I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons – not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. (
1 Corinthians 5:9-11)
Carnal Christians produce not only divisions within the church when they cut themselves free from spiritual wisdom or eternal wisdom, exchanging it for carnal wisdom or temporal wisdom. They also produce other behavior patterns. Paul now turns to these. In the next several chapters, he deals with specifics.
The church of Jesus Christ is an island in the middle of a polluted ocean. The sea laps upon its shores. It is impossible for us to live our contemporary existence without a constant exposure to moral pollution. The stench of it is so common that we have become accustomed to its rotten odors.
We observe so much immorality in the everyday lives of persons with whom we come in contact that we close our eyes to these tragic actions and attitudes. We don’t want to spend all our time judging others, so we pretend we don’t see what we see. Or, if we see it, we can so quickly accommodate ourselves to it that it no longer seems so bad. In fact, we tear down the signs that say, “Danger. Do not swim. Waters are polluted.” We dive into the bay without adequate inoculation against disease. Then we are surprised when we hear about some Christian who has messed up morally.
Vance Havner, one of the great old Bible teachers of America, observed during his many years of ministry that, “The world is becoming churchy, and the church is becoming worldly.” I’m not so certain that the world is becoming as churchy these days as he observed in those years of post-World-War-II religious boom. But certainly the church is becoming worldly.
As we approach this topic, I urge you to open yourself to its teaching.
Many of you have traveled with me to the Middle East. We have visited Corinth. I have taken some of you, while visiting a museum at the ancient site of Corinth, to a room that is usually kept locked. In it, there are artifacts from the first century which show in clay models and pictures the sexual degeneracy of the community in which Paul founded that church. Far from a Corinthian blushing upon a visit to Southern California, a Southern Californian would blush while visiting ancient Corinth. You and I, who at this point are living our lives in sexual accordance to God’s Word, need to know how we are to deal with those cases of sexual immorality that occasionally emerge within our Christian community.
I know this weekend at St. Andrew’s, with approximately 2,000 people in attendance, there will be some Christians who are now buying into the world’s scheme.
It may be a husband who has tried to be faithful, but the wife’s apparent disinterest in sex and preoccupation with other activities has only poured gasoline on those sexual fires of attraction toward that other woman, and he’s given in.
Most likely, there’s a woman here who is married to a workaholic. His job is his mistress. He doesn’t share his inner personal vulnerabilities, and she in her hunger for emotional embrace is finding it in lingering luncheons, long conversations and, yes, even in the arms of that man who seems so much more sensitive and caring.
There is a student here who has lost the strength to swim against the sexual immorality of many on that university campus. So he or she has given in. The best way to defend one’s actions is to repudiate the validity of biblical authority and the very Christian faith that calls to a higher moral standard.
Perhaps there is a single person who wants to date, but very few of the people you find attractive, even Christians, are willing to live according to biblical standards. So you are just about ready to throw in the towel, or perhaps you’ve already done it.
Whether for you this is a more cognitive academic dealing with the matter of sexual immorality in the church, or for you it is an existential moment as your own conduct is being called into question, I beg you, I beg myself, to be open to God’s truth.
Let’s talk frankly about how to handle immorality in the church, as I share with you five very practical teachings from
First: Acknowledge immorality for what it is.
Immorality is behavior that is disobedient to the ethical teachings of God’s Word. It is personal in nature, involving the individual. It is also corporate in nature, as it struggles for the soul of a society. It is larger than sexual. In this particular instance, the primary topic with which Paul is dealing is that of sexual immorality.
Acknowledge immorality for what it is. Call it what it is.
For the church at Corinth, it was fornication. Fornication is when a single person is having sexual intercourse with someone who is not his or her married partner. In this particular situation, it was complicated in that it also involved incest. A Christian man was having a sexual affair with his father’s wife, a woman who was apparently a nonbeliever.
