Text: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13
Title: Church Discipline---Lessons from a First Century Church
Theme: Because the church is God's chosen community, therefore we must be courageous to remove sins from us.
The Christian churches are not in a good condition. No matter where we go, whether it is in US, HK, Taiwan or China, we hear of Christian leaders who have left their wives, run off with the secretary or another person, fallen into homosexual lifestyle, or face some kind of moral crisis in their churches. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians can be renamed as 1 and 2 Anycity: 1 and 2 Houstonians, or Californians or New York .
The passage before us is seldom studied and preached in many churches. In some church lectionary, this entire passage is being neglected. Even though it is a difficult passage to teach, preach and apply, its message is still important and relevant to us today.
Due to the nature of this passage, I will approach this chapter from a different perspective. I will first explain what happened in the Corinth church 2K years ago. From what happened at Corinth , we want to identify several principles that can be applied to churches across space and time. We want to learn the truth that because the church is God's chosen community, therefore we must be courageous to remove sins from us.
I. The Problem and Solution at the Corinthian church.
Vs.1,2 provides us with a summary of the situation, “ 1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 1 聽說你們中間竟然有淫亂的事 ， 這樣的淫亂在教外人中間都沒有 ， 就是有人和他的繼母同居。 2 你們還是自高自大！難道你們不該覺得痛心，把作這件事的人從你們中間趕出去嗎？ ” Paul was shocked at how the Corinthian church had tolerated sexual immorality among them. S exual immorality is an inclusive word describing all pre-marital, extra-marital and unnatural sexual behaviors (i.e. homosexual behavior). The specific behavior Paul referred to was that one person had married or was living with his stepmother. This behavior was clearly prohibited by the Jewish laws (Lev18:8, Deut 22:30). Moreover, even in the very licentious Roman society, this was considered outrageous and was against the Roman law. A person could be banished from the Roman colony because of such an act.
The man in this case appears to be a well-known person in the congregation. There is no mention of the woman, thus suggesting that she may not be a member of the church. vs. 2 can mean that the Corinth Church took pride in their Christian liberty, boasting of the presence of such a person among them. However, a different interpretation may center on this person who occupied a position of importance in this church. No matter what, it is evident that there is no sign of repentance and the church took no action against such sin nor did they mourn over it. And this is what shocked Paul.
In this chapter, Paul, in his absence, instructed the Corinthian church to exercise church discipline by removing him from their fellowship. Vs.2b-5, “ Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 難道你們不該覺得痛心 ， 把作這件事的人從你們中間趕出去嗎 ？ 3 我身體雖然不在你們那裡，心靈卻與你們在一起，好像我親身在那裡審判了作這件事的人， 4 就是當你們奉我們主耶穌的名聚集在一起，我的靈在那裡，我們主耶穌的權能也同在的時候， 5 要把這樣的人交給撒但，敗壞他的身體，使他的靈魂在主的日子可以得救。 ” Biblical scholars in general agree “ 交給撒但，敗壞他的身體，使他的靈魂在主的日子可以得救 ” means by removing him from the church, where there is life, so that he can learn to put to death his flesh, his sinful nature, in order that he may repent and his relationship with God be restored. The ultimate purpose of church discipline is not to punish the person but to restore his relationship with God.
Paul then went on to explain the need for church discipline. Vs.6-8, “ 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 你們這樣自誇是不好的。你們不知道一點麵酵能使全團麵發起來嗎？ 7 你們既是無酵的麵，就應當把舊酵除淨，好讓你們成為新的麵團；因為我們逾越節的羊羔基督已經被殺獻祭了。 8 所以我們守這節，不可用舊酵，也不可用又邪又惡的酵，而是要用純潔真實的無酵餅。 ” This is the Passover imagery. Unleavened bread symbolizes purity. When yeast, representing sin, is present, it will affect the whole bread. Therefore it is important to use unleavened bread. The Passover lamb symbolizes Christ covering our sins. This imagery enforces the picture of purity of God's people. Paul says since the church belongs to God; it is a holy nation, therefore they must rid of sins among them.
