Back to Leadership Principles Page

1. Tell It to the Church (Church Discipline) by Ray C. Stedman
2. Indifference Toward Immorality by Doug Goins
3. Scandal in the Church by Ray C. Stedman

Tell It To The Church

by Ray C. Stedman   Listen

Today we must do what we have had to do only three previous times in the 36-year history of Peninsula Bible Church. That is to obey the word of our Lord Jesus given in Matthew 18 concerning the handling of a serious moral failure in a member of this church. The passage begins with Verse 15:

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." {Matt 18:15-18 RSV}

As we go through these words together let us remember that these are the words of Jesus, and, as such, they cannot be ignored. He is the Lord of the church, the Head of the body, and, as such, is dealing here with the procedure for handling unjudged sin in our midst.

It is clear in this passage that our Lord is dealing with a situation where sin has not been acknowledged as such. The normal way to handle sin in a Christian's life, since we all sin, is to judge it ourselves, to become aware by the ministry of the Word of God, or, perhaps, by observation of someone else's life that something we are doing is clearly, unmistakably wrong, and to judge it, and stop it. This kind of judging must go on in all our lives. Where it does there is no disciplinary action required. But our Lord is dealing here with those cases where, for one reason or another, we do not judge ourselves. Here he describes the process to be followed. This is not a single act, it is a process which involves four steps which are to take place over a period of time.

The first stage is a private meeting: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone." (The words against you are not in some of the better manuscripts, and many texts leave them out.) What this is really saying is, "if your brother sins, period" -- i.e., if your brother (or your sister) is clearly violating by his actions something that the Word of God says is wrong, and does not do anything about it, we are to go to him and tell him his fault between the two of us.

This, of course, is quite contrary to the spirit of the age. The world around constantly tells us that what an individual does in his private life is nobody else's business. In this election year we are being told that a politician's private life is nobody's business but his own (or her own), and we are not to judge or even take account of what kind of life he leads when we vote. But this is not true in the church. The church is a body, and members of that body belong one to another. Perhaps no two words appear more frequently in the Scripture than those words, one another. We are to do many things to one another, and one of them is to help one another when we do not see or recognize that what we are doing is wrong.

Notice that our Lord specifically says it involves a question of sin -- and sin is defined by the Word of God. Jesus is not saying, "If your brother irritates you, or offends you, or ignores you, you are to go to him about that." There is another great word in the Christian life that covers irritations: it is the word forbearance. We are to bear with one another. We all irritate each other, and offend one another, and when we do we are to forbear one another; we are to put up with it, to forgive it without saying anything about it to the person involved. But this passage is dealing with sins, and sins are defined for us in the Scripture.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul sets forth some of the clearly sinful things that we Christians tend to do to one another.

Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph.4:25-5:4 {RSV}

That is a representative list of some of the things that the Word of God defines as sin.

At this first meeting we are to go, as Paul instructs in the book of Galatians, in the spirit of meekness {cf, Gal 6:1}, not self-righteously, not harshly, not with condemnation. Aware of our own vulnerability, we are to go to an individual, and say, "The Scriptures say that what you are doing is wrong. What do you think about it? You read the Bible. What does it say?" Thus we are to seek to lay hold of the individual's conscience and restore him to a spirit of repentance.

Notice this word in Matthew 18 is addressed to all Christians, not merely church leaders, elders, or pastors. This is to go on all the time between believers wherever we see someone refusing to judge a wrong thing in his or her life.

I want to say that this does happen here at PBC. Hardly a week goes by that someone in this congregation is not doing this with someone else. That shows a care and love for someone else and a desire to help. But only when we go in a spirit of awareness of our own vulnerability is it a valid approach.

Jesus continues, "If your brother hears you," i.e., if he accepts what you point out to him, and ceases his sin, there is to be no further action. No one else is to know about it; we are not to talk to anyone about it. It is not subject for any further action by anyone. If your brother does not hear you, however, then others become involved.

Our Lord moves to the second step: "But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses." The bringing of others into the situation is clearly designed to impress the erring brother or sister with the seriousness of sin.

This second step is pointing out that this sin cannot be ignored. We cannot shrug our shoulders, and say, "Oh, well, that is his business. Forget about it." Others are to become involved. This kind of thing may occur several times, in a loving attempt to lay hold of someone's conscience, and awaken him to the danger in which he has put himself spiritually, and the hurt he is inflicting upon others. The witnesses, of course, serve to keep tempers down, and to keep the reports of the meeting accurate in case anything further needs to be done. If this works, if, when confronted with two or three, the brother or sister who is erring listens, and ceases his sinful behavior, then nothing further need be done. Discipline has achieved its objective and forgiveness comes in.

But, Jesus declares, if there is still no repentance, then a third step must be taken: "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." This is the step to which we have come this morning regarding a certain situation in our own midst: We must tell it to the church.

The reason for this is that the whole congregation may become involved in an attempt to reach the offender. It is not that we tell people in order that they might turn their backs on the individual or refuse to have anything to do with him. We are not to come as holier-than-thou judges or finger-pointing condemners, but as fellow-pleaders for a change of heart, urging the individual in question to permanently cease from the sinful actions involved.

There are several ways to do this. If you ask, "What can a congregation actually do at this stage?"

I would say, first, pray for the offender. Prayer is everywhere urged in Scripture as a powerful weapon to change people's thinking and attitudes. Pray that God will grant repentance to the offender, that God will so move that he will turn and recover himself from the snare of the devil. And pray for those who have been hurt by the sin. Other innocent ones are always involved and they are being damaged and hurt; we need to support them and love them in prayer. So if you cannot do anything else, pray for such a one.

In our bulletin this morning there is a notice about a special prayer meeting to be held here this week for prayer for this situation and any others that may be among us. We invite you to come for that purpose.

Then the second thing a congregation can do is to express love and concern to the individual involved. Urge him to repent, to give up sin, and to give in to the pleadings of the body and of the Spirit of God. Especially is this true of people who are friends of the individual and have known him for a long period of time. The cooperative effort of many to help the one involved see what he or she has done is a very powerful weapon to turn him from evil.

Thirdly, individuals in a congregation can share with this person experiences they themselves may have had of finding God's grace sufficient in their own lives to resist evil, or to turn from it, once it has been discovered or indulged in. That will encourage the individual to realize that the only way out of his situation is to return to the Lord, who will forgive.

If this works (and some time must be allowed to permit it to work), then nothing more needs to be done. There is no need to bring the person before the congregation, demanding he tell the whole story, etc. There is no embarrassment or any public humiliation required. The purpose of all discipline is restoration, recovery, repentance.

But if the offender continues in sin, and resists all pleas, Jesus sets out a final and fourth step which must be taken: "If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." In the culture of that day that was equivalent to saying that he was an unbeliever, not a Christian at all; that he had, by his deeds, declared himself not to be truly a believer, a genuine, submitted believer in the Lord. What is suggested here is that the whole congregation look upon the individual differently. This does not require any kind of punishment. There are no penalties assessed. There is no attempt to humiliate the individual. The congregation begins to regard him as an unbeliever.

