Formations 08.24.2014: Church Discipline

1 Corinthians 5:1-13

Rembrandt, St. Paul at His Writing-Desk, 1629–30

Rembrandt, St. Paul at His Writing-Desk, 1629–30

The topic of “church discipline” can be tricky because many readers know of (or have experienced) frivolous, judgmental, and mean-spirited attempts to secure the “purity” of the church. There is no point in pretending that we don’t bring this baggage to our study of this text. It is far better to put our cards on the table and then strive to move forward.

For all our misgivings, we must admit that the New Testament assumes that Christians will hold each other accountable for their behavior. In Matthew, Jesus outlines a process for reconciliation when brothers and sisters have wronged or offended each other (Matt 18:15-20). James urges believers to confess their sins to one another (Jas 5:16). There comes a point where “live and let live” ceases to be a viable option within the community of Christ’s followers.

In this light, let us read 1 Corinthians 5 for all it’s worth. In these verses, Paul is scandalized to learn of a flagrant incident of sexual immorality within the Corinthian church. Apparently a church member is having an ongoing affair with his own stepmother—a situation even non-believers find offensive. Paul rebukes them for failing to address the situation. Although Christians cannot separate themselves from sinful people in the world, they must at least exercise discipline among their own.


• What has been your experience—positive or negative—of the administration of discipline within the church?
• What would church discipline look like if it were done right?
• How can Christians offer grace and forgiveness to fellow believers without indulging blatant sins such as the one described in this chapter?
• How can Christians challenge each other to moral excellence without falling into nitpicking legalism?

Reference Shelf

Ethics, Personal and Corporate

In 1 Cor 5:1–6:20 Paul continues to respond to reports received concerning goings-on in the Corinthian church. The initial issue is a charge of incest which members of the church have either ignored or winked at. While Paul condemns the practice of immorality “of a kind not found even among pagans” he also chastises the Corinthians for their attitudes which allowed the immorality to continue. The point is clear: ethical behavior is neither exclusively personal nor corporate. Individuals contribute to the values of the community and the community, in turn, should encourage the adherence of commonly held values from individuals. The incest issue allows Paul to confront an apparent proclivity among the Corinthians to take one another to civil court and, also, the prideful sexual libertarian life-styles (no doubt influenced by the Aphrodite cult in Corinth) among some. In each in stance Paul again asserts the interdependence of personal and corporate ethics: each person’s attitudes and actions contribute to and are influenced by the values of the community.

Richard F. Wilson, “Corinthians Correspondence,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 173.

Disciplining an Incredible Case of Immorality

Paul learned from an oral report by Chloe’s people that the church was disunited (1:10), though the church did not mention that in their letter to him. That letter, to which he responds in chapter 7 and probably elsewhere, also did not mention another situation that came to Paul’s attention by word of mouth. A man in the church was “having” (echein) his father’s wife. The case involved the double taboo of adultery and incest. Though the woman in question was apparently not the man’s biological mother, Roman law held that sexual relations between such parties was incestuous and that it was adulterous if the woman’s husband (the man’s father) was still living. Paul labels the situation as porneia, a term that typically covers various forms of sexual immorality. Furthermore, he asserts that it is immorality of a kind “not among the gentiles.” Paul’s dismay is that the church is tolerating immorality within its ranks of a scale not tolerated by those outside.

The obvious question of why begs for an answer. Several proposals have been offered to explain the extraordinary tolerance of the Corinthian church in this matter. A common one has been to blame the moral laxity of the persons involved and the congregation in its acceptance of their behavior on the alleged rampant immorality of ancient Corinth. As pointed out in the Introduction, however, this position is based on a misreading of ancient texts and a misapplication of the supposed reputation of the Greek city-state of Corinth to the Roman colony of Paul’s time. However popular this view may have become, it lacks substance in light of the evidence. Furthermore, as Paul clearly states, the problem was not the immoral environment of the church but rather the church’s willingness to tolerate a situation not tolerated in the larger society.

Another, more defensible, view is that the situation was rooted in some kind of spiritual elitism. Paul’s sarcastic assault on the Corinthians’ smugness in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 might suggest that certain members of the congregation believed that in some sense they had already “arrived” at the glorious state Paul’s eschatological vision held they were to attain. This proposal holds that they subscribed to an “over-realized eschatology” or a “triumphalism” that celebrated, prematurely, the attainment of eschatological freedom from the evil forces controlling this world. These spiritually elite persons within the church were viewed as already living above the constraints of earthly life, including such restrictive conventions as marriage. Their freedom to flaunt conventional morality in some sense confirmed their existence on a higher plane. This proposal carries the benefit of connecting the problem of immorality in 1 Corinthians 5 with the exaggerated exaltation in spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14 and the discounting of the bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The Corinthians’ arrogance in regard to the porneia of 1 Corinthians 5, then, would have been based on their affirmation of the “spiritual” advancement of the persons involved.

In light of the pervasive Corinthian concern for matters of status, however, a more satisfactory explanation understands the situation as one of social elitism, as several scholars have recently argued. The man in question may have been one of some prominence, at least in relation to the status of most of the church members. Dependence on the patron-client network of Corinth may have made those members of lower status (the majority of the church) hesitant to address the situation. In fact, the man’s inclusion in the membership of the church may have enhanced their own status. Their arrogance, then, would not have lain so much in their pride in his extramarital affair but in his position in the larger community. To have this person in the church and to maintain cordial ties with him, including table fellowship, would have appeared more advantageous than risking their association with him by reprimanding him for his illicit behavior. Furthermore, even though the relationship between the man and the woman was illegal and subject to severe penalties according to Roman law initiated by the emperor Augustus and even though the official stance of Roman public ethics was to condemn such relationships, numerous cases of deliberate defiance of what some considered to be excessive governmental intrusion in private affairs occurred. The man’s open violation of Roman law may have suggested to the rest of the church, not that he was spiritually mature, but that he was socially and politically powerful enough to risk public censure. If he possessed sufficient clout to rebuff Roman convention, then surely those church members who otherwise benefited from his association could overlook his improper relationship with his stepmother. This view that the basic problem rooted in social elitism also connects with other problems addressed by Paul in the letter, namely the issue of divisions in 1 Corinthians 1–4, civil court cases and perhaps attitudes toward immorality in chapter 6, eating meat offered to idols in chapters 8–10, head gear for men and women and the divisions at the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11, and perhaps a matter of patronage in chapter 16.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 145–48.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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