The story of this behavior made its way all the way to Ephesus, hundreds of miles away, where Paul was pastoring. Remember, there was no telephone communication; there were no fax machines or internet to speed along an email. The only way in which one could hear would be through travelers who made the long journey by sea or by land and sea.
Paul was shocked. He was shocked, not because he had never heard of such things before. He had. He was a sophisticated person traveling in the Greco-Roman world. He had observed every kind of sexual immorality, but his heart was broken that a Christian man would form an illicit association with his own step-mother, something that was explicitly forbidden in the Jewish law (
Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife” (
Incest is a physical contact of a sexual nature between family members including persons too closely related for normal marriage. Every society has an incest taboo, yet right here in the United States, incest has accelerated to epidemic proportions. The U.S. Department of Justice publishes statistics, and it is not uncommon in an average year for the judicial system to deal with minimally 500,000 cases of incest. Some researchers feel that between 5 and 15 percent of the American population is or has been involved in incest. Other studies suggest that one out of every seven boys and one out of every four girls will be sexually abused by the time they are 18. Ninety-seven percent of the molesters are male, and 75 percent are family members. This occurs in all segments of our society in both high and low income families, in blue-collar, white-collar and professional homes. It also happens in Christian families. Incest is only one kind of sexual sin, only one kind of fornication.
We could go on and, in graphic detail, describe other forms of sexual sin, both heterosexual and homosexual in nature, both in the specific practice or in the exploitation of others, such as in pornography and prostitution for economic gain.
Paul didn’t talk in vague generalities. He called immorality for what it was. He labeled the kind and stated the specific situation and declared that it is still going on. That is prophetic, godly dealing with immorality in the church.
Second: Don’t allow yourself to become indifferent to immorality.
Instead, grieve when you see it.
Paul writes, “And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?” (
Scottish Bible commentator William Barclay translates
It is actually reported that there is unchastity among you, and unchastity so monstrous that it does not even exist among the heathen, unchastity the consequence of which is that a certain man has formed a union with his father’s wife; and you have regarded the matter with inflated self-complacency and you have not-as you should have-regarded it with a grief so bitter that it would take steps to see that the perpetrator of this deed should be removed from your midst.
Paul refers to a spiritual arrogance among carnal Christians that is so proud of one’s personal accomplishments or the accomplishments of one’s own partisan party that we end up overlooking malignancy within the very Body of Jesus Christ. A casual attitude toward sexual immorality had developed at Corinth and frankly has developed here at St. Andrew’s in Newport Beach. It is possible to be so spiritually proud in our programs, in our buildings, in our world missions, that we either aren’t aware of the terrible nature of sin, or we actually are proud of how broad we’ve become, how tolerant, how understanding. In the psychological, therapeutic environment of Southern California, we can end up making excuses for everybody else’s immorality as well as our own, attributing it to family and societal influences, relieving ourselves of moral accountability.
Our hearts should break when we see sexual sin in the life of another or ourselves. We should go into mourning. We should wear the black armband, not on top of our clothing as a gossip item, but around our very heart, grieving wherein we or a brother or sister in Christ has fallen into sin. My heart breaks every time I hear of another colleague in ministry who gets tripped up in this area. It has been my horrible but sacred responsibility to empathize with persons, Christians who have become swamped in the surrounding waters of moral pollution. At first, it was all so charming. It was all so attractive. God didn’t know what He was talking about when He gave us the Bible. It’s so old and out of date anyway. How do we know it was God who was doing the talking?
I could tell you story after story of painful consequences of moral disobedience that are being experienced. How many a wife I’ve counseled who has been devastated, having discovered her husband’s unfaithfulness. How many a husband I’ve anguished with as he tells a story of how an innocent flirtation quickly intensified to the point of sexual involvement. The price has been a broken marriage, alienation from his children and a disaster for both himself and the woman with whom he became involved.
