Biblical Theology Briefings

Change Your Values

Joel Edwards


When I came to 1 Corinthians 5, I knew had at least two issues to address. I had to reintroduce the congregation to the book after a series break and I had to consider the thorny questions of application in church discipline. Early study of the passage brought up more issues: what did Paul mean when he said he would be ‘present in spirit but not physically'? What's the stuff about yeast and dough?

The sermon text: context issues

We had gone through chapters 1-4 in a previous series and were returning to it after a break. I needed to remind the congregation where we had been to get them back up to speed again. The main theme that I returned to was the Corinthians' worldliness. Bruce Winter had persuaded me in After Paul Left Corinth that the great problem in Corinth was worldliness. The surface issue was divisions over leadership, the underlying problem is worldliness - ‘since there is quarrelling and jealousy among you, are you not worldly?' (3:3). The factions and the rejection of Paul, were symptoms of the disease of worldliness.

In chapters 1-4 Paul highlights the Corinthians' immaturity and folly for being like people of the world. Chapter 5 links to this context - it continues with the issues of Paul's authority and of their relation to the unbelieving world.

Winter suggests that worldliness is the underlying problem behind the book. I have found him very persuasive, though the theory seems more convincing for some chapters than others. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul raises the issue explicitly - in the case of those who claim to be Christians but live like the world. Winter takes this further by suggesting that the whole church was guilty of worldliness in their attitude to the incestuous man. I think some may think that this is speculative. I went with it and used it to set the scene for chapter 5 - it was made a helpful link between what we'd covered and the new material. However, if you read on, you'll see that it didn't control the explanation, it just added colour.

What this passage is not about: false trails in the sermon

1. ‘We must have a church membership scheme'

1 Corinthians 5 clearly raises the topic of a local church disciplining a Christian. I needed to address this subset of the doctrine of the church. If I do a NT survey for material on church structure and discipline I'll find it in 1 Corinthians 5.  But that runs the risk of proof-texting that twists the text to fit an existing doctrine of church.  My priority is to ask what is the main intention of the chapter?  I have read material that uses 1 Corinthians 5 in support of the claim that discipline of a Christian requires a church to practice a formal church membership scheme. My preparation persuaded me that 1 Corinthians 5 does not make a church membership scheme a normal requirement. I know that proponents of membership schemes refer to a number of passages, but I think they should not use 1 Corinthians 5 (more on this later). Here then is one of the ‘false trails' that we might take. It may be valid for someone to argue that in their context, practising a membership scheme is a good way to respond to this passage. But we cannot say that 1 Corinthians 5 teaches that all churches ought to organise themselves like this.

2. An interesting side issue.

A false trail that I have to confess I took was looking into Paul's ‘spiritual presence' at the church disciplinary action. This is a curious idea to modern minds - how can Paul be spiritually but not physically present? It's an interesting question but not central to the issue of the passage.

3. Seeing too many parallels between OT and NT

Another false trail that I wondered up during preparation came when looking at the OT contexts of the quote in v13. I wondered if elements of the OT process were meant to be transferred into the NT context: the seriousness of the punishment, the way that the community was to be self-policing; the fact that the community was to administer the punishment and not rely on ‘executioners'. While these elements are present in both Deuteronomy and 1 Corinthians 5, Paul refers only to the principle: ‘expel the wicked man' and not the whole package.

What this passage is about: the difference biblical theology makes

What is there in the passage that unlocks it and takes us to its heart and how do you know this?

I want to claim that 1 Corinthians is not a letter about church order in the sense of constitutions and public offices or ‘polity'. Certainly disorder is the biggest symptom in chapter 1-4, but the underlying problem is their worldliness.  Their failure to deal with the incestuous man was a failure to care about church purity. They were too much like the world. There are word links on this topic between chapters 1-4 and chapter 5. They were proud of him when they should have put him out (v2 see 4:6, 18, 19). They were boasting (v6 see 1:29, 1:31, 3:21, 4:7). They were not a church of otherwise godly people who'd just not acted on their constitution. They were living like the world. They had the wrong values. 

This is the point of the passage: change your values! Value the purity of the church. When I preached a sermon on 1 Cor 5 my preaching goal was not 'move a motion to set up a church structure' but 'care about the church family's moral life'.  Someone may argue that a membership scheme MIGHT help with that, but we should be clearer that the Biblical principle is church purity, not church structure.

