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Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1,
1 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.
This was part of the report that Paul had received from Chloe, and it had been confirmed by the messenger or messengers who had delivered the letter. A man in the Corinthian church was having an incestuous relationship with “his father’s wife.” The woman may have been his mother, but more likely it was his stepmother.
Either way, it was unlawful, for in the laws defining incest, Lev. 18:8 says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife.” If such a thing were done by a believer today, he would probably justify his actions by saying that the law had been put away. But the man in the church of Corinth had no such excuse, because Paul had not taught them to be lawless (Rom. 3:31).
Though Paul discussed the law thoroughly in the first few chapters of his letter to the saints in Rome, he found it unnecessary to repeat himself in his letter to the Corinthians. He assumed that the believers already knew the law.
In fact, immorality still remained a transgression of the law, which is sin (1 John 3:4). Perhaps his words in Rom. 6:19 are appropriate to this situation, where he says,
19 … For just as you presented your members [body parts] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
In 1 Cor. 2:14, Paul had already laid the foundation for his rebuke of this immoral believer, telling them that they ought not to follow the will of the soul, but the will of the spirit. The fleshly soul desires to be lawless, for it does not understand spiritual things. The mind and will of the soul is the “old man” elsewhere in Paul’s writings. It is clear that this nameless believer was soulish, a man who had not yet learned to walk according to the “new man.”
The Corinthian culture itself was highly immoral, but even with their low moral standards, they had laws forbidding such incest. Yet the church was arguing over leadership issues while ignoring the immorality within their own ranks. It is much like today, where priests and ministers have been allowed to remain as ministers while living an immoral life style. Paul’s admonition is highly relevant to the church today.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 5:2,
2 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.
We are not told whether or not the Corinthian church had been counseling the immoral man in question. Paul implies, however, that nothing was being done. Their arrogance in allowing what is forbidden in the law was not limited to their belief that they had already received their full spiritual inheritance. The same root of pride was seen in their lapse in morality. They presumed to judge Paul, but they failed to judge incest in their midst.
Paul, then, had lost confidence in their ability to judge. In fact, this showed Paul that the church lacked good leadership. Had their division into factions made it impossible to appoint a leader who could judge the immorality in the church?
1 Corinthians 5:3-5 says,
3 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. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 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.
Paul was acting as an absentee judge, taking direct authority because the church had failed to act. Paul had jurisdiction, for he was the spiritual “father” of the assembly, in spite of their disputes over leadership. But did he judge in accordance with the divine law?
It is clear that Chloe (in her letter) witnessed against the immoral man, and that the messenger(s) confirmed her witness. So we can be sure that the law of two or three witnesses had been satisfied. Deut. 19:15 says,
15 A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.
Paul was certainly aware of this law, for he invokes it in 2 Cor. 13:1.
Paul’s righteous sentence was spoken “in the name of our Lord Jesus,” as all such sentences or decrees from the divine court ought to be declared. Paul did not speak in his own name, for he himself was not the ultimate judge. Being a steward of the word, Paul bore witness to the divine decree from the throne of God. Paul was merely the earthly voice of the heavenly verdict.
When Jesus taught His disciples how to judge earthly matters in Matt. 18:15-20, He set forth the lawful procedure: (1) “reprove him in private,” that is, discuss the case with him in private; (2) bring two or three witnesses (still in private); (3) take the case to trial before the church (jury); (4) render a verdict in accordance with God’s verdict in heaven.
The purpose of the first step is not to accuse, or to assume guilt, but to learn the facts in the case. The second step presumes that the man in question denies the allegations, while there are other witnesses which support the charges. The third step presumes that there is still a dispute between the man and the witnesses, so the case must be appealed to the court (church, acting as the jury).
The court, of course, must hear all sides of the question, for in John 7:51 Jesus asked,
51 Our law does not judge a man, unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?
When the trial is finished and the facts are all gathered, then the judge must discern God’s verdict from the throne in heaven. If he does not know it, then he must pray until he receives this revelation by the Spirit. Then and only then can the fourth step be fulfilled, where Jesus says in Matt. 18:18,
18 Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
This verse has been used many times to usurp God’s authority. Church men have interpreted it to mean that God would ratify any verdict that they decreed on earth, whether right or wrong. As a result, many innocent people have been condemned. But earthly courts are only righteous if they follow lawful procedure and if the judges are spiritual, rather than soulish. Justice breaks down if a judge is merely religious, without having the ability to receive divine revelation through his spirit. An earthly judge who lacks the ability to hear God’s voice is unable to judge matters as God’s spokesman in the earth.
The Holy Spirit was given to empower and equip men and women to be God’s righteous judges in the earth. They are called to do what other earthly judges fail to do in their soulish limitations. So after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples and told them in John 20:22, 23,
22 “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
Once again, this is an impartation of authority as a steward, not as a dictator or owner. Their spirit must be led by the Holy Spirit before they are able to function effectively in this authority. If soulish men are placed as leaders and judges, they cannot expect the Supreme Court of heaven to ratify their carnal decisions on earth. Men must render verdicts as they are decreed in heaven. They cannot expect God to be the court clerk who records (and ratifies) the verdicts of men.
The success of all authority hinges on the principle of stewardship, where men are humble enough to know that they are not free to make their own decisions or to render their own verdicts when judging others.
In 1 Cor. 5:5, quoted earlier, Paul says that his verdict was “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.” Later, in verse 13 he makes it clear that this means the church was to expel that man from the fellowship. This goes back to what Paul said earlier in 1 Cor. 2:14 about the difference between soul and spirit. The soul is carnal, or fleshly; the spirit is spiritual and godly.
The destruction of the man’s “flesh” is not about executing him in the way that earthly courts might sentence someone to death. The purpose of Paul’s verdict was to use Satan as the executioner of the “old man,” whom God has already sentenced to death. Essentially, Paul was following Jesus’ instruction in Matt. 18:17, where He said,
17 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.
In other words, the man was to be put out of the church, even as publicans (tax collectors) had been treated in Judean society. Many church denominations excommunicate people with threats of eternal torment, but Paul’s excommunication was for a different purpose. The man was to be delivered to Satan, not that he might be lost forever, but “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
It is commonly believed in churches today that if excommunicated men die without repenting and returning to the church, they will be lost forever. But Paul says that the man’s spirit will be saved “in the day of the Lord Jesus.” That “day” is a reference to the day of judgment at the Great White Throne, where every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:10, 11).
It should be noted, of course, that the man being judged in this case is never called an unbeliever. He is simply a carnal Christian, one who is led by his soul and not by his spirit. Because he refuses to put his “old man” to death, he has been turned over to Satan to do what he has failed to do. He is then one of the many believers whose works will be burned up as wood, hay, and stubble. When the fire tests his works, “he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).
Hence, it is clear that excommunication does not mean that a person, however deserving, is lost forever. The church does not have the power to excommunicate anyone from God, but only from the church. Salvation is in Christ—not in any earthly organization which men label “the church.” When the church usurps authority that it does not have, claiming to have the power to cast people into hell forever, it exceeds what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).