In vs.9-11, “ 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 我以前寫信告訴你們 ， 不可與淫亂的人來往。 10 這話當然不是指這世上行淫亂的、貪心的、勒索的，或拜偶像的人；如果是這樣，你們就非脫離這世界不可。 11 但現在我寫信告訴你們，如果有稱為弟兄，卻是行淫亂、貪心、拜偶像、辱罵人、醉酒或勒索的，這樣的人，不可和他來往，連和他吃飯都不可。 ” Here Paul is trying to clarify a misunderstanding. Church discipline means the members are not to associate with the person who has been removed from the fellowship so that he may feel the pain and the need for repentance. The believers are to continue to associate and befriend the non-believers, those who are “ 淫亂的、貪心的、勒索的 ， 或拜偶像的人 ..”. The church is for sinners who come to seek forgiveness and restore relationship with God.
Then lastly, 12-13, “ 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you 12 審判教外的人 ， 跟我有甚麼關係 ？ 教內的人不是你們審判的嗎 ？ 13 至於教外的人， 神會審判他們。你們要把那惡人從你們中間趕出 去。 ”. The church’s primary responsibility is to ensure the purity of the body of Christ. The church has not been given the responsibility to judge the world.
From a brief treatment of this passage, we want to see what are some lessons we can learn from the Corinthian church.
1 The church is a very special community which belongs to God.
The words “ Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 把作這件事的人從你們中間趕出去嗎 ” appear two times. It is a quote from Deuteronomy 22. In the OT context, the Israelites are God's children, they belong to God and they are a holy nation. Because of this identity, they are to live in a certain way that distinguishes them from the surrounding nations. Because God is holy, therefore they are to be holy.
The same is with the Christian church. This is a community that belongs to God. God has redeemed and called us to be his own. We are his holy nation and therefore we are to be different from the world around us. This means that this and other churches are to have clear moral convictions of right and wrong. Today’s churches don’t do too well on this, right? Look at how some churches ordained individuals who openly live a homosexual life-style into positions of leadership. For many years, the Christian churches were silent on the issue of abortion. Very often we also look at divorce as a way out of a bad relationship. If polls are accurate, there is little distinction between the church and the society. The church has become secularized.
Instead, the scripture reminds us that we are God's redeemed people. Therefore it is imperative that we are to have a clear conviction of right and wrong.
2 The Christian church has the responsibility to administer church discipline.
We learn from Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church the need for church discipline. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gave very specific instruction on the process of discipline. If a brother has sinned, then someone is to point out his sin in private. If the person refused to listen and repent, then additional people are needed to talk to him. And if there is still no repentance, then he has to be brought to the church. And if even so, there is still no repentance, then he would be removed from the fellowship. The Corinthian church is apparently at the last stage. When we see individuals refusing to repent resulting in church discipline, it is a very painful process.
I think of a pastor in China telling me how he and the church leaders approached a brother who was living a homosexual life-style. They pleaded with him to repent but to no avail. In the end, they had to ask him to leave the church.
However, in this passage, we are also reminded that sexual immorality is not the only sin that requires discipline. Let’s take a look at other sins Paul mentioned. “ sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 淫亂、貪心、拜偶像、辱罵人、醉酒或勒索的 ， 這樣的人 ， 不可和他來往 .. ” First, greed. It is grasping more and more, being totally dissatisfied with what we already have. There was an incident in Martin Luther’s ministry. Luther threatened to excommunicate a man who intended to sell a house for 400 gulden, which he had purchased for 30. Luther suggested 150 as a reasonable prince. Inflation in this period had sent prices up, but the profit this man intended to acquire was exorbitant. Luther suggested that this is a sin to be disciplined.
