It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” 1 Corinthians 5:1–13. ESV
The last couple of weeks we talked about judging. One of the major distinctions had to do with judgments made between the church and the world. Paul is clear that we are to judge behaviors inside the church, but not outside the church. In our text for today, he writes,
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13, ESV)
Paul is clear that he will not judge the behavior of outsiders, but in the church, it is necessary, not just to judge the behavior, but to purge immorality from the church.
I saw a news article from a couple months ago—and you’ve heard stories like these—but the city of San Diego announced that they are working on a 5 year plan to purify sewer water. That’s not new, but they intend to put it back into the clean water system as drinking water.
And that just freaks people out.
We have a hard time wrapping our minds around the idea that we could drink water that has been so impure.
How could they possible purge all of the impurity from the water?
And that’s the problem the church faces as well. We’re called to be a holy nation, a purified bride for Jesus Christ. The entire point of our faith is to be free from impure things, free from the sins, brokenness, and unfaithfulness that is so prevalent in the world.
And like sewer water, many in the church tolerate a certain amount of sin in our lives, because it’s so hard to imagine what actual purity might be like. It’s so foreign to us.
The good news about Jesus, though, is not just that he has forgiven us for our impurities, but also, and very important for us here on earth, he has empowered us to be free from those things now. So, in the church, he calls us to be pure and to purge impurities from our midst.
Oftentimes this type of in-the-church judgment or purging is called Church Discipline. Maybe you’ve heard that term before. I prefer to call it …
…as restoration is really the goal. We don’t want to purify the church by separating people who persist in sin. We want to purify the church by seeing people come to repentance. We want to see you get better.
In 2 Corinthians 13:11, Paul writes,
Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11, ESV)
It’s pretty clear here, we are to aim for restoration in all situations. But, purity is also necessary. Many churches struggle with purity and tolerate sin in the church, because they know we should favor grace, mercy, and restoration.
But, church restoration doesn’t mean we ignore sin. Church restoration has, as its chief aim, the purity of the church. Purity is central in restoration. That’s why Paul writes,
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. (1 Corinthians 5:6b–7a, ESV)
Leaven or yeast is a historic metaphor for sin. Every sin that you tolerate in your life, no matter how small, is like yeast floating around in the air. It will land on your food and begin to multiply until it takes over. You’ve seen someone make bread or you’ve made it yourself. It takes just a tiny amount of yeast to make a whole lump of dough rise. Sin that you allow in your life is like that yeast. A tiny amount may not seem like a big deal, but it will continue to grow inside of you until it becomes nearly impossible to kill.
So, Paul is saying that the church has sin in it, lingering from times before we knew Jesus. But, when Jesus comes into your life, you become something entirely new; you are no longer a lump of dough filled with yeast. You are no longer a person who is characterized by the sin, immorality, brokenness, and unfaithfulness of the world.
You’re actually free from your sin. You have a new identity that is righteous, whole, complete, and faithful.
That means a lot more than that you are free from punishment. It means that you are no longer a slave to your passions, lusts, and temptations. You really are free from sin’s grasp. You really are like unleavened dough, dough that has no yeast in it.
In numerous places in the New Testament, we see a process being worked through to restore people to the fellowship when they sin against Christ and each other. Today, we are going to go through the process of Church Restoration and end with today’s passage, 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul records actual Church Discipline taking place.
And pay attention. Church restoration may sound like something pastors do, but pastors play a very small role. Church restoration is something everyone should be a part of.
The first question you have to ask is…
Does the Bible call the behavior sin?
This may seem like an obvious question but notice the problem. Not everyone agrees on issues of sin.
Here’s an example.
Some people believe drinking alcohol is a sin, no matter how much you drink. Other people believe drinking alcohol is okay as long as you don’t get drunk. Other people think it’s fine as long as you stick to beer and wine, but not liquor. And some people say drinking alcohol is fine—even to the point we might call drunkenness—as long as you aren’t doing anything particularly dangerous, like driving.
So, how much alcohol does it take before it’s sin?
Honestly, the Bible doesn’t say. The Bible repeatedly calls drunkenness sin, even if you are drinking at home or in another safe environment. But, nowhere does the Bible say that all alcohol is sin. So, we can’t really be dogmatic about where to draw the line.
To say that differently, someone who drinks alcohol in moderation should not be brought under scrutiny, because of someone else’s personal conviction, because it isn’t clear in the scriptures.
But, what about other sins?
