On Sunday afternoons I’ve been leading a communicants class for some people who want to become full communicant members of the church. And in the first lesson we spent our time thinking about the church. And in the course of the class, I taught them about the four attributes of the church and the three marks of a true church.
What are they? Well, the four attributes of the church are that the church is one, holy, universal and apostolic. So, there’s only one church and believers are united together under Christ. The church is holy because we’re washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit is at work in us to make us more and more obedient. The church is universal in that it is no longer confined to one nation as it was in the days of the Old Testament, but is found everywhere. The church is apostolic because it’s built on the foundation of what the apostles taught about Jesus Christ. Interestingly, each of those four attributes are found in the opening of 1 Corinthians, because in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul appealed to his readers in Corinth to be united. He also described his readers as those who are ‘sanctified [or made holy] in in Christ Jesus’ He addressed his letter not only to the believers in Corinth but to ‘all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’. And then he went on to refer to what he — an apostle — used to teach. So, those are the four attributes of the church.
We then have the three marks of a true church. So, how can you tell whether a particular groups of believers who meet together and call themselves a church are actually part of the one, holy, universal and apostolic church? How can you tell that what’s a real church, or a genuine church? This was important at the time of the Reformation, because the Reformers had to demonstrate to those who opposed the Reformation that the reformed churches were true churches and were part of the one, holy, universal and apostolic church. And it’s still important today, because if one of our members leaves Belfast to go to university, for instance, or to find work, they’ll need to find another church to attend. So, what should they be looking for? Some people look for a church with a praise band and modern music. Some people look for a church with lots of organisations and midweek activities. Some people look for a church with people like themselves. And there are a host of other things which people look for. But those are not the things which the Reformers thought were important. They said that, according to the Bible, we should be looking for three things: the pure preaching of God’s word; the proper administration of the sacraments; and the exercise of church discipline. Wherever God’s word is preached, and wherever baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered according to God’s word, and wherever there is church discipline, there you have a true church. Those things are essential, because by means of the reading and preaching of God’s word, Christ gathers his church. And by means of the reading and preaching of his word and by means of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Christ builds up his people in faith and love. And by means of church discipline, Christ keeps his church pure.
Interestingly, those three marks are also found in 1 Corinthians. So, in chapters 1 to 4, Paul was dealing, among other things, with the first mark: with the preaching of God’s word. Later, in chapter 11, he’ll deal with the second mark and the proper administration of the sacraments. And in today’s passage — 1 Corinthians chapter 5 — he deals with the third mark: church discipline. There was a member of the church in Corinth who was doing something which none of God’s people should do; and in this chapter Paul was writing to the congregation to teach them about the duty they had as a congregation to discipline this man.
Verses 1 and 2
So, then, let’s look at this passage. In verse 1 Paul describes what this person was doing. It was reported to Paul that there was sexual immorality among the members of the church. The word Paul uses which is translated as ‘sexual immorality’ refers to all kinds of forbidden sexual intercourse. The Bible, of course, forbids all sexual relations apart from those between a husband and his wife. And so, God in his word teaches his people to uphold and to preserve the sanctify of marriage. However, those outside the church take a very different view to these things: that’s the case today; and that was also the case in Paul’s day and in first-century Roman society. Historians tells us that there was a very relaxed attitude towards sex in Roman society at that time and lots of practices which are forbidden by God’s law were tolerated by the Romans. However, Paul says that what this church member was doing was something that even the pagans — the unbelieving members of Roman society — frowned on and would not tolerate. This man was sleeping with his father’s wife; and by ‘father’s wife’ Paul means his step-mother, not his biological mother. The Romans — even though they tolerated much which the church considered immoral — would not tolerate a man sleeping with his step-mother. And so Paul is astounded that a member of the church was doing this terrible thing. Look at what he writes:
It’s actually reported that this is taking place among you.
He was astounded that this kind of thing was happening in the church.
But what was it that Paul so astounding? You see, it’s not just that a member of the church was doing this thing that even the pagans deplored. It’s more than that. Paul was astounded because the congregation hadn’t done anything about it. Look at verse 2. He says to them: And you are proud! And you are puffed up! You see, they were boasting about how wise they were, and how super-spiritual they were, and what great Christians they were. ‘But it’s astonishing’, thinks Paul: You’re puffed up with pride — and yet you’re prepared to tolerate this!