Secondly, slanderer. Literally it means a person who abuses with words. It has a particular reference to leadership. It reveals a deeply-seated rebelliousness against all authority. I think of a church where a long time member was constantly bursting out his temper. He often loudly used abusive words to berate the deacons and members of that church. Several years ago, a new pastor came. After praying and discussing with the Deacons’ board, they decided to confront this brother with his sins. They talked to him individually and then with two other deacons. He still would not repent and insisted he did nothing wrong. Finally the church exercised discipline and asked him to leave. It is a very difficult thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.
Thirdly, those who are regularly guilty of being drunk need to be disciplined. The scripture treats this in the same manner as sexual immorality.
The other example of sin that calls for church discipline is violence. This is rampant in today’s society. There is violence in the classroom, in the mother’s womb in the form of abortion, there is also violence towards the elderly and the terminally ill. The church is to be freed of such sins. As God's children we are to be distinguished in all these areas.
Again, what is the purpose of discipline? So the person who sinned will repent and restore his relationship with God.
3. The Christian church is a community where sinners come to seek God.
Having instructed the Corinth church the need for discipline, Paul also further explained the church’s relationship to the society. He is not advocating that the Christians are to live away from the world with all its sinners. On the contrary, the church lives in the midst of sinners. The church is a place where sinners come to repent of their sins, seek God and forgiveness. This is how Jesus prayed for the church in John 17:15-18, “ 15 "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one." 16 "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world." 17 "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." 18 " As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 15 我不求你使他們離開世界，只求你保守他們脫離那惡者。 16 他們不屬於這世界，像我不屬於這世界一樣。 17 求你用真理使他們成聖；你的道就是真理。 18 你怎樣差我到世上來，我也怎樣差他們到世上去。 " As St. Augustine said, the church is like a hospital. We are all sick and have come to the great Physician, our Lord Jesus Christ to repent of our sins, to receive forgiveness and healing.
4. The Christian church is a community that impacts the world via holy living.
Vs 12-13 provides us with very helpful insight regarding the church’s role in the society. Paul is saying that the church need to take care of its own business, meaning the church’s primary responsibility is to make sure we conduct ourselves in a way that is worthy of our status. We belong to God, we are his chosen and holy people, therefore our conduct is to reflect this. Isn’t it true that in this day and age, the church has its priority all mixed up? We find the church judging the world and close our eyes to what is occurring among us. We point our fingers at the world, yet ignoring the sexual immorality, greed, drunkenness, abuse and rebellious attitude among us. The scripture says let God judge the world. The church’s primary responsibility is to reflect the holiness, purity of the God that we belong to. As we reflect God in our lives, this is how we also become the salt and the light in the world we live. Recent history has taught us that when the church attempts to influence the world through political and legislative power, it is a dismal failure. Instead, by being holy and pure, we are to shine brightly in a dark world.
I think about the issue of abortion. As we know, China has a one child policy. So what do the Christians do when they are pregnant with the second child? If the government knows about this, there will be forced abortion. This is what a pastor shared with me. When a person is pregnant with a second child, the church members will hide her until the child is born. After birth, then the church family will help the couple pay the heavy fine. By upholding God's standards, the church becomes the salt and light in the world.
To understand church discipline, we are to understand the nature of the local church. It is a group of God's redeemed children. We belong to him, therefore we are to live in such a way that will reflect his love, faithfulness and holiness. When we tolerate sins among us, it will break our relationship with him and bring shame to his name. So, what is the purpose of church discipline? It is to help the sinner to repent of his sins and restore his relationship with God. At the same time, through church discipline, we are to keep the church holy as God is holy. Under all circumstances, church discipline is carried out with great love for the individual.
Do we know what happened to the person who was removed from the Corinthian church? Not really. However, in 2 Corinthians 2:5, Paul did mention a brother who was punished for his sin and had demonstrated repentance. Paul asked the church to reach out to him, to love and forgive him. There was no clear evidence this was the same person.
Several years ago, I read in a letter to the editors of Christianity Today. The author of this letter wrote about how he was disciplined for certain sins in his life over 20 years ago. At first he was angry and bitter about the action the church took. But now, he appreciated the church taking a stand, through this disciplinary action, the relationship with God was restored.
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