Now if you would please take your copies of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me in them to 1 Corinthians chapter 5; 1 Corinthians chapter 5. Now I don’t know about you, but if you’ve been with us over the last few months, you may have, I certainly have, enjoyed 1 Corinthians so far. These first four chapters I’ve often felt have been challenging, always insightful, edifying. In the first four chapters, I’ve felt a bit like a tour guide taking a group rafting on a lovely, sedate river. You know, the river is flowing smoothly, we’ve enjoyed the scenery; it’s been delightful. Well now we’re done with chapter 4, we’re moving into chapter 5, there’s a bend in the river and it’s all whitewater from here! Chapter 5 verse 1 ought to have, before we read verse 1, a warning statement that says something like, “Strap in folks! It’s about to get interesting!” You know one of the reasons we are committed in the way that we are to the systematic, consecutive exposition of large parts of the Bible to whole books of the Bible is to prevent scaredy-cat preachers like me from simply pulling the raft ashore ahead of the whitewater parts of the letter and working around them. So if we want to get to the rich, important material in the rest of the book, we need to go through chapter 5.
All of that to say simply this. Please don’t shoot the messenger! Chapter 5 is a challenging part of 1 Corinthians. But since this is where the Lord, in His providence, has us, I think it’s safe for us to assume that this is where we need to be. That here in these thirteen verses of chapter 5 the Lord has a word for us individually and together as a church that we need to hear. Now if you look at chapter 5, you’ll notice immediately that Paul has moved on from the problem of divisions at Corinth, which has largely occupied his attention in the opening four chapters of the book, to address a persistent case of sexual immorality that has become an open scandal in the Corinthian churches. And apparently, if you look at verse 9, you’ll see apparently this is not the first time that Paul has had cause to write to them on the subject. There’s a reference there to a previous letter now lost to us. 1 Corinthians is only the first of the letters we have. There was a prior letter that has been lost to us from Paul to the Corinthians where he spoke to this issue of sexual immorality in the church. And it’s clear now that those earlier instructions have gone unheeded and reports of gross and aggravated sin still taking place among them have continued to reach Paul. His earlier admonitions have failed to persuade or to bring about repentance. And so now he is forced to write, not simply to explain why sexual immorality is incompatible with the life of a Christian, but more than that, now, to direct the Corinthians in the difficult duty of church discipline.
So 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is weighty and it’s hard. There’s a gravity and solemnity about Paul’s teaching here that should be sobering and even sanctifying for us all. And as we work through the material in chapter 5, I want you to think about it with me under three headings. First of all, there’s the danger that discipline addresses. The danger that church discipline addresses. Then there’s the duty that church discipline imposes. The danger it addresses; the duty it imposes. And then finally the dynamic that discipline demands. The dynamic that discipline demands.
Before we turn our attention to the reading and then the preaching of God’s Word, however, would you bow your heads with me as we pray? Let us pray!
O Lord, we pray now for illumination, for light, and for grace that we might be teachable and bend the knee to the Lordship of Christ as He speaks to us in His holy Word. For we ask this in His name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 5 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
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. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 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. 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.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
Church discipline, I suspect you all would agree with this, church discipline is relatively easy to say we believe in, and really very hard to practice, certainly to practice consistently. One study I read conducted by the Barna Research Group found that only 5% of Christians in America indicated that their churches did anything to hold them accountable for what they believed or how they lived – 5%. The director of the study, George Barna, offers the following by way of explanation for that statistic. “Barna Group studies among pastors and other church leaders have consistently shown that such leaders have a distaste for initiating any type of confrontation and conflict with congregants. Another barrier is that many followers of Christ are uncertain about the differences between judgment and discernment. Not wanting to be judgmental, they, therefore, avoid all conversation about the other person’s behavior, except, sometimes gossip. One of the cornerstones,” Barna says, “of the Biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others, even those with their best interests in mind or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so, is considered inappropriate, antiquated, and rigid. With a large majority of Christian churches proclaiming that people should know, trust, and obey all of the behavioral principles taught in the Bible, overlooking a principle as foundational as accountability, breeds even more public confusion about Scriptural authority and faith-based community as well as personal behavioral responsibility.”
I think that’s right on target! We, “cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others is considered inappropriate, antiquated, and rigid.” The fact is, most of us have never seen church discipline done at all, let alone done well. Few of us understand its nature or its purpose, and even fewer of us are willing to seek out or submit to the kind of mutual accountability that the faithful exercise of church discipline requires. But whatever the difficulties and discomforts involved in church discipline, the passage before us this morning, 1 Corinthians chapter 5, calls us to it nevertheless.