In his letter to Titus, Paul refers to certain men, of whom he says,

Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; {Tit 1:15-16a RSV}

If one has resisted the attempts of many to bring him to a knowledge of truth, then this is the condition into which he has allowed himself to fall. He is to be treated, therefore, as we would treat any unbeliever in our midst -- with courtesy, yet with sorrow for the sin and the hurt he is bringing on himself, but with hope for his ultimate redemption.

He is not to have any role of leadership in the church, or any teaching ministry within it. He is not to be recognized as being a believer; his deeds declare that he is not what he professes to be.

At this point we must take Verse 18 very seriously. Our Lord underlines it with an introductory word, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." What does that mean? Well, it means that God will act when and where the church can no longer act. When a church has followed carefully and lovingly through this whole program of redemption described here, and has arrived at the fourth step, that is all the church can do. Human effort to recover an individual can go no further. But God can go further, that is the point. What the church has done by faithfully obeying its Lord, God will continue to do in his own sovereign way in bringing about events and circumstances that will bear upon that person's conscience to make him see how wrong he is. If the offender is truly a Christian -- as he may well be, despite the fact that his deeds do not support his profession -- then he will be chastened by a loving Father.

There are many passages in Scripture, most notably Hebrews 12 and 13, for instance, that speak of this. That chastening can be ruthless. A loving Father can at times be very hard on someone whom he seeks to turn from an evil pathway. This is what the Apostle Paul refers to in First Corinthians as "being delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus," {1 Cor 5:5 RSV}. God does that, and it can be very painful. One of our members who went through this very process of discipline some years ago and has been restored to us and recovered by God's grace told me that in the years in which he was walking away from the church, away from the body of Christ and under the discipline of this passage, he went through a literal hell on earth. He found himself tremendously distressed -- he had psychotic experiences that frightened the living daylights out of him. God can deal very ruthlessly with one of his own.

Now it may be that the offender has never been a Christian. In that case, God may allow him to live out his days on earth rather peacefully and ultimately face the judgment that awaits him, as it does all who come to the end of their lives. In any event, it is in God's hands. The church is not required to take any further action.

Now we come to the moment that I intensely dislike. This has not been an academic study, as I am sure you realize. We have an actual case before us that requires this action. So with great sorrow and personal pain I must reveal the name to you and the sin of the offender whom we have been speaking of this morning. Let me say that this has been compounded in agony for all of us by the fact that this man has been an elder of this congregation for over 10 years; he has been a Bible teacher and a counselor among us. I refer to our brother, John Watkins.* About eight months ago, information reached us that he was involved in an extra-marital affair. One of our pastors met with him concerning this situation and the man admitted to this. He admitted it not only to this pastor at that first meeting, but, subsequently, several times to all of us. In talking with him, it came to light that this had been going on for a number of years. Further, because this was a financial drain upon him, he used his position as an elder to borrow extensively from several people in this congregation and has thus contracted a heavy debt under essentially false pretenses.

Though at the first meeting he was repentant, submitted himself to the elders' counsel, sought forgiveness from his wife and began the repayment of this debt, we have in recent days learned that he is still involved with the other woman and is unwilling to break off this affair. So we come reluctantly, painfully and sorrowfully to seek the involvement of the church, to ask all who know him to seek to turn him, to reach his conscience and deliver him.

The Apostle Paul instructs us in First Timothy concerning an elder:

Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. {1 Tim 5:19-20 RSV}

Today we are simply attempting to be obedient to those words. We do so out of a deep sense of our own vulnerability. There is not one of us who could not have fallen into the same condition had we not taken hold of the resources that were provided to all in the Word and by the Spirit.

I am sure many of you have questions about this. Perhaps someone is saying, "How can this happen? How can a man to whom leadership is entrusted, who understands and is even teaching the Scriptures, who does personal counseling, how can he allow himself to be involved in such a thing as this?" The answer, of course, which is everywhere given in Scripture is, the deceitfulness of sin. Sin has a strange power to deceive us and to make us justify what we are doing.

I recently ran across an article written by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, the pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. In it, he points out some of the popular lies of today that we often use to justify evil. Here is one of them:

We often allow ourselves to think that God is unfair in giving us passions and then restricting their fulfillment. We say, "I have this strong sex drive. I am not being adequately satisfied and I feel I have to do this." That is a lie. That is saying that our moods and our feelings are to govern us. Never in Scripture do we find that we are to allow our feelings to be in charge of our conscience. It is the other way around. God provides power for us, if we choose to use it.

Another widespread lie today is that, by careful planning, we can sin secretly without harm. That, of course, denies the word of Scripture that God cannot be mocked. He knows what we are doing. It cannot be hidden from him. He has ordained that "if we sow to the flesh, we shall of the flesh reap corruption," {cf, Gal 6:8a}. Nothing can change that. Nothing can evade it. It is equally true that "if we sow to the Spirit, we shall of the Spirit reap life," {cf, Gal 6:8b}. Nothing can change that. To believe we can sin in secret without penalty is a Satanic lie which permits us to go on in evil and into dangerous involvements that are extremely hurtful. We will find ourselves under the chastening hand of God.

A third lie is that a great enough pleasure is worth any discipline that God may impose as a result. But what a terrible deceit that is! You would agree if you could see, as some of us have seen, the terrible hurt that comes into a life that seeks to deliberately disobey the Word of God. No one can imagine how much it is going to cut and hurt and pain not only the individual, but others as well. The degree to which that happens is often incredible. If it be true, as Scripture declares, that we are sowing a seed, then the harvest is always greater than the sowing. Thus we can only fool ourselves when we think it is going to be worth the pleasure that we experience.

Another lie is that we can live in a world of fantasy and still be committed Christians. Many among us, I am afraid, indulge themselves in fantasies, thought-sins, in playing with evil, thinking that because no one else can see it they are not being hurt by it. But our Lord Jesus informs us very clearly that even if we lust in our hearts we have committed adultery; and that too will be brought to light. Now it does not mean that a passing thought is itself a sinful deed. But if we play with it, if we deliberately bring it to our mind, if we seek after it and feed it with pornographic and erotic literature we are exposing ourselves to the judgment of God. We must firmly reject these lies and get on with living the truth as God has called us.

Someone else may say, "Why are we treating this so seriously? This is common in the world today. It is even common in the church today. Why do we take it so seriously?" The answer, of course, is, because the Word of God takes it seriously. The reason it does so is because any degree of sexual misbehavior directly attacks the most fundamental institution among mankind, and that is marriage. God takes that very seriously because marriage is at the root of proper social behavior. Marriage constitutes the warp and woof of the fabric of society. When marriages begin to fall apart, as they have to a considerable degree in the last decades, the whole society begins to crumble. This is the explanation for the skyrocketing rises in drug addiction, homosexuality, moral breakdown, corruption in politics, etc., on every side. The underlying structure, the foundations of national life are disappearing. Thus God deals very seriously with this, and we must do so as well.

