Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

God's Wisdom and Church Discipline

1 Corinthians 5:1-13

Teaching t22256


Review Corinthians behavioral problems (LIST). Paul wanted behavioral change, but he didn’t pursue it moralistically (CHART). He knew that their behavioral problems were symptoms of the root problem—they were operating by the wisdom of the world instead of by God’s wisdom (CHART). So Paul calls on them to change their operational wisdom, because this will transform in their behavior.

In chapter 5, he addresses another behavioral problem—their failure to practice strong church discipline when needed.

Refusal to practice church discipline

Read 5:1-5. One of their members has seduced his step-mother (while his father is still living) and is carrying on a sexual relationship with her (5:1 “has”). Paul insists that they remove this man from their church community until he decisively repents from this behavior.

But as upset as Paul is about this man’s sin, he is more upset at their reaction to his sin. They should have “been filled with grief” about it and already taken the decisive action Paul now insists that they take. Instead, they were “proud”—probably they congratulated themselves on how loving they were. This behavior showed that they were operating by WOW.

What is your reaction to the idea of strong church discipline? Is it like Paul’s, or like the Corinthians? Your answer could be a reaction to an abuse of church discipline you have witnessed. But it also could be an indicator that you are operating by WOW.

WOW views people as basically good and morally self-correcting. Therefore, it views love primarily as affirmation, even to moral permissiveness. Therefore, it views discipline (especially strong discipline) as unloving, harsh, rejection, etc.

WOG views people as fallen—prone to selfishness and self-deception which damages them and those around them. Therefore, it views love as having moral fiber, including strong discipline when needed (Heb.12:6). Therefore, it views refusal to discipline when needed as unloving (read Prov.13:24).

So for Christians, who claim that WOG is the true guide to reality, our refusal to practice this kind of church discipline (when needed) is a sign that we are still following the WOW. This is why Paul goes on to explain how church discipline, in light of God’s wisdom, is redemptive.

Why church discipline is redemptive

The first reason is that it may be the only thing that can help the person come to his senses (read 5:5). When Paul insists that they deliver this man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, he doesn’t mean “Take him to a satanic cult so that they offer him as a human sacrifice.” He means: “Turn him out of the community where Jesus loves and guides and protects (the church), and turn him over to the cold world, where Satan has no regard for people’s welfare. And why should they do this? “That his sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved.” In other words, so that by this painful consequence he may realize this lifestyle is wrong, and turn back to God in his spirit and be restored to the proper path. And when he responded this way, Paul insisted that they receive him back (read 2Cor.2:6-8).

Our culture still gets this in at least one area. If a husband/father is addicted to alcohol, for example, and refuses to get help in spite of lesser measures by his family, they need to have an intervention. The intervention communicates: “You have a serious problem, you haven’t listened to our pleas to get help—so now, because we love you, we are making you choose between admitting your problem and getting help and continuing to live in this home and its encouraging environment.” If he refuses, they turn him out in the hope that through this painful consequence he will see that he needs to get help. And if he does respond, they receive him back.

Of course, this is only effective if the person has actually been in loving Christian community and experienced how good it is. This is another reason why most western churches fail to practice church discipline effectively. People don’t know what’s going on in one another’s lives because there is no real community. And even if a serious problem comes to light and discipline is practiced, it’s usually not effective because the person never experienced the benefits of loving community enough to miss it.

But we do practice real community in this church through our home groups, and although this kind of discipline is rarely necessary, our home groups do practice it. And we have seen people thus disciplined come to deep repentance, be welcomed back, and be grateful that their brothers and sisters loved them enough to do this.

The second reason is that this is necessary for the spiritual health of the church (read 5:6). Just as leaven (yeast), if not extracted, eventually spreads through a lump of bread dough, so an attitude of prideful moral indifference (“boasting”), if not checked through discipline, will spread throughout a church community.

What happens to the morale of a football team if a player chronically refuses to participate in the practice drills—and yet is still allowed to play in the games? The other players begin disrespect the coaches, to let up in their own effort in practice, and this leads to poor game performance. A breakdown in discipline leads to a breakdown in morale, which leads to breakdown in game performance. That’s one reason why a good coach will suspend the offending player, and not let him return to the team until he sees a change of attitude.