The Old Testament imagery and passages Paul referred to make this point. They occur at two points, vv6-9 use the terms yeast, Passover lamb, unleavened bread and celebrating a festival. V13 quotes a common phrase from Deuteronomy ‘expel the wicked man from among you'. Here's what I said about each of these in the sermon.

Passover yeast and unleavened bread in Exodus

"Paul uses a proverb about the pervasive effect of yeast in dough to say this one man's presence will have a corrupting influence on the whole group. He jumps from this proverb to OT ideas to do with leaven and dough. The original source for those ideas is Exodus 12. The setting is the escape from Egypt, the early morning after the Passover. In the final plague, Israel avoided judgement on account of their Passover lambs.

"Now Pharaoh banishes Israel from Egypt. They leave in such a rush that they don't have time to raise their bread. Why mention this obscure detail? It becomes the basis of an annual festival. In the week immediately after the Passover festival, the Israelites were to eat bread made without leaven (see Exodus 13:5-10). The meaning of the ceremony is to remember the escape from Egypt."

"In modern bread making, a baker will add yeast to the mixture and set it to rise.

Then, they would use a lump that they'd saved from the previous dough, the leaven. So there would always be a carry over from batch to batch. This festival is symbolic of the new era, the new life. It fits the pattern of leaving behind the old. It is the ancient Israeli version of American 4th July independence day celebrations. Observance was very important: On the first day remove the leaven from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day until the seventh must be cut off from Israel (Exodus 12:15). Why such a harsh penalty? The festival was a keep in mind what God had done. To disregard the festival was to be dismissive of God's great rescue.

"Paul uses that festival as a picture of the Christian life. We have escaped the old life - the rule of sin and the world. We left that old life behind because our Passover lamb - Christ - was sacrificed. So we are in the time after our Passover. We've left the old, wicked regime of sin. We must keep the ongoing feast of unleavened bread. Not by our diet, but by our attitude to sin. Clearing out malice and getting rid of the insincerity of special privileges for special people."

Expelling the wicked man.

Paul uses this quote to justify excluding the incestuous man from the gathering. This phrase comes from Deuteronomy where it is used eight times in chapters 17-24 (in the forms ‘purge the evil from among you' or ‘purge the evil from Israel'). The verb translated ‘purge' is used of God driving out the wicked nations before Israel, purging the land of them (7:1). Once in the land, Israel had responsibility to purge the evil from among them, in most of the cases listed in Deuteronomy, by stoning the evildoer. However, Moses anticipates that they will fail to observe God's commands and God will in turn purge THEM from the land (29:24-27). The underlying idea is that certain behaviours are unacceptable to the Holy God, they pollute the land and it must be purged. If the community does not deal with impure individuals, they become ‘contaminated' and offensive to God. They have responsibility to remove evil from amongst them.

Israel's history fulfilled Moses' prophecy and Israel were purged from the land. As the judgement approached, the later prophets criticised the nation for indifference to God's holiness.

Paul takes the concept from Deuteronomy and applies it to the Christian church. The believing community is to be distinct from the impure society around. Brazen immorality in the community will ‘contaminate' the church family (the yeast metaphor). The church must exercise its responsibility to remove evildoers from amongst them or suffer God's punishment.

Sermon shape and structure

An introduction to the main theme/ goal

addressing what we value. In this I used a brief illustration about the death of millionaires on the Titanic - their wealth was of great value, but on that night, it counted for nothing. After comments on the context to reintroduce 1 Corinthians and set up the passage, I introduced my three points:

  • Care about the right things
  • Care about the church family's purity
  • Care about the right people

Care about the right things.

Here my point was that the Corinthians were caring about the wrong things. They should have changed their values. I used an illustration for the football-mad Geordies.

The Corinthians have got it wrong again. They are proud and boastful when they should have been filled with grief. What has happened in Corinth?

