The Necessity of Church Discipline. 1 Cor. 5, 1—13.

A case of incest: V. 1. It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. V. 2. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. The apostle here opens a new section of his letter, in which he treats of some questions of social morals. The matter of party strife in Corinth had been reported to him by certain witnesses, but the monstrous case of which he now briefly treats is notorious, is a common scandal, is being bandied about wherever the name of Corinth is mentioned: Actually, fornication is heard of among you. It was not a question of vague report, but it was a confirmed, undoubted fact, generally, everywhere spoken of and recounted with horror. For it was a form of fornication, of sexual impurity, which was unknown even among the Gentiles, namely, that a man should have his stepmother as his wife. Cp. Deut. 22, 30. This was a degree of relationship which was prohibited everywhere, even the heathen respecting the reverence due to the wife of the father, aside from all laws of nature. But the guilty member of the Corinthian congregation, like so many carnal Christians since his days, probably thought that Christian liberty consisted in doing as he pleased and thus changed liberty into license. That was the situation, that was the abomination of foulness found in the midst of the Corinthian congregation. It causes the apostle to ask: And you are puffed up ? Under these circumstances it is still possible for some of your members to brag and boast and to act as though you were beyond instruction ? With one accord they should have humiliated themselves on account of this unheard-of scandal, instead of fostering party spirit. And not rather have you mourned, broken out in grief, with the result that he who perpetrated this deed should be removed from your midst? They were so busily engaged with their imaginary intellectual brilliance, with their false religious enthusiasm, that they took no time to investigate the injury which was being done to their congregation by this standing offense of their fellow-member. They probably shrugged their shoulders and decided to ignore the disagreeable matter, believing, with many Christians of our days, that the matter was really not of much consequence; they did not consider the incest in their midst an insult to the Church of Christ, a desecration of the temple of God. It was an unfortunate incident, but entirely the man's own business! Paul, however, impresses upon them the consciousness of responsibility, that they cannot permit such a defilement to go on; they must be stirred up to action. For the sinner must either discontinue his public scandal, or he must be put out of their midst; he can no longer be considered a member of the congregation. Note: The matter of church discipline is sadly neglected in many parts of the Church. But congregations and individual members must never forget: If love for their neighbor's immortal soul will not induce them to make all efforts in his behalf, even to expulsion from their midst, then the reverence for the name which they bear, and which they dare not dishonor with impunity, should influence them seriously to take up the matter of proper church discipline.

The apostle's sentence: V. 3. For I verily, as absent in. body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath, so done this deed, v. 4. in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, v. 5. to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. The case was so clear that Paul, on his part, had reached a decision. The Corinthian Christians were present in the midst of the scandal every day and seemed to experience no inconvenience, whereas the apostle, although not present according to the body, but only in spirit, even so writhed under the insult which had been inflicted upon the Church of God by this flagrant trespass. And so there was only one sentence to be given: I have already passed judgment, as though I were present, upon him that in this manner has perpetrated this. Note how the apostle emphasizes the flagrancy, the heinousness, of the offense. It was a case in which long negotiations and discussions were superfluous; it concerned a sin which both Greek and Roman law stamped as infamy, which represented the height of unnatural vice. And here, under these conditions, a man flouted his infamy in the sight of the entire congregation. Only one decision was possible under the circumstances. The energetic and prompt conduct on the part of the absent apostle forms a contrast all the more striking over against the slackness of those among whom the shameful scandal had occurred.

The apostle now delivers his sentence: to deliver the man of this kind to Satan for destruction of his flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. But he also shows in what way the sentence is to be spoken: In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you have assembled for a formal meeting, and my spirit, together with the power of the Lord Jesus. The Corinthian Christians were, then, to call a meeting of the brethren, and in this meeting, under the directing influence of Paul's spirit, his mind in the matter now being known, they were to pronounce sentence. And this was to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, in whom alone every church act has validity; the sin being an offense against His holy name, judgment must be passed as coming from Him. And it must be uttered with the power of our Lord Jesus, with that peculiar church power with which every Christian congregation is vested, that of retaining the sins of the impenitent sinners, as long as they do not repent. Through His power also the content of the appalling sentence could be carried out. The offender was to be delivered to Satan, by formal resolution deprived of his relationship to the Lord of light and thrust out into the kingdom of darkness, where the god of this world has jurisdiction, 2 Cor. 4, 4; Eph. 2, 2; 6, 12; Col. 1, 13. For the destruction of the flesh the incestuous person was to be delivered. By indulging in such a heinous sin, the offender had yielded his body to the power of Satan. And Satan, through the effects of sin, perhaps of this very transgression, would destroy the body, would afflict it with diseases peculiar to such an unnatural vice and voluptuous behavior. And thus the exalted Lord would use the devil himself as His instrument, in order to work in the mind of the transgressor a fear and horror of his sin and its consequences, that eventually the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. By means of the punishment which Satan carries out as a righteous judgment, the Lord hopes to effect a cure for the man and thus to snatch his soul like a brand from the burning. Satan has nothing but the everlasting destruction of both soul and body of the sinner in mind, but the Lord, merciful even when the decrees of His holiness must be carried out, plans to use the punishment as a means to call the sinner to repentance. In this way many a sinner, upon whom the sentence of excommunication had to be pronounced, may, according to the gracious intention of the Lord, have come to the realization of his transgression through the effects and consequences of his sin, and, like the thief on the cross, turned to his Savior even in the last hour. On the great day of the Lord, when the salvation or perdition of every human being will be pronounced, many a person may thus be placed on the right hand of the Lord, because the gracious intention of the Lord was realized in this manner. Note: A Christian congregation must always be mindful of the fact that the purpose of excommunication is not the destruction, but the salvation of the soul.

