Sexual Immorality Defiles the Church
by Michael D. Hinton, M.Div.
A Biblical Passage with Exposition
1 Corinthians 5
Sexual Immorality Must Be Judged
Friends, I can think of no passage in the Bible that describes both the problem and the cure for Churches today than the passage above. The Book of Jude has more powerful rhetoric than Paul uses here, yet the spiritual dynamic is the same, the denouncing and rejecting of sin AND OF SINFUL PERSONS.
The book of Jude describes an apostate condition and situation, and for the most part makes no practical suggestion about what to do. In fact, Jude actually takes the posture that nothing needs to be done because God will act to rectify the situation, since God will judge in the last days.
However, Paul's admonitions to the Corinthian church contain specific actions that should be taken against gross sin. And he gives the reason. These two points we shall explore below.
First, one might ask why discipline is needed in the body of Christ. It has to do with human nature, which is "inclined to evil and that continually." Paul says it this way, "For a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough." There is an interconnectedness of person that makes any one person susceptible to the sins of others. This is by the creative design of God -- Man is a social being. Man relates to others in deeply personal and social ways of necessity. We have friends and relatives, business partners and co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances. We depend upon each other for the proper ordering and working of social units, from the smallest, single-person household to the largest of a sovereign nation. Sometimes we actually care for each other!
And that seems to be the trickiest part, that is, caring for one another. Church people know that divine sacrificial love is the highest moral category that exists. That Jesus died on the Cross for others is the greatest salvation historical act and example that we maintain through preaching and worship. Even in this passage, Paul refers to the Pascal Lamb, who is Jesus Christ, the Lord. Why?
Because Paul knows what it means truly to love someone. He is instructed in this by Christ himself, who died. One may not know and fully appropriate the saving act of Christ without participating in that saving act oneself. One must die to that sinful, corrupt nature by nailing it to the tree with Him. Love and acceptance in the name of "Christian love" without the requisite call to repentance and death to self is not love at all; it is pandering to the flesh and to persons of flesh, for carnal, worldly gain.
So, let me ask, is it more loving to accept a person in their sinful state for the momentary feeling of magnanimity it gives you, while you boast and play God with the rules? OR is it more loving to charge a person with sin, call that person to repent, in the hope that said person will enjoy eternity with God, and have you to thank for taking such a bold and personal risk on their behalf?
That is the dual purpose of Paul in the directions he gave concerning the sinful man of the passage: to stop the spread of sin in the congregation AND to give the poor man a chance to repent by confronting him with the seriousness of his offense.
Second, the specific action that Paul recommends to the Corinthians serves the purposes stated in an effective way. To prove this point, let us consider some of the alternatives that seem to fail in the life of the Churches.
One alternative is simply to deny the problem. The most prevalent form this takes is an appeal to greatness, the magnanimity thing again. Whereas one may think of himself as being big enough to love sinners "just as they are" so one may think a large institution, like the United Methodist Church, is big enough to absorb the shock of a few outrages. This temptation is more likely among those who are in charge of large parts of a larger institution, such as the Bishops are in charge of Conferences and episcopal areas. "How can the actions of a man in California affect my area? I'm in charge here."
Paul confronted this temptation to false magnanimity by "calling" the Corinthian church "on" their arrogance and boasting. He reminded them of human nature, it's susceptibility to sin, how the "yeast" of sin works. To arrogate oneself against the "laws of nature and of nature's God" is foolish in Paul's eyes. We have enough trouble with our own weaknesses and temptations without having to deal with those of others, who scandalize us, even among the unbelievers.
Another form of denial is to twist Christian doctrine around to include those who were formerly excluded.
In a by-gone era, church membership was self-regulating. One could trust the conscience of most individuals NOT to foist their sin upon the Church. We "understood" if a man "had a drinking problem" but could generally trust them NOT to show up drunk for Sunday services. Adulterous affairs were kept secret because everyone knew it was wrong. We suspected a man might be homosexual but he never came to church with his "male friend" and certainly did not expect us to bless his sin. There were a LOT of things we didnt talk about in bourgeois religion. It was good while it lasted.
Now, however, the intellectual contortions one must go through to accept the more popular sins are extremely burdensome. We listen to the arguments. We go to the encounter sessions. We enter discernment processes. We sit through the lessons and allusions of speaker after speaker and wonder what kind of trans-cognitive brain surgery is required to arrive at these conclusions! It seems insane. Surely it cannot be that difficult to know right from wrong. Yet, the way we doubt ourselves, our own hearts and judgment in these matters, proves one thing that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.
We can be free only when we no longer feel obligated to that form of "tolerance" that denies Nature and denies the Word of God.