This is not easy to do. I personally dislike intensely what I'm doing now. But it must be done if we are to be obedient to the Word of God. So on behalf of the elders of this congregation I would urge you all to join us in trying to reach our brother, to help him to see how serious this is, and to help him recover.

We want to see him forgiven and restored, the improper liaison ended, and to be back again with his brothers and sisters in Christ. To that end we ask your involvement and your prayer.

This has been a sobering meeting. I cannot think of anything more fitting by way of closing than to stand quietly together and to commit this matter to the Lord in prayer.


Our Heavenly Father, we are made aware by this passage of the purity of the church, of the holiness of our Lord, of the evil that destroys among us, of the cleverness of the devil in tricking and deceiving us by attractive lies. Forgive us all, Lord, and help us to be loving, faithful members one of another. We pray for our brother. We pray you will restore him, that you will deal with him, that this need not go to that last and final stage of being delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh. We pray for his wife and his children, that you will uphold them and strengthen them in this time. May we together share not only in the pain, but also, ultimately, in the recovery, and rejoice in your grace and in your mercy to us. We commit this, then, into your loving hands that you may do as seems best in your eyes. In Jesus' name. Amen.

* The name has been changed to protect those involved.


Title: Tell it to the Church
Series: Single Message: Troublesome Issues
Scripture: Matt 18:15-18
Message No: 1
Catalog No: 3952
Date: September 30, 1984

Top of Page


Top of Page

Indifference Toward Immorality

by Doug Goins


In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says, "And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer."

The body of Christ needs to hear these words so that we can take seriously the corrosive, destructive nature of sin in our midst. When we find someone in the body who is consistently living in sinful failure, we are called to redemptively, lovingly, and courageously wade into their life and challenge them for their own good and for the good of the body as well.

This passage in Matthew 18 describes a four-step process in church discipline. The third step in the process is telling it to the church, drawing the entire community into it so that the whole community can pray.

In the fifty years that PBC has been in existence, that step of public discipline has been exercised only four times. In my nineteen years here as a pastor and then as an elder, it has been exercised only twice. Below is a letter that was sent to a man in our body a few years ago. This man was in a position of much-trusted teaching leadership and spiritual direction for the body. In this letter the elders confronted him in preparation for public discipline:

"It is with great sorrow and personal pain that we, the elders of Peninsula Bible Church, inform you of our decision to complete our Lord's directions in Matthew 18 and "tell it to the Body" concerning you and your situation.

In our letter to you of [three months ago] we urged you to 'truly repent and make no provision for the flesh' and to 'stop playing games' of lying, deceit, and adultery. The events of recent weeks clearly indicate you have not repented nor changed your pattern of wrongdoing before God, your wife, and the Body of Christ.

The action we are taking now is to follow our Lord's direction which is designed to be redemptive in your life. We believe this will enlist the PBC Body to pray for you which is a powerful tool for the breaking down of evil strongholds. Again, we urge you to choose genuine repentance which means a turning away from sin.

[At the end of the month] at all PBC services we will share with the Body a summary of the facts concerning your spiritual wrongdoing. This will be done in the context of biblical teaching on this subject."

The church at Corinth was faced with a similar problem of immorality. But the church leaders there, unlike the courageous PBC elders, were unwilling to do anything about it. In chapter 5 the apostle Paul deals with their indifference to this moral problem in their midst. (Chapters 5 and 6 comprise a new section in the letter. The first four chapters dealt with the issues of divisiveness, competitiveness, pride, and prejudice in relationships in the church. These next two chapters deal with moral and ethical issues in the church.)

Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of this passage in The Message captures the apostle Paul's passion. You can almost hear the trembling of Paul's voice. He is very concerned about these people he loves so deeply:

"I also received a report of scandalous sex within your church family, a kind that wouldn't be tolerated even outside the church: One of your men is sleeping with his stepmother. And you're so above it all that it doesn't even faze you! Shouldn't this break your hearts? Shouldn't it bring you to your knees in tears? Shouldn't this person and his conduct be confronted and dealt with?

I'll tell you what I would do. Even though I'm not there in person, consider me right there with you, because I can fully see what's going on. I'm telling you that this is wrong. You must not simply look the other way and hope it goes away on its own. Bring it out in the open and deal with it in the authority of Jesus our Master. Assemble the community-I'll be present in spirit with you and our Master Jesus will be present in power. Hold this man's conduct up to public scrutiny. Let him defend it if he can! But if he can't, then out with him! It will be totally devastating to him, of course, and embarrassing to you. But better devastation and embarrassment than damnation. You want him on his feet and forgiven before the Master on the Day of Judgment.

Your flip and callous arrogance in these things bothers me. You pass it off as a small thing, but it's anything but that. Yeast, too, is a 'small thing,' but it works its way through a whole batch of bread dough pretty fast. So get rid of this 'yeast.' Our true identity is flat and plain, not puffed up with the wrong kind of ingredient. The Messiah, our Passover Lamb, has already been sacrificed for the Passover meal, and we are the Unraised Bread part of the Feast. So let's live out our part in the Feast, not as raised bread swollen with the yeast of evil, but as flat bread-simple, genuine, unpretentious.

I wrote you in my earlier letter that you shouldn't make yourselves at home among the sexually promiscuous. I didn't mean that you should have nothing at all to do with outsiders of that sort. Or with crooks, whether blue- or white-collar. Or with spiritual phonies, for that matter. You'd have to leave the world entirely to do that! But I am saying that you shouldn't act as if everything is just fine when one of your Christian companions is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory. You can't just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behavior. I'm not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don't we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house."

First-century Corinth was almost identical to western society today. People then were just as committed to self-gratification as the culture that we live in is. Sexual permissiveness was the norm. The skyline in Corinth was dominated by the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sex, and temple prostitutes plied their trade throughout the city. Worship of sex dominated the life of that city. And the Christians struggled just as we do today to maintain sexual purity or chastity in that corrupt culture. The passage that we just read makes very clear that the church was deeply affected.


The first two verses in 1 Corinthians 5 really present two problems. There is the problem of the immoral man who is practicing incest. But secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, from Paul's perspective, there is the sinful failure of the church to take it seriously. Let's look at verses 1-2 (from the New American Standard Bible):

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. And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst.

Paul refers to incest here using the word "immorality," which is the Greek word porneia from which we get our word "pornography." From God's perspective, any sexual relationship outside the sanctity of marriage is pornographic. Here is a man living in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. (In Leviticus and Deuteronomy God said that to have sexual relations with your stepmother is just the same as having sex with your physical mother-a wicked, destructive abomination.) The passage also says that this doesn't occur even among the Gentiles. It means that this church member in Corinth was guilty of sin that even his non-Christian neighbors wouldn't enter into or tolerate. We know from reading Cicero that incest was illegal in Roman law.