How many times I’ve wept along with a fellow pastor who crossed the line, forgetting to respect the boundaries of intimacy in pastoral counseling, only to be forced to resign from his pastorate or be removed temporarily or permanently from ministry.
One of my dearest friends is left emotionally destitute for having bought into the world’s package as she temporarily turned her back on Jesus Christ and His way and now, decades later, is still paying the price.
For God’s sake, don’t become indifferent to immorality, whether it’s the immorality of a brother or sister in Christ or your own. Know that the result is emotional, spiritual and sometimes even physical disfigurement. You are left so vulnerable to pain. The joys of illicit love sour so quickly. You and I could both tell each other story after story of people who once loved Jesus who have succumbed. They have refused to repent. Theirs is the venereal disease of body, mind and spirit that is as deadly as AIDS and just as contagious. God help us if we can’t grieve.
Third: Have the courage to discipline.
Paul writes, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (
The church is often too lax in discipline. We are not called to be penal, but to be remedial. We are not called to be punitive, but to be redemptive. The prescription is clear. Remove one caught in sexual immorality from among you. This is not optional. It is essential. Discipline is never for the satisfaction of the person exercising it. That becomes punitive behavior that plays to one’s own pathological need for revenge. Discipline is always designed for the mending of the sinner.
Four times in this one chapter, Paul calls for excommunication. The specific situation is this believer who is involved in incest. No mention is made of the woman who apparently is a nonbeliever. She is to be dealt with differently. In
This is not very sophisticated conversation for a casual Sunday morning, is it? But my friend, it is the Word of God. We better listen to it and carry out our discipline and do it in love with a heart broken for the sinner.
Do you ever wish you had been subjected to more discipline at some point in your life? I’ve been thinking about this all week. I thought back to my teachers through grammar school, junior high and high school. I remember the one who had the greatest impact on me was Miss Moran, my sixth grade teacher. She loved me enough to discipline me. There were two or three times that year that she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Johnny Huffman, you’ve got great promise, but, if you continue to take the easy way and avoid that which is difficult, you’ll never realize that promise!” She gave me grades, assignments and even at times punishment that caught my attention, and I am so much the better for it today.
I had some teachers that I could finesse, manipulate and con with my words, actions and attitudes. But not Miss Moran. I didn’t particularly enjoy sixth grade with Miss Moran. My year with her was the school year of 1951-1952; but when I went back to Arlington, Massachusetts, on several occasions in the 1960s and 70s, I looked up Miss Moran to tell her how grateful I was in my adult years for her steady, no-nonsense discipline. And I still drive past that Brackett School in my mind and think of that classroom and that teacher who cared enough to discipline me.
What does Paul mean when he suggests that this sexually immoral man, who was involved in incest with his step-mother, be delivered to Satan?
There are two primary views on this.
One is that we need to confront in humble church discipline the person living in direct violation of God’s Word, excommunicating them from the fellowship. Death at the hand of God may be the ultimate way in which God both preserves the soul of the sinning Christian and keeps the church from being destroyed by the contagious nature of the malignancy.
That’s a pretty strong concept, isn’t it? I personally tend to be a bit cynical of this interpretation, except that I’m reminded of a case right here at St. Andrew’s that very closely parallels this. It became rumored that one of our elders was involved in adultery. With the approval of the Ministry Committee of Session, I scheduled a luncheon with him and lovingly shared that we had heard this rumor and asked if it was true. If it was, I urged him to repent and accept the Lord’s forgiveness and be restored to fellowship with the Lord and his leadership as an elder. He denied that there was any truth to the story. I asked him to think and pray about this for a month, and then we would have lunch again. If it was true, we would have to ask for his resignation as an elder and remove him from his position of leadership.
A month later, we had that luncheon. He looked me in the eyes and said, “The rumor is true. I am not prepared to break off the relationship.” He then handed me his letter of resignation. Several months later, this man who most of us viewed as being in the prime of life, dropped dead. I happen to believe he is with the Lord. His death may be coincidence. Or it is just possible, like Annanias and Sapphira and others who have been entrusted with responsibility and had violated their charge, God may have simply removed him to protect his own soul and to maintain the health of this local community of believers.
