"Guarding the Fellowship"

(Part I) 1 Corinthians 5:1 - 13
Theme: This passage teaches us that we must be serious about protecting the church family from immorality within its midst.

(Delivered Sunday, August 26, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


      I doubt that this morning's passage will appear on anyone's list of favorites. You'll probably not find a portion of it quoted on a Christian bookstore poster or coffee mug. And yet, it would be hard to think of subject from Scripture that the Body of Christ needed to pay more attention to today than the one this passage addresses. The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian believers, wrote:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles - that a man has his father's wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner - not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from your selves the evil person" (1 Cor. 5:1- 13).

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       It's important that we understand what kind of a person Paul is talking about in this passage; otherwise we might carelessly misapply it, and end up casting every sinner out of our church until none of us are left! Let me begin by saying who I believe this passage is not talking about.

       First, this passage is not speaking about someone who has never professed a faith in Jesus Christ. Such a person lives in the darkness - a slave of sin; and if they should happen to wander into our church, it's wouldn't be right for us to remove them.

       It's our great duty - as well as privilege - to seek to win to the Savior those who are trapped and ensnared in sin; and to help them come under the pardoning grace of God through Jesus' blood. In such a case, if an unbeliever comes in to our church and hears the message of God's word proclaimed, "he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you" (1 Cor. 14:24-25). May that happen more and more!

       Second, this passage is not talking about someone who is a professing believer - that is, someone who has genuinely placed his or her faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord - but who still struggles with the sin in their lives. No matter how long we walk with the Lord, or how closely we're drawn to Him, we will still struggle with the sinful nature that abides within us; and we will still have times when we fail. We're all going to need God's pardoning grace along the way to heaven. And in fact, I believe that the closer drawn we are to Jesus, and the more we stand in the glorious light of His holiness, the more we're going to feel frustrated with the sin in our lives. The key to this is that such a person "struggles". They hate the sin in they see in their life; and they find that they must continually turn to God for His pardoning grace.

       If such a person as that should be found in our church - and surely there are many - we should never remove him or her from our presence. Instead, we should lovingly stand along side them, brace them up on our shoulders, and help them to walk more closely with Jesus. "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1).

       And so, this passage isn't talking about a non-believer trapped in sins, or a genuine believer who mourns over sins. This passage is talking about someone who has made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ - someone who says that he or she has trusted Jesus as Savior and Lord, and thus claims to be a "brother" or "sister" in name - and yet, who is living in an open lifestyle of consistent sin, without any apparent remorse and without any desire to repent. Such a person must be dealt with; and this passage describes how.

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       The Corinthian believers lived in a very ungodly, paganistic culture; surrounded by wickedness and immorality. There used to be a nickname that you would give to someone in that day who lived in open immorality - you'd say, "That guy lives like a Corinthian". The church of Corinth had the continual problem of becoming influenced by the values and behaviors of the ungodly culture around them. Paul wrote this particular letter to deal with several of these problems; and one of the problems he had to deal with was the fact that a certain man in the church - a professing believer - was living in open and unrepentant sin.

       Although we don't know much of the details, it's apparent that this man was in an incestuous relationship with his own stepmother. It may be that his father had died; or it may be that his father had divorced the man's stepmother; or it may even be that his father simply didn't care. How ever it came about, there are certain details we can be sure of.

       First, the man was involved with his stepmother in a sexual way. It was called "immorality" - the Greek word being 'porneia'; and the nature of it is shown to us by the euphemistic phrase, "that a man has his father's wife". And we can now also that this wasn't simply a "one-occasion-only" kind of matter. Paul uses the tense of the verb that refers to an ongoing practice. In fact, he even uses the Greek word for "practice" in verse two. Literally, he refers to the man as "the one practicing this deed."

       Second, this man's behavior had become a shocking public scandal. It was something that was so immoral that it didn't even have a parallel in the kinds of things that were normally consented to in the unbelieving world. It was a form of sexual immorality that "is not even named among the Gentiles". Literally, it reads, "an immorality not among the nations" - meaning, not even typically found among pagans. And it had become so public a scandal that Paul was able to say, "It is actually reported ..." Word was getting around about it.

       And third, the man who was living in this wicked life-style was a professing believer who had attached himself to the community of faith. Paul said that this man and his wicked practice was found "among you"; and that he should be "taken away from among you". He claimed to be "named a brother" (v. 11); and yet he lived openly in a sin so gross that it wasn't even named among unbelievers.

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       Now, you would expect that the thrust of Paul's instructions would have been toward this wicked pretender. And Paul certainly does instruct them to take immediate action toward him. But that's not really the thing that most concerned Paul. It wasn't the man's sin that upset Paul the most, but rather the church's attitude toward the man. They didn't seem to care. More than that, they even seemed to go so far as to be proud of their openness and tolerance of the man's sin. The church in Corinth had become so conformed to the cultural influences around them, that they even transcended the world around them in terms of how much they'd tolerate.