But as I said before, even more shocking than the sin itself, because the sin is only mentioned in passing, is the church's complacency, its unwillingness to do anything. We have to guess what was behind the lack of involvement. Apparently they had either rationalized or minimized the immorality. Instead of grieving over it, they were pridefully boasting. This word "arrogant" means puffed up. Paul has addressed this issue of spiritual pride over and over again in his opening appeals to the Corinthians. They're so self-confident in their spirituality that they have somehow explained away this incredibly wicked behavior. Perhaps, and we can identify with them at this point, they don't want to be judgmental or condemning. Somehow they see their tolerance as Christian acceptance. Perhaps they want to give the individual plenty of space to work the problem out on his own. Perhaps they're boasting in the fact that their church is so open-minded that even this sinner can be a member. Whatever the motive, and we really can't read their hearts, their arrogance has blinded them to the clear truth of God's standards.

But Paul says they should have been experiencing the most anguished kind of struggle, mourning as if this man had died-feeling shock, hurt, and personal loss. Paul models what he calls them to here in 2 Corinthians 12:21. In that letter Paul is broken-hearted over sin in that congregation. When he anticipates coming to visit them a second time, he says, "I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble [humiliate] me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged." That kind of brokenness, grieving, and willingness to be embarrassed for the sake of another is where the Corinthians should be as a congregation, but they are indifferent.

In the remainder of the chapter, beginning in verse 3, Paul is going to explain how and why they must face into the problem. He gives three reasons why we need to take sin among us very seriously. In verses 3-5 it's for the sake of the individual. Their very soul is at stake. In verses 6-8 it's for the health and life of the church, which is the holy temple of God. We are saints of God, the called-out and sanctified ones. And in verses 9-13 it's for the sake of the lost world around us.


Look at verses 3-5, where we see Paul's concern for this "wicked man," as he calls him at the end of the chapter:

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, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

The goal of church discipline that we saw in Matthew 18 is ultimately redemptive and restorative. So this sorrowful prayer is for spiritual renewal in the life of the stubbornly sinful person.

The judgment that Paul says he has already made is very decisive. His evaluation is not in the least bit subjective or personal. It doesn't depend on the agreement of the elders or even on congregational consensus about the individual. It's based on the clear word of Jesus Christ, and that word is reinforced by Paul's apostolic authority. Verse 4 says, "in the name of our Lord Jesus...with the power of our Lord Jesus...." And Paul as an apostle says, "I have already made a judgment," and "I will be with you in spirit."

The Corinthian leaders should have known what to do. They had the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18. And Paul has already spoken to them in a prior letter about dealing with immoral people in their midst (see verse 9).

That first phrase in verse 5, which seems so harsh, "I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan...." describes the nature of spiritual discipline to which we're called. What Paul is doing is summarizing that final step in the process of discipline in Matthew 18. After you've gone to your brother in private, appealed to him, and prayed with him, and he's rejected that; and you've taken one or two people with you and again appealed and expressed grave concern, and he's ignored that; then you tell it to the entire church family to recruit them to be praying, to let them know what danger the individual represents. And then finally you're called to change your attitude toward him and treat him as an unbeliever.

The church in Corinth isn't moving through the process. They all know about the sin but have done nothing about it, and are tolerating it. The implication is that they may even be reinforcing it by refusing to deal with it. But Paul says here that they must come to the final step, even though they have ignored the preceding steps. Remember, Jesus said in Matthew 18, "...Let him be to you as a Gentile [pagan] and a tax-gatherer." Paul describes it in several graphic images in this chapter. Verse 2: "...The one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst." Verse 5: "...To deliver such a one to Satan...." Verse 7: "Clean out the old leaven...." Verse 11: "...Not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person...not even to eat with such a one." Verse 13: "Remove the wicked man from among yourselves." That word "wicked" means active harmfulness. The continued presence in the church means a destructive influence, the same effect that Satan himself has in the life of an individual or in the life of the body of Christ.

The world outside the church is Satan's area of influence. So the discipline of the church simply says to this person, "The fact that you can live in such blatant sin after repeated appeals and warnings suggests that you have never left Satan's world. Your lifestyle contradicts your confession of faith in Jesus Christ. We release you from the spiritual protection of the church. In your case that protection amounts to unhealthy avoidance of facing the consequences of your sin. We don't believe it is any longer in your best interests to relate to you as if you were a Christian." It sounds harsh, but the purpose is redemptive.

The goal of the spiritual discipline is, in the words of Jesus in Matthew 18, to win your brother. That's expanded in the second half of verse 5 here: "...For the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." The New International Version (NIV) has translated that first clause, "...So that the sinful nature may be destroyed." Paul is hoping that the fleshly rebellion and the lustful control will be broken in this man. In being given over to his out-of-control passions, he'll end up like the prodigal son. He'll see himself in the pig-pen of Satan's control. And the hope is that through the sinner's sense of alienation from the body of Christ, he will come clearly to see the enormity of his loss, the seriousness of his sin, and will repent and return to fellowship.

Further, when he's away from the influence of the body, it will become clear whether he ever did belong to Christ or not. Ultimately, Paul says, his eternal destiny is at stake. Remember the Peterson paraphrase: "It will be totally devastating to him, of course, and embarrassing to you. But better devastation and embarrassment than damnation. You want him on his feet and forgiven before the Master on the Day of Judgment."

We are still committed to this kind of loving, confrontational discipline at PBC, and we will continue to exercise this redemptive activity because our Lord Jesus commands it, and the apostles reinforce his command. It's difficult to do, and it's terribly complicated. It isn't very popular today. There is always the threat of lawsuits and going outside the limit of the law. And the results are never guaranteed. Of the four cases that I mentioned that have been dealt with at PBC in the last fifty years, two of the brothers have come back into fellowship. Two of the men are still running away from the Lord. But the other two men have repented, both after several years of being out of fellowship and living self-destructive lives. God has restored them to their families and to effectiveness in ministry. They both continue to be valuable contributors to the life and witness of PBC to this very day. In June Candy and I had dinner with the man to whom the letter was sent, and his wife. They were fully reconciled several years ago, and now they minister to couples whose lives are torn apart by infidelity. At the heart of discipline is the absolute confidence that God is a God of forgiveness, restoration, and healing. And you always pray that this is what the stubbornly sinful person will hear and understand through the process of discipline.

I'm not going to say more about that at this point. Discovery Paper 3711, If Your Brother Sins Against You, is a more detailed study of Matthew 18 based on one of the cases that I mentioned, in which there was a public congregational meeting with many questions and answers. I commend the paper to you if you want to further investigate this process of discipline.


