To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Deliver Such a One to Satan

1 Corinthians 5
Preached Sunday morning, August 20, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

Up until this point in 1 Corinthians we have been looking primarily at factionalism and Christian leadership. We’ve seen that faithful leaders in Christ don’t operate on their own power but on God’s. Faithful leaders don’t build personal followings or puff themselves up. Faithful leaders are butlers and underlings who give glory to God.

Now, in chapter five, we see what happens to a congregation without good leadership. In short, that church falls into sin—and not only the individual sinners suffer, but the whole congregation. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul begins by addressing three types of sin: incest (ch. 5), lawsuits (6:1-11), and prostitution (6:12-20) [1. Notice that two of these deal directly with sexual immorality—as we might expect in a city known for its temple to the goddess of fertility.

This chapter begins with an example of both incest and adultery—a rather extreme example both for the first-century Christians and for those in our own day and time. What does such an unlikely case have to do with the church today? Simply this: the worst danger in this incident is not so much from the man as from the church. The congregation in Corinth had become lax toward sin, and as a result the church was rotting from the inside. So this chapter shows us how to take sin seriously, and it gives us a glimpse of how church discipline should work.

As we see here, there is a time, place, and context for Christians to judge sin—and we must! What was happening in Corinth was a sin so gross that even the Gentiles wouldn’t do such thing. A man has taken up with his father’s wife (5:1). Literally, Paul says the man “has” his father’s wife—a verb signifying a continuous relationship. And rather than condemn such sinful behavior, the Corinthians are apparently proud of it (5:2-6). Someone has likened the maturity of a church to the quality of an automobile. Naturally, we’d rather drive a well-maintained car than a clunker. Some of you may have noticed I’ve stopping driving my old Honda and am using an equally old but less-warn Buick. I prefer the Honda, but that car had lots dents and rusty places, the clear coat had begun to peel off the hood, and the seats are stained and torn. When I drove through downtown Lexington I used to think how that thing just isn’t a “preacher’s car.” But the Buick, that’s a fine looking preacher’s car! Now what does all this car talk have to do with the Corinthian church? Simply this: spiritually speaking, the Corinthians were driving wreck of a church—and they were proud of it [2]! It seems they understood something about the freedom of God’s grace, but nothing of the duties it brings. One of the Corinthian Christians was committing a sin that even the pagans didn’t do, and the church was proud.

Does that sound anything like our day? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those in various denominations talk about “unconditional love” or “unconditional acceptance” when it comes to sinners in their midst [3]. Let’s say someone calling himself a Christian practices a sinful behavior, and rather than simply calling the behavior sin, members of the person’s church talk about the sinner’s need for unconditional love and acceptance from other Christians. In our day that kind of thinking is prevalent on the issue of homosexual relationships, but we can find it in many other contexts. All the talk of unconditional love sounds very spiritual, and of course there is some truth to it. Far too many Christians cause their love for others to be dependent on the other person’s behavior—“What have you done for me lately?” Conditional love is especially harmful when parents use it on their children, and it can turn a family or a church into a favor exchange club. On the other hand, if we focus so much on unconditional love that we forget love’s stern side, then before long we allow the most sinful behaviors to go unchallenged. The example of the Corinthian church is a case in point. Yes, the Corinthians should love the man who is living with his father’s wife. But the man is under judgement (5:3), and now it’s time to take action.

Those of you who have been paying attention to this series on 1 Corinthians may ask, how does this talk of passing judgement jibe with Paul’s warning in 4:5 against judging other Christians? That’s something worth exploring. In our day, for example, the most often repeated words of Jesus may well be, “Judge not” (Mt. 7:1). Now those are the very words of the Lord, so we’d better give them some attention. But let’s be clear: if “Judge not” is all we know about judgement in the church, then before long we’ll be in as bad shape as the Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 4:3-5 Paul is warning the Corinthian Christians against judging the quality of another Christian’s work and the sincerity of his effort. Those are things only God knows. But here in ch. 5, the topic is clear sins—incest and adultery—that are already judged evil in God’s Word [4]. The issue is not so much judgement as obedience. If our church shies away from being obedient about matters that the Word of God has already judged, then one day we’ll be the ones debating whether or not to allow women or practicing homosexuals into the pulpit.