       This, I believe, makes this passage uniquely relevant to us today. We, too, live in the midst of an ungodly and immoral culture. That's not an unusual situation for the church - which is meant by God to be an assembly of men and women called out from the world, and commanded to live distinctive lives in the midst of the world in the power of Jesus Christ. But in our day, we are under tremendous pressure to become "tolerant".

       In a former day, "tolerance" simply meant that you recognized that God allows people to refuse to believe in Him, live wicked lives, and suffer the consequences ... if they so choose. It was ordinarily and rightly applied to how we related to peoples of a different race or culture or religion. But it also had to do with the way we treated people that we didn't agree with. If you were "tolerant", it meant that you were civil and fair in your attitude toward people of a belief system, or religion, or life-style different from - or even in opposition to - your own. You still retained the right to believe they were wrong in what they believed; and you still had the duty to speak out against their wrongdoing whenever you saw it, and to keep yourself separate from the sins of others. But being "tolerant" toward them simply meant that you were showing them the same courtesy that God showed them; you granted them the freedom to do wrong if they so choose. It meant that you didn't try to make them to change by force, or interfere with their freedom.

       But in our day, "tolerance" has taken on a whole new meaning. Today it means something closer to "approval". Today it means that you can no longer call wicked behavior "wrong"; but that you must accept such behavior as morally neutral - as valid as your own - and to even go so far as to "celebrate" the fact that other people lived however they wanted.

       Today's concept of "tolerance" is closer to what Paul described at the end of the first chapter of Romans. There, he described the sorts of behavior that people degenerate into, once they had refused to bow to God as their Creator; and after describing the people who practice these sins, he says, "... who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them" (Rom. 1:32).

       The "tolerance" we see today, then, is not a virtue. It's an ungodly and rebellious attitude. It's a "celebration" and "approval" of sin. It's the very pattern that the Corinthian church was falling victim to; and it's one that we, too, must be on guard against. God, through this passage, is warning us against it. We, as the people of God, and as the called out assembly who have believed on Jesus Christ as the Savior from sins, must be serious about protecting the church family from immorality within its midst.

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       Notice, first, that this passage warns us that ...


       Paul wrote, "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles - that a man has his father's wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you" (vv. 1-2).

       Sin is, without question, the cause of all the troubles in the world today. God made human beings to live before Him in perfection and peace; but our first parents sinned, and brought all of us down in sin with them. Ever since then, all of creation itself has been subjected to futility, and longs for the deliverance "from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-21).

       But I believe that the thing that breaks God's heart most is that His own precious people aren't as intolerant toward sin as He is. He has, once and for all, established how intolerant He is toward sin, in that He sent His own Son to die on the cross to rescue us from its damning consequences. But so often, His own people tolerate the very sin that Jesus gave His life to rescue us from; and as a result - in the words of popular psychology - they "enable" sinners to continue in the very sins that put Jesus on the cross.

       If the church tolerates sin, how then will sinners feel the sting of sin and repent of it? Jesus Himself said, "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men" (Matthew 5:13). Could it be that one of the great reasons sin has grown to prevail so much in our own culture is because God's people have grown to tolerate its existence in its own midst?

       How did the believers in Corinthian exhibit a tolerance of the sin in their midst? Paul says, first, that they became proud and arrogant about it. He described the shameful nature of the sin this man had been committing; but then says, "And you are puffed up ...!" The word Paul uses means "blown up" or "inflated".

       Whenever I think of this word, I always have a picture in my mind of a 'blowfish'. That's the fish that is able to inflate its body with air or water; making it appear to be bigger than it really is. And Paul's description of the Corinthians as "puffed up" in this matter is a figure of speech describing their own pride and arrogance. Paul used this same word to describe the Corinthians in 4:18; "Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you ..."; and he used it again in 8:1, when he said, "We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies." It gives us the image of someone who is swollen up in arrogance; and who struts about with their chest sticking out in pride. It appears that it was an ongoing problem in the Corinthian church (4:6, 19; 13:4).

       When it came to the sin of this man, perhaps they were "proud" of how open and tolerant they were. People today often take great pride in being "open-minded" and "accepting" of life-styles and beliefs that are an offense to God; and perhaps the Corinthians hoped that that's how they would appear to the world around them. After all, they were apparently even outstretching the pagan world in the things that they would tolerate. Or perhaps their pride was directed against Paul himself; and it may be that they considered themselves to be even more "balanced" and "well-adjusted" than the great apostle. They certainly weren't getting as bent out of shape over things as he was! They certainly weren't taking things so seriously!