We're also called to discipline because the consequences of not doing so are bad for the life of the church. Sin, the Bible teaches us, is a spiritual malignancy that won't stay isolated in an individual. Unless it is removed, it will spread its infection, and the entire fellowship will become diseased. Look at verses 6-8:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul begins the section with another rebuke. In essence he is saying to these people, "Look where your arrogance and your boasting have brought you. Because you still love human wisdom and human recognition and the things of this world, you are completely blind to the blatant sin that will destroy the church if you don't remove it."

He uses the illustration of a piece of leaven. Leaven is a little lump of bread dough that is saved out of the batch. You allow it to ferment or sour, and then it's used in the next batch of bread so that it will rise. The Jews associated fermenting with rotting, so leaven became a symbol of corrosive evil. Paul's point is that just as a small amount of leaven penetrates an entire batch of dough, so too both the incestuous immorality of that one man and the arrogant indifference of some in the church will affect the whole church and will eventually will come to dominate it. Both are sinfully evil and dangerous. Here it's one man and the sin of incest. But in the passage we read in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is concerned about "the many" who have sinned in impurity, sexual sin, and debauchery. That is the leavening influence of sin in the body of Christ.

He says in verse 7 that we don't have to live this way. Christ already dealt with this issue of sin. Remember, Passover is the Jewish festival celebrating the deliverance of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. On that night of Passover, all those Hebrew slaves put the blood of a lamb on the lintel of their doors. Covered by the blood, they were protected from the angel of death and delivered out of bondage that night. From that point on, Passover lambs were sacrificed every year as an offering for sin. Even today, observant Jewish homes in preparation for Passover will go through their homes ceremonially and toss out any sinful defilement they find. Usually it's yeast that they get rid of as a symbol of purification from evil.

For us, Passover is a picture of our deliverance from the bondage of sin. The Scriptures are clear that Jesus Christ is the final, ultimate sin offering, so we are freed from slavery to sin. And we have the resources in Jesus Christ to live undefiled lives of purity and holiness. Verse 7 says we are unleavened bread. That is our identity by virtue of Christ's accomplished work on the cross. We are saints, a holy temple, so we should live out that reality in our daily lives. The call here in verse 7 is to be what we already are. And because of our deliverance from sin through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Passover is a time of joy and celebration. We the church are to keep an ongoing feast of the celebration of God's forgiveness of sin, and we do that by holy living.

Christ has delivered us from our "sourdough" lives of sinfulness. The two words Paul uses to summarize sin, malice and wickedness, are synonymous umbrella terms for any kind of sinful behavior. We don't have to live that way anymore. And the saving work of Christ allows us to celebrate our purity of life, our "sweet-dough" lives, in sincerity and truth. These words both imply behavior that is fully authentic, that has no pretense or phoniness, that can stand the test of the light of day.

I had a phone conversation with a dear woman who is being folded into our fellowship after many years of bitterness and anger away from Christ. Because of the loving influence of six or eight families in this church-they weren't "witnessing" to her, just loving her in the name of Jesus-she was drawn to that "sweet dough" of their lives. Describing to me on the phone her gratitude and amazement at how God is putting her life back together, she said, "Those people from your church, they're real." I thought, Those are people without the leaven of sin, with authentic behavior influencing her life.


Let's look at the third reason that the church in Corinth needs to deal with this problem of sin. It's for the sake of the depraved culture in which they are immersed. Someone said that the church can't change the world if the church looks just like the world. Pure, holy people of God look different. Spiritual discipline in the church is about evangelism. Verses 9-10 tell us that Christians are not the disciplinarians of the world. We are to witness, not judge.

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world.

These Corinthians have misinterpreted Paul's previous counsel about not associating with immoral people. Apparently they have cut off contact with non-Christians outside the church instead of the unrepentant sinners inside the church! Paul says rather humorously that if you're going to maintain that kind of separation from the world, you'll have to leave the planet. We live in a fallen world that is inhabited by a huge majority of fallen people. Besides, sin outside the church isn't nearly as dangerous to the church as sin within its own membership. The world can't destroy us, but our influence can be very destructive. God placed us in the world, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, to be salt and light, to have a beneficial effect. The Lord Jesus himself prayed for the disciples and all of us who would follow them, in John 17:15,18: "I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one...As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world." We are sent into relationships with depraved people. Paul's list is very strong: sexually immoral people; the covetous and swindlers, or greedy and dishonest people; and idolaters, or those who are unabashedly pagan in their value systems. Why are we called into relationship with those people? Paul writes to the church in Philippi (2:15), "...Prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world...." We are to sparkle, be attractive, look totally different, so that those people are drawn to Christ in us.


Verses 11-13 summarize all the themes of this chapter:

But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be 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. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

Paul has expanded the list of serious sinful behavior that can't be tolerated in the Christian community. Sex outside of marriage is not the greatest sin. This list that is added to it is talking about anyone who claims to have a relationship with Christ but who persistently sustains a destructive, abusive lifestyle. The person among us who is not fighting against the sin in his life, but almost reveling in it, is the one with whom we're not to associate. When Paul says not to even eat with those kinds of people, he is referring to the Christian practice of worship in homes. They ate together, and usually around the dinner table they would celebrate the Lord's supper together. Paul says, "Do not invite a stubbornly unrepentant person into that circle of worship and fellowship."

Verses 11-13 explain the logic of the commands in verses 9-10. The church's spiritual oversight is limited to its own members. God will take care of the unbeliever in his sin. In fact, the fate of the unbeliever, if they never come to know Christ, is so bad that we Christians shouldn't add to their agony, but should try instead to lead them to Christ. By reversing their misunderstanding of his previous letter, Paul calls the Corinthians, and us with them, to model God's counter-cultural standards before a watching world, rather than trying to impose those standards on society as a whole.

It struck me last week that verses 9-13 contrast sharply with prevailing political agendas to Christianize the whole society. We are to devote the bulk of our energies to modeling Christian ethics, to speaking out truth in terms of Biblical standards. We're supposed to model a lifestyle that is different, individually and collectively.

Craig Blomberg describes our calling as a church in the context of 1 Corinthians 5. He writes, "[1 Corinthians 5] reminds us of the enormous evangelistic potential of a Christian community...A holy congregation, which graciously cleans its own house to preserve its purity but which does not expect the same standards of obedience from the unregenerate, can profoundly impact an unholy world. To quote [David] Prior... 'The world is waiting to see such a church, a church which takes sin seriously, which enjoys forgiveness fully, which in its time of gathering together combines joyful celebration with an awesome sense of God's immediacy and authority.' But 'that will never happen if we refuse to come into costly, compassionate contact with men and women of the world.'"

We must take sin seriously for the sake of the people who are dying in their sin in the lost world around us, but more immediately for the sake of the brother and sister in our own fellowship who is living in sin. And we must take it seriously for the life and health of the body of Christ.

Perhaps you realize you are living in willful, deliberate sin, that there is an ongoing pattern that you need to repent of. You can experience forgiveness and reconciliation to your Father right now. Perhaps you need to work on restoring some relationships in the body that have been broken because of sin on your part.