The general need of purification in the Christian congregations: V. 6. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? V. 7. Purge out, therefore, the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us; v. 8. therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. This case of the incestuous person was not the only matter which was wrong in the congregation at Corinth. It was true, in general, that their vaunt, that in which they made their boast, was not good, not of an acceptable quality. Among the members at Corinth there were many who led anything but model, pure lives, for which reason all vaunting and boasting on their part should have been omitted. That their boasting was no credit to them, and that the corruption which was to be found in their midst should rather have caused the deepest humility among them, Paul proceeds to illustrate by a familiar comparison, by a proverbial saying: A little leaven leavens the entire mass, the whole kneading. A sin of this kind tainted the entire community. Just as the individual Christian cannot tolerate any sin, even the smallest, without corrupting his entire nature, just so an entire congregation will suffer the consequences if it permits so much as one of its members to continue in an open and flagrant offense. "And herein this is the worst feature, that such corruption gains ground so powerfully and maintains its position so stubbornly that it cannot be eradicated again; just as the leaven, no matter how little is added to the dough, eats through it, so that everything is soon sour and no one can hinder it from becoming so, or make it sweet again."33)

For this reason Paul gives the advice: Clean out thoroughly the old leaven. He reminds his readers of the preparations for the ancient celebration of the Passover Festival. The removal of the leaven, Ex. 12, 18. 19, was done on the 13th or at the very latest on the morning of the 14th Nisan, and carried out with the most minute care. All the places in the house where bread was kept or where crumbs might have fallen were searched with lighted tapers, and all the dark corners scraped out carefully, lest any leaven remain to spoil the festival for the family. In just the same way the Corinthians must put from their midst the incestuous person and remove all open offenses. And even so the Christians of all times clean out the old leaven of sin by daily contrition and repentance in themselves and insist upon the application of the power to bind in case of notorious transgressions in church-members. And the object of such purging, according to God's will, shall be: That you may be a new mass, just as you are unleavened. If a Christian uses care to keep down his own old Adam, and does all in his power to maintain the purity of the Christian congregation, then the will of God is realized in the gradual production of a hallowed mass, from which all evil ferment is removed, which is governed by the Spirit of God only. And the ability to accomplish so much is based upon God's gift of grace, the fact that all Christians are looked upon as unleavened, clean, and pure for the sake of Christ's atonement, John 15, 3. "The apostle commands the old leaven to be swept out, and gives this reason: For you are a new mass and unleavened. To be a new or sweet mass he calls having the faith which clings to Christ and believes that it has forgiveness of sins through Him; as he shortly afterwards will say of Christ, our Passover, sacrificed for us, etc. Through the same faith we are cleansed of the old leaven, that is, from sins and an evil conscience, and have now begun to be new men. . . . Behold, that is one thing which this text teaches us, that also in the saints there yet remains weakness and much that is unclean and sinful, which is to be cleaned out, and yet is not imputed to them, since they are in Christ and purge out such leaven." 34) That the Christians are considered clean and pure before God through the merits of Christ, and should therefore endeavor to maintain this purity and keep their garments unspotted, is all based upon one fact: For our Passover also, Christ, is sacrificed for us. To people familiar with the customs of the Jewish festival the very suggestion must arouse their attention: The Passover lamb slain, and the leaven not yet cast out! It was intended to make them eager for all progress in Sanctification, and in every form, since all Christians are partakers of this wonderful gift. Christ is the true Passover Lamb, and all the festival lambs of the Old Testament were but types, pointing forward to the great fulfillment, Is. 53. Christ was sacrificed, slain, as a lamb that bore the sins of the world. So great and terrible are the sins of the world that the great, serious, and terrible wrath of God because of sins, as Luther says, could not stop short of carrying out the decree of death in the case of the Substitute of all men. God spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all. Thus Christ truly became our Passover; for His sake, for the blood which He shed, and which has been painted on the portals of our hearts, the angel of destruction passes by the believers, so that the plague of everlasting damnation cannot come nigh our dwelling.

