Cut it out

Quarrelling and divisions over leaders was a problem in the Corinthian church. Paul had identified worldly living and immaturity as the cause. Now in chapters 5 and 6 Paul deals with three specific forms of ill discipline that needed to be dealt with.

When treating cancer, doctors recognise that there are cells that have impaired functioning of their inbuilt mechanisms that control growth. Normally cells divide and grow as old worn out cells are replaced. This process is tightly controlled and renewal of cells maintains good function of organs and tissues. When cells become cancerous they start to divide without a proper functioning of the mechanisms that control cell growth and division, the result is that cells multiply in an uncontrolled manner and this results in the formation of tumours. In some cases the cells break off the tumour and travel to other parts of the body where they lodge and continue to divide and grow. In the former case a so-called benign tumour results but when the cells break off and grow elsewhere the tumour is malignant. Often these out of control cells grow at a much faster rate than normal cells. This malfunction in cell growth is extremely dangerous to the survival of the organism in which these changes take place and drastic action is required to remedy the situation.  If possible the tumour is removed surgically, but if the tumour has spread, treatment may often involve administration of potent drugs which are poisonous to all cells, but as the cancerous cells grow so much faster than normal cells the cancer cells are more susceptible to such drug treatment.

Just as these cancerous cells result in danger to the entire organism so out of control individuals in the church in Corinth were causing concern for the survival of the entire church. Drastic action was required.  In chapter 5, Paul prescribes a treatment plan to deal with the problem and prevent reoccurrence.

  1. The problem

A report has reached Paul that one of the members of the Corinthian church has been involved in a form of sexual immorality that was even considered to be inexcusable in a non-Christian setting. A man was sleeping with his father’s wife. This is all we are told, but we can be fairly sure that the woman involved was not the man’s biological mother but was his step-mother and the wife of his father – perhaps a second (or third!) wife. Whether this woman was divorced from the man’s father or whether the father was even alive we are not told, but the situation would be considered to be one of incest nonetheless. It seems that this was not a one-off indiscretion but was rather an ongoing situation. To make matters worse the church had neither condemned nor sought to correct this situation but had rather been proud of it! It’s hard to imagine why they felt proud about this, but perhaps they felt that they were demonstrating a broad minded attitude to the way that they lived. Later on in the letter Paul talks about the Corinthians having freedom to do what they liked and perhaps this is an example of that attitude. Tolerance is a much lauded attribute of the church and there is no doubt that one of God’s attributes is his tolerance and patience (Romans 2:4), but sin is not to be tolerated. The church was tolerating a deeply sinful situation that was damaging to its reputation and dangerous to its own survival.

Interestingly Paul had already passed judgement on this situation, previously Paul had discouraged judgement but it seems that whilst there are some things that are best left to God’s judgement there are others that call for an immediate and direct response.

  • The solution

Just as cancer needs to be treated with urgency and with strong medicine so this situation needed to be sorted out quickly. The reason for this was that such sin was damaging to the whole of the church.  Paul instructed the Corinthians to meet and ‘hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the Day of the Lord’.  It is not entirely clear what this means, but what seems certain is that the man in question was to be barred from attending the church. I remember being on the committee of a pharmaceutical industry association. The association ran various meetings and courses and at one of the meetings we invited science students to attend to give them a feel for the pharmaceutical industry. At one of these meetings one industry member had harassed some of these young female students. The committee were extremely hesitant to act but eventually were persuaded that the reputation of the association was under threat. We had to act to protect both those students whom we invited as well as our own association’s future and reputation. Eventually the offending member was threatened with exclusion. In Corinth the situation was sufficiently bad to immediately exclude the offender. But what about handing him over to Satan?  Interestingly both Ananias and Sapphira had died as a result of their blatant and wilful sin. Paul later would associate sinfulness in Corinth with illness and even death (1 Corinthians 11: 30). It seems that the purpose of handing this man over to Satan was to bring about his death – in order to save his spirit and I think also to preserve the life of the church. We might ask if such discipline is required in the church today. There seems to be something specific in this judgement (ill health and death) to the early church, but exclusion from meeting seems to be a right response to such gross, habitual and open sin today.

