One of the most difficult public displays of Christian obedience to God is the withdrawal of fellowship from a recalcitrant Christian. It is perhaps one of the most dynamic of commands to follow in the New Testament. Before reaching such a public excision, the Lord Jesus addressed the problem of confronting a wayward brother with the view to “gain” him (Matt 18:15-17).
The Lord sets forth a four-pronged redemptive procedure that begins under the most private of circumstances – “you and him alone” (18:15); in this setting, then, a private appeal to repent is offered. If the rebellious child of God maintains their posture, then the circle of brotherly concern widens to “one or two others” that come to witness the call to repentance (18:16).
Unfortunately, even at this point, some are so entrenched in sin, that they will not hear the admonitions; consequently, the Lord says, “if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (18:17). The publication of the situation allows the church as a whole to make an appeal to their fellow saint. All the “ties that bind” are summoned to invite this wayward soul to repent.
The Lord acknowledges that some will not be gained back to the fold by these loving and redemptive attempts, and sets forth the final process – consider the rebellious Christian as both an outsider of the blessings of the Christian covenant and a traitor who has chosen to serve Satan instead of Christ. In other words, the congregation must “disassociate the offender from the church fellowship.” The saved has now become the lost – how ironically tragic.
A Flagrant Issue
The New Testament has several examples of discipline; most usually they are of a very flagrant issue. For example, in 3 John 9-10 the apostle of love forewarns his audience that he will bring discipline upon Diotrephes the “missions” killer. Or, when Paul abbreviates his role in the discipline of Hymenaeus and Alexander (“delivered them to Satan”), who made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim 1:19-20).
However, in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Paul deals with an outlandish mode of porneia that is not even “tolerated” among the pagans (5:1 ESV). Porneia is the Greek word that is commonly translated “fornication” in older translations, and in newer translations as “sexual immorality.”
The truth of the matter is, porneia is a generic term for “illicit sexual intercourse.” It is an umbrella term, and context must determine the type of sexual act that is under consideration. The flagrant form of porneia Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 5:1 is this, “a [Christian] man has his father’s wife” (i.e. his stepmother). The severity of this behavior is evident by the fact that Paul appeals to the fact that Gentiles – or pagans – do not even permit such behavior.
This context provides the most insightful New Testament example of withdrawing Christian fellowship from recalcitrant saints. And as careful Bible students, we must definitely rehearse the valuable instruction of these verses.
The Duel Rebuke
Paul moves from the case of the man with his stepmother and draws attention to the congregation’s part in this flagrant relationship. The church had been “arrogant” and not “mournful” about the sinful relationship (5:2) and argues immediately that removal of the Christian was the appropriate reaction. The church at Corinth was laden with arrogance (4:6, 18-19), and here Paul rebukes them for this dispositional flaw that was affecting their decision-making process on this matter.
Paul demonstrates that not only is the rebellious person accountable to God, but that the church too cannot subscribe to a lax posture about known – public – sin in the church. The church is responsible and accountable to respond to a situation where a saint’s sin has become public knowledge. The apostle prescribes that the congregation should respond with a period of “mourning” and move into “disciplinarian action.” This is the divine reaction to sins of a public and flagrant nature (1 Cor 14:37).
With the next flip of his pen, Paul moves into position to make the judgment Corinth should have – he places judgment upon the Christian and the sexually immoral relationship with his un-Christian stepmother (5:3-5). There is no clear statement regarding the woman in view, aside from the fact that she is the wife of his father.
However, since the judgment is upon the Christian man, “it seems safe to assume that she is not a Christian.” Paul writes:
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. (1 Cor 5:4-5 ESV)
The context for such a procedure is the public assembly of the church. This recalls the instruction of Jesus regarding the procedures to discipline another for sin (Matt 18:15-17), the last two of which are set in a public context. Paul assesses that this situation is a public matter; and consequently, the licentious Christian must be disciplined immediately by the church in the public eye. The goal of this withdrawal is redemptive – “that his spirit may be saved.”
The judgment is upon his sin and behavior, but the goal of the discipline is to restore him – i.e. to regain him (Matt 18:15). In Hebrews 12:12-13, the author demonstrates that discipline is a privilege of sonship (12:5-8) and that the purpose is so “that the lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (12:13).
Discipline is not designed to “disable permanently those who have experienced the crippling effects of sin. Rather, His purpose is to heal and restore the repentant to spiritual usefulness”; in other words, “that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10).
The Imagery of Influence and Purity
Corinth was crippling the unfaithful man’s ability to be restored by failing to address his immoral relationship. Paul makes very clear that both the church and the man were in a spiritually precarious position. Paul appeals to the imagery of the Passover, where preparing unleavened bread demanded the need to remove the leaven (yeast) from the lump of dough (5:6-7).
