1 Corinthians 5:1-5 (NRSV) – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
There is a man in the Corinthian church living in an incestuous relationship. Paul takes this extremely seriously and urges the church to do so as well. But what really are the circumstances with this man?
Suppose that this man believes that Christ died and rose from the dead to set him free from sin and make him a new creation. Suppose that this man believes in God’s calling to him, and believes that God is working with him toward a future in which he will accomplish great things through righteousness. But at the moment, he is in a sinful relationship. Suppose God has finally had enough of it and tells Paul and the church to “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” What would this accomplish? In my view, it would accomplish nothing except to end his life prematurely. Under that scenario, this man would have a vision for his life that would last until he’s dead, and would never come to true fulfillment.
To the contrary, I believe that what we are dealing with here is a man who is building his whole identity and vision for life around this immoral relationship. For him, this relationship is what life is about. This contradicts the Gospel message, which should remind us that there is more to life than our passion at the present moment. God has made us new creations and set us on a new path in life as part of his working of all things according to His will (Eph. 1:11). The Christian life is about living in appreciation of this. I believe that the point of this man in Corinth being handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh is to get him to think about God rather than the sexual relationship. If he gets sick and fears that his life is coming to an end, he may seek knowledge of something that transcends this life and recognize that God’s sovereign purpose and the power of grace that comes through Christ are what really give meaning to life. Through this recognition, his spirit would be saved. If anything else were required, salvation would be of his own works or effort at holiness rather than by God’s grace through faith.
Paul strongly urges the Corinthians to recognize the serious of this man being in their gatherings. He calls for the man to be excommunicated. He criticizes the church for being arrogant, yet in all their supposed wisdom, failing to recognize that a person in fellowship with them held an attitude about his life that contradicted the vision of the Gospel message. By maintaining fellowship with this person, the church was legitimizing his attitude and compromising the entire church’s sense of vision for a righteous future. In order to preserve the integrity of the church’s vision, that man had to be removed.
1 Corinthians 5:9-11 – I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.
Again, we are dealing with people who claim to be believers but whose vision for life revolves around these immoral behaviors. Paul wants true believers to have no association with such people. Notice that Paul explicitly says that he does not apply the same standards for association with nonbelievers. There are cases in which you might know a nonbeliever who, despite having built his life on some wrong things, still has some common interests with you on other matters. In this case, Paul is not exhorting us to cut off communication.
It is really important that we view this chapter in light of the previous four chapters, which were all about unity in the church on the basis of respecting God’s calling to each other. If we utilize principles of this current chapter to cut off interaction with other believers simply because they have some issues in their lives, we are discarding the message of unity in the prior chapters, and exhibiting a lack of faith in God’s ability to work things out in others’ lives according to His will. What we are dealing with in this chapter are people with an attitude that is toxic to the vision for life that God instills in believers.