       We need to be on guard against the pressure of our culture - a culture which applauds those who are "tolerant" of sin - that we don't fall into the trap of those, as Paul mentioned, "whose glory is in their shame" (Phil. 3:19).

       Another way they flaunted their tolerance was in what they didn't do. Paul says, "And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you." We live in the midst of a world that wants us to celebrate the sin in our midst; but God wants us to mourn over it - as He does. The world wants us to "feel good" about what's wrong in us; but God wants us to feel so bad about it that we turn from our sins in humble repentance and allow Him to change us.

       I believe that the attitude God would like to see in us, when it comes to the discovery of sin in our midst, is described in James 4:7-10. There, James says, "Therefore submit to God, resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up." Certainly, that's not how the world approaches sin. But that's how God wants us to feel about it. He wants us to remember that our sin cost Him the life of His own precious Son.

       And God wants us to feel so bad about our sin that we're compelled to separate ourselves from it. When Paul wrote another letter to this church, he acknowledged that his rebuke had brought sorrow on them. The philosophy of the world teaches us that we should always feel bad whenever we make someone else feel bad about their behavior. But the world's efforts to protect people from feeling sorrow for their sinful behavior actually helps perpetuate that behavior, and keeps people in their sins unto eternal loss.

       Certainly, Paul - the premier 'people person' - wished that he hadn't have had to make his readers feel sorrow; but he knew he had to, or else they'd never turn from sin. And he later wrote about how much he rejoiced over the results of the sorrow his words produced - perhaps, as some believe, over this very issue.

For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: what diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. Therefore, although I wrote to you, I did not do it for the sake of him who had done the wrong, nor for the sake of him who suffered wrong, but that our care for you in the sight of God might appear to you (2 Cor. 7:8-12).

       This teaches us that, when it comes to dealing with sin in our own midst as a church, we need to begin by giving attention to how we feel toward that sin. Do we feel deep sorrow over the matter? Is our heart broken over the sin of someone within our midst? Are we willing to do the difficult thing of rebuking that sin and of taking the risk of making someone feel so bad that they repent?

       Or do we take our cue from the world? Do we dare to tolerate in our hearts, and in our church, that which Jesus died to save us from? Do we become prideful, arrogant and inflated about our willingness to put up with that which is an abomination to God? May God help us to have the attitude toward sin that He has. May we be humbled and sorrowful at its discovery in our midst; and may we mourn over it to the point of genuine repentance.

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       Another warning we receive from this passage is that ...


       If one of the fundamental virtues of this world is "tolerance", then certainly one of the fundamental tenets that springs from tolerance is to "live and let live". The world teaches us that we should all learn to 'get along', and never demand that someone repent of their behavior. But Paul goes on to write; "For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (vv. 3-5). Far from tolerating the man's behavior; Paul insisted that he be removed from the community of faith.

       Paul was not only upset over the fact that they were not feeling what they should feel about sin; but he was also upset that they were not doing what they should do about it. They were neglecting their duty toward the man himself. And so, as a result, Paul had to assert his own apostolic authority and call them to this duty in the strongest possible terms. He said that, though he was absent from the physically; he considered that he was present in spirit through the writing of the letter. As far as he was concerned, the apostolic authority he was then exercising was to be respected in this situation as much as if he were physically standing in their midst.

       And he exercised his authority in this situation to the full, as if it were backed up by the highest possible authority of heaven. He spoke to this matter "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ"; that is, as His representative to the church in Corinth. And he asserted his authority "with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ"; as if Jesus Himself would step in to execute Paul's verdict. Paul had the authority he did, because Jesus Himself had given it to Him.

       Paul was unafraid to call upon the authority of Jesus in such matters. He once wrote to Timothy about the leadership in the church he cared for; and Paul told him, "Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality" (1 Tim. 5:21). The way Paul calls upon the authority of Jesus in his words to the Corinthians reminds us that it is our solemn duty before God - under the full authority of King Jesus Himself - to deal decisively and seriously with the "professing" believer in our midst who clings unrepentingly to sin.

       And notice how Paul says the matter is to be dealt with. He says, "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Paul used a similar phrase once with respect to dealing with some who had been teaching false doctrine in the church. He wrote to Timothy and encouraged him to fulfill his ministry "having faith and good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:19-20).

       What does it mean to "deliver" someone "over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh"? How are we to understand this strange phrase? I suggest that it parallels the other things Paul said should be done to the man: that he should be "taken away from among you" (v. 2); or that they were "not keep company with" him (v. 10); or to "not even eat with such a one" (v. 10); or to "put away from yourselves the evil person" (v. 13). But it looks to the consequences of such a removal. To deliver an unrepentant sinner over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh simply means that he or she should be removed from the protective shield of the community of faith, and allowed to suffer the consequences of his or her behavior outside the church.

