As we have previously said, the Corinthian Church was not a perfect church. And, as we examine the text before us this morning, we can be forgiven for suggesting that the Corinthian church was not even a healthy church at the time that Paul writes to them.
This congregation had problems—serious problems—and so Paul attempts to rectify these troubles with some stern counsel. Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as is not even named among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife”(5:1).
This is an ugly passage of Scripture in that it describes a most despicable act—despicable, not simply in view of Christian values, but even the unbelieving Gentiles regarded this kind of behaviour as “a shameful and abominable monstrosity”(Calvin).
Now, we may ask ‘What relevance is this single case of gross immorality in 1st Century Corinth for us here in 21st Century Etobicoke?’ I asked myself this question, and what I found is that there is much for the 21st Century church to gain from this passage of Scripture.
As we look to this text for relevant principles to apply, let me suggest three: First, we learn that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross requires that we live our life in a certain manner. Secondly, we learn from this passage of how individual behaviour affects corporate health. And, thirdly, we learn of the necessity of confronting sin that affects corporate health.
Paul is, understandably, upset about the immorality within the church in Corinth, but he is also greatly troubled by their response to this sin. Instead of mourning over this sin, Paul charges them with arrogance (5:2) and tells the Corinthians “your boasting is not good”(5:6).
Can you imagine the situation? It wasn’t as if the Church in Corinth was sweeping this matter under the carpet; it wasn’t as if they were pretending that this illicit relationship didn’t exist. They were actually boasting—they had mistakenly concluded that since Christ died for their sins, it did not matter if members of their community continued in sin.
In response to this, Paul proceeds to give reasons for why the Corinthians needed to individually, and corporately, reform their behaviour. And, one of the reasons, given in verse 7, is most interesting, “for Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.”
The Jewish Passover, you may recall, consisted of two parts: a sacrifice and a sacred feast—both of which are mentioned by Paul. The Passover lamb, which was sacrificed annually, was followed by a feast, which lasted for seven days. Paul explains how Christ is “our Passover”, and has been sacrificed, and what remains is for us to celebrate the feast. We do this, not by abstaining from actual leaven, but by bringing to the feast “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” and by putting away the leaven of “malice and wickedness”(5:8).
What Paul is doing is he is explaining the meaning, he is explaining the application, of the Passover for the Christian Church. Just as the sacrifice of the Passover lamb required a response from the people in the form of a sacred feast; in a similar manner, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ requires a response; it requires those who have benefited from the sacrifice to behave in a particular manner.
Salvation is, indeed, by grace alone, yet our salvation is by grace, which is not alone. That is, holiness is the inevitable fruit of grace. Charles Spurgeon explains it well when he says, “Grace and holiness are as inseparable as light and heat in the sun.”
The Corinthians wrongly concluded that since Christ died for their sins, it did not matter how they lived their lives. Paul says that they are wrong in thinking this way. And we are wrong if we think that how we live our life does not matter to God. The sacrifice of Jesus requires that we live our life in a certain manner. The cross of Christ requires that we put away the leaven of our sinful ways.
Christians, in response to the cross, should behave a certain way because that is how we honour Christ; it is how we honour what He has done for us. But there is also another reason why we must be careful how we live: We learn here, from Paul, how individual behaviour affects corporate health.
Paul says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?”(5:6). In other words, do you not understand the nature of sin—that if sin is not dealt with individually, the harmful effects are felt corporately?
Paul develops this principle more fully, in chapter 12, where he describes individual Christians as “members” of a single “body”(12:12-27). Using the metaphor of the body, Paul emphasizes the interdependence, and the inter-connectedness, of Christians within the church, reminding us “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it”(12:26).
Perhaps some of you have seen that unsettling commercial where an elderly male smoker recounts his conversations with his wife. In response to his wife’s repeated requests that he quit smoking, he would tell her, ‘No—it’s my life.’ But after recently burying his wife because of lung cancer from second-hand smoke, he became awakened to the terrifying reality that his actions had corporate consequences.
