The church of Corinth were a proud people. This is not a compliment when it is spoken of a Christian group. Christians are more suitably grateful to God for salvation from sin and from the sin nature. As I talked about in my commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:6-21, none of us has anything to boast about, so let’s be careful that we don’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap of feeling superior to the Corinthian Christians. So many of us are proud people, and proud of it.
The Corinthian Church had a not-so-secret. One of their number had set up housekeeping with his father’s wife. As many commentators have pointed out, this woman was probably not the man’s mother, but rather his stepmother. Also, she was apparently not a part of the church as she is not censured by Paul. Corinth (pop ~500K) was a notoriously immoral city, home to the pagan goddess of love, Aphrodite, as well as the location of temples to a number of other gods. Aphrodite’s followers took their worship seriously. Pretty much every kind of sexual practice was A-OK in Corinth. But not this–not this incest that the Corinthian Church was openly tolerating in their midst. Even the cosmopolitan gentiles of Corinth found this shocking. Today, we might say, “This kind of immorality is not even condoned in Hollywood.” Yet the church was just ignoring it, focusing on themselves and how spiritual they were, or maybe even proud of their own tolerant attitude toward this “struggling” brother.
Paul’s advice is pretty out-front. Maybe even a little harsh. Isn’t it more important to just love people? Give them the chance to see how great we are so they’ll want to be just like us? Well, yes and no. In this case, the love takes on a tougher exterior than lace and flowers and tolerance for all. Still, the motivation for the tough treatment (rejection) is to motivate the sinning brother to leave his sin, repent and be cleansed. Besides having the best interests of the sinner as motivation, the church also needs to protect herself from becoming like the world.
Leaven (yeast–the stuff that grows and spreads in bread dough and makes it rise) is here a symbol of sin. Just as yeast propagates itself until it permeates a whole batch of dough, sin also spreads throughout the church when not dealt with. When we ignore sin in one believer’s life, other believers (particularly new believers and young people) will naturally see the sin as less hideous that it truly is. Or, failing that, allow bitterness (at the church’s hypocracy) to grow, or they may engage in gossip, or see themselves as superior to the sinner (whatever I may be guilty of, I’m not as bad as brother so and so . . .)
Thus, Paul advises the Corinthians to mourn and grieve so that the one who committed this act might be removed from among them. Does this mean they are to only grieve and wait for God to remove the sinner? Will the grief itself drive him away? Or does Paul expect the church to ask this man to leave? When Paul advises the church to “turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”, is he referring to some sort of ceremony or prayer meeting, or does he mean the sinner should be cast out of the spiritual safety of the fellowship and back into the kingdom of this world, which is the kingdom of Satan? The latter makes more sense to me. Whatever the specific meaning is, the motivation is clear–that the fallen brother might be saved in the Day of the Lord. The Enhanced Strongs Lexicon defines destruction as: external ills and troubles by which the lusts of the flesh are subdued and destroyed.
Churches in those days were smaller and more intimate. They met in small gatherings in homes, by the riverbank, at Starbucks–well maybe not Starbucks, but you get the idea. They were small and informal and more likely to know one another . . . very well. A situation like the one discussed in this passage was less likely to go unnoticed in such a setting. Is there some merit to having smaller churches, or at least, smaller groups within churches where people really do know one another? Obviously, this would be a more challenging way to “be the church”. It would demand much more of us, and maybe we’d just as soon other people in our church didn’t know us too well. And what do we do if we find that someone in our church or group is engaged in unrepentant sin? Is it only incest that merits this treatment, or will sodomy or adultery do? What about the gray areas? Should we put out smokers and drinkers? Paul talks about this in the very next section of his letter, and I will also, in my next post.
Sin, like yeast, affects the whole body of believers. The point of redemption is not to be made holy and then go about defiling the temple of God (our bodies) as we please because Jesus already paid for our sins. This is not the new life Jesus bought for us. We are to genuinely become new creatures in Christ, and this will result in a change of our behavior. The Bride of Jesus must be spotless, pure, without blemish. The bride is all of us taken together as well as each of us as individuals. We show our sincerity and truth as true followers of Christ when we keep ourselves pure.
Grace and Peace,