If saints are not in the process of putting to death the deeds of the body, all kinds of destruction is on its way. Wherever Satan has opportunity to work through the saintís fleshly desires, he will do so. And because the prince of darkness hates mankind, and saints in particular, he always works to destroy anything good in their lives. Hence, wherever sin goes, there follows a swath of ruination and all kinds of collateral damage. The apostle Paul, then, is compelled to address the sin situation in the congregation in Corinth. "You are still fleshly," he had earlier stated. "For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly?" Along with that fleshliness comes the sin and destruction which was at work in Corinth.
- Flagrant disregard - Because the congregation was basically still fleshly (although there undoubtedly some in Corinth that were more spiritually oriented), flagrant immorality was allowed to develop. "It is actually reported that there is immorality among you," asseverated the apostle, "and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his fatherís wife" (I Corinthians 5:1). We are not privy to the details of what this is necessarily all about, but it is a pretty clear case of "I want, so I am going to take" behavior, regardless of Godís teaching on sexual purity.
- Tacit congregational assent - The leadership of any congregation must deal with the sin issues that develop. They can deal with those things privately and patiently; they can deal with other situations more publicly. They must pray for wisdom to help saints work through their sin habits in accordance with the principles of the system of the faith of Christ. But if the leadership themselves are enmeshed in fleshly behavior, they are basically blocked by their own guilty consciences from acting in the cases of other sinful brethren. Often the sin-ridden leadership will cover their spiritual weakness with arrogance. "And you have become arrogant," commented Paul, "and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst" (I Corinthians 5:2). The implication is that, instead of having the right type of spiritual concern, the congregation prided themselves on their tolerance of such behavior. Such "tolerance" was practiced because it also allowed the rest of the brethren to engage in their own sin.
The very existence of the church in Corinth, in regard to their remaining in Christ, was threatened by this working of the devil and complicity among the saints. They were in danger of falling into the same condition as would later describe the church in Sardis, "You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (Revelation 3:1). The apostle Paul had started this congregation. He gave up a year and a half of his life in laying the foundation for this local church, and he loved those people. It pained him to see the direction the congregation was taking, and hurt him to see so many souls torn apart by their continuing in sin. It concerned him to see the factions developing within the congregation, and the type of men who were catapulting themselves into leadership positions within those factions. He therefore is serious when he says, "Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?"
He, as an apostle and one experienced with the development and growth of congregations, could see where this was headed. "Your boasting is not good," said he. "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?" (I Corinthians 5:6). A spot of mold will begin to spread through the whole cloth, and requires immediate action to staunch the spread. Paul therefore was poised for action, and was going to give the congregation some specific instructions for the removal of this "leaven." Congregations today would do well to pay attention to the action in Corinth.
Power of our Lord Jesus
When everything is running smoothly, there are no big crisis decisions to be made, and authority is generally not questioned. But when situations become a bit more "dicey," then the proper authority clearly has to be in place and recognized. And one of the more challenging situations for a congregation is when disciplinary action has to be taken over someoneís breakdown in moral issues. The congregation in Corinth, as noted in Paulís letter, had arrived to the point where such action needed to be taken. What leadership there was in Corinth (and there is no indication that this local church was yet governed by elders), was either unable or unwilling to act in dealing with a man who was apparently living in sin with his fatherís wife. The apostle decided, with the backing of King Jesus, to issue some strongly worded instructions.
- Already judged - The apostle Paul had a good information network that funneled information to him on the continuing progress of the congregations he had started. In the case of Corinth, "Chloeís people" were the ones who had given him a report, and he and the Holy Spirit regarded that report as reliable. The apostle, then, cognizant of the seriousness of the moral lapse in the congregation, and its subsequent impact on the future of the brethren, decided to take immediate action. "For I, on my part," he intoned, "though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present" (I Corinthians 5:3). Paul knows the man is guilty, and therefore is about to issue his judgment.
- Paulís authority - The congregation in Corinth was in danger of being fragmented, Greek philosophy was being intermixed in the teaching, and unqualified leadership was surfacing. If the apostle were merely to act on his own authority, his actions would be questioned or criticized. Therefore he prefaces the statement of his judgment upon the aforementioned individual by referencing the basis of his authority: "In the name of our Lord Jesus," the apostle announces, "when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Ö" (I Corinthians 5:4). He first notes that the pronouncement is coming "in the name of" Jesus, meaning with His authority. But this has the appendage "with the power of the Lord Jesus," indicating that the words of authority were backed by the spiritual power necessary to execute this judgment.
- Decision rendered - Paul is pretty adamant about what needs to be done. "I have decided," he said, with the full support of the Lord Jesus, "to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Corinthians 5:5). This is a powerful punishment ó for the guilty man to be turned over to Satan, and have his flesh destroyed (perhaps something similar to AIDS, or some debilitating disease) in order for his thinking and commitment be straightened out. The goal, however, was plain, that the manís spirit be on the right side of the resurrection at Jesusí second coming. (And the second epistle shows that this man did in fact repent!)
The arrogant among the congregation in Corinth refused to do anything about this flagrantly immoral situation. The internal politics of the factions of the congregation may have been such that to act would have cost some of the schismatics their leadership position, or whether they themselves were covering "lesser" but similar sins is not exactly known. "Your boasting is not good," was Paulís way of exposing these pseudo-leaders. Their failure to act was dangerous. "Do you not know," was his reminder, "that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?" (I Corinthians 5:6). Hence his instructions were to act "when you are assembled." The action: "Remove the wicked man from among yourselves" (I Corinthians 5:13).