So what is a church to do with entrenched sin, when someone continues to sin and seems proud of it? The instructions here are clear—throw out the sinner. Now this chapter contains a passage that is much debated among interpreters: What exactly did Paul mean when he wrote for the Corinthians “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (5:5)? Theories abound, from the idea that the man was to be physically killed to the concept of sin simply taking its toll on him through the years. There’s no way to be sure exactly what Paul had in mind in those words, although it hasn’t stopped many interpreters from arguing their case. People naturally like to spend time debating hard verses like these (and the Bible has plenty of them). To a degree, these efforts to better understand the Bible are good, and they help keep us reading and studying. On the other hand, it’s more fun to debate verses we can’t fully understand than to simply obey the ones we do. We can spend all day discussing what it means to deliver a Christian to Satan, but the action that needs to be taken is very plain in verses 2 and 13: kick the man out of the church!

We commonly call this kind of action disfellowshipping. It used to be much more common than it is today in the Lord’s church. When I preached in Tennessee I once spent part of an afternoon going through the congregation’s file on disfellowship letters. As many churches had done, after disfellowshipping a man or woman (usually for sexual sin), the elders of the congregation would send letters to nearby congregations explaining the reasons for disfellowshipping. These letters went back for years, but they rather abruptly stopped twenty or so years ago. That was about the time a woman out West won a lawsuit against the elders of her congregation for sending disfellowship letters regarding her refusal repent of sexual immoral behavior. At that church in Tennessee, as well as congregations all over the country, disfellowship letters soon became rare. It seems it doesn’t take much outside pressure for Christians to go soft on sin.

Ignoring sin is easy, but the church is called to confront it. In Mt. 18:15-21, Jesus spells out the process of how Christians are to do this in a series of escalating steps from individual confrontation through congregational actions. How much stronger the church would be if we followed that pattern—less gossip, less sin, more love and tough brotherhood. The church would never shrug off sin. Correction hurts, but it’s necessary, as Paul explains in his parable of the dough, to keep sin from multiplying and infecting the whole congregation.

Sometimes a Christian’s behavior deteriorates to the point where disfellowship is called for. The overall picture of that process is fairly simple: treat that person as an unbeliever. Now, while the procedure is clear enough, putting it into practice correctly can be tough. Unless the person causes serious disruptions, he or she should be allowed to continue attending worship assemblies. A tougher question is exactly what Paul means when he admonishes the Corinthians not to eat with a sinning brother (5:11). Some take this to refer to the Lord’s Supper while others see it as fellowship meals or even social eating. Certainly there are times when a brother’s sin is so pervasive that we need to stay away from that person entirely so we don’t fall into it with him.

But here is where we need to make an important distinction. Whenever the church is forced to expel a sinning brother, it must be done with a right attitude. There is never a place in the church for attitudes of superiority and aloofness. Neither Paul nor Jesus Christ himself treated sinners in such a way. It’s terrible to see Christians delighting in others’ sin. I’m talking about those in the church who love to tell about their brothers’ and sisters’ failures. Gossiping apparently gives them something to talk about and makes them feel superior. But those kind of people are rejecting God’s love. As we’ll see in 1 Cor. 13:6, “Love...does not rejoice in wrongdoing.” What should our attitude be when a sinner falls? Look at what Paul says in 5:2. We should mourn! It ought to break our hearts when a fellow Christian sins. We ought to be full of sorry.

Why are our attitudes on this matter so important? For one thing, if a sinner goes to the point where he needs to be disfellowshipped, the whole congregation has failed [5]. Disfellowship is an action of last resort, and a whole series of steps would have to fail before the situation deteriorates to that point. In every case where a Christian falls, the whole church suffers. Throwing out a brother or sister shows that all of us have failed to provoke that Christian to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). For another thing, sin is not usually isolated in a church. As we’ll see, the Corinthian living with his father’s wife is not the only Christian committing sexual sin. Sinful action arises from a sinful attitude, and the whole church at Corinth needed an attitude adjustment. Hearts right with God and mature obedience to Christ are the goals of discipleship (Mt. 28:19, 20). And to have those kind of hearts it’s simply fundamental to realize our own weakness in the face of God’s holiness. God’s nature is to forgive and restore those who repent (Ex. 34:6-7). Let’s not forget that the goal of church discipline is not punishment, but repentance (see 2 Cor. 7).