Let me tell you Oscar's story. Oscar is a very successful man. He has a big house, all done up - the new paving on the front drive, a new kitchen for the wife, a porche in the garage. He's popular on the street- well liked. The reason for his success? He's the new star signing for Newcastle united. Last year he came along to a church evangelistic meeting and became a Christian. It's great - the youth club love him. Grandmothers are hoping that their wayward grandsons might start coming to church again because Oscar goes to church. People love to say to work mates ‘I go to church with Oscar. You know, the striker for united.' Being in the same church as Oscar makes them feel they've got credibility. But when some of them discover that Oscar has been cheating people out of money, what should they do?

What did the Corinthians do in that circumstance? Nothing.

They have similar story. One of them is in an adulterous and incestuous affair with his father's wife. Presumably she's his stepmother. But the church just carried on basking in the reflected glory. That's their pride in v2 and their boast in v6. It is their continuing worldliness. They are people who boast in leaders. They have an inflated, puffed up or exaggerated sense of importance because they are associated with this man."

Then I pointed out how Paul contrasts his attitude with theirs (v2, 3 ‘you... but I'). I explained ‘handing over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh'-

It's not giving the man to Satan to be killed. Otherwise why would they need to avoid eating with him as v11 commands?... The Corinthians must symbolically hand this man back to the world, back into Satan's sphere. He has no place in the Christian community where there is new life in the Holy Spirit.

Care about the church family's purity.

Here is the thing they should have cared about but didn't. I explained the OT ideas and we looked up passages in Exodus 12 and 13. Then I showed how these anticipated the salvation of Christians and the corresponding obligation to pure living that Christians have. I used this illustration:

"Recently I watched a film about a number of highly successful American school children. One of them is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who works as a peasant farmer in Texas. He'd left the old country for the sake of the children - he wanted them to have a better life. His daughter is living up to that intention by achieving so much in school We are to live as adopted citizens of a new country, subjects of a new king. The death of Christ makes us new. And we must get rid of the old in order to be new. We are to become what Christ has already made us." (The film was Spellbound)

The point is that our new relationship with God requires new priorities. Christ has died for us, not simply to give us a ticket into heaven, but to recreate us in God's image. We must express God's character in life- as individuals and as a community. We must get rid of evil in from our personal lives and from our church family.

Care about the right people

Verse 12 tells us, it is not the outsiders we're to judge, but the insiders.

"In his previous letter, he wrote not to mix up with, not to keep company with, certain people. He didn't mean the people outside the church who do these things. If we did that we'd have to go off and live in isolated Christian communities.

No. He means the insiders, those who count themselves as insiders, who call themselves Christians and are indifferent to wrong.

Christians are to take the world as we find it. God will judge those on the outside.

Perhaps that's why there's no comment on the women involved in this affair. Paul's certainly not sexist, as we'll see in chapter 7. If the stepmother is an outsider, Paul's not going to judge her. But he HAS judged the son. He expects the church to judge the son. He is an insider.

An illustration of the point:

"In a home it is the father has the chief responsibility to teach the children and to correct them when they are wrong. If he spends all his time telling the children on the street how to behave and doesn't teach his own children, then he is failing in his responsibility."

Then I dealt with the issue of correcting others when I myself confess to be a sinner:

"‘Hang on' someone says. Didn't Jesus say ‘take the plank out of your own eye before you deal with the speck in your brothers'? Yes. Jesus condemned hypocrisy - saying ‘You're in the wrong, I never am.'

The Bible tells us to say - we are all sinners and that makes us guilty. That's why we confess sin in all our main meetings.

"Here the problem is persistent wrong doing. It is saying that the wrong action doesn't matter. Instead of the man saying ‘yes I've done wrong', the church is saying - ‘that sin doesn't matter'. There is a world of difference between the two.

"It was right to separate from the bishop of Newcastle for this reason. Even if he is a lovely man. He's not saying "homosexual relations are a sin, but we all sin". He's said "homosexual behaviour is acceptable to God, so we should accept it amongst us".

"In Corinth they wanted to have it both ways. They wanted this man in the Christian community without telling him to give up his wrong relationship.

Application issues

A short time before this sermon, we had done some sermons and studies on Matthew 18. In discussion a well-taught church member made it clear that they could not envisage ever trying to pull up another Christian on their behaviour. This protected me from a casual approach to this topic. Thoughtful, kind-hearted Christians, will recognise the difficulty of practising this teaching in real relationships. So I acknowledged this in my second application point. And I tried to prevent wrong understandings generating anxiety in my third and fourth application points (‘this is not a witch hunt' and ‘we don't hold the keys to heaven').

