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When Immorality Enters the Church (I Corinthians 5)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: The Destruction Caused by Sin

From comes this sermon illustration. It tells us:

Edwin Cooper was famous across America, yet almost no one knew his real name. Coming from a family of circus clowns, Cooper began performing before audiences when he was just nine years old. After a stint with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, he became a fixture on television in the 1950s as Bozo the Clown. In addition to entertaining both young and old, Cooper had a message for his “buddies and partners” every week: get checked for cancer. Yet Cooper was so busy working that he neglected to follow his own advice. By the time his cancer was discovered, it was too late for it to be treated. Edwin Cooper died at just forty-one years of age from a disease he had warned many others to watch out for.

Sin is far more deadly than the most aggressive and fast-growing cancer. Sin kills and destroys everything it touches. From the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden until now, sin takes no prisoners. This is the purpose behind everything Satan does. Jesus said, “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (John 10:10). Because of his evil nature and his hatred of everything good, the devil brings destruction to everything within his reach.

When we regard sin as God does, we find nothing amusing or humorous about it. We will not make it the subject of the jokes we tell or those we hear. We will not allow ourselves to be tempted to get a little closer to the line to see if we are still safe. God hates sin with a holy and righteous fury, and so should we. When we find ourselves amused by sin, it is time for us to focus on the cross. Seeing the price paid for our sin reminds us that it is no laughing matter.

And not only is sin deadly for the individual that commits it, but it can spread to those around them. For example, how many times has one person's illicit affair destroyed a family and caused the kids to be separated from one of their parents. How many times has a person's decision to get drunk and drive on a road led to the death of some innocent person just trying to get home? And how many times have lies to a friend or spouse led to the permanent erosion of the trust someone has for the liar and thus irreversible damage to the relationship.

Sadly, no sin is ever completely private. It harms others and grieves the Lord. The same is true when sin enters the local church as it did in the church of Corinth. And in I Corinthians 5 we have that very problem. The Apostle Paul is talking to the Corinthian church and telling them that they needed to address it and do it right away.

Let's look at this passage and see the warnings and guidance it has for our 21st century churches today.

I. Defining the Sin (1-2a)

Paul began by, right away, defining what the sin was that was being committed by a person who was within the church. He said in verse 1 that:

"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."

The sin was so vile, according to the apostle, that even the pagan neighbors were scandalized by it. The Greek for "immorality" here is the root of the English word "pornography." There was a man having sex with his father's wife. It was probably his stepmother but that bore the same sinful stigma as having sex with his own natural mother. In the Old Testament this was punishable by death.

The interesting thing here, and why even the pagans would be scandalized by it, is that this sin was uncommon in the Roman world, and it was considered illegal by Roman law.

Yet the church of Corinth was not mourning it or doing anything about it. They were rather excusing it. The Corinthians were probably proud of their tolerance for diverse opinions and were simply ignoring the fact that a heinous sin was going on within their midst. And what was Paul's answer to this? We find out in verses 2b-8.

II. Dealing with the Sin (2b-8)

Before we go further, it seems, in this passage, to be assumed here by Paul that the man that is the subject of this discussion is unrepentant. He is not coming before the Lord, or anyone else, and being sorry for his sin. He was not asking for forgiveness or stopping what he was doing. That would have brought about forgiveness. We find out in Galatians 6:1,2 that Paul tells the believers:

Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual are to restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you are not tempted as well. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.

And in the book of II Corinthians, Paul apparently once again deals with this same man who later repents. This is his advice to the believers of Corinth then. He states:

"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." (II Corinthians 2:5-11).

So, Paul's answer for a repentant person who sins is to restore, forgive and comfort. But for the one who is unrepentant he says to 'remove him from your midst.' (2b). Here is what he says in verses 3-5 about it:

"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."

Delivering a person to Satan is a very strong term used of judicial sentencing. It is the same as excommunicating the professed unrepentant believer. It is breaking of fellowship with the person. Paul in Colossians 1:13,14 tells us:

"For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

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By his actions, the man was putting himself back into the kingdom of darkness from which he was supposedly delivered if he were actually a Christian. Paul is allowing the man to have the results of his actions and letting him stay where he has chosen to go, since that is the only thing that can be done if he has refused to repent of his heinous sin.

Paul is not being punitive here but wishes the man to repent. He says that he has done this:

"...for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord."

If he is truly a Christian, then the Lord will discipline him as a father would a son. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way:

“My son, do not take lightly the discipline of the Lord,

and do not lose heart when He rebukes you.

