Expelled: A Case for Excommunication in 1 Corinthian 5

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  Should a person be expelled from a church communion? Often, in the minds of modernity, the word “excommunication” conjures up disparaging images of a bygone puritanical society ostracizing an individual for a simple mistake or even false allegations. The idea that an individual can be removed from their place of fellowship is downright repugnant for many. However, this paper intends to illustrate, the conjured imagery of black-robed clerical bullies ousting members does not do the biblical practice of excommunication justice. In fact, although there may be obvious abuses of power within church history, the motivation behind expulsion should be for the betterment of all that are involved. This was indeed the case in Paul’s handling of an unrepentant individual who had done the unthinkable in 1 Corinthians 5.  By examining the Apostle Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5, it becomes apparent that church discipline, namely the excommunication of an unrepentant member, is not only biblical but necessary at times.

The Need for Discipline (5:1-2)

History of Immorality in Corinth

First, before addressing the extremely grievous situation found in 1 Corinthians 5, it is important for argument’s sake to paint the historical scene at Corinth. The ancient city of Corinth was known for its monumental temples, prosperous ports and also its rampant immorality. Corinth was Greco-Roman boomtown, where one could obtain great success in business and stoop to all-time lows with its excesses. Paul Weaver writes, “… there is one subject matter that was intensely problematic and for which the city was notoriously known. This was the issue of ‘immorality’ (1 Cor 5:1-12; 6:9-11; 6:12-20; 7:1-9; 10:6-8; 2 Cor 2:5-11; 12:12-21).”[1]  Indeed, in the Corinthian culture, there was a freedman mentality that desired to possess all the pleasures of the flesh, which was once unattainable. In Corinth, the sky was the limit economically, even if one was wallowing in the gutter of immorality.

In verse 1, Paul reveals this immoral behavior was present in the lives of some in the ecclesia.  Paul writes, “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you…” (KJV 1 Cor 5:1a).  French Arrington explains,

Many of the converts among the Corinthians had not made a final break with their old lifestyles. Christ had called them out of vice and sin, but those who had not made a clean break were slipping back into their old pagan ways. Word had circulated that fornication had crept into the church. In the New Testament the word fornication is used for unchastity and illicit sexual relations of all kinds.[2]

In fact, Paul’s concern for the fornication taking place at Corinth was not a new subject for the ears of the members of this ecclesia. Paul references at lost letter in verse 9 where he had previously addressed the issue of fornication and associations with the immoral. By these facts, it is clear the Corinthian culture, and the Christian worldview was on colliding paths. For the Christians at Corinth, they would need to abandon the history of immorality for a future of chastity. Even if it meant separation from those brethren caught in the indulgences of the flesh.

The Current Corinthian Crisis

First, although Paul addressed the issue of immorality in the past, the current situation in Corinth was even worse than in past incidences. Paul continues in writing in verse 1, “…and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife” (KJV 1 Cor 5:1). Paul is addressing a man marrying his step-mother in this verse. Arrington comments, “This is implied by Paul’s choice of words – ‘his father’s wife’ rather than ‘his mother’ (5:1).”[3]  Many scholars believe this relationship was, more than likely, instituted as a means to secure financial gains by not returning the great dowry given by the bride’s family. The return of these gifts in cases of the death of the husband or divorce were customary in Corinth. This marriage appears to be a contractual agreement to save face in the Corinthian culture.

Paul expresses unbelief in the acceptance of this marriage when he compares it to marriages among the Gentiles. The Jewish members of this congregation should have known that this type of relation was forbidden under Mosaic Law (Lev 18:8; Deut 22:30; 27:20). However, Derek McNamara states, “According to Roman law, it was illegal for a son to marry a step-mother (Gaius Inst. 1.63). However, Andrew Clarke suggests that as a tactic in preserving his deceased father’s estate this man married his step-mother.[4]” In short, not only were the Jewish congregants guilty but also the members from a pagan Roman background knew better too. No matter how the Corinthians wanted to spin this situation, it was simply unjustifiable.

Secondly, Paul gives a greater insight into the gravity of this incident in the Corinthian ecclesia. Paul pens, “And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (KJV 1 Cor 5:2). The Apostle Paul was baffled by the Corinthian congregation’s inaction. By keeping silent and not disciplining this gross offense the church had, in essence, endorsed this behavior. Weaver states,

They ought to have shown signs of great grief for this immoral behavior, and this sinning brother, but instead they chose not to act, and by not acting illustrated their great pride. It is probable in light of the instruction given in 6:12-13 that they had adopted the attitude that “everything is permissible.[5]

The offender and those around him were showboating this grave offense. As mentioned by Weaver, many have argued this was due to their misunderstanding of liberality in Christ. Albeit, this offender should have been removed from fellowship according to Paul.

