Sex and Wealth in 1 Corinthians 5

Paul states the sin in the church at Corinth is so bad even the Romans would consider it wrong. (See this post on Corinth as “Sin City”.) Why is the immoral man committing a sin like this? Most scholars think money is the main issue. Perhaps the wife was from a wealthy and prestigious family and she is trying to divorce his father. The younger man is attempting to keep any money or property in the family as long as possible.

A second more remote possibility is the man is exercising his freedom in Christ. It appears some early Christians believed they were free from the Law, so in order to demonstrate that freedom, they “sinned that grace may abound.” It is possible the young man was trying to prove his freedom from the Law by breaking a very strong taboo and engaging in an ongoing affair with this step-mother.

Carol and GregSo why has the man not been arrested and charged with the crime everyone seems to know about? In order to prosecute, the husband would have to sue for divorce. If this was an arranged marriage between wealthy families, there would have been complications in setting the marriage aside.

Bruce Winter points out only the husband has the right to prosecute in this case. There is a sixty-day period for him to do this after which someone else could potentially bring charges. Perhaps the exclusive period has not expired when Paul is writing, or maybe there is no one that is “wronged” by the relationship and it is being passed over because of the man’s position and power.

Additionally, if the husband was not a believer the church didn’t have any sway with him to get him to press charges and exile his son. Because the penalty included loss of property, perhaps the man was not willing to prosecute and possibly forfeit some of his own property.

If this suggestion is correct, then there are two strands of culture that the church is struggling with, the sexual sin and the favoring of the rich in the courts. Paul wants to deal with the sinful man within the church itself rather than dragging this ugly situation into the public courts. This has the potential to create an unfortunate principle that Christians who have grave sins ought to be tried in an church-court and not by the government, making it possible for some crimes to be covered up by the church. But this was not Paul’s intent at all! Ironically he is not trying to cover up the sin but deal with it in a public and open way.

How does this idea of dealing with sin “in house” work in a contemporary context? I am not advocating ecclesiastical courts nor should people who have broken the “law of the land” find refuge in the church.But there is a need for local churches to deal with some issues like a family. But this has caused huge problems when a church tries to cover up a legal and moral issue by dealing with it “in house.” (I am thinking of sex-abuse by church staff or priest, etc.) Based on his reaction to the young man in an incestuous relationship here in 1 Corinthians 5, I am certain Paul would have dealt with a pastor who is a sexual predator harshly. “Hand him over to Satan” may very well refer to handing his man to the civil authorities and let him face the full penalty of the law. In a modern context, no church should be sheltering a sexual predator; they ought to be handed over to the state and prosecuted as sex crimes.

But for issues like petty insults and personal disagreements, Paul does not want these brought to the law courts. If your brother in Christ gossips about you and harms your reputation, you should not sue him for slander. Deal with that kind of an issue inside the church.

How do we draw appropriate application between the first century and the twenty-first century with respect to church discipline? Does the modern church offer more grace and mercy to the wealthy members of the community and treat the poor harshly? In many cases, the modern church is quite like the Corinth of the first century.

Drive Out the Sinner! 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Paul’s solution is simple to the problem the young man having an incestuous affair with his step mother: expel/purge the sinful man from the congregation (5:4-5). As far as Paul is concerned, the man already stands condemned. Don Garland points out the perfect tense verb (κέκρικα) implies Paul has already made a judgment and his decision still stands when they read this letter (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 157). Does the verb imply Paul already told them to expel the man and they were resisting this decision?

Love the SinnerPaul alludes to Deuteronomy 22:24 in his command to “purge the man from your midst.” Purge (Heb. בער, LXX ἐξαίρω) refers to driving something away, usually some sort of evil or sin (it is used in Deuteronomy nine times and in Isa 30:22 for “driving away” idols). Exodus 22:4 uses the same Hebrew word for driving someone’s animal from your vineyard and in 2 Chronicles 19:3 it refers to getting rid of idols before seeking God. Paul has the same idea in mind here: “exclude the man from the church.”

This is an example of church discipline, since the church is to gather to expel the young man from the church. But the way Paul describes this discipline is shocking: “hand the man over to Satan.” Since is the prince of this world, to hand someone over to Satan means “outside of the church.” Does this simply mean “kick him out of the church”” Or is Paul “revoking his salvation? The purpose cannot be a loss of salvation since the point of handing him over to Satan is remedial: that his soul might be saved on the day of the Lord.

But Paul also uses Passover language in this chapter. If someone was kicked out of the house during the first Passover, they would not be “under the blood of the Lamb” and therefore in danger from the Destroyer. If the immoral man is kicked out of the church (a family), he will be in the world without the protection of the blood of the Lamb, Jesus.

By becoming a Christian the young man already was on the “fringes of society as a religious misfit” (Garland, 1 Corinthians). If he were then expelled from the Christian community, it might be impossible for him to return to the pagan world he rejected. As Garland puts it, “expelled Christians in this era could find themselves in social limbo—neither fish nor fowl.”

The goal of this action is “the destruction of his flesh.” The Pauline use of σάρξ (sarx) is quite regular and usually means the sinful nature, although it is possible to use the word for physical body. It is possible Paul has in mind physical death, that the immoral man would suffer from a physical illness leading to his death. Garland examines this argument and ultimately rejects it. But there is some precedence for a sinner “being struck dead.” Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). Later in 1 Corinthians Paul says some members of the congregation have died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30).

The noun ὄλεθρος does refer to physical death in the Septuagint (Exod 12:23; Josh 3:10; 7:25; Jer 2:30). In 1 Corinthians 10:10 Paul uses a related word ὀλοθρευτής, the Destroyer, a destroying angel who renders God’s judgment in the wilderness. More importantly is the use of the word in Exodus 12:23, the angel who destroyed the Egyptians at the first Passover. It would not be surprising for a Second Temple period Jewish thinker like Paul to see the man as sent into a demon-haunted world where he will suffer terrible things.

love-the-sinner

Others think Paul is talking about some sort of penance for his sin. The individual will be handed over to Satan for physical torment that will result in his repentance and a rejection of the particular offense. This remedial punishment may have in mind Job 2, where God hands Job over to Satan for a period of time (although I would disagree Job must suffer some some kind of purgatory like suffering because of his sin).

Whatever the phrase means, the point is the same: the man committing this sin must be expelled from the congregation by the whole congregation, for the good of the congregation.

Here is the real problem: is this a principle for dealing with church discipline, and if so, how do we apply that principle to contemporary church practice? This does not seem like a “love the sinner, hate the sin” situation. The sin Paul is dealing with is extreme and will destabilize the Christian community to the extent the sinner must be expelled.