You know, sexual immorality doesn’t work like alcohol does. All sexual immorality is automatically sin. You can’t ever say, “Well he’s only moderately adulterous, so it’s OK.” No, no, no, sexual immorality of all kinds is always an issue of purity. Church discipline is for those kinds of issues; issues that don’t require so much personal interpretation.
And that’s precisely the issue in our text today. Paul writes,
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. (1 Corinthians 5:1, ESV)
This is actually kind of interesting. Sexual immorality of all sorts was not just tolerated, but celebrated by the Roman cultures. But, there were a few things that were not tolerated, not because they were so immoral, but because they resulted in complicated legal issues that the Roman Government wanted to avoid.
In this case, this guy has taken his Father’s wife. For linguistic reasons, we are pretty certain he has not taken his own mother as his wife, which is how we tend to read it.
It’s unnecessary to get into all the detail, but we can be fairly certain that his Father has died and he took one of his father’s other wives as his own, basically his step-mother.
The issue of purity, though, is not so much whether Rome allowed it, but whether God allowed it. Moses recorded this in the law:
You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. (Leviticus 18:8, ESV)
Notice it says, ‘father’s wife.’ Leviticus 18:7 addresses the nakedness of your mother. They are different people according to the law.
If you’re wondering why these guys have multiple wives, polygamy wasn’t forbidden at this time.
If you read all of chapter 18, God doesn’t allow His people to take any close relative as a husband or wife. Here’s what is significant. This is a moral standard that Paul expected Christians to obey even if they were not Jewish.
So, what we see in 1 Corinthians 5 is that Paul clearly identified the sin before stepping into church discipline.
Then there is a gap in the church restoration process that’s not accounted for. We see in verse 9 that Paul had written them another letter about this guy and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. And we don’t have that letter so we don’t know what Paul tried to do to restore this man. So in this letter, Paul jumps straight to the discipline.
But, the church has a longstanding process for church restoration. When we have a clear issue of sin—not an arguable one—we go through a process. And presumably, Paul did something similar in the gap that we can’t account for.
Jesus gave us the process. He tells us to…
Approach the individual personally
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. (Matthew 18:15, ESV)
I want you to notice that the actual issue Jesus brings up is sin between two people in the church, not just any sin, in general. So, I bring this verse in, not as biblical mandate, but as biblical wisdom. Basically, if it’s good for sin against two people, it’s good for all issues of sin in the church.
Does that make sense?
So, what does this look like?
A lot of people think that if they see someone in a pattern of sin that they should go tell the pastor, but that’s not what it says.
It also doesn’t say that it’s none of your business and you should ignore it.
Those are the two things we tend to do because those are the easiest things to do. I see someone in sin and I don’t want to deal with their mess because I’m already over here dealing with my own stuff and my families stuff and all that so I just ignore it.
Or maybe I don’t ignore it. But, I still don’t think it’s my place to confront someone, so I go to the pastor and I expect him to do it.
But, listen. In the church, everyone’s sin is everyone’s business, because everyone’s sin effects the purity of Christ’s church. If you are a Christian then the purity of the church and, likewise, the sins of everyone in the church is, very much, your business.
So, you go talk to the person, and Jesus says, if the issue is settled, if the person confesses their sin and repents, then you have gained your brother. If the person committing the sin acknowledges his sin, prays for forgiveness and expresses a genuine desire to be free of the sin, then the issue is over.
But, if the person refuses to acknowledge their sin, Jesus says to,
Approach the individual with witnesses
If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Matthew 18:16, ESV)
There’s one of two things going on here. If you challenge someone in their sin and they don’t want to stop doing it, they probably think it’s none of your business and they will probably tell you to mind your own business. So, when you bring others with you, then they may take you more seriously.
The other thing that might be happening is that they genuinely don’t believe they are committing sin. I’ll give you an example of this and I sort of hope I step on a few toes here.
Go online and google, ‘Should Christians watch Game of Thrones.’ This show is not one of those gray areas in scripture where we aren’t sure if it’s sinful or not, yet this show is something that people still have very diverse opinions on within the church. I haven’t watched it, because I won’t, but from what I understand, even from Christians who choose to watch it, it’s not just inexplicit nudity, but pornographic, which is sexual immorality.
So, maybe this person has a conviction that doesn’t accord with what the Bible says. Maybe the issue is a tv show or it’s something else entirely, but when you bring other people with you who also agree with what the Bible teaches, then maybe they will read a little closer. Maybe they will be more willing to listen to what the Bible says. Maybe they will come to agree with you.