The bread is the congregation, and the leaven (yeast) is the culprit sinner (and his influence) in the church, and Paul speaks very clearly that the bread must be prepared for the Passover feast which is the Christian faith. From this, the apostle suggests that the Christian who is in a sexually immoral relationship with his stepmother must be removed from the congregation. Otherwise, the church would be affected by the “leaven” (influence) of this morally and spiritually rebellious relationship.
But the truth is, they were already being afflicted by his influence, making it necessary for a public withdrawal to maintain the purity of the loaf (i.e. the church). David Williams, in his profitable work, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character, writes:
Paul had been speaking of the leaven (yeast), every trace of which had to be cleaned out of the house before the Passover was celebrated. On this analogy, he demanded that the Corinthians put their “house” in order by removing from among themselves what he called the “old leaven,” a particularly appalling instance of sexual immorality that the church had condoned (vv. 1-5).
The apostle, then, was addressing what should have been quite obvious; but, because of the Corinthian’s arrogance the real issue (i.e. the issue of purity) was not seen as relevant – how shameful. May we strive to learn then the lesson of Corinth.
The Place of Christian Judgment
Paul later recalls a previous letter, where he instructed them “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (5:9 ESV). But it does not seem that they were even practicing such instruction, evident by the fact that they had allowed this immoral situation a harbor of protection in the bay of misguided church fellowship. Yet, Paul did not even suggest merely sexually immoral people in general. He meant defiant immoral Christians are not to be associated with (5:9-11).
It is very interesting to observe that Paul moves from a specific case of porneia, and ends with formulating a generic principle against Christians practicing immorality in general – poneroi (i.e. evil doers). Verse 11 is very clear that purity focused Christians are not to be involved with Christians who practice evil, and it is transparent where Paul stands on the matter by saying that eating a meal with them is forbidden. Such a withdrawal of Christian fellowship reflects the disfellowshipped Christian’s heavenly reality – estrangement from God (Matt 18:18-20).
Christians have a responsibility to each other before the Lord (Matt 18:15-17). This responsibility is to “judge” each other regarding sin when necessary (1 Cor 5:12). To support his case, Paul appeals back to a formula common in Deuteronomy that highlights the need to judge insiders rather than outsiders of the covenant (17:7, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 24, 24:7), and affirms: “God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (5:13).
The Aftermath: Mission Accomplished
What ever became of this gentleman and his situation after being withdrawn from? The answer depends upon the view taken as to how many letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It is true that Paul mentions a previous letter written to them prior to 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9), but did he write a third letter that would chronologically fit between 1 and 2 Corinthians (2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8)?
Without delving into this academic discussion, we set forth our assessment of the discussion. Essentially, we assume for the time being that Paul wrote three letters: (1) A lost letter prior to 1 Corinthians (5:9); (2) 1 Corinthians known as the “sorrowful letter” or “severe letter” (2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8); and (3) 2 Corinthians.
Chronologically placing 1 and 2 Corinthians together contributes greatly in answering our question. In 2 Corinthians 2:6-11, Paul speaks of the reward of making the Corinthians sorrowful, and a certain punishment rendered by the majority of the congregation upon a certain individual. The connection is drawn that the man in 1 Corinthians 5 is the same as the gentleman made sorrowful in 2 Corinthians 2.
This man was sufficiently disciplined (2:6), and now the congregation’s responsibility was three-fold (2:7-8):
(1) “forgive him”
(2) “comfort him”
(3) “reaffirm brotherly love.”
There will a great deal of Divine judgment upon those that do not respond in this fashion to a penitent brother or sister, for this is a great test of Christian obedience (2 Cor 2:9-10; Matt 6:14-16).
To the apostle, it appears that the matter of restoration of fellowship is just as important as the withdrawal of fellowship; the reason being, Satan is prepared to take advantage of our shortcomings at these pivotal moments (2:11). Would it not be appropriate to make the restoration announcement just as public as the withdrawal process was? It would definitely seem so (Philem 10-21).
It seems important to stress, therefore, that the same amount of effort it took in the discipline process should follow in the restoration process. There is to be no more invisible line of fellowship between the restored and the brethren, for that is over and the saint has returned. Neither should a “we’ll see” attitude embody the brotherhood, but a loving reception – a mirror of heaven – is expected by Paul.
This is the victory of faith, the power of the blood of Christ, and the faithfulness of God. This is a great test of Christian faithfulness. May we be ever minded to discipline when needed and repair the splintered connections of fellowship after restoration. May we likewise be faithful to receive those who have been restored.
