved (see Acts 5:11-16). Sinful men should not and cannot be comfortable in the presence of a holy God, save through the cleansing of their sins by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Men and women cannot come to faith without first becoming uncomfortable about their sin and God’s judgment. That is what being saved is all about—being saved from the wrath of God.

Now for the bottom line. Why would we discipline a wayward saint, when we will not discipline ourselves? I’m remarkably passive and quiet about those sins in others that I also have in my life. Self-discipline is often harder than church discipline.

God takes sin seriously. Just think about the cross of Calvary and you’ll see what I mean. God took our sin so seriously that He stepped down into history as Jesus to die in our place, to suffer the punishment for our sins. The good news of the gospel is that while God takes our sin seriously, and our sin must be judged, He has judged our sins in Christ. To enter into this forgiveness, all we need do is to receive the gift of salvation which God offers to us by faith in His Son. When we see how seriously God has taken our sins, we see how serious we must be about sin ourselves.

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