Again, if they listen, then you have gained a brother. But, there’s a final step Jesus gives us. Jesus says that if they don’t repent, then you…
Take it to the church
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17, ESV)
I’ll be honest, this is a complicated statement for a number of reasons.
First, and maybe you observed this, there was no ‘church’ when Jesus said this. The church wasn’t established until after Jesus. The word existed in the Greek, but it referred to a political or religious court or assembly. Paul tends to use the word church as the body of believers similar to how we use it, but Jesus couldn’t have meant that.
Second, it’s complicated, because telling an entire church congregation about someone’s sins is a sure-fire way to make someone leave the church. And if they join another church, they’ll work ten-times as hard to make sure no one finds them out.
That’s not what we want. We want repentance and reconciliation. We want our people to experience freedom from their sins, not hide their sins and flee from the discipline.
It’s most likely that Jesus meant the 12 disciples whom he had entrusted with the building of the church when he said ‘take it to the church.’ That makes sense because a political or religious assembly in those days meant the assembly of the leaders not the assembly of all the people. So, when we read this today, we should probably read ‘Take it to the pastors or elders.’
In other words, you approach someone yourself and if they don’t repent, then you bring someone else who already knows about their sin—Jesus said to bring witnesses. You don’t go around telling everyone; that’s called Gossip and it’s sin too. And if they don’t repent then you tell the pastors and let them talk to them.
Now, if they repent, great, we have gained a brother. And if not, then we have to start the process of…
And that’s what Paul clearly outlines in 1 Corinthians 5.
The first thing required is…
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 5:4, ESV)
We have the same problem as in Matthew 18.
Does Paul mean when we assemble for church worship or that we assemble all the people? Or does he mean when the church leadership is assembled, like a staff meeting?
For us, it’s not a huge issue, because we are a democratic church. That means that the ultimate rule of the church belongs to the members of the church. So, if I had to recommend church discipline for someone, which prayerfully I never will, I would discuss it with our other leaders and if we agree there is a need for church discipline I would go to the members of the church to gain united disapproval for their sins.
What we won’t do is call a family business meeting to gossip about the details of the sin.
If united disapproval is given, that would result in…
Removal from Fellowship
…including suspension of the person’s church membership and a request that they no longer attend services until they are willing to repent of their sin.
That may seem really extreme, especially because we encourage people who are not committed to Christ to attend our services, but look how Paul continues,
You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:5, ESV)
‘Deliver this man to Satan.’ Tell me that’s not a crazy statement! I’ll unpack it a little bit.
In 1 John 5:19, John says that the world outside the church, “lies in the power of the evil one.” It’s actually Satan’s job to be in the world accusing or testing God’s people. The word Satan actually means, ‘The accuser.’
We see his role play out in the book of Job. If you know the story, Satan comes to God and tells Job that he has been down on the earth checking out all the people. And they get to talking about Job and how righteous he is.
Satan tells God that Job is only righteous because God has formed a protective hedge around him and given him unfathomable blessings. So, Satan asks God to allow him to test him by taking away all of his blessings and God allows it. Satan’s doing his job.
In the book of Luke we read,
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.(Luke 22:31, ESV).
Again, Satan has authority on earth to test the viability of a person’s faith in God.
In 1 Timothy, Paul writes,
Some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:19-20, ESV).
We see that Paul employs Satan, the tester, and accuser, in order to train believers to live righteously when the church is unable to accomplish it on their own. ‘Handing over to Satan’ is a good thing, because, it results in the destruction of the flesh, which is a figure of speech for your sinful heart.
When the church has to discipline someone, it’s not fun, but it’s for their ultimate good. It’s so that they learn the pain that comes from sin. And, prayerfully, they repent.
The hardest part of this for the members of the church is…
I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11, ESV)
At first, this seemed like such an odd statement to me.
Didn’t Jesus eat with tax payers and sinners? Didn’t he hang out with drunkards and prostitutes?
He did. And we should too. But, when someone calls themselves a Christian and willfully continues in patterns of immoral behavior, we have to separate ourselves from them, inside the church and outside the church, if we want to see them come to repentance.
Paul’s principle is that we can’t allow someone the benefits of church fellowship when they are intentionally bringing impurity into the church. So, Paul says, we have to disassociate. Have nothing to do with them until they repent.
There are two other loops in the diagram that we need to talk about. They demonstrate the relationship of…
Repentance and Grace
These exist for clarity on certain patterns. Let’s look first at the…
I was explaining this infographic to my daughter Lorelei the other night and she asked me, ‘Why would we do that? Aren’t we supposed to forgive people who sin?’