- J. Carl Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” BSac 143 (1986): 361.
- William E. Vine, et al, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1984), 2:252; Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1896; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 532.
- The phrase reads: hoste gunaika tina tou patros echein. Simon J. Kistemaker observes that “in Jewish circles, the wording wife of his father meant ‘stepmother,'” and observes that God repeatedly told the Israelites to refrain from sexual relationships with their father’s wife (Lev 18:8, 20:11; Deut 22:30, 27:20). “‘Deliver This Man to Satan’ (1 Cor 5:5): A Case Study in Church Discipline,” Master’s Seminary Journal 3.1 (1992): 35.
- Tommy South, That We May Share His Holiness: A Fresh Approach to Church Discipline (Abilene, TX: Bible Guides, 1997), 87. Read my book review regarding South’s excellent but brief volume.
- Some view the expulsion here as permanent, and redemption only to be found at the end of time (Harris 146-48); however, such a conclusion runs counter to the instruction of Jesus on discipline (Matt 18:15-17), to Paul’s use of similar language in disciplining and restoring false teachers (1 Tim 1:20), and the general tenor of the New Testament regarding cleansing of sin in the Christian’s life (1 John 1:6-2:3). Gerald Harris, “The Beginnings of Church Discipline: 1 Corinthians 5,” Understanding Paul’s Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches, ed. Brian S. Rosner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 129-51. Cf. Wayne Jackson’s article on the forgiveness available to Christians in sinful lifestyles is quite compelling: repentance, confession, prayer, and the cleansing blood of the faithful Christ. “God’s Plan of Salvation for His Lost Children,” ChristianCourier.com (Accessed: 7 July 2004).
- Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” 355-56.
- David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character (1999; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 248.
- Peter S. Zaas, “‘Cast out the Evil Man from You Midst'” (1 Cor 5:13b),” JBL 103.2 (1984): 259.
- Zaas points out that aside from a minor adjustment by Paul, the Greek phrase is parallel with the LXX (i.e. Septuagint) formulations in Deuteronomy (“‘Cast out the Evil Man from You Midst,'” 259).
- Richard B. Hays has a brief discussion on this passage in his work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). For Hays, Paul showed, if not in retrospect, that the Corinthians are part of the same covenant tradition as Ancient Israel. As such, the use of this formulae to expel the fornicator would have implicitly emphasized this relationship and demanded the logical obedience the congregation is to display in the removal of the sexually immoral brother from the congregation. In this action, they show themselves to be Israel – not figurative, but real Israel. Whether or not the Corinthians completely understood Paul’s use of this excommunication formulae Hays cannot prove, but he does respond to this point: “In this instance, [the] direct quotation becomes an allusive trope: only the reader who recognizes the source of the words will grasp the bold theological proposal implied by Paul’s metaphorical act of addressing Corinthian Gentiles as children of the covenant” (97).
- Daniel B. Wallace, “2 Corinthians: Introduction, Argument, and Outline,” Bible.org. For those interested in this issue, Wallace’s discussion will be of help on some of the complexities of this issue.
- James Pilgrim, Withdrawing from the Disorderly (West Monroe, LA: Central Printers, n.d.). I agree with Pilgrim’s observation that, “To fail to forgive and receive the returning brother is as wicked as not marking him in the beginning (2 Cor 2:11)” (17).
Harris, Gerald Harris. “The Beginnings of Church Discipline: 1 Corinthians 5.” Pages 129-51 in Understanding Paul’s Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches. Edited by Brian S. Rosner. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1989.
Jackson, Wayne. “Church Discipline – A Tragic Neglect,.” ChristianCourier.com(Accessed: 8 June 2000).
Jackson, Wayne. “God’s Plan of Salvation for His Lost Children.” ChristianCourier.com.
Kistemaker, Simon J. “‘Deliver This Man to Satan’ (1 Cor 5:5): A Case Study in Church Discipline.” Master’s Seminary Journal 3.1 (1992): 32-46.
Laney, J. Carl. “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline.” BSac 143.572 (Oct.-Dec. 1986): 353-63.
Pilgrim, James. Withdrawing from the Disorderly. West Monroe, LA: Central Printers, n.d.
South, Tommy. That We May Share His Holiness: A Fresh Approach to Church Discipline. Abilene, TX: Bible Guides, 1997.Joseph H. Thayer,
Thayer, Joseph H. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. 1896. Repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999.
Vine, William E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1984.
Wallace, Daniel B. “2 Corinthians: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” Bible.org.
Williams, David J. Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character. 1999. Repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.
Zaas, Peter S. “‘Cast out the Evil Man from You Midst'” (1 Cor 5:13b).” JBL 103.2 (1984): 259.