Perhaps you've realized that you're light-weighting sin, that there are people who are dear to you whom you need to lovingly challenge with the truth, and you've avoided that. You must repent of that. This could be a great time to deal with it.


1. Peterson, Eugene. The Message. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1993, p. 344.

2. From New International Version (NIV).

3. Blomberg, Craig. NIV Application Commentary (1 Corinthians). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995, p. 115.


Catalog No. 4518
1 Corinthians 5:1-13
Eleventh Message
Doug Goins
August 10, 1997

Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION are identified as such herein. © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. All other Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE. © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Top of Page

Top of Page

Scandal In The Church

by Ray C. Stedman


One of the growing problems the church is facing today is what to do about the frightening increase in sexual immorality among Christians. I do not think a week goes by but we hear reports of churches struggling in this area. We hear of Christian leaders who have forsaken their wives, run off with the secretary, fallen into homosexuality, or are facing some kind of a moral crisis in their churches. Many are properly concerned about this, and wondering why this should be.

In the section we have come in First Corinthians, Chapter 5, we find the Apostle Paul dealing with that very problem here in Corinth. These great Greek cities, such as Corinth and others, were given over to the casual acceptance of sex outside of the marriage relationship. As you know, there was in Corinth a temple devoted to the worship of sex, the temple of Aphrodite. Therefore, it was the common thing for Christians to be tempted in this area. Many of them had indulged themselves in constant sexual liaisons before they became Christians and it was difficult for them to break these habits. If we think we have difficulty in these areas living in California today, we are no different at all than these Corinthians.

The Christians in Corinth also were expected to meet the same demands for chastity and purity that we are called upon in the Scriptures to meet today. It was more difficult for them in some ways than it is for us, and yet the demands were the same. God has not changed; the world has not changed; and as we read this passage we can see that we are dealing with a very up-to-date problem. This is why I call these letters "1st and 2nd Californians," because we are dealing with the same problem.

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce a new section of the letter to us. Previous to this, the apostle has been dealing with pride and its consequences in the Corinthian assembly, and what a terrible thing was happening there because of the love of human wisdom and the love of human status. Now he turns to a related theme, but one that is somewhat different: Lust and its problems. In these chapters, this will be the theme. In the opening words of Chapter 5, the apostle describes the specific nature of this problem in Corinth:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans, for a man is living with his father's wife. {1 Cor 5:1 RSV}

This is what we would call today, "incest." And incest is increasing in frequency in our country with frightening rapidity. Not long ago I was shocked to read in the San Francisco Chronicle a plea by a woman pediatrician advocating incest for children, and saying that a father's incest with his daughter was a healthy thing for the child. Now that kind of attitude reflects the terrible moral degradation of our own times, and it was something like this that Paul was troubled about.

The woman mentioned in this letter, of course, was not the actual mother of the man but his step-mother, his father's wife, and this was, therefore, a clear-cut case of adultery. But the additional element of the marriage relationship turned it into something even worse -- it was incest. Paul is disturbed by this -- I would not say he was shocked because I think at this stage of his career he was probably beyond shock. He had run into everything. When he says, "It is actually reported," he is not reflecting shock. It should more accurately be translated, "It is commonly reported among you," i.e., this matter was notorious in Corinth. He is disturbed that it was so widespread. That is part of his concern about them. As he points out, this was something that even that pagan environment would not look upon lightly. It is rather interesting that even in our own day the most degrading epithet that anybody can apply to another is to suggest that he is sleeping with his own mother. That shows how still today incest is regarded as a terrible thing even in the pagan world. But the only ones in Corinth who were not shocked by this were the Christians in the church, and this is what bothers Paul the most. They were taking it lightly; they were even proud, boasting in their attitude toward this and how they were handling this problem. Paul describes in Verses 2-5 what they were doing and what they should have been doing about this matter:

And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

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 deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. {1 Cor 5:2-5 RSV}

They were boasting and glorying in their tolerance of this condition, as many people do today. They have a mistaken feeling that, rather than showing condemnation and judgment on this, the church ought to express understanding of the pressures and the difficulties of living in a world like we have today, and to say nothing about this: Let the individual work it out on his own. This is what was happening in Corinth. They thought they were showing love and understanding by their attitude of casualness toward this.

I have met church boards like this. I remember one church that I was involved with briefly where the young pastor had been involved in immorality. The board of the church was very casual about it. I reminded them of this very passage, and the chairman of the board said to me, "Well, he's a young man and, after all, boys with be boys." That reflected something of the attitude that was going on here at Corinth.

Now I know that attitude of tolerant acceptance is often a reaction to another wrong approach which is stern, hard, censorious judgment -- self-righteous condemnation that reacts with horror and shock and usually, because of offended pride, cuts the individual off and has nothing to do with him anymore. That is wrong too, and there is nothing of that in what Paul expects of this church in Corinth. Many Christian churches have reacted that way. I have met people who have been deeply hurt and terribly injured by the harsh, critical judgment of boards and leaders who have cut them off without any degree of understanding of the pressures they were facing. One is a reaction to the other.

Paul now shows us what the true attitude of a church ought to be when immorality rears its head: It ought to be grief. "Ought you not rather to mourn?" he says. There ought to be shock and hurt, not only for the persons involved in this, but also for the church, and for the Lord himself, that the cause of Christ is damaged in the eyes of the community by these deeds. The reason this was so hurtful in Corinth was because the church was permitting it to happen. They were, therefore, participators in this evil thing, and the church ought to therefore mourn that such a thing can happen in its midst and that there is not more help and protection afforded for it. So Paul says there ought to have been sorrowful prayer about this. This is surely what he means when he writes to the Galatians and says in the matter of the individual handling of a case like this, "... if a man be overtaken in a fault, you which are spiritual, restore him in the spirit of meekness, considering yourself, lest you also be tempted," {cf, Gal 6:1}. That is facing the fact that you could be involved in something like this too. So the proper attitude in handling a situation like this is never one of "Well we would never do a thing like that," but rather one of "Yes, we understand the pressures; we know what you have been up against; we are tempted ourselves; we could fall under the right circumstances. We do not trust ourselves any more than we trust the flesh in you, but nevertheless we cannot permit this to go on this way." So there must be a right attitude.