And so Paul asks them: Shouldn’t you be mourning instead? Shouldn’t you be filled with grief over what is going on in your midst? Shouldn’t you be weeping that you have let this go on for so long without having done anything about it? And then, at the end of verse 2, Paul tells them what they should have done. They ought to have removed this man from their fellowship. His membership of the church should have been withdrawn so that from that point on they ought to have treated him as an outsider and as someone who did not belong in the company of God’s people. In other words, they ought to have exercised church discipline on this man.
The Fact of Discipline
Now there are several important points to note about church discipline from what Paul says in this passage. And that’s what I want us to think now.
First of all, we should note from verse 2 the fact of church discipline. Paul was clear that action should have been taken by the church and that this man ought to have been removed from the membership of the church. Paul in fact insists on it; and he makes clear that the church in Corinth was duty-bound to exercise discipline in this case. It’s as if he’s saying to them: How can you be proud with this going on in your midst. You need to put him out of your fellowship! Now! Now, in this Paul is simply following the teaching of the Scriptures. We have it in the Old Testament. And so, for instance, in the book of Ezra, after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, it was discovered that some of them had married foreign women who did not worship the Lord, but who worshipped foreign gods. This was a very great sin, because the Lord had forbidden it and because these foreign wives were likely to lead the Israelites astray. And so, the Israelites got together and agreed what to do to remove these people from their midst.
And then, in Matthew 18 in the New Testament, we have the Lord Jesus giving us instructions for how to deal with a fellow believer who has sinned against us and who will not repent. First, in private, you’re to go and show him his fault. If he won’t listen, you’re to take one or two others with you to speak to him. If he still won’t repent, tell it to the whole church. And if he won’t listen to the church, then treat him as an outsider and not a member of the church. In other words, he ought to be ex-communicated. The Lord Jesus taught us to exercise church discipline. And so Paul was following the Lord’s example and he teaches us the same thing in 1 Corinthians.
The Circumstances of Discipline
Secondly, we should note from verse 1 the circumstances of this case. You see, every one of us sins. When we come to church on Sundays, we confess our sins before God, because we know that throughout the week we have offended God by what we have done and by what we have said and by what we have thought. We’re all sinners. So why should the man Paul is referring to be disciplined and not the rest of us who also sin every day? Why should he be removed from the church and not us? Well, there are two distinctions to bear in mind here.
Firstly, we should distinguish between scandalous sins which bring the church into disrepute if tolerated; and those sins which are not scandalous. This man’s sin was scandalous: he was doing something that even the pagans would not contemplate. And by tolerating this sin, they were bringing dishonour to Christ and to his church. Therefore, they needed to act quickly in order to protect the honour of Christ’s church.
But then, secondly, we must also make a distinction between: on the one hand, those church members who struggle against sin and who fight against it and who are sorry for the sins they commit and who seek God’s forgiveness when they do sin; and on the other hand, those church members who think nothing of sin and don’t care whether they’re obeying the Lord or not. The Lord Jesus, in Matthew 18, made clear that church discipline only takes place if the offender will not listen to his or her fellow believers who go to him in private. In other words, the only people who should be disciplined by the church are those who will not acknowledge or repent of their sin whenever the matter has been raised with them privately.
Power to Discipline
The third point to make about church discipline from this passage concerns the nature of the church’s power to discipline. Whereas the state has the authority to lock members of society in prison or to impose a fine on lawbreakers, or even — in some countries — to punish an offender physically, the church has no such powers. In a case like this one in Corinth, where a member of the church is doing something which is forbidden by God’s word, and where that person will not repent, the church had the authority — according to verse 2 — to remove that person from the fellowship of the church. But that’s all they could do. The church did not then and it still does not have now the authority to imprison anyone, or to impose a fine, or to punish anyone physically. God has given the power of the sword to the state so that the state has the authority to use force to uphold law and order and to punish lawbreakers. But the authority to use force has not been given to the church.