Let this interpretive principle work for you: Dont believe anything that doesn't make sense to you; dont believe anything that doesn't feel right in your heart. This is the test of character -- that you are first true to yourself. What good is a wishy-washy person, even if that person washes into orthodoxy because who knows? Next he will wash into lies and heresies. The Spirit-filled Christian can trust sanctified intellect and sanctified affection.
Another ineffective alternative is to engage in magical thinking. This takes several formstrusting in an inevitable "historical" process; trusting in the "power" of God's spoken word either to change the poor, lost sinner or make him so uncomfortable he will leave on his own; make the sinners behave through political "victories" in church government and hierarchy; call for the faithful to leave or separate from the supposed "apostate" system; wishing the Lord would come in final judgment to end this awful mess
All these reveal magical thinking in this way, that God told us what to do, and because it is uncomfortable to the flesh, we seek other ways for it to "happen" without that unpleasantness. We cannot face the conflict and possible consequences to ourselves, including the loss of what remains in bourgeois religion, in order to obey God in a radical and effective way.
Why is God's way effective? Considering God's way is to "drive them out from among you," how is that effective?
Well, to begin with, effectiveness is measured by the goal one seeks to accomplish. Since Paul lifted up the eucharistic standard in the passage above, it would be thoroughly consistent to cite the Nicene Creed, our eucharistic confession of faith, that we believe in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." It does NOT say we believe in the "bourgeois church."
Now, the concern for the unity of the Church is a legitimate one. It would be a very great sin and evil in the history of Christianity if men and women of the cloth sat down together and actually plotted the orderly division of the Church for temporal reasons. I dont think Heaven could stand that happening; and Earth wouldn't like it much, either. What kind of religion, professing to teach love, cooperation, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and other such wonderful causes, would intentionally disrupt fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ? Only the most profoundly hypocritical clergy that ever lived would do a thing like that. Rather, we must find that unity which is also holy, catholic and apostolic.
What kind of unity would that be? It would be a unity that could stand some loss in favor of the other characteristics in the stated goal of "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." If a few are driven out for reasons of holiness, that does not make the Church un-one. If a few more are driven out for the sake of universal salvation (in the Wesleyan sense), that does not make the Church un-one. If a few more are driven out for purposes of apostolic doctrine, that does not make us un-one. All this driving out may make us poorer but it will not make us less a body of Christ.
In fact, if we drove out 49% of those who were undermining the holy and apostolic witness of the Church, those remaining would be the one body of Christ they were before, with the same name over the door, the same properties and resources in place and NOW a reputation for true religion restored to us once again.
Driving out is effective for one other reason. I have images of Christ "cleansing the Temple" in Jerusalem. My thought is this and this is how I believe, truly, that Jesus cleansed the Temple out of zeal for God, and for no other reason. What we do for God has effectiveness in ways we may not see or understand. In Wesleyan theology, the things we do unto God in this way are "works of piety." Giving alms, for instance, is a work of piety; God says to do it, so we do it, not deluding ourselves that we thereby solve the problem of poverty. At least we solved one person's problem of poverty in that moment in time. Which may be all we can do, limited as we are in human weakness.
The difference between this and the previously mentioned magical thinking is that a "work of piety" is a work, whereas magical thinking is a way to avoid work. Cleansing the Temple is a way to take direct and personal responsibility for the condition of the Temple. Jesus did that in holy example to us -- for the Temple of God's people we are assigned to by God in holy orders and church membership.
Finally, driving out the sexually immoral persons from the Church raises moral standards in society as a whole. The record of God's covenant people suggests that we continually live in relationship with those outside the covenant community, whether it is Israel and the Nations or the Church in the World. Paul was extremely conscious of this relationship in recommending action to the Corinthian church. He seems scandalized by the sinful man's behavior, saying it was wrong even by the world's standards. People watch what the Christian and religious person does. The Church has long been a moral barometer in Western civilization. In fact, social activists count on this fact when they try to commandeer the Church and religious people to advance their own secular social agendas. It is the Judeo-Christian traditions that provide the "law and the prophets" of society. But if the trumpet gives and unclear sound, who will obey its call?
Paul envisions a clear line of distinction between the Church and the World. Some are "in" the Church and some are "outside" the means of grace, which is the Church. The very notion of a "church" in the New Testament depends on the Greek language from which "church" is derived. We are ECCLESIA, those who are "called out" of the World. If someone wants to participate in sexual immorality, there are swingers clubs and gay bars a-plenty in the World. But over the Altar of God are a Cross and a Savior, whose blood cleanses us from all sin, including its power and its presence among us.
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