The same thing happens when a church community refuses to discipline blatantly selfish, sinful behavior by one of its members. “When anything goes, then nothing matters.” We begin to feel: “Why should I be zealous to follow Jesus even when it means denying my selfish desires?” So most people quit trying, and zealous people leave to find other Christians who are serious about following Jesus. The lump becomes leavened. But when that community is willing to discipline the offender, their zeal and energy for the things of God returns. I once had to help a home group discipline a seminary graduate member who was seducing the newer women, telling them that the Bible permitted sexual promiscuity. We had to refute him in a special church meeting, and we had to cast him out because he refused to change his position on this. Afterward, many of the members told me: “A spiritual heaviness over our group has been removed. We see that God’s truth is costly, and we are re-committed to God’s ways, and we feel His powerful support again.”

The third reason is that this is necessary for the effectiveness of the church’s witness to the watching world (read 5:7,8). God delivered the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, and He told them to celebrate their deliverance by eating unleavened bread. When others asked them why they did this, it would be an opportunity for them to tell about their great God.

This was a picture of Jesus’ sacrifice to deliver us from bondage to sin, and we are to celebrate our deliverance by being a community that is full of sincerity and truth and “unleavened” by malice and wickedness. When we live out who we are, those who observe us will wonder and sometimes ask: “Why do they live this way that is so different yet attractive?” As Ray Stedman says: “When we live in victory over the forces that destroy others, then people begin to see that there is meaning and purpose and reason for the salvation we profess to have.”

Conversely, nothing turns people off to Christianity like hypocrites—people who claim to believe in Jesus but live blatantly immoral and selfish lives. Nothing, that is, except whole churches that tolerate this kind of hypocrisy.

So strong church discipline is redemptive. It can help the one disciplined to repent. It upholds and strengthens the spiritual morale of the church that practices it. And it preserves the moral and spiritual integrity that attracts others to Jesus. Having explained this, Paul ends with three warnings concerning church discipline(read 5-9-12) ...

3 warnings concerning church discipline

First, severe church discipline is only for chronic and very serious sinful behavior (5:11 LIST). All Christians remain sinners who sin every day. We practice forbearance with one another and seek to help one another grow through instruction and encouragement and lesser forms of correction and challenge. Only when members embrace a lifestyle that is very injurious to them and others are we to respond in this way—after a series of warnings (Matt.18:15-17).

Second, church discipline is for those who claim to belong to Jesus, not for those who don’t (5:11,12). Our concern is to preserve the integrity of the church, not to impose this way of life on people who don’t believe in its Source. There are probably people here this morning who do not know Jesus and are deeply immersed in materialism, or sexual immorality, or substance abuse and dependence, etc. When I didn’t have God’s love filling my heart, I sought to fill it with many of these things. The Christians who invited me to a Bible study knew I was doing these things, and that I needed Christ to fill the hole in my heart. Jesus does not threaten to cast you out unless you first clean up your moral life. Rather, He invites you to come to Him as you are, with all of your sins, and receive His forgiveness so His love can begin to change your life from the inside out. Are you willing?

Thirdly, withdrawing from non-Christians is just as wrong as not disciplining Christians (5:10). This is because the whole reason Jesus leaves His followers in this world is so that they can reach out to the people in it.

This is why Jesus called His followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt.5:13-16). Salt and light do their work by being both distinct from and in contact with their environments. Salt must be distinct from meat in contact in order to preserve and flavor it. Light must be in contact with dark places in order to illuminate them.

We don’t want to be like the Corinthian church—unsalty salt, in contact with the world but not different from it. We want to be radically different from it, even when this means practicing church discipline. But neither do we want to be a church that puts its light under a basket—isolating ourselves from contact with the world in the name of moral purity. We are committed to be a church that follows Christ in both ways—following Him into a lifestyle that is radically different from our lost culture, and following Him into that culture to reach out in love to those who are lost in it!

Ray Stedman, cited in Prior, D. (1985). The message of 1 Corinthians : Life in the local church. The Bible speaks today (79). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press.