       It helps to think of the church as something like the Ark. The church is in the fallen and sinful world, just like the Ark was adrift on the waters of the flood. Whoever was inside was safe and dry. But whoever was outside was threatened with danger and death. The devil, as the Bible tells us, roams about on this earth as a roaring lion seeking whom He may devour (1 Pet. 5:8); and to place someone outside the protective fellowship of the community of faith is to place him or her out in the open, where the devil may have his way with them.

       I don't believe, however, that Paul's words should ever be understood as anything more than that. They shouldn't be taken to mean that the church is to inflict physical punishment on someone - as is sometimes done in the cults, or as was sadly done in the distorted versions of Christianity in history. It doesn't mean that the church is to seek to bring about the "destruction of someone's flesh" in a literal way. Paul's words are meant to be taken as a spiritual action on the part of the church family. His words simply refer to the act of breaking fellowship with that person in an official way, so that he or she is considered outside the protective walls of the church, subject to the threat of the devil, and made by him to suffer the painful consequences of their sinful choices.

       Someone once said that the devil is God's "sheep-dog". He is often used in his attacks on God's wandering people - perhaps unwittingly - to drive them back into the fold. This makes official removal from a true, biblical church a very grievous punishment. But a good follow-up question for us is this: Are we the sort of church that it would actually be a bad thing to be out of? May God make us such a church! We never will be, unless we take sin seriously.

       How exactly are we to go about this "removal"? Jesus described how we were to fulfill this duty toward a professing believer who is hardened in sin when He said,

... If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. but if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:15-20).

       If a professing believer is found to be in sin, then Step One is that the one who makes this discovery should go to them privately and urge them to repent. If the sinning brother or sister doesn't listen to that rebuke, then Step Two is that this rebuke should be followed up with another rebuke made in the presence of two or three witnesses. (Just think how that would put an end to most church gossip!) If he or she still doesn't listen, then Step Three is that the matter should be made known to the church. (Personally, I believe this means that the church leaders should go to him or her, and issue a rebuke as the representatives of the church body.) If the professing believer who is in sin still will not listen to a rebuke from the church, then Step Four is that he or she is to be treated in an official way by the church family as "heathen and a tax collector". He or she is not to be treated as a brother or a sister, but as someone who is outside the family of God and who needs to be evangelized. Jesus gave His strong endorsement to this procedure; saying that when two or three are in agreement together in following through on this matter as He described, He is "there in the midst of them" - that is, He is approving this difficult procedure as if with His own supportive presence.

       I believe that, since the man Paul wrote about had committed a very public sin - and because the whole church knew about it but had done nothing to correct him -Paul simply skipped the first few steps and said that he had already judged the one who had done this deed and called upon the church gathered together - along with Paul's spirit - to "deliver" the man over to Satan "for the destruction of the flesh ..."

       And please notice the objective of it all. "... That his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." It was Paul's desire that this man be allowed to suffer the consequences of his sin in such a way that it would break him down to repentance. We're to do all this in the spirit that Paul described to Timothy: "... in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will" (2 Tim. 2:25-26).

       I believe that if, after having been removed from the church fellowship, he came to his senses in repentance, he was to be welcomed back in to the fellowship as if having come to Christ for the first time. That is, after all, what the church family should hope and pray for. Such actions of church discipline are always difficult; but the goal is to always be redemptive. It should be looked upon as if the church family were welcoming back a prodigal son who had been permitted to leave the protective covering of home, wander away only to come to the end of himself as he wallowed in the pig troughs for a while, and then return back in sorrowful repentance. He should be greeted back warmly and gladly - not in tolerance of sin, but in celebration of repentance.

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       If we commit ourselves to the work of taking sin as seriously as Paul says in this passage we should, we probably wont grow to be a very big church. But then again, perhaps we will. Only God knows for sure. But I know that this isn't the sort of talk people - even professing Christians - like to hear. It wont win us any popularity contests in this world.

       But we must pay heed to it if we would be the sort of church that God uses to make an impact on the world. Someone once said that a holy minister is an awesome weapon in the hand of a mighty God. We could also say that a holy church is an awesome force of God in the midst of a wicked world.

       May God help us to be such a church. He shows us how in this passage.

(This was only the first half of this message. Visit us again in a couple of weeks for the remaining two points from this passage: 

     III. Our church must value the moral purity of the congregation (vv. 6-8); and 

     IV. Our church members must be discerning in their associations (vv. 9-13). 

But join us next week for a special guest on-line "preacher", and for a sermon on "The Prayer of Jabez" ... preached 130 years ago!) 

(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)

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