A Clash of Cultures ~ 1 Corinthians 5
Big Idea: Openly sinful acts must not be tolerated in Jesus’ church. The church as a whole must deal with it to restore both the wrongdoer, as well as the community’s collective testimony to an unbelieving world.
It was an open secret. A particular man was having sex with his stepmother. This same man was also a regular member in church. Yet no one said anything about his affair. Not even the church leaders.
Was it because they believed spiritual worship had little to do with their physical bodies? Or that it was OK because that’s what many others also did in Corinth?
The Corinthians’ silence can’t be explained by ignorance.
Church members knew about the affair because they told Paul about it. (“It is actually reported” – verse 1.) They also knew that this affair was wrong. Paul told them about it. (“I wrote to you in my letter” – verse 9.)
In fact, the Corinthians would have certainly known this particular sexual liaison was wrong because even their unbelieving (sexually liberal) neighbors said so! (“A kind that even pagans do not tolerate” – verse 1). How could a deeply-divided church like Corinth agree that this was OK?
It’s inconceivable that Paul somehow skipped this topic in the one-and-a-half years he spent teaching them (Acts 18:11). Corinth had a notorious reputation for sexual immorality. (Can you imagine a church planter in Bangkok never mentioning Patpong, its famous red-light district?)
It’s also unlikely the Corinthians justified their tolerance with some twisted theology. If that was so, Paul would have corrected it, like he did with the wrong teaching on Jesus’ resurrection in chapter 15.
The church’s incriminating silence, Dr. David Garland says, is best explained if this man was a man of some social standing in the community.1
As another commentator writes:2
Both larger and smaller churches are well acquainted with what looks like ‘special rights’ of prominent members. Sometimes church members (or pastors) are proud that such wealthy, well-known, or culturally recognized people are members of their congregation, and they allow for lifestyles that impede rather than enhance the church’s Christian testimony.
This is what might happen if a Justin Bieber (Hillsong, L.A. and New York) or a Jack Neo (City Harvest, Singapore) steps into your church regularly. Many, including their pastors, might think twice about publicly disciplining them for sexual (or any other) sins.
For us, it might not be a famous celebrity. It could be a billionaire CEO or an influential politician. Churches with such prominent people would likely be very hesitant to “expel the wicked person” (5:13). (The stepmother is not expelled because she was probably not a believer – verse 12.)
Churches will be tempted to tolerate the sins of certain members if the church believes they stand to gain more – money, fame, influence – with their presence. Paul points them to what they stand to lose instead – the presence of Christ.
Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Yeast is what makes the bread dough rise. But a flat roti canai or naan type of bread is what’s eaten with the roasted lamb at the Passover. That’s the festival that celebrates God’s great rescue (Exodus 12:12-20). Specially chosen lambs died as the people’s substitute so that God’s judgment would “pass over” them.
So which meal would the Corinthians rather celebrate? The meal with Jesus, and without the sinner (unleavened bread with no yeast)? Or the meal without Jesus, but with the sinner (leavened bread with yeast)? One or the other has to go.
The heart of the matter:
Worldly people hold those they admire to a lesser moral standard. We excuse their sexual sins.
Gospel people hold every believer to the same godly standard. We expose their sexual sins.
1 David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p.158.
2 Preben Vang, 1 Corinthians: Teach the Text commentary series, p.67.
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. If you were to stumble upon a serious morality issue that someone prominent or of high standing in your church is involved in, what would you do?