All conditions being fulfilled in this manner: Let us, therefore, keep the feast, let us celebrate the festival meal and continue in the enjoyment of its blessings. And since, as Luther writes, we Christians have Easter always, since our Passover Lamb lasts forever, therefore the work of Sanctification which was begun in us in regeneration should continue throughout our lives; a consecrated life naturally follows from the intimate union between Christ and the believers. This the apostle explains: Not in the old leaven, neither in the leaven of badness and meanness, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. The old leaven, everything that savors of the old sinful nature, has been purged out, it shall never again assume the rule in the hearts of the believers. And two specific manifestations of this old Adam are mentioned: the leaven of badness, of malice, of every trespass by which harm is inflicted upon our neighbor; and the leaven of meanness, of wickedness, whose object is to seduce men from the proper understanding of the Word and to work every manner of offense. To this vicious disposition and the active exercise of it is opposed the keeping of the feast in the unleavened bread of purity and truth, a proper inward disposition that knows no guile, with which also accords a person's entire outward life, "that we both keep the pure doctrine of the Gospel and also with a holy life and example comport ourselves accordingly, and thus continually live properly, as on an eternal Easter festival, . . . wherein we, as new men in the faith of Christ, live and continue righteous, holy, and pure, in peace and joy of the Holy Ghost, as long as we are here on earth." 35)

Explaining a misunderstood term: V. 9. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators; v. 10. yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. V. 11. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, with such an one no not to eat. V. 12. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? V. 13. But them, that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. Paul had some time before written the Corinthians a letter which is lost, probably having been destroyed immediately for some reason. In that epistle he had used a term which had been understood falsely: Not to become intimate with fornicators. The Corinthian Christians had interpreted the word in a most rigid sense, namely, that they were bidden under no circumstances, not even in business and in the performance of their duties as citizens, to have intercourse with any persons that were addicted to immoral habits. The word which Paul had used literally means "to mix oneself up with," and he now interprets it for them: I did not altogether forbid your holding intercourse with the fornicators of this world or with the avaricious, robbers, or idolaters. If they had the intention of shutting themselves entirely away from all men that were guilty of these sins, even in the course of their ordinary business life, then the inevitable result would be that they must get out of the world. It was impossible to pursue any avocation at Corinth, without coming into daily contact with immoral, rapacious, idolatrous people. Paul was very well aware of this inevitable intercourse; he was far from suggesting or approving the life of anchorites, hermits, and monks. But now, in the present epistle, he is couching his admonitions in such language that his meaning is unmistakable. If any one was still in doubt as to the interpretation of the former letter, it would be impossible to mistake his meaning now: If any one calling himself a brother, professing to be a member of the Christian congregation, enrolled as one of their own number, is a fornicator, or avaricious, or an idolater, or a reviler, an abuser of others, or a drunkard, with such a one you should not even eat. Paul gives only a few examples of flagrant, heinous offenses, which obviously make a person unworthy of belonging to the communion of the Christian brethren. Business transactions a Christian may have with such persons, but to enter into friendly relations of social intimacy with them, to hold fraternal, friendly commerce with men of this stamp, such conduct will never agree with the Christian profession. So far as the unbelievers are concerned, the Christian congregation has no jurisdiction over them: What business have I to judge those that are without? We Christians know indeed that the unbelievers and gross sinners are under the condemnation of God, and circumstances often arise that we inform them to that effect, but the apostle here speaks of communion, of social intimacy within the congregation, of Christian fellowship. Since unbelievers are not members of the Christian congregation, the jurisdiction of the congregation does not extend to them. Do not you judge those that are within, while those without God judges? As the Judge of the world, God is taking care of the sentence of those without, of the unbelievers. So far as the congregation at Corinth is concerned, they should remove the wicked man from their midst, expel him from their communion, and thus preserve the purity of their membership in Christ. The formal expulsion of the malignant sinner must proceed from the congregation as a self-governing body. Note: The necessity of church discipline is here maintained and must be upheld if the Christian congregation is to fulfill its destiny and purpose.

Summary. Paul earnestly reproves the Corinthians for their neglect to discipline an incestuous person in their midst, warns them to purge out the old leaven, and corrects a misunderstanding as to social intimacy with flagrant transgressors of the Decalog, whose expulsion from the congregation he demands.