There’s a second understanding that may be a bit more on target, and it certainly is more palatable to our contemporary sensibilities. It is this. We are to discipline the person who is unrepentant of sin, turning that person over to Satan and the aloneness of sin and the lack of fellowship which that implies in the prayer and hope that that person will come back to their senses, repent and desire to be restored to the fellowship.
That is what happened to the Prodigal Son. The loving father let him go his way. He could have smothered him, boxed him in, kept financial ties to him that would prohibit him from getting too far away from home. But he didn’t. In love, he let him go. Then, finally in a far country, he was out of easy money, easy friends, easy women, easy food and easy drink. The Bible says, “He came to his senses.” Home looked a lot better to him. His loneliness was good for his spirit. It brought him back into the arms of the waiting father.
If David had not been confronted by that disciplining, boney finger of the prophet Nathan, who said, “Thou art the man,” the rest of David’s life might have been quite different, with him continuing on in his adultery, murderous ways and his coverup.
If it would not violate confidentiality, I could share with you a number of stories in which church discipline was carried out here at St. Andrew’s with people in leadership positions. Some, when lovingly confronted, fled the scene in anger against God and the church. Others, in humble repentance, accepted the discipline. They were removed from leadership for a couple of years, dealt with their issues and were restored, and today are healthy, vibrant servants of the Lord, living within the fellowship here in positive ministries for Jesus Christ.
Fourth: Remember, one bad apple can spoil the whole crate.
I don’t understand the biology of it. I just know that if you take a container of apples and allow a rotten one to stay in the midst of the others, it won’t be long until that rottenness spreads to the others and corrupts the whole container.
Not only is the discipline of value to the erring brother or sister. It is critical to the health and welfare of the church.
Paul writes in
This meant much more to the first-century Jew than it means to a resident of Newport Beach in 2005. I don’t know much about cooking, but I do know that a little bit of yeast has a profound impact when you’re baking bread. When the Jew prepared the Passover, the Passover bread was to be unleavened bread. The house was to be cleansed of any old leaven. With very few exceptions, leaven stands in Jewish literature symbolic of an evil influence. Leaven was that dough that had been kept over and had fermented. The Jews identified fermentation with putrefaction and rottenness. A pure unblemished lamb was to be slain for the Passover observance. The bread was to be unleavened. Paul is reminding us now that the Perfect Lamb has been slain, even Jesus Christ. Even as God had delivered the Israelites from Egypt as celebrated in the memories of the Passover, His sacrifice has delivered us from sin. Even as the leaven was to be removed from the house, even so must the leaven, the rottenness of immorality be removed from the church. If not, its evil influence can corrupt our whole society if we close our eyes and pretend everything is okay when there is unconfessed sin. We are to get rid of the yeast of malice and evil. We are to be an unleavened society of sincerity and truth.
I am called to go around with a magnifying glass of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ to make me look inward and see myself as God sees me and repent of sin. You are to hold me accountable. Then together, we are to hold each other accountable. We will never go on a witch hunt here at St. Andrew’s, hiring detectives to snoop out your sin. That’s between you and God. But as it comes to our attention and as it potentially scandalizes the church, know that you are accountable to your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. If we don’t have the courage to discipline ourselves through prophetic preaching and teaching of the Word, if you and I are not open to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, even right now as we confront scriptural teaching, and if you and I are approached by a brother or sister and held accountable, and we refuse to repent, we are rotten apples who are capable of contaminating the rest of the fruit. For our personal welfare, as well as the welfare of this community, hear the Word of God. Luxuriate in the good news that you and I can be once again clothed in Christ’s righteousness as we acknowledge our sin, claim His forgiveness and experience His empowerment by the Holy Spirit to live victorious Christian lives.