Fourthly, and related to what I’ve just said, we should note that there is such a thing as extra-ordinary discipline. Paul is referring here to ordinary discipline: the church must put this man out of their fellowship. Even though Paul goes on to talk about handing the man over to Satan, he’s still referring to ordinary discipline. Handing the man over to Satan is just another way of saying he needs to be put out of the church. You see, the members of the church belong to Christ’s kingdom of grace; those who are outside the church belong to Satan’s dominion of darkness. So, when someone is put out of the church, they’re being put back into the unbelieving world which is under Satan’s dominion. So, Paul is referring here to ordinary church discipline.
But there are cases of extra-ordinary church discpline in the Bible. For instance, we read in Acts 5 of how Ananias and Sapphira fell down dead at Peter’s feet, because they lied against the Spirit of God over some property they’d sold for the benefit of the church. And the Apostle Paul was able to strike someone blind in Acts 13. And later in 1 Corinthians, we’ll read about some people who became ill and who even died because of how they were abusing the Lord’s Supper. So, in the Bible, we read of some cases of extra-ordinary and unusual discipline when the Lord himself or one of his Apostles does something extra-ordinary in order to discipline sinful members of the church.
But we don’t ordinarily expect people to fall down dead in church, do we? We don’t ordinarily expect people to be struck blind. The ordinary way for church discipline to occur is when the congregation follows the Lord’s instructions in Matthew 18 and the Apostle’s instructions here in 1 Corinthians 5 and removes an offender from the fellowship of the church.
Fifthly, we should note from verses 5 to 8 the reason, or the purpose, for exercising church discipline. Church discipline has a twofold purpose.
First of all, look at verse 5 again. Paul instructs the church to hand the man over to Satan by putting him out of the church so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. Well, the difference between the sinful nature or the flesh and the Spirit is familiar to us, because in his letter to the Galatians, Paul talks about the battle that takes place in believers between the sinful flesh and the Spirit of God. The flesh produces in us things like sexual immorality and impurity and sensuality as well as idolatry and sorcery and enmity and strife and so on. But the Holy Spirit produces in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Well, this man who was sleeping with his step-mother had let the desires of the sinful flesh take over. And the purpose of exercising discipline was so that the desire to do what’s wrong will be destroyed in him. If he continues in his sin, without turning from it and without seeking the Lord’s forgiveness, then he can have no assurance of salvation. But if he is ashamed of what he has done and turns from his sin and turn to the Lord for forgiveness, then he will receive the assurance of sins forgiven. Only then will he be able to look forward with hope to the coming of the Lord.
So, the first purpose for exercising discipline is in order to restore the offender. The hope is that by being shut out of the church, he’ll be ashamed and will repent and will give up his sins and turn again to the Lord for forgiveness. The second reason for removing this man from the church is because a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. Do you see that in verses 6 and 7? What does Paul mean? Well, he’s obviously using an illustration here. He wants his readers to think about the process of making bread. Now, we should note Paul doesn’t actually refer to ‘yeast’ despite how the NIV translates his words. He refers instead to ‘leaven’. When someone makes bread, they set aside a little piece of the dough and they store it away and leave it alone until the next time they made some bread. And when they’re making the new bread, they take this little piece of dough which they had set aside for a week or so — which, of course, had begun to ferment and go mouldy — and they add this old mouldy dough — the leaven — to the new dough. And the old mouldy dough reacts with the freshly made dough and causes the new dough to rise.
However — and this is the point of Paul’s illustration — sometimes the old mouldy dough could become too mouldy; and rather than make the new dough rise — which is what you want — it could make the new dough rotten. And so it was a fitting image for what Paul is trying to get across to us. Malice and evilness — that is, sin — can spread through a church in the same way that mouldy old leaven dough spreads through new dough and makes it rotten. And unless the church takes action to remove an unrepentant sinner from its midst, the unrepentant sinner will have a contaminating effect on the rest of the church. The whole church can be spoiled and made rotten, because of the evil influence of this one member who refused to repent of his sin. So, says Paul in verse 7, get rid of the person who has a corrupting influence on you, so that you will be pure and unpolluted and uncontaminated.
And Paul extends his illustration by referring to the Lord Jesus in verse 7. He says:
For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the feast.