Note that Paul states that the effect of this punishment would be salvation for the man’s spirit on the day of the Lord. We have come across the ‘Day of the Lord’ before in many of the Old Testament writings.  The day of the Lord was associated with a judgment period involving great difficulty for the people of Israel (what we have previously known as the night time period) and this is followed by a day time period in which the Messiah comes and sets up his kingdom. If we take the view that the Day of the Lord has Israel’s national repentance and reformation in view we may now associate this event with some sort of effect on believers in the church age. Paul has already mentioned that there was to be an evaluation of the work of believers and has previously described how the work of each believer will be tested with fire. Rewards will be given for work that survives the test of fire.  In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul gives a bit more information about this evaluation and states (2 Corinthians 5:10) ‘for we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’. He used a word ‘bema’ for this. The bema was a place in the Greek town for awarding athletes and for settling disputes. The man involved in this serious sin was to finally be saved on the day of the Lord, at the judgement seat, but it seems that for now a premature death is better both for him and the church.

Paul has now something to say about bread making! When Israel celebrated Passover they made unleavened bread – bread without any yeast. They would remove all the yeast from the household as part of the ritual of this celebration. The removal of all the yeast was a symbol of total cleansing of sin. Sin has a habit of infiltrating every part of us, just as yeast has an effect on an entire batch of dough.  ‘Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – just as you are’. In this statement Paul indicates that there must be a connection between what we are and what we do. The Corinthians were believers and when we believe we are cleansed of sin, given eternal life and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is how God views us – through all that Jesus has accomplished on the cross. But God’s work is not yet finished. We still retain the old sinful nature, it’s not yet eradicated – it will be one day when we are changed to be like Jesus, but not yet. In our present condition we have a need to rid ourselves of the yeast of sin. Paul invited the Corinthians to keep the Passover festival, but not with old bread containing the yeast of malice and wickedness but with new bread devoid of yeast but containing sincerity and truth.

In this section, Paul describes Jesus and the cleansing of our lives using Old Testament images. The image of bread without yeast came from the original festival of unleavened bread, Paul also uses the first festival of the Israeli calendar: Passover. At the original Passover (see Exodus 11)  a lamb without blemish was killed and the blood of the lamb was placed on the doorposts. We discover that the angel of death entered every household except those households who had been obedient and had applied the blood.  God himself ‘passed over’ the people and gave protection. The picture is of one giving protection from the angel of death. The circumstances in the first Passover were that this event not only saved the people from death but brought about the end of slavery in Egypt. One can imagine some of this understanding dawning on the Corinthians and a realisation that they needed to live their lives in a new and more noble way.  I suspect that there are few if any churches today in which similar incestuous relationships are to be found, but what is our relationship with sin? Are we happy to tolerate a little bit here and there? We have gone carpet-less in our house, all the rooms now have hard floors and I am forever amazed at the rapid build up of dust in the corners of the rooms. The vacuum cleaner comes out on a regular basis and it feels good to be rid of the dust – are we as particular about our lives and sin? Let’s get God’s big vacuum cleaner out and rid ourselves of the old ways of sin and install sincerity and truth.

  • Prevention

Once a cancer is treated by removal either surgically or by the use of drugs it is vital to monitor the patient for reoccurrence. There is a danger that the cells will return and sometimes in a more aggressive form than the original disease. Paul now urges the Corinthians to avoid reoccurrence of this sin.

It is impossible for us to live in this world without coming into contact with unbelievers involved in sinful acts such as immorality, greed, theft and idolatry. Paul says that for the Corinthians to avoid such people in the world would require leaving the world itself! But it is possible, in fact it is imperative for us to avoid such people in the church. Paul says that we ought to avoid like the plague anyone who claims to be a Christian but who is sexually immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunk or a swindler.

Once this sinful man has been dealt with by expulsion from the church and he is handed over to Satan it was important for the believers in Corinth to prevent such a thing happening again. We have seen how the early church were advised how to deal with this serious sin by cutting it out. Now they are called on to prevent reoccurrence.  Paul advises that they do not associate with such people and that they do not even eat with them. Please note that list of these types of damaging sins is broad from sexually immoral to slander from idolatry to greedy. Our evaluation should start with ourselves, are we a danger to the reputation and survival of the church? Have we removed the yeast of malice and evil and replaced it with sincerity and truth?