What happens when a Christian is involved in public, serious and/or unrepentant sin? How do we respond when their actions are bringing the Gospel into disrepute? 1 Corinthians 5 deals with those questions.
Here are some notes and thoughts about the passage
- The nature of the sin
NLT “Living in sin with his step mother”
literally “He has his father’s wife” possibilities include that it is his step mother when father has married again but also that it is dad’s second wife in a polygamous relationship. That it is his own biological mother is unlikely.
The idea of “having “someone can range from a fling to marriage. So the NLT gloss “living in sin” may be a little unhelpful. The solution to the problem here is not to go and get properly married but to stop having sex with her.
Background -Leviticus 18 on incest – note that incest in this chapter is not just about sexual relationships with blood relatives. This suggests that the primary issue in the Law was not about the medical risks of sexual relations with a close genetic relative. Rather, incest laws probably relate to the whole question of faithfulness and clarity about community relationships.
So sexual relationships that are off limits include
Your dad’s wife
Your uncle’s wife
Your daughter in law
Your step sister
The message is that these people are “family” and therefore that defines your relationship to them. A key aspect of this is that you are looking at an “honour/shame” culture. A relationship with your father’s wife means that you dishonour/violate him.
Some commentators have also suggested that this encourages stability and loyalty within the family. Your dad, your Uncle, your brother, your son are also your relatives – they are not your love rivals. Their wives are permanently off limits.
NB -no discipline for the woman is mentioned -so it is possible that she (and maybe his dad too) are unbelievers. Our care and responsibility to others includes towards those outside of the church.
2. Handing over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh
Two red herrings
1. Some people have thought that Paul is borrowing magical formulae -there are references in the Dead Sea scrolls that at first sight appear similar. However, those tend to be an appeal to a demon to deliver the cursed person into the hands of the person praying. We don’t appear to have equivalents where the person is handed over to Satan
2. The destruction of the flesh could refer to death but again is highly unlikely given the context of being restored/saved. It can also include the possibility of suffering -and there’s a sense in which sin will bring consequences and an unrepentant person needs to experience these as discipline. The idea is probably more “destruction of what is carnal” – in other words, purification and putting to death the things of the flesh -fleshly/worldly desires and lusts
Gordon Fee says that “handing over to Satan” could be describes as “handing over to Satan’s sphere” – i.e. there’s a sense of being sent back to his kingdom -where he reigns – not a physical place but where he has influence. I guess a good example here would be of what happens when you find out that someone is a spy -they get extradited back to their own country. There may well be consequences back there if they have been a double agent.
So Handing over to Satan is probably best treated as a technical term for how the disciplined person is to be treated, similar to Jesus’s words about treating someone as an unbeliever in Matthew 18. That’s probably the key – how do we treat unbelievers?
I think it might be helpful to consider this as mirroring coming into fellowship. There are outward markers that we recognise someone has professed faith – we baptise them, include them as church members and they participate in communion. These are visible signs of what we discern to be the inner reality and this is why whilst we don’t claim to be infallible, we do take care -e.g. two elders or elders involved in baptism/membership interviews.
We want to be careful in our responsibility not to give people a false form of assurance. So we don’t want someone to think that they are okay because they are a church member when in fact there is serious business that they need to do with God and are avoiding.
So I find it helpful to think of discipline as hitting the reset button. We need to go back to the first principles of the Gospel with this person. Handing over to Satan is vivid language. It means that the person cannot hide behind their church involvement when their life bears all the hallmarks and bears fruit that is Satantic in nature. By this I’m not referring to demon possession but the reality that their beliefs and/or actions are having a spiritually destructive effect on them and others around them.
You see, we are either dealing with someone who is a believer but who has fallen and backslidden they need to be reminded of the Gospel which saved them. But we also are often dealing with people who have outwardly professed by have never truly been saved and so we need to remind them of what the Gospel is trusting the Holy Spirit to convict.
Note that there’s also a quarantining effect because of the potential destruction to others. Elsewhere Paul takes things like gossip, slander and divisive talk just as seriously. Discipline is meant to be preventative to stop someone having a destructive effect on other believers.
Another aspect of this is the protection of the honour of the Gospel. We are clear that the person is not speaking or acting for the church or for the Gospel.
This brings some challenging practical questions into play about how we do relate to someone? Some strict groups and sects use this passage as the basis for shunning people. Even family members are disowned and communication broken off. I don’t think this can be right because treating someone as an unbeliever must surely include a concern to love and show God’s grace. My practical advice is that things like family relationships continue -they are still your wife/husband/father/son those things don’t change.
However, note that where there has been sexual immorality or desertion then discipline may be an important step in the process because if you take the view that Jesus and Paul permit divorce and re-marriage in those limited cases (as I do) then this type of discipline is an important part of showing that the victim is justified in their actions.
Additionally, I believe that it must affect the dynamic of our friendship and contact with the person who has been disciplined. Will our actions imply to them and/or to others that we support them and their actions and by implication disagree with the decision of the church? We can also signal that we are “the people who love/care” and that others are “harsh.”
This is probably one of those areas where hard and fast rules don’t work too well and lead to legalism. It’s probably better to think about things like
1. What are my motives and how do they affect how I interact with the person?
2. How are my actions likely to be seen -helpful or unhelpful -am I making a statement even unintentionally about that person or about the church?
3. Will my actions prolong and exacerbate the suffering experienced by those who have been the victims of the person’s sin?
4. Am I submitting to the body -accountability, advice etc.
It’s worth looking as well at what happens when we interact and the risks. So if I give hospitality or go out for a drink with this person then the risk is that it gives them opportunity to continue to complain and to justify themselves.
Additionally, we keep looking at the risk. Am I creating opportunities for the person to lead others astray by false teaching or bad example?
Another practical factor is how churches relate to other churches. I was fascinated to hear that the norm among the churches in Ecuador is for people to become Christians and then stay in the same church. Church transfer is seen as unusual and the default assumption is that something goes wrong. So when someone transfers church there much be a letter from the other church not just of recommendation but explaining the circumstances of their departure.
This is completely the reverse of UK church assumptions where we often expect people to move churches. The default assumption is that there is something lacking in the other church or that they have failed the person in some way. Now of course, of course we need to be realistic – there are lots of spiritually unhealthy, dead, liberal, spiritually abusive churches around. However, as someone once put it -a glass spills water when it is knocked partly because it is knocked but also because it is full of water! Even if a church makes mistakes we need to look at what is going on with the person.
Fee points out that this situation causes a problem for discipline because the person who has been disciplined can simply walk down the road and join another church where either no questions will be asked or their account will be accepted at face value without it being checked out.
So good church discipline must involve some sense of recognition that each of us is part of the local body and as a church we are part of the wider body.
Finally I think that there’s another example of faith in “Future Grace” here. Do we truly believe that the person will be restored? It will take God’s grace to do that. When we accept second best and let the disciplined person join our congregation without seeing full repentance it shows short sightedness about future grace. When we duck the difficult conversation with the sinner and as a church body we are doubting God’s future grace ability to restore. When we think that the person definitely never will come back then it’s a lack of faith (even though realistically examples of repentance are rare).