The Danger Discipline Addresses
Would you look at chapter 5 with me, please? Notice in the first place the danger discipline addresses. The danger discipline addresses. Verses 1 and 2, “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.” The city of Corinth, you may remember, was proverbial for sexual perversity and vice. So it’s really not that surprising, is it, to discover that these relatively new believers at Corinth who have been grafted into the church of Jesus Christ are struggling mightily to throw off the remnants of their previous life, and the culture within the midst of which they continue to live every day. There was sexual sin at Corinth! But of a nature in this case that was so aggravated that it would have been shocking even to the average sexually promiscuous and perverse Corinthian, the average pagan. They wouldn’t even name such a thing, Paul says. And yet, he says of the Corinthians believers, verse 2, “you are arrogant,” or verse 6, that they are “boasting.”
The Subjects of Church Discipline
We’ve seen already in previous weeks how the Corinthians were proud of their spiritual standing. They boasted in their gifts and their leaders and their wisdom in their spiritual superiority. But now it turns out, as chapter 5 shows us, that the spiritual superiority of which they boast is merely papering over the cracks. They are a sinkhole of unrepentant sexual sin. But this is also important to see it’s not just sexual sin. There’s a particular case Paul is dealing with here, but it’s not just this particular case that has in concerned. Look down at verse 11 for a moment. He mentions the sexually immoral but then he also mentions the greedy and idolaters and revilers and drunkards and swindlers, all of whom are subject to church discipline.
Why Practice Church Discipline?
Now you see the point he’s making? Unrepentant sin, in general, needs to be challenged. Christian accountability within the local church needs to be practiced for all sorts of persistent, aggravated, scandalous sin. And in verse 6, he tells us why. Look at verse 6. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” One bad apple, we might say, spoils the whole barrel. Sin has a way of spreading. He’s borrowing a metaphor or building an illustration from the practice of Passover where the Jews were to eat only unleavened bread, and so, after the Passover sacrificial lamb was slaughtered, they would sweep the house from top to bottom. Every drawer, every cupboard was to be cleaned out. And that’s still a practice to this day amongst observant Jews. They remove all the dust from the house to remove all the leaven so that there’s no possibility of any leaven, of any yeast getting into the dough. All it takes is just a little, and it’s unseen and unnoticed but it has a pervasive effect. Paul says a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Sin, when tolerated, excused, ignored, indulged, is like an infection – it will spread eventually. The great danger that discipline addresses is the pervasive spread, quiet and unnoticed, like yeast silently permeating a batch of dough of unrepentant sin. When excuses for sin are made in one case, then the pressure builds to make the same kind of excuses in another case, and then another, and then another. And soon a church is hamstrung – saying one thing from the pulpit as the Bible is being taught while refusing to expect the members in the pew to actually conform their lives to the standards of Biblical teaching. And the tension that creates must eventually give way. It is unstable.
And time and again, in churches where this takes place, the preaching begins to pull punches, stops speaking to real issues that will challenge the consciences and the lives of the members. And pretty soon, a church like that ceases to be a church at all. A vaguely religious club is all it becomes, studiously avoiding anything that might possibly give offense. Paul is aware of how this can go. A little leaven leavens the whole lump, and compromise here and there, if we are not careful, can have a pervasive effect. There’s a danger that discipline addresses. It preserves the peace and the purity of the local church.
The Duty That Discipline Imposes
But then secondly notice the duty that discipline imposes. The danger discipline addresses, then the duty discipline imposes. Suppose for a moment we all acknowledge that church discipline is necessary – painful, hard, we ought to be slow to do it, yet necessary. What should it look like? Take another look at verse 2 with me. Instead of arrogant boasting, Paul says step one is grief. Step one is grief. “Ought you not rather to mourn?” That’s the right note. A church that practices church discipline, according to Scripture, takes no joy in it, has no zeal for it, is never pleased with it. It is rather marked by grief, grief that aggravated, scandalous, unrepentant sin could grow up among them in the first place. And grief for the one who, because of his repeated refusal to repent, must become the subject of disciplinary action as well. Not anger, certainly not schadenfreude, not glee; grief, mourning, tears for one we love who will not turn back even after many entreaties.
