So reads the chapter title in my 1984 version of the NIV bible over 1 Corinthians 5. When I look the same chapter up on Bible Gateway it has been ‘re-titled’ as ‘Dealing with a case of incest.’ A subtle change, but perhaps one that reflects a bit of how we treat things these days.
It ain’t cool to ‘expel’ people from church… It sounds like the kind of thing cults do and chances are you could even leave yourself open to litigation… In these days when numbers are already in decline who wants to willingly lose another person or family?
But what do you do with Paul’s words in 1 Cor 5:13? Is there ever a time for showing someone the door? Or do we always in every situation seek to keep them in the fellowship? Paul seems pretty clear on the fact that there is a time to exclude someone from the community and he speaks of it more than once. In 1 Timothy we hear him speak this way of Alexander and Hymenaues and in Titus he says similar of divisive people.
If we just take Paul’s words at face value then it seems very strong, but somewhat understandable. Where it gets a little complicated is when we read Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, where the final stage in the ‘conflict resolution’ process is to treat the person as if they were a pagan or a tax collector. What does that look like?
If we’re looking at how Jesus treated tax collectors and pagans then we see him eating with them and showing them love and acceptance, yet at the same time calling them to repentance. So some would suggest that ‘treating as a pagan’ is this kind of relationship. Normally I’m a fan of reading difficult passages thru the ‘lens of Jesus’ and concluding that his insights are given priority, but my take on this issue is that there is a time to show someone the door and let them feel the absence of Christian community.
The issue Paul deals with in 1 Cor 5 is one where he says ‘even the pagans don’t tolerate it’, so for the church to allow and even boast about their practice of incest is bizarre and abhorrent. Clearly no one in Corinth has been able to sort the issue out, or has been able to exert authority over the people responsible so Paul has been called in to make a judgement.
And that he does… He doesn’t mince words.
His clear point is that we aren’t to be about the business of judging those who claim no faith alignment, but when people do, and are part of a faith community then there is an obligation on the church to call them to account. To allow unrestrained, wilful sin in any form (Paul mentions sexual immorality, greed, idolatry. lying and cheating) is to minimise the problem of sin and to sap the church of its distinctive character.
The point to make here is that this is repeated and unrepentant behaviour that is clearly out of line. It isn’t for an occasional moral failure, or for sin that is confessed and repented of. Its directed at a person who rejects Jesus’ authority and insists on doing their own thing to the detriment of the community. And that’s another key – we don’t seek first the welfare of the offending person – we seek the welfare of the community as a whole and if by their actions they they show that they don’t value the broader community then they will inevitably bring destruction to that community.
In that case then they need to be asked to leave or even sent away from the community to live as an unbeliever and to accept the consequences of that. My experience is that we rarely get to this point as most people who choose a path of wilful sin slowly ebb away from the community anyway, or those who need to be confronted often get ‘offended’ and feel ‘judged’ and then leave because they believe they have been badly treated. Maybe they have… We don’t always do confrontation well in church, but even where a perfect process has been followed, a person who doesn’t want correction can find a reason to baulk.
In these situations I think Paul would say ‘Yes. You have been judged. Your behaviour and character has been considered to be destructive to both you and the community and for that reason you aren’t allowed to stay.’
That’s pretty unPC and sure would cause a fair degree of angsty vibe within a church, but if we are going to be a distinctive and Christ flavoured community then there is a time to say ‘we have exhausted every avenue of seeking to help you see the light – now you’re on your own.’
Its a tragic place to get to, but if we never allow for it then we end up with a church where anything goes and there is no authority.
So that’s tomorrow’s sermon in a nutshell…