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Fight Valiantly! The Corinthian Purge

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 14 Mar 2019

Lee Gatiss continues our Lent series on contending for the faith with a look at Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church. Watch the video podcast of this episode on our YouTube channel.

The whole of 1 Corinthians is a long letter dealing with many big issues of heresy, apostasy, and schism in the church. They were clearly a confused and messed up bunch. That’s why this letter is so instructive for the church beyond Corinth too, and why it is in scripture — because we are all messed up and often confused as well! It might be best to focus on one particular issue in chapter 5, because this highlights the seriousness of the issues for Paul and the early church, and is a strong example of the apostolic approach to dealing with false teaching and living.

Paul writes to instruct the Corinthians how to deal with flagrant sexual immorality in their midst. This is just one of a number of sins in Corinth which he addresses, but we are especially interested here not in the issue itself per se but in Paul’s approach to contending against it. There are Christians in Corinth who “proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it” (as Isaiah 3:9 puts it). The apostle seems appalled that they haven’t realised how serious this is, so the problem is not simply the immorality itself but their toleration of it and their theological rationalisations for it. He condemns them for condoning this sin and commands them to sort it out:

“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus 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, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord…. I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-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. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” (1 Corinthians 5)

“Judge not!” (Matthew 7:1) has become such a popular slogan, that it comes as a surprise to many to learn that we are commanded to judge those inside the church. Verse 2 and verse 13 both say that they should get rid of the immoral person from the church.

The phrase “to purge the evil person from among you” is a quote Paul is deliberately making from Deuteronomy. This phrase “purge the evil from your midst” or “from Israel” occurs 10 times in the Bible: 9 of them are in Deuteronomy and one is here. In Deuteronomy, the evil that needs purging from the people of God, that is, the people who need to be removed, are these: false prophets who lead you away from the true God; idolators who worship a false God; those who do not listen to and obey their spiritual leaders; malicious false witnesses; stubborn, rebellious children; adulterers and fornicators; and those who kidnap and enslave others. A good example is from Deuteronomy 13:1-5.

“If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.  It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.”

The key here is that when someone arises who claims special spiritual and prophetic insight, it is a test for the people of God. The Lord is examining us, to reveal the strength of our love and devotion to him. Will we listen to his word, or rebel and listen to the dreamer’s voice instead? The incitement to turn away from exclusive loyalty to God must be decisively removed. So it is also in 1 Corinthians 5, and in all situations where false teaching and false living (so often related) invade the church: God is testing the quality of our response; will we react as he commands, or not? As Paul says later in 1 Corinthians, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Corinthians 11:19).

Paul’s use of Deuteronomy’s phrase “purge the evil from among you” shows that his apostolic advice here is not inconsistent with how these things have always been done within the people of God. It is not simply an invention of a supposedly uptight Pharisaical Paul. Note also that it is not just evil they are to purge from amongst them, in the abstract. It is a specific person who is practising this evil, who is to be removed. The sin they have indulged in is not a one-off drunken night of debauchery. In verse 2 it says the man practices this sin, in an ongoing way. He must be disciplined, for his own spiritual good, and also for the sake of others. After all, as Ecclesiastes 8:11 warns, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”

Paul Gardner sums up this chapter well when he says (in his new commentary on 1 Corinthians) that, “The lack of godly discernment among those who arrogantly assume they possess an elite spiritual status is tragically revealed in their acceptance of immorality in their midst… A mature spirituality, arising from the wisdom of God, will properly discern evil in the church’s midst and deal with it appropriately through the expulsion of the evil person.” At the same time, it is important to notice that there is a restorative aim to this church discipline; it is intended to help the one discipled, ultimately, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).

Questions for Reflection

1. How can we disassociate from those who claim to be Christians but are deliberately rejecting biblical standards of morality in their lifestyle?
2. How can church discipline be exercised today, especially in a way that is aiming to be restorative?
3. Why do people today dislike the idea of church discipline such as Paul describes here?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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