There are four clear, definite, practical steps to take here when immorality is present: The first one is: There must be a right attitude. We must mourn and feel grief instead of harsh, critical judgment or tolerant, casual love. The second step is: There must be a right basis for discipline. Notice what the apostle does not say. He does not say to these elders, "Now you elders get together there and decide among yourselves what you ought to do about this. Whatever you feel is right, you carry it out. If you decide that he ought to be excommunicated, if you decide he ought to be fined a certain amount, well, that's fine. Whatever you decide to do is all right." No, it is never left on the basis of an individual judgment as to what to do. What Paul clearly indicates is that you have already been told what to do -- just do it. He speaks of "in the name of the Lord Jesus ... by the power of our Lord Jesus ... by my spirit present with you." In other words, apostolic and divine authority has already spoken in these areas -- follow it through. In Matthew 18 the Lord Jesus tells us what to do in cases like this: "If your brother sins against you," he says, "go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone," {Matt 18:15a RSV}. That is step number one. Do not spread it around; do not ask for prayer about it; do not talk about it; go to the one who is doing the wrong. This is not something that is a matter of personal injury; this is not something that you have been offended by or that they have not acted the way you think they ought to act. Here Jesus is talking about things that the Word of God has already said are definitely wrong; certain actions (and they are very limited), that the Word of God has already judged. You are to "go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone." If he hears you, "you have gained your brother," {Matt 18:15b RSV}. That is enough; it does not need to go any further; no one else needs to know about it.

"And if he does not hear you," Jesus says, "take one or two others and go and tell him his fault again, and discuss it among yourselves," {cf, Matt 18:16a}. (You need two or three in order to avoid that syndrome that often develops when two people argue, and say, "I said to you already this and this." The other fellow says, "No you did not say that at all, you said this and this.") But two or three are there as witnesses that what was said was exactly what was said. This is an attempt to help somebody see what he is doing and if he listens that is the end of it. I want to tell you that that kind of thing goes on in this congregation all the time. I do not think a week goes by but somebody is not doing this among us, and properly so. No one ever hears about it, but hundreds of cases of incipient immorality have been nipped in the bud, as it were, by Christians who faithfully go to somebody and tell him that what he is doing is wrong. That is the most healthy thing that a church can do, and that Christians can do with one another. It saves scores and scores of cases like this that would come to ultimate heartbreak if they were allowed to proceed.

But the Lord goes on to step three. He says, "If he refuses to listen to them [the small group that has come to him], then tell it to the church," {Matt 18:17a RSV}. Then it must become public; the individuals involved must sense the censure of the church, the feeling that this is not acceptable behavior to other Christians. Now again this is not to be done in the spirit of self-righteous complacency, smugness, or critical judgment or censoriousness, nothing of that. It is to be done in a loving statement that this is wrong; it is unacceptable behavior; it cannot be allowed to continue even though you understand the pressures and the problems involved in it. Therefore, it is to be told to the whole church and everyone in the church, then, becomes responsible to try to help that individual to recover from this terrible situation.

Step four is the final one: If he will not hear the church then "Change your attitude toward him," the Lord is saying, "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector, as a sinner," {cf, Matt 18:17b}. In other words, let him be unto you as though he is not a Christian at all. He has declared himself not to be a Christian by his actions -- even though he claims yet to be a Christian by his words. You are to treat him as one who is not yet a Christian, but that does not mean with scorn, or with judgment, or with any kind of retribution. Recognize that he has deceived himself, and he is not really born again. Understand that he does not know the basis for purity yet and that he needs to be born again. This is what Matthew 18 is saying, and clearly this is a parallel passage to what we have here.

Paul knows by this time that this is a well known matter. It has gone beyond Steps 1 and 2; it has come now to the place where it ought to be dealt with by the church, and since the church has been involved in this whole process of acceptance, of toleration for this, it has now come to Step 4 itself. That is what Paul means when he says there is to be a proper basis for action -- it is on the basis of what the Lord has said and not what the individuals themselves may feel.

I know many people have struggled over Jesus' words, "Judge not that you be not judged" {Matt 7:1 RSV}, and they apply it to a situation like this. But our Lord is clearly talking there about individual judgment of another on the basis of what offends you, whereas here he is talking about something he has already judged. And the church is responsible to carry out that judgment, as Paul will make crystal clear throughout this passage. So step number three in this passage we are looking at is: There must be a right action. There must be a right attitude; there must be a right basis for discipline; and there must be a right action taken. Here it is:

When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. {1 Cor 5:4b-5 RSV}

Three times in this passage the apostle says very clearly what action is to be taken. You have it in Verse 2, "Let him who has done this be removed from among you"; you have it in Verse 13 (the last verse of the chapter), "Drive out the wicked person from among you." Those two words, which sound rather harsh and almost seem to describe a kind of physical exclusion, are softened and corrected and amplified by this central statement here in Verse 5, "deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh." Now that helps us to understand what this action means because, as we read in Matthew 18 and also here, the Scripture always regards the world as Satan's dominion.

There are two kingdoms at work in life: The kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God. And they intermingle; they are working all the time, everywhere, and though you cannot separate them by sharp lines of demarcation from the standpoint of geography or personality, nevertheless they are sharply separated in their philosophy. What Paul is saying here is that the church is to put them back, in its thinking, into the realm of Satan's control. They have never left it; their persistence in evil has demonstrated that they have never really left Satan's world. Therefore, the church is to think of them as back under that control, and publicly the church is to recognize that they are not Christians. They are, as Jesus says, like Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, unregenerate people, and therefore they are not to be treated any longer as though they were Christians. Now I realize that when you come to a public action like this there is always great pressure not to take it.

People are offended by being made a public example or when any kind of public statement is made about them. When our church here has had to do this on several occasions, we have been actually threatened with lawsuits if we took a public stand in this direction. This is why the apostle adds the words, "take this action with the power of our Lord Jesus." You are not taking it as a group of people, an organization voting on one of its disobedient members. You are taking it as the church of the living God, among whom the Lord Jesus is present as he said he would be, with power to control the results, and to guard and protect if you will be obedient to him. Therefore, the church is to act, regardless of what the threat may be, because the church acts by the power of the Lord Jesus.

This does not mean physical ejection. The individual may continue to attend, but he is to be treated and regarded in a different light. Usually, however, this almost invariably means that the individual, feeling the censure of the church, withdraws himself, and, if so, then he is to be allowed to go. There is no punishment ever assessed; there is no ceremony of excommunication to be carried out. That kind of a thing is a misunderstanding of this passage.

So there are three of the steps: a right attitude; a right basis for action; and a right action to be taken. Now there is one more, and Paul indicates it in Verse 5: it should be for a right purpose, "... that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Why does the church take this action? Well, not just to get rid of a troublemaker or not merely to show itself clean in this regard, but, rather, in order to reach the individuals involved, and so deal with them that eventually they will see their wrongdoing and repent. And all judgment ends at repentance; all discipline ceases when repentance occurs. Therefore, the hope here is that when you put someone back into the world, as it were, under Satan's control, that he will learn what worldlings will learn if they live long enough -- that the philosophies they are following are delusive, empty and vain, and when they find themselves drained, jaded, satiated and empty of heart, they will turn back to the living Lord and their spirits will be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. When he comes or when they meet him in death, their spirits will be saved even though their lives have been wasted. This is the hope and that is the purpose for church discipline.

