“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:1–5, NASB95)
Having read and taught on this letter I know that there is a turning point, but these first chapters are so hard as we read verse after verse of things that were going on in Corinth that needed attention. These five verses are no exception when we read that there was open immorality going on in the church and they apparently did nothing about it. In fact, as we will see later in verse 9, Paul had written to them previously about this issue and apparently his words fell on deaf or intimidated ears.
Rather that shining the light of Christ on the world around them, at least one person in the church had been engaged in an open sexual relationship with his father’s wife. This was something that crossed every boundary, even that of the unbelieving world. And, the church (as a collective) had become so arrogant or puffed up (as we looked at last) that they seem to feel themselves immune from not only walking right before the world around them but God as well. They had seemingly become callous to sinful actions and rather than mourning this man and his actions they tolerated him and what he was doing in their midst.
This should not have been so. Instead, they should have gone to the man in an effort to correct him, and if the man did not repent they should have stepped up the efforts eventually leading to separating him form their fellowship. Not having done that, as an outsider Paul was now stepping in as an apostle sent by Christ to take action from a distance. While he could not physically deal with the man, he wrote, “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” Then he charged them with, “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
What they did not do through their leadership as a local church, Paul stepped in as an apostle to the churches and put on them his authority to take the necessary action. When they got together after having read this letter they were, knowing that he was with them in spirt and according to the power of their (and ours) Lord Jesus Christ, take definitive action against the man. They were to deliver this man over to Satan to do to his flesh as he desired. But note, that this was a limited deliverance. God has only granted Satan limited power. He could not touch his spirit, but he could inflict great harm on his body and maybe even his physical life. But the power of salvation rests only with Christ, and it is hopeful that through the affliction that the man’s heart might be softened, his eyes opened, and he see the truth. Then, if he has not already been saved (as the wording seem to indicate), he would become saved such that he is received again in the church and one day joyfully meet Jesus face to face.
This passage has nothing to do with the man losing his salvation, but on limiting his damage to the fellowship by his open and blatantly wrong living. Jesus taught on this process in Matthew 18, where we read, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”” (Matthew 18:15–20, NASB95)
These believers were directed by Paul and empowered by Christ. Now it was up to them to take the action. We can hope that the man heard the rebuke, accepted the correction and returned. We don’t know who Paul later wrote about or if he was writing about anybody specific at all, but consider these words to the same group of believers found in 2 Corinthians chapter 2, “But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” (2 Corinthians 2:5–11, NASB95)
The purpose of church discipline is multi-faceted. First, it is about protecting the flock and secondly, it is about the hopeful and eventual restoration of the believer. If it were one without the other, it would be very easy to forget about the balance between the truth and grace in which our Lord perfectly came. Grace without truth leaves the door open to people doing whatever they want to do and the erosion of the entire body. Truth without grace leads to a harshness that forgets that our Lord came to seek and to save those who were lost which includes every single one of us.
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