This is what the Christian faith is all about.
Fifth: This does not mean that we as Christians are to disassociate ourselves from immoral pagan persons.
Paul writes in
This is extremely important. The church is an island in a sea of moral pollution. We have a responsibility to hold each other accountable in Christian discipline. However, we are not called to be the judges or the policemen of the pagan world.
You and I are called to repentance and to honest, vulnerable Christian living, as individuals who are part of a Christian community. We then are dispersed by this Christian community to live in this pagan world as salt and light. We are to be in the world but not of the world. We are to witness to what Jesus has done for us. We are to offer an opportunity for others to come to know our Savior. We are privileged to welcome people to visit our fellowship and hear the claims of Christ, both from our own lips and from those of our teachers and preachers.
But don’t expect the nonbeliever to live with the same ethical and spiritual level as the believer. The nonbeliever has not been born again by the Spirit of God. The natural person does not understand the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Natural man or woman does not understand eternal values. They can’t. These eternal values are alien to them. Don’t hold it against them. Their lungs, spiritually and ethically, breathe a different air than do yours and mine as believers in Jesus Christ. Love them, care for them, understand them.
Note carefully that Paul urged excommunication of the man involved in the incest. There is no discipline for the woman. Why? Apparently he was a believer; she was not. She was not under the jurisdiction of the church; he was. Wherein he is lovingly disciplined, she is more apt to see that we as believers mean business. Wherein he is willing to repent and be restored and have his habits of life changed, she is more apt to see that a Christian has values not less than but higher than temporal values. She then can see herself as one loved by Jesus Christ and by other Christians, not one to be used then discarded by one who scandalizes the very understanding of what it is to be fully human that our Savior came to reestablish.
I know this has been a very difficult sermon, but it may be the most important I’ve preached for some time. If you’re having a hard time accepting my words on this, let me read these words from Bishop N.T. Wright, one of today’s most brilliant articulators of biblical truth. He writes about this passage:
All such “leaven” is ruled out for Christians, and Paul makes it clear that it is not to be tolerated in the church. Once more, we realize how far many churches in the modern world have travelled away from their roots. Many today have actually elevated moral indifference-on some issues at least-into part of their foundation charter, so that to suggest introducing discipline over (say) sexual misbehaviour would cause a storm of protest, accusations of legalism, Pharisaism, lack of charity, and a host of other nasty things. But Paul is quite clear.
He had already written to Corinth on this subject, in a letter which has not survived. They hadn’t understood. They thought he was saying they should avoid all contact with immoral people, and wondered how on earth they could continue to live in Corinth at all! Now he explains: he meant simply within the church. Table-fellowship among Christians, he says, should be the sign of fellowship which is given to those who are living as the Messiah’s people should. And, just as Israel was commanded not to tolerate evil in its midst (
Once again, we can imagine the howls of anger at such a suggestion in today’s church (‘Unloving!’ ‘Intolerant!’ ‘Judgmental!’). Paul might well have answered: is the doctor unloving or judgmental when he or she tells you that you must have the operation right away? Do we want a doctor who “tolerates” viruses, bacteria, cancer cells? And if we say that the moral issues Paul mentions in
I could not conclude this message without giving an invitation. This word has been a stern message directed to us from God.
It’s a word of discipline to those of use who need discipline. If there is unconfessed sin your life, I urge you now to repent and come back to the waiting Father.
If you know a brother or sister in Christ who is headed in direct opposition to God’s Word, have the courage to lovingly warn them, urging them to repent, to be restored. If you are in a place of trusted leadership at St. Andrew’s, I beg you, don’t shy away from your responsibility to exert loving but firm Christian discipline.
If you have never received Jesus Christ as your Savior, I urge you right now to admit that you are a sinner, that you are not perfect, that you can’t earn your way into His kingdom. Accept the fact that He offers you a gift. Ask Him to come into your life and to forgive your sins. Claim the promise, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.