This is what Paul is telling the Corinthians, and it is a helpful principle for us: Individual sin affects corporate health.
What then, shall we do? This brings us to our third principle: The necessity of confronting sin that affects corporate health.
Some qualification is necessary here. How we confront sin depends on the nature of the sin and on whether the sin poses an immediate threat to the larger Christian community. What I’m saying is that it would be a mistake to apply Paul’s approach in 1Corinthians 5 to every situation. A man was engaged in a relationship with his father’s wife—this was an abominable situation that compromised the Christian witness of the entire community. As a result, Paul calls for drastic measures; he calls for the removal of the man from the church.
Thankfully, in most cases, sin can be dealt with privately, between the offender and the one who has been offended (see Matthew 18). And, in most cases, this one to one approach is sufficient at bringing about resolution. In this matter, however, the offense was of such a drastic nature that Paul was left with no other alternative but to invoke excommunication.
Now, I recognize that in a discussion like this, there are many who would be inclined at this point to quote Jesus from His Sermon on the Mount, “Judge not, lest thee be judged”(Mt. 7:1). But is this statement from Jesus intended to prohibit the passing of judgment in every instance? No. Taken in context, it is clear that Jesus is warning against judging hypocritically. Jesus is warning us against judging the faults of others when we are guilty of those same faults.
In John’s gospel Jesus gives further instruction on passing judgment; He says, “do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment”(Jn. 7:24). Jesus does not instruct us to altogether refrain from making judgments, but rather, His instruction helps us to avoid judging inappropriately.
I recognize that in our postmodern culture, the unforgivable sin is passing judgment. Those who would dare to suggest that another person is mistaken, or behaving inappropriately, are labeled ‘arrogant’. In our postmodern culture, people want to do as they please without the possibility of being called into account. But is such a notion helpful? Would society function properly if we were all free to do as we please? No, judges are employed for good reason; governments are set up for good reason. Judges are employed; governments are set up because we understand that the behaviour of individuals has corporate consequences.
Beloved, the Christian church is not exempt from this principle and, as a result, there remains the necessity of confronting sin that affects the health of the Body of Christ.
The problem Paul had with the Corinthians at this juncture of his letter was that they had failed to exercise necessary judgment. Listen to what Paul says in verse 12 and following, “What have I to do with judging those outside of the church? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those outside, God judges”(5:12, 13).
It is unfortunate that the word ‘judge’ carries such negative connotations in our day. If you have been cringing in your pew for the last few minutes, you have confirmation of this. But the Greek word Paul employs here (krino) simply means ‘to distinguish’ between right and wrong.
That is to say that Christians cannot be morally neutral; we cannot ‘sit on the fence’ indefinitely. We are constantly called to distinguish between what is true and what is false; we are called to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable—and we do this in the context of a community, the local church.
In order for us to more easily apply the principles found in this text, may I suggest an alternative word for ‘judgment’? How about the word ‘accountability’? For the Body of Christ to be healthy, there needs to exist mechanisms of accountability.
Because the health of the corporate body is at stake, there is a sense in which we are not free to do whatever we please. This is not a new principle. We refer to Canada as a ‘free country’, but this does not mean the citizens of Canada are free to do as they please. Our freedom ends at the point where our actions would be harmful to the community. And so it is in the church—we are free so long as how we live and speak does not injure the Body of Christ.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses some very ugly issues—none uglier than this. Yet, I thank God for this chapter of Holy Scripture, for it is indeed profitable to us and relevant for us to apply.
The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross requires a change in the way we live. We are to no longer live for ourselves, but we are to live for the One who gave Himself for us. Our will must no longer drive our efforts, but rather, “Thy will be done”.
This is important, in part, because this approach honours Jesus and His sacrifice, but also because individual behaviour affects corporate health. If one member suffers, the entire body suffers.
And finally, we need to confront behaviour that challenges our corporate health. We must be prepared to lovingly challenge one another for the sake of Christ’s church.
Paul has given us an important warning. There are occasions when ‘Judge not’ is the worst thing you could choose to do. Amen.