For the Lord disciplines the one He loves,

and He chastises every son He receives.”

Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you do not experience discipline like everyone else, then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. (Hebrews 12:6,7)

Of course, there are those who may profess to be Christians but in fact they aren't. They haven't truly accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. But it would appear from the context here that Paul is talking about a believer who has gone astray and is trusting that the discipline will bring him back to his senses eventually.

If we go farther in the text, in verses 3-8 we see that this man's sin, if allowed to remain, will lead to harming the church as well. That is what Paul means in verse 6 when he states that "a little leaven, leavens the whole lump of dough." In most cases in Scripture, leaven is used to denote evil or sinful influence. When sin is tolerated, it will eventually permeate and corrupt the whole local church like leaven does a piece of dough. So, Paul tells them to clean out the old leaven, or the sin amongst them. And he reminds them that they are in fact unleavened.

Paul goes on to make another Old Testament reference here by saying that Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Just as the unleavened bread is a symbol of being freed from Egypt by the Passover, so the church is to be unleavened, since it has now been separated from the dominion of sin and death by Jesus who was the perfect Passover Lamb. So, the church's duty is to remove everything sinful from their midst. They have to separate themselves from the old sinful lifestyle. And that means from sinful church members if that becomes necessary.

Paul finishes this section with verse 8 which tells us:

"Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, not with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

The Old Testament feast of Passover, celebrating the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt was an annual celebration. However, the believer in Christ constantly celebrates the 'feast' of the new Passover which is the Lord Jesus Christ. The Jews were to celebrate their Passover with unleavened bread. We are to do it with lives unleavened by sin.

III. Those to be Disciplined for Sin (9-13)

In verses 9-13 Paul concludes this chapter by clarifying the people whom he is referring to when speaking of the discipline to be meted out to those who unrepentantly continue in sin. Apparently, the Corinthians had misinterpreted some advice that Paul had given them in a previous letter and had stopped having contact with the unsaved in the world. But at the same time, they remained in fellowship with and continued to tolerate those in the church.

The truth is that God intends for us to be in the world but not of it. (John 17:15-21). We are to be witnesses to those who are perishing by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and to live consistent lives in front of those who need to hear what we have to say. That can't happen if we try to separate ourselves from everyone who doesn't name the name of Christ. And in fact, we would have to completely leave the world in order to be able to do this. In verse 11 the apostle lets us know which people he is actually referring to when he speaks to the Corinthians. He says:

"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."

Paul goes on to say that it was not his job to judge those outside the Body of Christ, the unbelievers. He was responsible for believers. Those outsiders are to be judged by God. The believer's job is to evangelize them.

But for this person who claims to be a believer, the church has to make a judgement, or it will destroy this local body of believers. Paul ends chapter 2 by quoting Deuteronomy 17:7. He says:

"Remove the wicked man from among yourselves." (13)


As we come to the end of this section of I Corinthians, I am reminded of an illustration that I once read about a certain sin. This illustration, from an unknown author, goes like this:

"Few college football coaches have made a point against drugs as effectively as Erk Russell of Georgia Southern College. He arranged for a couple of good ol' country boys to burst into a routine team meeting and throw a writhing, hissing, six-foot-long rattlesnake onto a table in front of the squad. "Everyone screamed and scattered," Russell recalls. "I told them, 'When cocaine comes into a room, you're not nearly as apt to leave as when that rattlesnake comes in. But they'll both kill you!"

All sin, like cocaine abuse, is deadly. Maybe physically, but certainly spiritually, it will destroy the sinner and can destroy those around them. And we must take all sin as seriously as we would a rattlesnake that is placed in our midst and is about to strike us.

We must rid sin from our individual lives as soon as possible. And we must not allow ourselves to be around socially those who call themselves Christians but defiantly refuse to remove it from theirs. It will harm both our testimony and could cause us to be tempted by the same sin. However, we mustn't do this to be cruel. But we have to continually pray for them, that God will get a hold of their lives and bring them back to Himself and to the fellowship of the Body of Christ.

The church must remain pure in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. We have to be a light where there is only darkness all around us. It isn't easy. And it is extremely uncomfortable for the leaders of the church to confront a sinning brother. But there comes a point where it is necessary to sustain the purity of the Body of Christ and the testimony it has to the world.

May God give us as a local group of believers, the strength to confront sin in ourselves individually, and the courage to point it out, where necessary, in those we fellowship with who proclaim the name of our Savior. For, in the end, it isn't man that we seek to please. But it is the Lord who has saved us and given us a new life in Him!

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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