And she’s exactly right. We do forgive. We do have grace. But, there’s a caveat. The Apostle John wrote,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, ESV)
Confession of sins is intrinsically tied to forgiveness by God in this passage and many others. To confess means to agree. When you confess your sin, you are agreeing with God that you have done something that is wrong, immoral, sinful and that you want to do better.
So, the red line asks the question, ‘Did the person return to their sin?’ If they have, then they go back into the flow until the come to repentance again. But, this is only if they are confessing their sin, if they continue to agree that the sin is wrong. We don’t move to church discipline as long as they acknowledge their sins.
And what if it happens again? And again? And again? How many times do we forgive the brother or sister who persists in sin?
Well, going back to Matthew 18, Jesus said in verse 22, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ That’s a euphemism that means forgiveness never runs out. As long as the person continues to acknowledge their sin, they are in the restoration process and church discipline does not occur. Those who struggle and fall to temptation repeatedly receive mercy if they acknowledge their sins.
And you might say, “Well doesn’t their repeated sin reflect their disbelief?”
They don’t really want to follow Jesus if they won’t repent of their sins. Their actions prove they aren’t even trying.
That seems like reasonable enough assumptions to make, but remember, the heart is complicated, so Paul doesn’t allow us to judge the heart of a believer. We talked about this two weeks ago. Paul wrote,
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:5, ESV)
We just don’t have the ability to see into the heart, so that’s something Jesus will do when he returns to judge. It’s not our place to do that now. Our place is mercy and forgiveness. We always aim for the restoration of the sinner.
And if you think that standard is too liberal, I would just remind you that God does this with you every day. Every day you sin, damaging your relationship with God. And he promises new mercies every morning. He said he will never leave you, never forsake you. God always keeps you as his own, even though you continue to sin against him. 77 times he forgives you.
And, thus, we do likewise with each other.
So, that’s the red line. But, what do we do when someone sins repeatedly and they are arrogant, refusing to confess or repent of the sin?
That’s a different situation represented by the…
When someone isn’t willing to repent and they go through the process of church discipline and are disassociated with the church, there is still an opportunity for them to confess and repent.
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (2 Corinthians 2:5–8, ESV)
Here we see an issue of church discipline. Paul says that the person who has caused pain to the church has been punished by the majority. That’s the united disapproval that results in the removal from the church and disassociation with the people of the church.
But, now, if that person wants to return, the church ought to reaffirm their love for that person. It’s possible, here in 2 Corinthians, that Paul has in mind the same person he disciplined years before for sexual immorality when he wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians.
So, when someone has gone through church discipline but then wants to return, we need to ask a question.
The question is, Has he or she done this before? Has this person chosen their sin and left the church, and then returned again?
Paul wrote this to Titus,
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him. (Titus 3:10, ESV)
In this case, Paul is talking about the sin is divisiveness, but the church has historically used this principle more broadly to consider when to allow someone back into the fellowship. The idea is that, if they have already been restored once or twice, then you don’t keep restoring them.
Again, we aren’t talking about someone who struggles continually with sin, acknowledges their sin, and confesses sin—that’s all of us.
We are talking about someone who has been counseled on their sin, probably for months and refuses to acknowledge their sin or repent of it.
The humility to acknowledge your sin is the key here. That humility is what keeps us in the church and in the process of restoration, not discipline.
So, that’s church restoration and church discipline. What’s at the center of this model is the repentance of the believer and restoration to the body. Church discipline is almost never necessary, but when it becomes necessary, it’s very important for the purity of the church.
The process of restoration always seeks the good of the individual for the purity of the church. Even when church discipline becomes necessary, it is for the purpose that the person might be sanctified and ultimately be saved when the Lord returns.
In all things we seek the purity of Christ’s church, and the salvation and purification of all those who profess Jesus, the Christ, as Lord and Savior.
I just want to end on this note. The mission of the church is to bring the good news of Jesus to a broken, sinful, and unfaithful world, a desperately sick world.
Think with me, What do we have to offer the world, if we look just like them?
The purity of the church is essential to the mission. As we close today, you might need to make youⲣ NEXT STEP confession. You migⲣht need to, maybe for the first time, acknowledge your sin, confess that to God and I would recommend you confess that to someone here who you trust. Confess that sin and move towards repentance, for the purity of the church, that the mission of God might be done through us.
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