Delivered Over to Satan
But then Paul says whatever the grief we may feel over it, nevertheless, verse 2, “let him who has done this be removed from among you.” Paul has written to them before, remember, pleading with them, offering counsel, admonishing them over this very same issues. This is not a summary judgment, in other words. This is part of an ongoing process between Paul and the Corinthian believers and they have failed to implement Biblical directives regarding the discipline of this unrepentant church member. And so, verse 3, he says, “As though I were with you, I have already passed judgments. Here is what you are to do;” Verse 4, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my Spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus 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.” In other words, he is to be excommunicated in the name and by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is to be removed from the fellowship and declared and treated like an unbeliever. He is, in Paul’s graphic language, to be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”
Outside the Visible Community of the Redeemed
That’s a pretty stunning turn of phrase, don’t you agree? “Handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” And if you think of the church as merely a provider of religious goods and services, another civic club with some singing and praying thrown in for good measure, this language here will be virtually incomprehensible to you. But if, with the Westminster Confession of Faith, we believe that actually the visible church is the kingdom of Jesus Christ outside of which “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation,” if we believe that the church is a supernatural institution, inhabited by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and endowed with real authority by God for the glory of God and the good of the people of God, these words become incredibly weighty, even chilling indeed. Because they tell us that to be put out of the church is to be taken from the visible community of the redeemed, living together under the rule of Christ, and instead to be placed outside, instead placed into the world under the sphere of Satan’s influence and power.
If you look down at verses 9 to 13, Paul explains what that means for the practice of the Corinthian churches. Christians, he says, are not even to associate or eat with those who have been disciplined by the elders of the church. Now in light of the earlier reference to the Passover in verses 6 through 8, to keep the feast, I think the Lord’s Supper is not far from Paul’s thinking here. So when he says that we are not even to eat with such a one I take that to be a reference, particularly to the Lord’s Supper. Excommunicated church members are no longer welcomed to the Corinthians’ love feasts where communion was celebrated. Now as he points out, he’s not saying that he wants Christians to withdraw from everyone who is immoral in some way or another. To do that, he says in verse 10, would be to suggest somehow that you should remove yourselves from the world. This is not counsel saying we ought to become monastic in some manner. But he is calling us to godly, loving church discipline nevertheless.
An Imaginary Scenario:
So let me try and paint a picture of how this might look in the Corinthian church. Imagine the scenario with me! After many tears and prayers and pleadings from friends and church leaders to come to his senses, this man has obstinately persisted in an illicit relationship. And so now, with the command of the apostle Paul ringing in their ears, the church gathers for worship as usual on the Lord’s Day and the man is excommunicated from their fellowship, formally removed from among them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so now he finds himself outside, no longer welcome. Though he may come to the church from time to time, he’s no longer welcomed to the Lord’s Table as once he was. He’s no longer treated like a brother among brothers and sisters. Now he finds himself to be the object almost of a sort of evangelism as those around him call him, whenever they see him, to repentance and to come back to Christ. His small group, where he seemed to grow so quickly as a mutual accountability was practiced under the teaching of the Bible, his small group now prays for him, faithfully to be sure, but they can no longer welcome him into their intimate circle than they could any other unbeliever. And so now when they see him they don’t run from him but what they say is, “Old friend, won’t you come back? I’m praying for you that the Lord Jesus would bring you to your senses and restore you to your fellowship. We love you and we want you back. Won’t you repent? Turn back! Come back!”
Now to be sure for a while at least he felt free to indulge his vice with impunity, with no one pricking his conscience. But after a while, the joy of his sin begins to leech away and the pleasure of it starts to feel empty and cold and soon he catches himself reminiscing with fondness and no small degree of regret about the comfort once he knew among his friends when at the church they spoke together about the Gospel and the glories of the grace of God renovating their hearts. Increasingly he finds himself aching for those moments that he can remember that are only memories now when he would lift his voice with a full heart, together with brothers and sisters, to praise the name of the Savior he professed to love. And so slowly, slowly, slowly the Lord works by the discipline that he has received. It becomes to him a means of grace and his seared, slumbering conscience that refused before to repent begins to wake up and he is convicted of his sin. And he comes to see the exchange that he once made so eagerly swapping out the joy in the company of the people of God for the fleeting pleasures of sexual sin for a season.
