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 attempts to keep any money or property in the family as long as possible.
A second, more remote possibility is that 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.
So 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 no one 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 over 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: 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 a 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 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 sexual abuse by church staff or priests, 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 letting him face the full penalty of the law. In a modern context, no church should be sheltering a sexual predator; they should 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 applications 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.