Sermon Discussion Questions
Read 1 Cor 5:1-8 together.
1. Have you seen church discipline practiced before? According to the teaching of 1 Cor 5, do you think it was practiced rightly?
2. What does the teaching of church discipline assume about a Christian's relationship with sin? See Rom 6:1-2.
3. Why is church discipline--rightly practiced--ultimately a loving act?
4. Read 1 John 2:1-2 and 1 John 3:8-9. What is the difference between these two kinds of sin?
5. How does a failure to respond to sin in the church have a chilling effect on a church's sanctification? See 1 Cor 5:6
Ireland for a long time was the most thoroughly Christianized nations in Europe, retaining a much higher percentage of practicing Christians than any other European country. The authority of the Catholic church in particular was staggering, so much so that many assumed that to be Irish was to be Catholic. Yet, today, Ireland is now the most secular of all European countries. The country is technically classified as an unreached people group—our church supports missionaries in Ireland, Kevin and Christine Gabriel! What happened? Towards the end of the 20th century the stories of children being sexually abused by the Roman Catholic church came to light. Often, when priests were discovered to be sexually abusing children, they were not removed from the church or handed over to the police, but moved to another parish and parents were encouraged to keep their problems quiet. After an official inquiry was conducted by the Vatican in 2010, a list of over 1300 priests who were accused of abuse in Ireland was published, but with only 82 of them being prosecuted. Faith in Ireland plummeted. The dilemma wasn’t that the surrounding culture rejected the church’s teachings, but that they began to suspect that the church itself didn’t hold to its own teachings, began to suspect that maybe they were more moral and righteous than the priests they had been submitting to for decades. The problem wasn’t that the church changed its teaching, but that its very practice denied its teachings.
You can claim with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and with your life claim that Jesus is just a good idea.
One of the starkest examples I ever saw of this was the first case of church discipline I ever witnessed. Shortly after joining the church I was a member at while in Kentucky, I attended my first member’s meeting. There was another man in the church who attended the same seminary I was attending who was in the process of pursuing his PhD in the theology of Jonathan Edwards—one of my all-time favorite heroes of the faith. One of our pastors got up and shared that this man had spent years—while a member of our church, while attending seminary and studying—cheating on his wife with another woman, and finally admitted to it only after the evidence became to damning for him to deny. But, even after admitting to it, he gave no sign of repentance. Our pastor sobered all of us: “This man can tell you a lot about Jonathan Edwards, but he doesn’t know the God of Jonathan Edwards.”
What should a church do when its members begin to live a double-life? What should a church do when the members’ profession of faith and manner of life diverge completely? Today we will examine Paul’s teaching on church discipline from his letter to the Corinthians. Maybe you’re here today visiting and you’re uncertain about whether you believe because you have seen the church tolerate something that shouldn’t have been tolerated, maybe your faith in institutional religion was seriously rocked by a church who was quick to fling denouncements at the world but slow to apply the same standard to itself. If that’s you, my prayer is that as we look at Paul’s teaching here you will see that the problem isn’t the Christian faith and teaching itself, but a failure to consistently apply the Christian faith and teaching—especially to ourselves first.
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.
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.
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.
- 1 Cor 5:1-8
You may be asking yourself: “Well, hang on Marc, I thought we were just in 1 Corinthians 3—why are we in chapter 5 now?” Good question. Back in July at our last member’s meeting we proposed a change to our church’s constitution and bylaws pertaining to church discipline and church governance. We will be voting on that change at our next member’s meeting on October 8th, and both of those issues are addressed by 1 Corinthians 5. I have been moving us at a faster speed than I normally would through 1 Corinthians to make sure that I get to 1 Corinthians 5 before that meeting because I think it would help clarify why we are making these changes, but the last two sermons I have preached—were I not on this timeline—I probably would have preached maybe three to four sermons on. So, after talking with Aaron about it, he just recommended that I jump ahead to 1 Corinthians 5 now, and then go back to where we were in 1 Corinthians 3 when done, so that’s what we are doing.
This sermon I am going to be addressing the question: “What should a church do when one of its members is living in unrepentant sin?” Next week we will answer the question: “Where does the church’s authority come from?”
Church Discipline: the removal of an unrepentant sinner from the membership of the church and their barring from the Lord’s Table by the vote of the congregation.
A Church Should Mourn
Right away we are told of a dire situation in the Corinthian church. “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,” (1 Cor 5:1). What is the sin going on? The Corinthians are tolerating the sin of sexual immorality—which is a catch-all term in the Bible to refer to any sexual activity outside of the covenant of marriage—and a kind of sexual immorality that isn’t even tolerated among pagans, which is really saying something, because pagans tolerated some seriously perverse sexual immorality. A man is an ongoing incestuous relationship with a woman (note: “a man has his father’s wife” not “had”). Most commentators agree that this is likely a step-mother, or perhaps a concubine of the father—which still falls under the parameters of incest according to Moses (Lev 18:8).
