“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.” (1 Corinthians 5:9–13, NASB95)
In these verses Paul draws a line between those outside the church and those inside the church. There is an expected different standard of faith and practice between them, and we are to understand that in our dealings. Those who do not know Christ and make no pretense otherwise really should not surprise us when they do not live as one who does. If one does not follow after God, then it is reasonable to assume that they also will not obey God. This does not mean that they won’t be so-called good people from the world’s standard and that they won’t do measurable good on that level.
Paul describes this state and how it was changed in his letter to the Ephesians, where we read, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),” (Ephesians 2:1–5, NASB95)
Jesus Christ makes the difference in us who are saved by His grace. Knowing this we understand that there are many around us who have not undergone spiritual rebirth. It is among them that we live, and it is to them that we have been sent. We live in the world, and we are sent out into that same world as His ambassadors with the hope those we encounter will also be saved. So, Paul did not write to these Corinthians believers that they were to stay away from all unbelievers. To do this would thwart the purpose for which we are sent so that they might see Him in us and we might be able to share the hope that we have in us (1 Peter 3:15).
Ultimately God is their judge, just as it is His Spirit that works in their hearts for them to see and understand. In that sense, we are not their eternal judge and we are not their savior. This does not mean that in a civil or criminal sense that we are not to prosecute or even to sit as jurors and for some even as duly appointed judges. It also does not mean that we don’t’ speak for those things that are good and right in the world. All of this comes with us being a part of the world into which God has placed us knowing that all of this other stuff is second to His sending us into the world to make disciples who observe all that He has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20).
It is this part of His commission to us—the making disciples who observe or obey—that leads to the real focus of where Paul is addressing in these verses. He wrote, “But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” In general, the Corinthian believers had not grown in their faith and they had not held one another to the need for that growth. It was the stuff that “so-called” brothers in the church were doing that Paul took issue with. They were allowing it to continue in their midst without taking any corrective action. These things were not to be tolerated as ongoing practices in the church. Sure, every single one of those believers, just as is true for us, sinned and continued to sin. It wasn’t coming up short in growth in Christ as they daily dealt with the sin in their lives and put things aside in favor of how God has called us to live. Instead, it was the continual practices without change or even a call to change that were the issue. Those who called themselves believers yet who held onto these current on-going practices were to be dealt with appropriately. It wasn’t a do it once more and you’re out of here issue as much as it was a lacking continual and sincere movement toward living according to God’s truth. It is this sincerity and truth that ended verse 8, and it was the lack of it that marked those who continued in their midst in open sin.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers, “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good. If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13–15, NASB95)
There is a process which we are to personally engage as we put off those behaviors that are not reflective of our identity in Christ and put on those that are based upon His word hidden in our hearts (Eph. 4:22-24 and Psalm 119:9, 11). There is also a process that goes beyond us to other believers which involves encouraging and admonishing one another, but which might ultimately lead to the kind of action we see in these verses today when Paul told them, “REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.” (For more on this discipline process read Matthew 18:15-17 knowing that it was preceded by Jesus speaking to them about going and looking for the lost sheep so that it might be restored.)