Let’s also keep in mind that Paul’s words here on judgement are limited to behavior among Christians. We are never called to judge the behavior of those outside the church. In a letter before 1 Corinthians (0 Corinthians?) Paul had told the church at Corinth not to associate with immoral people. But he doesn’t mean the lost. He’s talking about so-called brothers who practice, on and on, the kinds of sins described in 1 Cor. 5:11—sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, swindling. Do any of those make you nervous? Notice that greed and bad-talking are right there with idolatry, sexual sin, and theft. Now why are Christians told to stay away from brothers who persist in their sins? For one thing, the sins may contaminate the church like yeast in dough. For another, there’s no help for a Christian who rejects the grace of God. The writer of Hebrews said,
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb 6:4-6)
Remember, it’s very easy to abuse the practice of disfellowshipping. Some of us here are familiar with such abuses. The church had better be very sure before it takes such a drastic step. But when the action is called for, we sin if we don’t do it.

Even so, Christians have to continue associating with sinners outside the church—even those whose sins we find especially bad. See the list in 1 Cor. 5:10? We have to do business with sexual sinners, greedy people, robbers, and idolaters. Those are precisely the kind of people Jesus sat down and ate with, and they’re the kind of people Jesus came to save. They’re the kind of people we need to invite into our assemblies and into our homes. I’m tired of hearing preachers and other Christians ranting and raving about how sinful the world is, as if they’re shocked by the latest sin reported on television. Complaining that the world is sinful is like complaining that afternoons are hot in the summer. That’s the way the world is.

Our task as Christians is not to expose gross sin in the world but in the church. That doesn’t mean we go on witch hunts on matters of opinion or performance. I went to school with a man whose wife was threatened with disfellowship because she wasn’t doing enough personal Bible studies in the evenings. Christians are not to judge one another’s’ performance or sincerity. We are not to judge the salvation of a brother who struggles with sin and falls, even if he falls over and over (Mt. 18:22). But when someone willfully, repeatedly, and shamelessly engages in behavior judged sinful in the Scriptures, he is already under judgement. The church simply needs to act.

As we’ll see tonight in our study of Psalm 58,. God takes sin and judgement seriously. God is holy and expects his people to be holy, too. The church is a holy nation, a royal priesthood (1 Pe. 2:9). Our task is not only to preach for convicting the world of sin, but to act as mediators between God and mankind. That’s why it’s critical for the church to always, always, always proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The cross is necessary because God takes sin seriously [6]. The cross is the place where Jesus paid the price for our sin. We didn’t pay it; Jesus did. In all this talk about the need for expelling evil, we need to keep something clear: Christians aren’t holy because we behave ourselves; we behave ourselves because we’ve been made holy. And the only way we’re made holy is by the blood of Jesus Christ.

That’s the glorious good news of salvation: Jesus Christ crucified. Because we all sin (Rom. 3:23), we fall short of God’s standard of holiness and glory, and we deserve only death. Yet God’s gift of grace through Jesus Christ is to all who really believe in Christ so that by faith we repent and take on Christ in baptism (Rom. 6:3-5, 23; Acts 2:38). Christ is our Passover lamb, sacrificed for our sins (1 Cor. 5:7). By living day by day in humility, by living lives of holiness and gratitude to the one who makes us holy, week keep the feast of joyful redemption. It’s a gift beyond measure. Let’s live like we believe it.


1. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed., online commentary at, p. 44.
2. Bob Deffinbaugh, “Church Discipline: Taking Sin Seriously (1 Cor. 5:1-13), online study at
3. See Deffinbaugh
4. See, for example, Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Deut. 22:30; Acts 15:20.
5. Deffinbaugh.
6. Ibid.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


Blogger Esther Lee Jewelry said...

Wow, thank you! That was so powerful and clear. I am blessed :)
Sister in Christ, Esther

12:00 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Glad to hear it. Thanks for letting me know. Peace.

1:49 PM  

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