“And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you,” (1 Cor 5:2). In what way could you be arrogant about something like this? The arrogance of the Corinthians may refer to simply their general posture of being “puffed up” with pride which Paul denounces throughout the letter (1 Cor 4:6, 18, 19; 8:1; 13:4). Or it could be that the Corinthians church has misunderstood Paul’s teaching on grace, turning it into a license for sin. Paul was commonly misunderstood this way, and so corrects this in his letter to the Romans: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1-2).
Paul says that the Corinthians are tolerating something that isn’t tolerated among pagans. So, you could imagine this easily enough: Look at how open-minded and tolerant we are! We preach a religion of unconditional love and grace, no matter how sinful you are, you are welcome here. And Paul says: You should be weeping! You should be grieving this sin, not celebrating! What is wrong with you? Remove this man from among you.
But this may lead us to ask: Well, hang on—isn’t Christianity a religion of unconditional love and free grace? How can we square church discipline with forgiveness? The reason why church’s sometimes fail to practice church discipline is because they are afraid or don’t want to rock the boat or lose a wealthy member—maybe this man in the Corinthian church was rich, important citizen and they feared alienating him and all his friends. But many times churches fail to practice church discipline because they have a deficient understanding of grace, assuming that grace means only forgiveness. Listen to what Paul tells us elsewhere: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,” (Tit 2:11-12). Grace trains us, empowers us.
Christians are imperfect, and grace is unconditional. Here is a sentence I said last week: “Because of the work of the Christ a tidal wave of grace has now swallowed up my past sins, my present sins, and my future sins.” That is true! But, when that tidal wave comes, it does not leave me unaffected. James teaches that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). There is a transformation internally where I do not want to keep on sinning! I want to change! I want to repent! I mourn my sin. I want to give up the bondage of sin and be free from it, so I am willing to do whatever it takes!
But where there is no willingness? Or where there is a deceptive veneer of willingness, but an internal commitment to continue in my practice of sin? “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him,” (1 John 3:4-6). Jesus appeared to take away sins—yes! We are pardoned by the work of Jesus. But anyone who receives that pardon, and plans to continue right on into sin, practices and makes themselves diligent in the habit of sin, then that person, John says, doesn’t know Jesus.
“The proof of your pardon is your passion for purity,” (John Piper)
A Church Should Remove
Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Cor 5:2)
What does Paul mean by “removed from among you”? He is building on Jesus’ teaching from the gospel of Matthew, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” (Matt 18:15-17). Gentiles and tax-collectors, to most of Jesus’ original audience, were assumed to be outside of the covenant community of Israel. Now, of course, Jesus saved Gentiles and tax-collectors, but he is simply accommodating to language that his audience would immediately recognize.
When a brother persists in unrepentant sin, and refuses to listen even to the entire church, then he should be assumed to be outside of the covenant community of the new Israel, the Church. That is, the church is proclaiming that they can no longer affirm this individuals profession of faith—they may claim to be a Christian, but the Church does not recognize that claim.
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.” (1 Cor 5:3-5)
These are the main passages that we will interact with next week, so my comments will be sparse here. One question you may be wondering is, Why does church discipline have to be public? Why does it have to involve the whole church? Is it right to air someone’s dirty laundry like that? We will answer those questions in full next week, but we can simply say that Jesus and Paul say to do it—tell it to the church, when you are assembled. But I want to draw your attention primarily to verses 4 and 5. In verse 4 we see that while it is the church who is doing this, the earthly assembly in the first century in Corinth, they are actually speaking on behalf of heaven, Jesus Himself is present with them and lending them His power to exercise this act of discipline.
Verse 5 specifies more specifically what Paul meant when he said to “remove this man from among you” in verse 2. They are “to deliver this man to Satan.” What on earth does that mean? Does the church possess a trap door with a chute to Hell? No. Think of Paul’s letter to the Colossians where he explains that Jesus, “…has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,” (Col 1:13). To be in Christ is to be in His body, the Church. To be removed from the domain of the church is to now exist outside in the domain of darkness. This man did not want Christ as His teacher, so he will have Satan instead.
Why would Paul tell us to do something as horrifying as this?
Because it is for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Flesh here isn’t referring to his literal flesh, like his body, but to the animating sinful energy which has dominated this man into sexual sin. The hope is that the process of church discipline, of removing this man from the membership of the church and barring him from the Lord’s Supper, he will actually be saved! The aim here is similar to the aim of the Father permitting his prodigal son to go off to a far country to waste his inheritance. If you don’t want to live under the Father’s house and abide by His rules, then go off and get a belly-full of sin, and hopefully by the time you are longing for pig slop you’ll remember, what am I doing? I have a Father who loves me (Luke 15:11-24). And, this is likely what happens to this man. In 2 Corinthians 2 we are told of an individual in the church who was “punished by the majority” after Paul wrote his painful letter to the Corinthians, but who now should be received with love, comfort, and forgiveness (2 Cor 2:3-11), probably referring to this very man.
