1 Corinthians 5: Why it is Necessary and Loving Not to Associate or Eat with Certain ‘Christians’

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1 Corinthians 5: A Summary

1 Corinthians 5 has to be one of the most confronting passages in the NT. The Corinthian church was tolerating a case of blatant sexual immorality in their midst. Not only should a church not overlook any kind of sexual immorality, this type of immorality was even frowned upon by the surrounding culture: a man was sleeping with his father’s wife (5:1).[1]

Scholars debate many of the details of this passage, but the basic idea is clear: they were to exclude this man from their fellowship (5:2; 13) meaning the congregation were not to associate with him or even to eat with him (5:11). In spiritual terms, this exclusion would involve the man being ‘handed over to Satan’ (i.e. outside the church—Satan’s realm) for the ‘destruction of his flesh’ so that his spirit might be saved on the day of the Lord (5:5). This action would ensure that the church ‘cleansed’ itself from ‘old leaven’ (5:7) that was in danger of infecting the entire fellowship (5:6). Just as Paul had already passed judgment on this man (5:3), the Corinthians were to judge him and others like him (5:12) by expelling them from their midst (5:13).

1 Corinthians 5 Today: Unloving and Ineffective?

The application of this passage in 21st century churches remains rare for a couple of reasons.

First, what Paul envisages appears to be unloving. The language in this chapter is some of the most confronting in the NT: ‘hand him over to Satan’; ‘cleanse yourselves [of this person]’; ‘judge those inside’; ‘expel the evil person’. Where is love, grace and mercy? Aren’t we all sinners? How can we pass judgment like this on others? In fact, didn’t Jesus tell us not to judge so that we wouldn’t be judged (Matt 7:1)? Surely the most loving thing is to keep warning them to repent but to maintain the relationship? Surely we have to ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’?

The application of this passage in 21st Century churches remains rare. What Paul envisages appears to be unloving and ineffective.

Second, what Paul envisages appears to be ineffective. Even if we do ask a person like this to leave our fellowship, what is to stop them from driving down the road to another church? Maybe in 1st century Corinth where there was only one accessible church this might work, but in most urban centres in the 21st century, this approach seems utterly ineffective. Further, surely, the best way to bring someone like this to repentance is to keep encouraging them to come to church so that they can hear the gospel? If we break off relations with them, aren’t we cutting them off from the one thing that powerful enough to bring them to repentance: the word of God?

1 Corinthians 5 Today: Loving and Effective!

Moving from a NT letter to contemporary application is not always straight-forward. However, the danger is always that we hide behind these difficulties to excuse ourselves from applying a part of God’s word which makes us uncomfortable.

We need to be clear on what Paul says. He tells the Corinthians not to ‘associate’ (5:9, 11) with someone who ‘is named a brother [or sister]’.[2] but who is actually ‘a sexually immoral person or a greedy person or an idolater or an abusive person or a drunkard or a dishonest person’. In fact they are not even to ‘eat’ with ‘such a person’ (5:11). Paul speaks not about someone who lapses into these sins but someone whose identity is actually marked by one or more of these behaviours so that they can actually be labelled ‘a greedy person’ or a ‘drunkard’. That is, they engage in habitual, systemic, unrepentant sinful behaviour. The Christian who gets drunk and repents or who commits an act of dishonesty and repents is not in view. This is a person, rather, who has two competing identities—they may be known as ‘brother or sister’ but their behaviour identifies them as an unbeliever. Genuine Christian believers, Paul says, are not to associate with such people.

Paul speaks not about someone who lapses into these sins but someone whose identity is actually marked by one or more of these behaviours

In 5:4 when the Corinthian Christians are assembled they are to hand this person over to Satan. Paul does not give much detail here, but he apparently calls on the congregation to exclude this person from their fellowship, with the understanding that he will be under Satan’s dominion. This formal action is then followed by a refusal to associate and a refusal even to eat with such a person. The fact that Paul specifies ‘even’ eating suggests that he means private meals rather than the more formal fellowship meals or the Lord’s supper which would be included in the previous command not to associate. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean refusing them entry into a public, open meeting which could have a more ‘mixed’ character (cf. 1 Cor 11:23–24). The language of ‘association’ and ‘eating’ speak of the more intimate and specific expressions of Christian relationship. Perhaps, in most of our contemporary Western Christian contexts, this would translate to not inviting such a person into a home for small group Bible study and not inviting them over for a meal (or accepting an invitation for a meal with them). A good case could also be made for breaking contact in the sphere of social media.

Critically, this course of action is motivated by love. Firstly, it is motivated by love for the person concerned. The desired outcome is the salvation of their spirit on the day of the Lord (5:5). This may be ‘tough’ love, but it is love nonetheless. This person, more than anything, needs to wake up to their hypocrisy and repent of their sin. Secondly, and this is often overlooked, this course of action is motivated by love for the rest of the congregation. Paul uses the image of ‘leaven’ (something akin to the starter culture used to make sourdough) which ‘leavens’ the whole batch (5:6). Bad leaven contaminates the entire batch. Too often when these sorts of situations arise we only consider the person who is committing the sin and we (wrongly) assume that the best thing for them is to keep the relationship open—let them keep going to their growth group; encourage their Christian friends to keep meeting up with them etc. Not only, as we have seen, does this go against what Paul says, it also overlooks the destructive, corrupting influence such a person can have on others. To welcome a self-professing ‘brother or sister’ who is living in unrepentant sin and to encourage other Christians to befriend and associate with them, is a naïve (cf. 15:33) and dangerous course of action according to Paul. It also denies the reality of their character as ‘unleavened’ i.e. pure in Christ (5:7).

There is no suggestion in this passage that the action will definitely lead to this person’s ultimate salvation. However, what is definitely effective is the protection of the rest of the church from this person’s influence.

I think this helps us with the question of effectiveness. There is no suggestion in this passage that the action will definitely lead to this person’s ultimate salvation. However, what is definitely effective is the protection of the rest of the church from this person’s influence. So, yes, this person could, today, simply go to the church down the road (though a phone call might make that more difficult), but critically, the original church is spared from their destructive influence.

Conclusion

As Christians we must always guard against thinking that we are wiser or more pious than God and his word.  When I have taught on this passage people have had strong reactions. They have objected that to react in this way (breaking off a relationship with someone) seems so un-Christian.  And yet, as we see in this passage, it is actually the most loving thing to do. It is loving for the person concerned and loving for the rest of the congregation.  To simply call for repentance without taking any practical steps is naïve, un-loving and destructive—which is why passages across the NT enjoin the same sort of response we find here (cf. Matt 18:15–17; 2 Thess 3:6–15).


[1] Presumably this means he was sleeping with his step-mother.

[2] We should also note that Paul is not talking about nominal Christians—the sort of person who simply ticks “Christian” on a census. That kind of unbeliever wasn’t around in Paul’s day, and Paul’s language of ‘brother or sister’ suggests someone who is more intimately connected to a Christian fellowship.

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