Furthermore, scholars have posed that the Corinthians’ refusal to correct this offender may have been the result of the social status of the particular individual. Previously, the possibility was discussed that this marriage was arranged to retain wealth and status. If this is true, the offender was probably a well-to-do member with great influence over the ecclesia. It is possible the conventions of patronage and benefaction prevented the congregation from addressing this heinous sin. Nevertheless, the offender and congregation were unrepentant. This inaction provoked the Apostle Paul to issue an edict for excommunication.

The Case for Excommunication (5:3-9)

The Command to Remove Unrepentant Offender

            In Paul’s mind, the Corinthian ecclesia is taking on water, and if left unattended this deluge of immorality will spread to all compartments sealing the fate of the vessel. In verses 3 – 6, the Apostle reiterates the command of the Captain of his soul. He writes,

For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? (KJV 1 Cor 5:3-6).

The authority to expel an unrepentant member was given by Christ Himself (Matt 18:15-20). This passage is reminiscent of Christ’s teaching concerning the issue of church discipline in the Gospel of Matthew.  It appears Paul has in previous letters (and possible visits) has followed the prescription of Christ and now it is time for drastic measures. Paul commands the congregation to expel the unrepentant man from the fellowship.

Secondly, since the Corinthians hesitated to discipline this man because of his status, Paul employed a tactic to grasp their attention. Paul uses the conventions of patronage and benefaction to his advantage. McNamara writes, “In this case, the use of the apostle’s power is exercised in shaming his patron’s client who has engaged in an openly incestuous relationship. Paul is setting the example for the Corinthians as he shames the man who has shamed Jesus their super-patron.”[6] Paul was using the Corinthian culture and logic against them revealing the need for discipline. This rebellious man had brought shame to Christ. Being unrepentant, he was to be put to open shame in hopes of inducing genuine repentance.

Furthermore, it would be wrong not to address the problematic phrase “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (KJV 1 Cor 5:5).  There have been a plethora of interpretations, but Barth Campbell explains the most popular three understandings. He writes,

Most commentators opt for one of three understandings of Paul’s disciplinary sentence (paradounai to satana). (1) Some believe that the delivery to Satan will eventuate in a wasting physical illness suffered by the sinner. (2) Others believe the expulsion to lead to the destruction of the transgressor’s sinful nature. In either instance the repentance and ultimate salvation of the offender eventually ensue, even though Satan is the instrument of the effective discipline. (3) Still others regard the sentence pronounced by Paul to mean physical death at Satan’s hand. [7]

No matter which interpretation one espouses the result is the offender will be ultimately, “saved in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Mario Philip writes, “The phrase, ‘in the day of the Lord’, implies that the salvation spoken of is of eschatological significance. The clause, ‘in order that the spirit be saved’, indicates both the purpose and result of handing over the offender to Satan.”[8] Although Paul wants this person ousted from the fellowship to keep its integrity, he is still genuinely concerned for this person’s eternal salvation.

Reasons for Removal and Old Testament Symbolism

Although it has already been mentioned that Paul wants to cut out this infection in the body of the ecclesia at Corinth in hopes of future reconciliation, in verses 5-8, Paul illustrates the urgency of excommunicating the unrepentant offender by linking it to practices in the Old Testament. The two symbols mentioned are leaven and Passover. These images depict the separation from sinful practices that God’s holiness demands. The first image is that of leaven. The second image is the Passover meal (pascha), which consisted of a lamb without spot or blemish. Dean O. Wenthe writes,

By linking this statement [pascha or Passover Lamb] to the “old leaven-lump” imagery, Paul certainly underscores the urgency of having the offending incestuous party dealt with and removed. In a word, the apostle brings out and rightly stresses the obedience dimension of the Passover state of affairs.[9]

For Paul, the judgment would quickly fall on the offender (and if not addressed the congregation too), much like the in the days of old. The unrepentant sinner must be removed for the sake of holiness.

Secondly, Paul’s allusion to the ecclesia being the Temple of God cannot be overstated (1 Cor 3:16, 17). Sean McDonough writes, “These same Corinthians have already been labeled the temple of God in 3:16, an image which is picked up again in 6:19, though in the latter case it may refer to the individual rather than the corporate body.”[10] This fact had to be in the minds of the original readers of this epistle. Brian Rosner explains, “An important motif of exclusion from the community in the OT and early Judaism is temple and holiness; sinners were excluded to maintain the sanctity of God’s temple.” All of the imageries mentioned above, which would have resounded in the Jewish member’s mind, reveal why in Paul’s mind the offender must be removed from the community. For Paul, the standard is still holiness unto the LORD.

Community and Culture (5:9-13)

            In this section, Paul must have assumed the next question drawn was how the Corinthians could be a separate and holy people while living amidst the filth of Corinthian culture. It is a fair question; how do these teachings affect relations with the outside world? In verses 9-13, Paul reveals the extent of church discipline. First, church discipline involves only members of the community. Paul writes, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world” (KJV 1 Cor 5:9-10). The matter of dealing with sin is an internal ecclesial matter. The sinners outside the church were expected to act like unregenerate men, but it was not to be so among the brethren.