Is church discipline loving? If the aim of church discipline is remedial, restorative, for the salvation of the one under discipline, then that means that to fail to discipline is unloving. “Nothing can be crueler than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin,” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together). Because we are one another’s allies, we are enemies of each other’s sins. There may be some sins lodged so deep in our hearts that the crowbar of church discipline is needed to remove it. God says that it is a sign of his love when He disciplines (Heb 12).
It is not loving to let someone persist in unrepentant sin. It is not loving to hide sin or sweep it under the rug or to fail to report it to the police if their sin is also a crime. It is not loving to protect someone from means of grace that God has offered that might destroy their flesh and save their souls.
A Church Should Be Warned
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (1 Cor 5:6).
Thus far Paul has been warning of the individual sinner in the church, but now he turns to the danger present to the whole church. What happens to a church when they fail to practice church discipline? Sin spreads. Sprinkle a small amount of yeast onto a lump of dough and, in time, the yeast will work its way through the whole lump. Unrepentant sin has a chilling effect on a church’s sanctification. Imagine you were a member of the Corinthian church. You have your own sin struggles, but you know that there is a man in the church who is sleeping with his stepmom, and no one is doing anything about it. Suddenly, your bending of the truth, your gossip, your laziness doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal. Speaking primarily of elders, but applicable to all, Paul tells Timothy: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear,” (1 Tim 5:20). When I sat in that member’s meeting in Kentucky, the pastor looked out at the congregation—full of seminary students—and said, “All of you young men who want to be pastors someday: don’t think this couldn’t happen to you.” And as he said those words, it felt like an anvil dropped in my gut. I knew he was right. There is a right, sober fear of sin that we should all have. And while failure to discipline creates a lackadaisical ambivalence towards sin, discipline itself has an energizing, invigorating effect on our sanctification—we see the danger of where sin wants to take us.
So, Paul extends the imagery of leaven and ties it to the Passover celebration from the Exodus, “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,” (1 Cor 5:7). Israel, when fleeing from Egypt, celebrated the first ever Passover. They were told to sacrifice a spotless lamb and paint the blood on the doorposts of their home. That night, when the angel of death descended on the land of Egypt, if it saw the blood, it would pass over that house. Which meant that Israel was spared, not because they did not deserve death just like the Egyptians, but because another died in their place. This, Paul tells us, points to Jesus Christ, the truer and better Passover Lamb who was killed on our behalf so the angel of death would pass us over and we be spared. This is a beautiful picture of free mercy and grace offered in the gospel. If you aren’t a Christian, then there are two things you need to become one: (1) admit that your sin is deserving of death, and (2) trust in Jesus’ death on your behalf, and his death alone, to spare you.
But that isn’t the only thing that Israel did on the Passover. They also ate unleavened bread. They couldn’t have any leaven in their house at all. Leaven took time to work its way through the dough, and God was delivering them from Egypt that night, so they had to eat unleavened bread, staff in hand, shoes on, ready to go. Leaven was a picture of remaining back in Egypt, remaining in the land of slavery and bondage. No more, they were being delivered! This is a fitting picture for Paul’s use here. Church, we should deal seriously with sin, cleanse it from us, because Jesus Christ has purified us. Paul says, “You really are unleavened, for, Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” You are clean, you are righteous, you are made new because of Jesus. And it is because of that, you now remove sin from among you.
Paul encourages the church to cleanse the sin from among them—not only by discipling this man but by repenting of their own failure to love this man well.
What sin should be disciplined?
"Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God," (1 John 3:8-9). If you read that and despair or question your salvation because you know yourself to be a sinner, then consider what John said earlier: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:1-2). So John has at least two different categories of sin in his mind—sin that those who have been born of God can still commit, and sin that they cannot commit. I think the phrase “makes a practice of sinning” is helpful.
Is it possible for a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit and genuinely trusting in the gospel to get drunk? To lie? To explode in anger? To be unfaithful? To gossip?
Yes. Jesus’ work has destroyed the works of the devil, but our flesh remains. We struggle and fight, but we sin regularly.
Is it possible for a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit and genuinely trusting in the gospel to so intentionally practice those things that they are now characterized by them?
No. If there is a consistent, intentional practice with no sincere fight against those things, no godly sorrow, then John says, this person does not know Jesus.
Consider an analogy: if a man were to break into my house in the middle of the night, I may not be able to fight him off. He could overpower me and my weakness be too great to win the fight. But I fight. I do not welcome the burglar into my home and hand him my possessions. I do not cooperate with him.
Sin that should be disciplined is…
Outward—It must be something seen with eyes or heard with ears.
Serious—There needs to be some place in the life of the church for love to “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8)
Unrepentant—The person involved has been confronted with God’s commands in Scripture, but he or she refuse to let go of the sin.