For an introduction to this series, click here.
I mentioned that the Corinthian church had a lot of serious problems, and in this chapter Paul confronts the most serious problem: severe immorality in the 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. 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." (5:1-5)
The greatest sin, according to Paul, was not this man's sin; it was the fact that the church tolerated it. This passage is one of the few passages dealing with church discipline in the epistles. This is something that 999 out of 1,000 churches, by my unscientific estimation, misunderstand and misapply. The vast majority of churches may have a provision for church discipline in their constitution, but they have never and will never actually practice it. Most churches just figure this kind of thing takes care of itself: those who are living in sin will eventually leave anyway. Of course, a few churches use church discipline indiscriminately or with vindictiveness, but that is not the right way either.
The purpose of church discipline is to bring the sinning brother back into fellowship and to ensure the purity of the church. This is an important point. The point of discipline is not to permanently kick the brother out. If he is a believer, the Lord can use the fact that his fellow believers in the church are confronting his sin to deal with him. It's hard to be comfortable in your sin when many of your friends in the church are trying to help you and are confronting you in a loving but firm way. If the church ignores your sin or is personally spiteful, it's easier to feel justified in your sin.
"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." (5:6-7)
This is where the purity of the church comes in. There is an attitude that develops when people are tolerant of blatant, open sin, whether it be in the church or anywhere else. And that attitude is a great danger. The church needs to be ever vigilant in its efforts to ensure its purity and its commitment to carrying forth the work of the Lord Jesus.
Paul continues his discourse on the need for church discipline: "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?" (5:9-12, ESV)
This is very interesting. God does not expect us to judge the outside world, but he does expect us to judge those in the church. Too many times we do the exact opposite. Thousands of Christians all over the country are trying to "reclaim America for God" by trying to force morality on our lost society through legislation, while at the same time we overlook the sins of those in our midst, because they are "one of us." Now certainly we need to do our part when it comes to politics and citizenship, but it is more important to make sure our churches are what they ought to be. And that is a lot easier than trying to get some minor political victory. And it will do more good, in the long term. Our job is to save the lost, not to make this world a nicer place to go to hell from.