Celebrate with New Leaven
"Out with the old, and in with the new!" Whether it is a new year or a new creation, the old saw applies. When Jesus spoke of the onrushing new covenant, He used the illustration of wineskins. "Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins," He stated, "otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17). The covenants cannot co-mingle; out with the old, and in with the new!
- Leaven and lumps - Consider a lump of dough ó basically moistened flour clumped together. But if a bit of yeast is added to the lump, regardless of how large the lump is, after a period of time yeast will have worked all through the lump and raised or leavened it. The apostle Paul compares this working of yeast in dough to the working and spread of iniquity inside a congregation. "Do you not know," he asks, "that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?" In this case of in-your-face immorality, the congregation needed to act, "and I with you in spirit" ó the symbolic presence of Paul ó to remove the insolent man from their midst. "Clean out the old leaven," the apostle ordered, "that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened" (I Corinthians 5:7). What could be done for the congregation in the spiritual realm could never be done in the physical realm of yeast and lumps. Once the dough is leavened, it is leavened; there is no possibility of going back. But in the case of the congregation, by clearing out the "old leaven," they could be a "new lump." This marvelous application of the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ made it possible, not only for the individual Christians, but for the whole congregation to start over. That is why the apostle could address them as saints, "just as you are in fact unleavened."
- Passover application - The use of the leaven and lumps carries Paul back to using the Passover ó the feast of Unleavened Bread ó as the basis for another point. "For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed," he asseverated. Christ was the pure, unblemished Lamb of God; He knew no sin, but became sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him! "Let us therefore celebrate the feast Ö" (I Corinthians 5:8). The Old Covenant Passover was celebrated once per year; it is clear that the New Covenant Passover celebration is ongoing, illustrated in the remembrance of the Lordís Supper, observed weekly by the saints. This regular memorial assists the brethren of Christ in living righteous, holy, and godly lives, not leavened by the pernicious effects of sin.
- Covenants and contrast - Since Christ was both the Passover Lamb and the High Priest to offer the Lambís blood in the true Holy of Holies, a new covenant has been instituted and a new way of life for His disciples has been inaugurated. "Let us celebrate the feast," exhorts the apostle, "not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." The "old leaven" ó the old covenant and the system of law ó is gone, and is not to be mixed with the feast of the new covenant system of thought. Likewise, the "leaven of malice and wickedness" ó the participation in lawlessness ó is to be put behind. What now is in practice is the "unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
"But the goal of our instruction," Paul reminded Timothy, "is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (I Timothy 1:5). This is where the principles and power of the new covenant intersect with the pure and holy lifestyle of the new creature in Christ. "Out with the old; in with the new!"
"Do not be deceived," the apostle Paul would later say in this epistle to the Corinthian brethren, "bad company corrupts good morals." Bad company is not limited to drunkards and philanderers; bad company can be intelligent thieves, scheming schismatics, slavering slanderers, or people with bad attitudes and bad outlooks. There comes a point when the person who is serious about moving forward has to distance himself from those who insist on going down to the dark side. Not only is that true on an individual basis, it is also true for congregations; at some point the congregation has to distance itself from those who will not follow the upward call of God. "A little leaven leavens the whole lump."
- Working in the world - Christianity is stronger than Judaism. And, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the individual Christian is capable of going into a corrupt world, and doing his part to call people out of the world into the kingdom of God, whereas the Jew had to be essentially isolated in order to retain his level of faith. The apostle Paul is conscious of this point, but wants the issue clarified for the saints in Corinth. "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people," he stated, in reference to earlier correspondence with the brethren. But he wants to emphasize that evangelism goes on, rather than that the Christians should cloister like monks. "I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world," says he, in connection with their associations, "or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world" (I Corinthians 5:9,10). As the excerpts from Jesusí prayer indicate, the children of God are to be "in the world, but not of the world." They need to be able to mix in with the rest of Adamís descendants, but keep the appropriate spiritual barriers in place so that the corruption of the world does not leak over and mess up their purity and holiness.
- Association in the church - The picture, then, for the saints, is that they have come out of the world. There is an understanding, implicit in such terms as "babes in Christ," that there is room and time for spiritual growth ó to be able to have time to lay aside some bad habits and replace them with good ones. But it is also clear that if an individual is claiming to be a Christian but simply using his religion as a cover for his illicit activities, that individual cannot be tolerated within the body of Christ. "But actually," states Paul in regard to his comment about not associating with immoral people, "I wrote you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler ó not even to eat with such a one" (I Corinthians 5:11). The implication of this statement by the apostle is that a person who doggedly engages in these activities is not really a brother in Christ; and because of the potential nearness of these corruptions, the saint is not to fellowship with such as these.
- Necessity of judgment - The decision whether "to eat or not to eat" with such a corrupt individual is a weighty and spiritual matter. Therefore it is not to be enforced somewhat arbitrarily by saints acting on their own accord, but rather to be a church decision, coming in connection with "when you are assembled together." "For what do I have to do with judging outsiders?" Paul asks (I Corinthians 5:12). Thatís Godís purview. "Do you not judge those who are within the church?" he again queries. Thatís the churchís purview.
"But those who are on the outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves" (I Corinthians 5:13). The congregation is to set the covetous, the swindlers, the idolaters, and the immoral outside of the church; that is their responsibility in judgment. Once they are outside the church, they fall under the judgment of God. If they have any spiritual sensibilities left, they will repent, for it would not be good to fall into the hands of Him who is a consuming fire!