The Passover Feast was the feast which had its origins in the days of Moses when God sent his angel to strike down the firstborn son in every family in Egypt as an act of judgment on them for their refusal to release God’s people from their captivity. And do you remember, the angel ‘passed over’ the homes of God’s people, because they had killed a lamb, and had smeared the blood of the lamb on the doorpost of their homes. The angel saw the blood and passed over that home; and the firstborn sons inside were kept safe. Well, on the night of the Passover, the families ate the Passover lamb; and with the lamb they ate unleavened bread. In fact, every year when they celebrated the Passover Feast, they had to remove all trace of yeast from their homes. And it was a picture, a symbol, of how they were to remove sin from their lives.
And so back in 1 Corinthians, Paul’s making the same point: just as the Israelites removed the yeast from their homes, so we’re to remove sin from our lives and from our church. The Lord Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb, died to make us holy. So, how can we tolerate sin in our midst? Instead we must fight against it in our personal lives and we must be willing to exercise discipline in the church so that the assembly of God’s people is like unleaven bread which has not been contaminated.
So, for the sake of the purity of the church, and for the good of the offender, put this man out of the fellowship of the church. Have nothing more to do with him and treat him as on outsider; otherwise his sin might spread and contaminate the whole church; and he himself might continue in his sin instead of turning to the Lord in repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness.
Sixthly, we should notice that the authority of the church to exercise discipline is limited to the church. That’s the point of verses 9 to 13. We have no authority in the church to judge those outside the church. As Paul says in verse 12:
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?
Isn’t that interesting? Very often we take the opposite approach: we complain about those outside the church, but we overlook our own sins and shortcomings. We judge outsiders, but we excuse ourselves. But the Apostle teaches us to do the opposite: we’re to judge one another in the church; but we’re not to judge those outside the church. What they do is none of our business and we have no authority over them and over what they do.
Now, the Lord — who rules over all — has authority over them. And one day he will judge them for what they have done. And in the meantime, if they break the law, the Lord has given authority to the state to punish lawbreakers on his behalf. But he hasn’t given that authority to us in the church. We have the authority to judge one another and to exercise discipline among ourselves. But we don’t have the right to judge those outside the church. As Paul says in verse 13:
God will judge those outside [the church]. [‘However’, we might add] expel the wicked man from among you.
Put out of the church the person who claims to be a believer but who is guilty of some scandalous sin and who is unrepentant.
So, there you are. There’s the fact of church discipline. Then there’s the circumstances which call for it: it’s for scandalous and unrepentant sin. Then there’s the power to discipline which is resticted to ex-communication. However, on occasions, the Lord can use extra-ordinary discipline on his people. Then there’s its purpose: to restore the sinner and to purify the church. And finally there’s its scope: the church may judge its members, but not outsiders.
Now here’s the remarkable thing; and with this I close. We’re all guilty sinners. There is not one of us who has not broken God’s laws and commandments. We can think back over the past week and remember those occasions when our conscience accused us because we had done something which was not right or we said something which was not right. And we can remember how — as soon as we did that thing, or as soon as we said those words — we knew it wasn’t right. We knew we had done wrong. And not only does our conscience accuse us, but God’s law accuses us and teaches us that we are guilty sinners who deserve to be condemned.
But the remarkable thing is that if you have Jesus Christ as your Saviour — if you have turned away from your sin in repentance and have turned in faith to the Saviour — if you have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, then your sins are paid for completely and forever. By his death on the cross, Christ has paid for all your sins and he has completely satisfied his Father’s justice so that God will never ever demand any further payment from you for what you have done wrong.
And the promise which is held out to everyone — and even to someone who has had to be disciplined by the church and handed over to Satan — the promise is that as soon as you turn away from your sin and turn back to the Saviour, you are forgiven by God and can be brought back into the church and into the fellowship of all God’s people. That was Paul’s hope for this man, according to verse 5. He was hoping that even though he was to be handed over to Satan, he would still receive everlasting salvation. Paul was hoping he would return to the Saviour, because all who turn to the Saviour are forgiven all that we have ever done wrong.
Do you remember Peter who came to the Lord Jesus and asked him how often we’re to forgive those who wrong us. He said:
Should we be prepared to forgive him up to seven times?
And the Lord answered:
Not seven times. But seventy times seven.
In other words, there should be no limit to our willingness to forgive. And so what an encouragement to all of us. And what good news this is! Have you sinned? Of course you have. We have all sinned and done wrong. But when we turn back to the Saviour, we find him always ready to pardon us and to welcome us and to gather us into the fellowship of his people.