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"Among" the Corinthians (3): Fornication "Among You"

J Hay, Comrie


Added to the internal wrangling exposed earlier, there was this further source of grief to the apostle: fornication among them (1 Cor 5.1). The focus now switches from Division to Defilement. There was an extreme case of misbehaviour among them but as the chapter unfolds there is teaching on the subject of discipline, an important aspect of assembly life. How discipline should be enacted is explained, together with a list of sins for which the only appropriate action would be the excommunication of the offender.

Appalling Sin

Paul highlights the Shame of the sin; it was "among you". This was "the church of God which is at Corinth". These people were "sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints" (1.1), and yet such a disgusting situation had emerged among them. He also underlines the seriousness of the sin - "such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles" (5.1). A man was in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother while his father was alive and evidently smarting from the humiliation of being sidelined (2 Cor 7.12). Roman law forbade such a relationship as did God's Law (e.g. Lev 18.8), and yet this couple were cohabiting brazenly.

Emphasis is laid on the scandal of the sin; it was "reported commonly". A community so debased as Corinth was difficult to shock, and yet this was a talking point, the subject of gossip, a scoop that would fuel the flames of opposition to Christianity in the community. We might have said to the culprits, "What about the testimony of God?". We could have told them that like David, their actions were giving "great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme" (2 Sam 12.14), and yet the whole assembly remained inured to the sense of public outrage that was destroying their credibility. May we all be preserved from any behaviour that would impinge on Christ's reputation in our districts.

Not only does Paul expose the damage done to the testimony but he also explains the impact on the assembly itself. It must have deflated the pride of these men of knowledge to read his words: "Know ye not?" (v.6). The fact that the whole assembly had been "leavened" by the toleration of sin among them seemed to have passed them by. The situation almost replicates an Old Testament incident. Achan's sin at Jericho is described as "the children of Israel committ(ed) a trespass" (Josh 7.1). The lesson is that if only one assembly member behaves badly the whole company is polluted. From the divine standpoint, positionally the assembly is "unleavened" (v.7), but at a practical level it can be besmirched by just one errant believer.

Attitude Problems

Compounding the horrific evil among them was their attitude to it. It was one of complacency and tolerance; "ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned" (v.2). The apostle is about to introduce the theme of the Passover (v.7), and the other food items that accompanied the roast lamb were unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex 12.8). In a spiritual sense they had not been eating the unleavened bread for they were "puffed up". Possibly they were glorying in their tolerance. Perhaps there was more than a modicum of pride in the "love" and "the spirit of forgiveness" that allowed them to rest easy despite such gross misconduct among them. Neither had they been eating the bitter herbs, for they had "not rather mourned". The situation should have driven them to their knees in contrition. Like Jeremiah, their eyes should have been "a fountain of tears" (Jer 9.1), and yet there had been a smug contentment with the status quo, and, like modern law enforcement agencies, they just applied the NFAR stamp - No Further Action Required.

Even yet, the "Judge not, that ye be not judged" of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7.1) is pushed beyond the bounds of context. There the Lord was exposing the uncharitable mean-spirited attitude of the critic, the man who is expert in detecting small inconsistencies in others, yet allowing himself an enormous amount of latitude. Scripture teaches clearly that sin can never be allowed space within the holy confines of God's assembly. As at Corinth, the company at Thyatira had adopted a permissive stance that necessitated the Lord's personal intervention: "thou sufferest that woman Jezebel…" (Rev 2.20).

One major reason for maintaining assembly purity is advanced in the context. "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (v.7), and the "Therefore" that follows indicates that Calvary demands holy living on the part of the beneficiaries of the shedding of the blood of the Lamb - "let us keep the feast" (v.8). We do not keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread literally as did Israel, but, in a moral sense, we must not live lives in which the leaven of evil features in any of its various guises. That would be failure to appreciate the value of all that was done in our interests when the Lamb was slain. The work of the cross insists that I adopt an intolerant attitude to evil whether in my personal life or congregationally.

Action Demanded

The course of action demanded by Paul gives a Scriptural mandate for what we generally call excommunication - an assembly member being formally expelled from the company until such time as it is evident that there has been genuine repentance. Different phrases in the chapter indicate that this action should be taken: "taken away from among you" (v.2); "deliver…unto Satan" (v.5); "not to keep company" (v.11); "put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (v.13).

Although remote from the situation, Paul arrived at a judgment on the issue (v.3), and so in that case, when they gathered to administer the discipline they did so with "my spirit" (v.4), that is, they had apostolic backing for what would take place. Today we do not have the involvement of apostles except that procedures should conform to inspired apostolic writings. As stated, Paul was able to assess the situation at a distance, but that was only because the whole thing was in the public domain with no cover-ups and no protestations of innocence. Experience has shown that when issues have to be tackled it is neither Scriptural nor wise for people from a distance to interfere. The men on the ground are the ones who are best placed to sift through evidence, separate fact from fiction, and assess the credibility of "the accused" and the witnesses.

It is clear from v.4 that a special gathering would be convened to effect the discipline - "when ye are gathered together". This was not just an addendum to the Lord's Supper with a brief statement of the action being carried out. A specially convened gathering gives opportunity for congregational grief and repentance. The action has the authority of the Lord Jesus; it is done "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ", the assembly acting as executors of His judgment. It can also be done boldly, "with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ". That is crucial, for some guilty parties are resistant to proposed discipline, men who are perhaps dominant and forceful, culprits who are unwilling to confess. It is heartening that the power of the Lord Jesus is available to act courageously in the face of threat.

As stated formerly, this ultimate discipline is that the individual be "put away", delivered "unto Satan". It is generally accepted that the term carries the thought of being expelled to the sphere of the world where Satan is dominant. Assembly life had cocooned them from the worst excesses of that world, its hostility and disappointments. Now they are being abandoned to its chilly moral and spiritual climate without the consolation of the warmth and encouragement of Christian fellowship even at a social level, for Paul says, "with such an one no not to eat" (v.11).

The foregoing may appear harsh, but it is all with a purpose. Being exposed to such a frosty environment and bereft of fellowship would be a wake-up call effecting swift and genuine repentance. It would be "for the destruction of the flesh", the ruin of the evil desires from which the atrocious behaviour had stemmed. That repentance would ensure that the spirit would be "saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (v.5). The idea seems to be that the repentance of the saint proves the reality of his position in Christ. The chapter moots the possibility of there being some who are merely "called a brother" (v.11). The next chapter makes clear that persistent sin indicates that an individual is "unrighteous" and "shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (6.9-10).

The jurisdiction of the assembly extends only to "them that are within" (5.11-13) with God having responsibility for all others. We cannot avoid interaction with neighbours, relatives and work colleagues whose lifestyle is undesirable, but when someone is under discipline we dare not undermine the judgment of the assembly by socialising with such. The purpose of the discipline would be negated, and the spiritual recovery retarded.

To be continued.


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