Now he sees that exchange to be hardly a fair trade after all. How deceived he now realizes he has been and so one Sunday morning he can’t stay away any longer. And he’s found there sitting in a corner in the shadows trying to keep a low profile, all the defiance now gone from his eyes. Tears beginning to flow as the good news about Jesus Christ and His blood that can make the foulest clean is proclaimed from the pulpit. And so he’s back again the next week and then the next and the week after that. And week by week the Lord is at work in his heart and in his conscience until he comes to the pastor and confesses through tears his sin, pours out his remorse, makes plans to make amends to any and all that he has wronged. He bears fruit in keeping with repentance and soon he’s before the elders and with joy one Sunday morning as the Lord’s Table is spread in the presence of the congregation, he is readmitted into communicant membership and the whole congregation rejoices and praises God together because a prodigal son, who was lost, has come home. And a sinner, who has been living in open rebellion and scandal, has repented and come to bend the knee anew to King Jesus. The flesh is destroyed, as Paul puts it. The spirit has been saved. God, through the discipline, imposed, as restored the rebel, sinful church member to good standing.
The Dynamic That Discipline Demands
The danger discipline addresses. The duty discipline imposes – hard, sore, grievous, heartbreaking duty. Yet as we pray and plead with God for the one who is disciplined, God can make it a means of grace for their restoration. Then thirdly notice the dynamic that discipline demands. Look at verses 6 to 8 again. Paul, as I said earlier, is developing this illustration, this metaphor about the way Passover works. Leaven is to be ruthlessly purged from the home so that the bread can be unleavened. He says, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” The church is like unleavened bread. This is what you really are. So be who you really are! Live out who you already are by the grace of God. Be who you are. Not just individually in your Christian life as you discipline yourself to walk in holiness clinging to Christ, but corporately together as you hold one another accountable to walk in holiness, clinging to Christ. Be who you are!
Live In Light of the Cross
“For,” he says in verse 7, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. 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.” The Gospel of the crucified Lamb of God, Jesu Christ our true Passover, changes everything. Doesn’t it? It changes everything. Because Jesus has died and shed His blood for us, we are saved. And if we are to keep the lifelong festival of celebration for all that Jesus has done, then the leaven of sin is simply not welcome in our lives any longer. In light of the cross, in light of what Christ has done, what will we refuse to do to seek to make our lives conform to all that He asks of us? “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.” Remember? “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all!” Jesus has died and so He can claim everything, not just of each of us but of all of us together. The cross changes everything! Live in light of the cross. Live in light of the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ who gave all for you and you will see that sin cannot be played with or trifled with or indulged. But we are to live individually and corporately a life of holiness and purity. We want nothing so much as to please Him, to live for Him, together as a family of the people of God. And when one of us turns aside and wanders off and refuses to come home, we use all the means He has given us to get through to them in an effort to win them back and to see them restored as prodigals, who, though they have wandered to a far country, come to themselves eventually and return home.
So Paul is asking us, in light of the cross, to really be who Christ died to make us – unleavened, that is, holy. Not perfect, to be sure, but striving by the grace of God to live for Him as we celebrate the festival with gratitude. Jesus our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed and nothing can be the same again. We don’t get to live the way we once did when we made no claim to love and follow and trust in Christ. He has died, purchased us by His blood, now we are His and we live together as a church under His rule. He has died and nothing can be the same again.
The danger that discipline addresses – a little leaven leavens the whole lump, Paul says. The duty that discipline imposes – cleanse out the old leaven. Hard though it will be to do it, it is an act of love. And though you do it with tears, the faithful exercise of church discipline will protect and preserve the purity of the church and may by the grace of God win back the wandering believer. Then the dynamic that discipline demands – if we live in light of the cross, seeing how Christ has loved us, we will love what Christ loves and want to please Him in the way that we live. And so we will love holiness and we will love one another enough to practice faithful, tender, slow, patient accountability, calling each other to walk with us as we seek to walk in paths of Christian obedience.
May the Lord help us to live in light of the cross, for Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, therefore we are to be who He died to make us. Let us pray!
Our Father, as we bow before You, we confess this is hard. This is hard to think about, hard to practice. We confess that we like Christianity that stays at the level of doctrines but doesn’t descend to the depths of our lives, of the details and motives of our hearts. Yet You call us not only to the form of godliness but to the power of it, to the reality of it. And so we ask that You would bring us all back again within sight of Calvary. Bring us back to the cross, seeing there what has been done for us – Your love displayed there in the blood of Christ our Passover Lamb. Would You enable us and strengthen us in gratitude for Him to begin to live privately, personally, and corporately and publicly for Your glory and praise in new obedience, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.
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