If one who claimed to be a Christian was living in open, flagrant sin, Paul tells the congregation to not fellowship with this individual. This may seem harsh, but Paul has the overall integrity of the fellowship in mind. Not to mention this action was to bring the erring person to repentance. Wayne A Meeks writes, “To shun the offender, especially at common meals – the Lord’s Supper and others – would be an effective way of letting him know that he no longer had access to that special fellowship indicated by the use of the term brother.”[11]

Secondly, church discipline involves all church members (v.11-13). Paul does not show respect of persons and states that all members, regardless of social standing, need to follow Christ’s commands for church discipline. If a person is unrepentant, the sanctity of the fellowship is in jeopardy if no disciplinary actions are taken.

Conclusion

            In conclusion, as one can see, a brief study of 1 Corinthians 5 reveals that excommunication is not only biblical but necessary. Although many churches may shy away because of the unpopularity of this practice, it is clear they are not following Christ’s protocol if there are unrepentant brethren in their ranks.  Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (KJV 1 Cor 11:1). After examination of this passage in light of Christ’s command in Matthew 18, Paul was following Christ in the excommunication of this man. However, even in the act of excommunication, the motivation should be to bring the person to repentance, thus, restoring one to right fellowship with God.  Despite the atrocious applications throughout history, excommunication – if applied properly – is still a viable form of church discipline.


[1] Paul D. Weaver, “Ancient Corinth, Prostitution, and 1 Corinthians 5-7,” Journal Of Ministry & Theology 19, no. 1 (Spring2015 2015): 116-155, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016), 116.

[2] French L. Arrington, Divine Order in the Church, (Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press, 1998), 42.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4]Derek Michael McNamara, “Shame the incestuous man: 1 Corinthians 5,” Neotestamentica 44, no. 2 (2010 2010): 307-326, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016), 307.

[5] Paul D. Weaver, “Ancient Corinth, Prostitution, and 1 Corinthians 5-7,” Journal Of Ministry & Theology 19, no. 1 (Spring2015 2015): 116-155, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016), 114.

[6] Derek Michael McNamara, “Shame the incestuous man: 1 Corinthians 5,” Neotestamentica 44, no. 2 (2010 2010): 307-326, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016), 314.

[7] Barth Lynn Campbell, “Flesh and Spirit in 1 Cor 5:5: An Exercise in Rhetorical Criticism of the NT,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 3 (September 1993): 331-342, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016), 331-332.

[8] Mario Phillip, “Delivery into the Hands of Satan–A Church in Apostasy and not Knowing it: An Exegetical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 5:5.” Evangelical Review Of Theology 39, no. 1 (January 2015): 45-60, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016), 53.

[9] Dean O. Wenthe, “Exegetical study of 1 Corinthians 5:7b,” Springfielder 38, no. 2 (September 1974): 134-140, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

[10] Sean M. McDonough, “Competent to judge: the Old Testament connection between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6,” The Journal Of Theological Studies 56, no. 1 (April 2005): 99-102, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed September 4, 2016), 101.

[11] Wayne A. Meeks, First Urban Christians:The Social World of the Apostle Paul. n.p.: New Haven : Yale University Press, c1983., 1983, LEE UNIV’s Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed October 8, 2016).


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arrington, French L., Divine Order in the Church. Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press. 1998.

Campbell, Barth Lynn. “Flesh and Spirit in 1 Cor 5:5: An Exercise in Rhetorical Criticism of the NT.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 3 (September 1993): 331-342. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

McDonough, Sean M. “Competent to judge: the Old Testament connection between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6.” The Journal Of Theological Studies 56, no. 1 (April 2005): 99-102. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed September 4, 2016).

McNamara, Derek Michael. “Shame the incestuous man: 1 Corinthians 5.” Neotestamentica 44, no. 2 (2010 2010): 307-326. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

Meeks, Wayne A. The first urban Christians : the social world of the Apostle Paul. n.p.: New Haven : Yale University Press, c1983., 1983. LEE UNIV’s Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed October 8, 2016).

Phillip, Mario. “Delivery into the Hands of Satan–A Church in Apostasy and not Knowing it: An Exegetical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 5:5.” Evangelical Review Of Theology 39, no. 1 (January 2015): 45-60. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

Rosner, Brian S. “Temple and holiness in 1 Corinthians 5.” Tyndale Bulletin 42, no. 1 (May 1991): 137-145. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

Weaver, Paul D. “Ancient Corinth, Prostitution, and 1 Corinthians 5-7.” Journal Of Ministry & Theology 19, no. 1 (Spring2015 2015): 116-155. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

Wenthe, Dean O. “Exegetical study of 1 Corinthians 5:7b.” Springfielder 38, no. 2 (September 1974): 134-140. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 4, 2016).

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