1 Corinthians 5 is a short chapter. We see thirteen verses in which Paul addresses a very specific problem in the church at Corinth. He highlights the report he has received from Corinth: there is a man in the church who is involved, sexually, with his father’s wife. Now, to deal with a few issues: it is probably the man’s stepmother, as most evidence suggests female mortality was worse in that era (especially dealing with childbirth; there’s probably a historical medicine dissertation in researching if men’s second wives lived longer due to male infertility from age) and many older men had second wives. The rough Greek does just say that a “man has his father’s wife,” but polite society has always used euphemism for sexual discussion. Just think about how awkward it would be to sit across the table have me read you this paragraph, and you’ll realize we are still that way.
Paul spends very little time on the details of the man’s sin. He spends exactly zero words on how he knows of this sin. The bulk of the chapter is the corrective issued to the church about dealing with the man’s sin. And then that corrective is followed up with a clarification about something Paul had clearly spoken with the Corinthians about at a different time.
In short, this chapter is not about one man and his sin. It is not about a gossip session to talk about it.
It is about 1 Corinthians 5:13: “Purge the evil person from among you.” The point is buried here at the end of the explanation. On the way, though, Paul places several guideposts about getting to the point.
The first is that the church should never be proud of sin carried on inside of it. Instead, they should have mourned.
The second is that there is a place for judgment, and blatant immorality is one of those places. Not just because of what people might think but because of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The third is that the Corinthians had missed the point entirely of what Paul had said about associating with the immoral. It applied to those who brought immorality into the church, not those who were outside.
Therefore, he points out: expel, remove, purge the immorality from within the church. It cannot be allowed to remain.
Practically, then, how do we do this?
First, pay attention to what you highlight as a church. A church is a place for sinners to gather, grow, and give glory to their Savior. Not their sin. If your church is more about how bad you were, are, and evermore shall be than about how great God is, was, and evermore shall be, then it’s not a church. It’s a brag society for sin. Keep the focus on Christ. Be proud that God has given you grace no matter where you started but never proud that wickedness remains.
Second, when you are aware of blatant immorality in the church, deal with it. This should be obvious—but we slack on it at times. We make excuses for wandering eyes or distant hearts. I think there is an honest fear of hypocrisy and of showing less grace than we ought to, but enough is enough. And leaders should be held to the highest standards. When there are clear examples of unrepentant sin in the church, then the church must separate itself from the sinner.
Side note: stick to things that are clearly sinful. Like sleeping with your stepmother or abusing children or robbing banks. This is not a disposal point for people who disagree with their pastor. Lots of people have moments they don’t like me as their pastor. It’s not automatically sinful. Sometimes it’s smart and sometimes it’s preference.
Third, recognize that our commission to go into all the world does not exclude us from encountering and interacting with immoral people. In fact, it should be just the opposite. Christians should be found in all sorts of immoral places as carriers of the light. Now, don’t be stupid. Don’t send the men’s group to the strip club, don’t send the addiction recover group to the bars. Send those who can go without being judgmental jerks into those places, but not those who are more likely to fall than to lift up.
Remember that dead smells like death, and spiritually dead smells like spiritual death. Our job is carry the message of the Cross and the Empty Tomb so that God can bring life. If all we do is go to the places that are pretty and well-lit, then we leave a lot of death untouched. We should be more willing to judge sin inside the church than outside.
And yes, that includes in our culture. Churches filled with idolaters ought not urge boycotts of secular companies or issue edicts against lying, cheating politicians. If we are dealing with our own sensualities and lying and cheating, we will be a witness to the world.
Does that mean we should buy whatever and vote whoever? No. But don’t demand Hollywood act Christian. Just don’t buy their stuff. You don’t have to make a big deal of it, just let it go…and, seriously, we have to break the two-party stranglehold just to give alternatives that are neither R nor D when both are misbehaving.
We’re already long, so for nerd’s sake, here we go: look again at v. 13. Think about this: our response to the wicked in the world is actually to help them not face the judgment of God that Paul speaks of. God has given us the mission of proclaiming that Jesus took that penalty and they don’t have to.