We are all responsible for church family life.

"Who is Paul talking to in this chapter? You or I might write a letter to this man who's done wrong. Paul wrote to the whole church. They are boasting about this man when they should have got rid of him. Paul's not even writing to the church leaders. It's a job for the whole church family, not just the vicar. That's a danger of having paid staff. It weakens people's alertness to the quality of life and belief of the people we associate with. We assume the vicar will do it. This idea is found in the Deuteronomy passages that have the phrase ‘Expel the wicked man'. There Moses set out community policing par excellence. The politicians would love it. There's no need to pay the police. The neighbours are responsible for pointing out the criminals and after a fair trial, meeting out justice. That OT pattern is to be reflected in the NT people of God. In the Corinthian church meeting, they should hand the man over. None of them were to have meals with him. We are all responsible for church family life.

The second thing to say is

Having to care about church family life is a scary idea.

We find the idea of questioning another person's behaviour threatening. I couldn't do that! I was talking about this issue with a Christian from another church family and she said ‘I don't have the right to tell someone else they're wrong unless they let me.' When I asked her if she'd be happy to be a church full of drunkards she admitted that she didn't really mean it. She hoped she would speak to people before it got to that stage. The life of the people in our church family matters. We DO have the right to question how they act in fact we have the RESPONSIBILITY. It's still a scary idea, so notice the third thing.

Caring about church family life is not the same as a witch-hunt.

When Paul lists sins in other places, he mentions things like malice, envy, and evil imaginations. We couldn't easily say when people are guilty of those things. Here Paul lists public, notorious sins. Things it would be easy to get witnesses for in a line up. The issue is blatant, flagrant, brazen sins. Sexual immorality - the only place for sex is between a man and a woman who are married to one another. A sexual relationship that doesn't fit that definition is a wrong relationship. Greedy people - not the ones who ‘go large' at Mc Donald's. These are the people we meet in chapter 11 before Christmas - they refused to share their food with the poor at the church family meals. Slanderers - they malign people, misrepresent them, lie about others.

Drunkards - not the alcoholics. These are the people who are out on the razzle every weekend and behaving accordingly. The sins here are obvious, unambiguous and clearly wrong. Thankfully it is not an everyday matter to have to challenge people about these behaviours. Caring about church family life is not a witch-hunt.

Finally, caring about church family life doesn't involve forcing people out.

We don't hold the keys to heaven. We can't stand at the door say ‘she's a Christian, he's not.' We can't excommunicate people because there's not an organisation to shut people out of. What we should do is draw back from close relations. Because we want to shame people back to repentance, because we don't want sin in our midst to affect the whole lot of us.

The problem in Corinth wasn't merely a shallow sense of sin. The existence of the church was at stake. The church is the temple of God's Holy Spirit. It IS a group where homosexuals, drunkards, liars and greedy people are welcomed to receive forgiveness and start new life. It is NOT a group where homosexuality, drunkenness, lying and greed are accepted. If they were, it would no longer be the Holy Spirit's temple.

What does this mean for us?

Thankfully there is little prospect of such an event happening here. There is still a tough challenge for us here. It is this: Do you care about the behaviour and beliefs of Christ's people whom you meet with? That is more important than how impressive they appear - even if they were famous footballers or tv stars. Do you even understand yourself in the Bible's terms? Like the people of Israel after the Passover and Exodus - a people rescued from the past, saved by God to live a new life. Do you honour the Lord who has died to set you free by caring about the lives of those you share new life with?

Resources/Recommended Reading

Because my Greek is not as good as I'd like it to be, I used Bible Works to translate the passage.

Winter, B After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Eerdmans 2001). A very interesting book that gives a strong argument for the occasion and purpose of Paul's letter. The discussion of my sermon indicates how persuasive I found it.

Fee, G First Epistle to the Corinthians (The NICNT) (Eerdmans 1987) This was helpful on some of the details, though to my disadvantage, I wallowed in the details about v3 (Paul's presence and absence.) For a book that aims to be comprehensive, it is a shame that there is no discussion of the curious verse 2 which appears to say that their mourning would cause the man to be removed from their midst.

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