Now, the apostle follows with an explanation for the severity of this kind of action. When a church is involved in this sort of thing, many people raise the question of why this should be, why the church should act so severely. Here Paul gives three very excellent reasons why the church must take action. Verse 6:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. {1 Cor 5:6-8 RSV}

The imagery is clearly borrowed from the Feast of the Passover when the Jews, remembering their deliverance from Egypt, would take the blood of a lamb and sprinkle it over their doorposts so the angel of death would "pass over." Then they would gather and eat the meat of the lamb that had been roasted. Before this they would go through the house with a candle and search out all the leaven that was in the house, for the Lord had said they must never eat the feast with leaven.

Leaven is yeast, and even today Jews will go through their houses and look for any form of leavened bread that may be present before they celebrate the Passover. This is a symbol here: Leaven is consistently used throughout the Scriptures as a symbol of evil. Paul says the problem is that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump." Therefore, the first reason action must be taken is to arrest this tendency to spread the infection throughout a whole congregation.

I have mentioned that we have had to take action like this on two or three occasions. Though it was painful and hurtful and there was great grief involved in it, the effect was an almost instantaneous cessation of the spread of evil throughout the congregation. People think twice before they begin to get involved in extramarital affairs or consider divorce or fall into homosexuality or other sexual sins. Sexual sins, of course, are not the only ones that call for judgment though they are probably the most common form today. This is the first reason why the church must act, lest the infection begin to spread and "the little leaven leavens the whole lump."

The second reason is that judgment makes possible the demonstration of reality. As Paul says here, "Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are;" The community was getting a wrong idea of the church. It did not see them as having solved the problem of how to handle sexual drives. It saw them as much a part of the problem as they themselves were, and, yet, as Paul will say in the next chapter, Christ had cleansed them, he had changed them: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ," {1 Cor 6:11 RSV}. But that is not evident while this toleration of evil is going on. The world has no idea that there is any way to escape the power of sexual drive. "Therefore," he says, "it is necessary that the church judge this kind of thing that it might be evident what you really are -- that there has been given to you a power to handle these kinds of drives and to be pure and chaste in the midst of immorality. For that is what you really are."

Then the third reason: Judgment permits the celebration of Christian deliverance and liberty. "Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." "Celebrate!" he says. That is possible in a church when it begins to live on this basis, in the eyes of the community, and before the Lord. There comes an element of joy into their midst, a sense of freedom, a sense of wholeness and cleanliness and you begin to celebrate and feel it.

I have noticed that congregations that refuse to act along these lines are always grim affairs. Their worship is dull and grim and there is little joy. What brings joy into a congregation is not the sense of having achieved some degree of morality on its own, but of having been washed, cleansed, freed by the grace of God. All the ugliness of the past is washed away; it disappears from your midst and that allows for a free spirit of celebration and of joy. Now, the concluding section of Chapter 5 describes the limits of church discipline. Verse 9:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber -- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you." {1 Cor 5:9-13 RSV}

In Verse 9, Paul refers to a letter that he had written to them, a letter that is lost to us. No one knows what it said other than this reference to it. Yet, in it, Paul had evidently said something about not associating with immoral people, and the Corinthians had taken it to mean (as many Christians seem to feel today), that they were not to have anything to do with worldlings who lived on an improper level of life.

I am amazed at how that very attitude which Paul was attempting to correct here in this letter has pervaded the evangelical world. I meet people who refuse to have anybody come into their homes who is not a Christian -- people who want nothing to do with anybody who lives in a way that is offensive to the Lord. I remember in my early pastorate going to a couple and asking them to open their home for a Bible class. The lady looked horrified and said, "Oh! I could never do that." I asked, "Why not?" "Why," she said, "people who smoke would come in. My home is dedicated to God and I am not going to have any smoking going on there."

Well, that is a misunderstanding of the very thing Paul is talking about. We cannot avoid the world -- we were sent into it. The Lord Jesus said to his disciples, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves," {Matt 10:16 KJV}. That is where we belong. Their habits may be offensive to us, but that is understandable. We do not have to pronounce judgment on them; God will do that, Paul says here. We are to love them and understand that they do not have any basis of knowledge for a change. We are not to demand it of them before we begin to show friendship and love and reach out to them to help them to see their need, to see the One who can answer the hunger of their hearts. No, we are not to judge the world, but we are to judge the church, Paul says, and we are to do it on a clear-cut basis.

By the way, in pointing out the world here, Paul uses three characteristic sins that are very revealing: "... not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, [that is really one phrase taken together, the greedy and grasping] or idolaters." There you have the world characterized for you: The sins of the body (immorality), The sins of the mind or heart (the attitudes, greedy and grasping), and The sins of the spirit (idolatry, another god.) The offense against yourself, the offense against your neighbor, and the offense against God himself -- those are the characteristics of the world.

What we will offer them is the gospel, not condemnation but the good news. But when it comes to the church, we are to judge the church for specific wrongdoings. Notice how Paul lists them. It is not because they are hard to live with or they are impatient people or they are obnoxious Christians -- you are not to judge them on that basis. But if they are immoral, or greedy, or idolaters, or revilers (i.e., constant critics, running everybody down), or drunkards, or robbers then they are to be judged by the actions of the church in the way he has indicated, even to the point of social pressures: "Do not even eat with them," he says. If they will not listen, then withdraw from them. It comes at last to ultimate exclusion, as he has indicated in this passage. What health would return to the world, and to the church, if the church would begin to behave this way! The reason the world is going downhill rapidly is because the church lets it by not maintaining the standards that God has given to us here. The purpose of a passage like this is to call us back in all honesty to what God has given us, and to recognize the unique position the church holds in the world today -- when it begins to walk in the beauty of holiness and enjoy the privileges that God has given to us. When we live in victory over the forces that destroy others, then people begin to see that there is meaning and purpose and reason for the salvation we profess to have.


Thank you, our dear Father, for your honest statement of what is the truth about us. How we love you, Lord, because you are the God of truth. You do not spare us, and you do not condemn us either. You do not wipe us out; you do not threaten us with whips; but you do tell us the truth. We see behind it, Lord, your loving father's heart of concern. Help us as a church and as individuals to judge our lives in these areas according to your Word, and to walk in the light and the power of it. In Jesus' name, Amen.


Title: Scandal in the Church
By: Ray C. Stedman
Series: Studies in First Corinthians
Scripture: 1 Cor 5:1-13
Message No: 13
Catalog No: 3583
Date: August 20, 1978

Ray Stedman Library

Top of Page

Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Stedman — This material is the sole property of Ray Stedman Ministries. It may be copied only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies and/or of this data file must contain this copyright notice. This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays, or other products offered for sale without the written permission of Ray Stedman Ministries. This material is from the Official Ray C. Stedman Library web site at Requests for permission to use this material or excerpts thereof should be directed to This Copyright notice supercedes all other Copyright notices.

Copies of any message or sermon translations must be furnished to in PDF format, with contact information and qualifications concerning the translator(s) provided separately in English.