Judging Moral Evil in the Assembly
1 Corinthians 5
1 Corinthians 5 – 7. In the first four chapters Paul addresses the divisions among the Corinthians, and he had pointed to carnality as the cause of division. Now we find that carnality had manifested itself again in great laxity with regard to morals. Therefore, Paul begins to address the need for holiness:
- In 1 Cor. 5 he addresses collective holiness.
- In 1 Cor. 6 he addresses individual holiness.
- In 1 Cor. 7 he addresses family holiness.
- Failure to Judge Moral Evil (vv.1-5)
- The Principles of Defilement and Purgation (vv.6-8)
- Exhortations on Separating from and Judging Moral Evil (vv.9-13)
The Circumstances of the Evil and It’s Publicity (v.1)
¶ It is universally reported that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not even among the nations, so that one should have his father’s wife. v.1 The assembly does not act on hearsay, but on established fact. The evil was out in the open and there was no question as to what was going on. The particular type of fornication was worse than what was common “among the nations”. Fornication was a very common thing, for both single and married men. Prostitution was legal, and it was culturally acceptable to take on one or more mistresses. But fornication with a married woman was taboo. Another man’s wife was off limits, even to the basest of men. When a man sleeps with another man’s wife, it lights a fire of hatred than is almost impossible to extinguish (Prov. 6:27-35). In this case, it was “his father’s wife”; he was sleeping with his own step-mother.
The Corinthians’ Lack of Response (v.2)
2 And “ye” are puffed up, and ye have not rather mourned, in order that he that has done this deed might be taken away out of the midst of you. v.2 The Corinthians had much gift, but not much experience or wisdom. In fact, we have no indication that they had any elders, except perhaps for Stephanas who was abroad with Paul. They had never dealt with a case like this before, and they did not know what should be done about evil in the assembly. But ignorance as to the procedure did not excuse them. At a minimum they should have at mourned the evil, and went to God in prayer. But they were “puffed up” in human pride, and it had dulled their spiritual sensitivities to sin. Perhaps they thought they were not accountable for their actions? If they had at least had a collective sorrow over the evil and expressed dependence on God, He would have stepped in governmentally and “taken away” the fornicator through death. We might wonder that this would be God’s mind; to take a wicked person “out of the midst” of the local assembly. We are going to see in this chapter that the assembly is to put wicked persons away from among themselves, because when evil is unjudged the person becomes identified with it. If a brother refuses to judge the evil in his life, no one can for him to do that. But we can judge the brother as the one “that has done this deed”.
Paul’s Response (vv.3-5)
3 For “I”, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged as present, v.3 Paul now moves to take emergency action, to do what the Corinthians had been slow to do; to judge evil in the assembly. Apostleship was both a gift and an office. We find that apostles are in the list of gifts (Eph. 4:11, 1 Cor. 12:28) and they are also involved with administration (Acts 15:6, 1 Cor. 5:3). As the only scriptural role that is both a gift and an office, the administrative jurisdiction of an apostle went beyond the sphere of the local assembly; e.g. Paul judging from a distance. For all other Christian offices, their jurisdiction is limited to the local assembly. Prophets in this way differed from apostles because they had no universal administrative authority. Paul was “absent in body” but that was no limitation to his apostolic authority, because he was every bit as much “present in spirit”. Therefore, his authority and judgment from afar was exactly the same as if he had been present.
4 to deliver, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (ye and my spirit being gathered together, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ), him that has so wrought this: 5 to deliver him, I say, being such, to Satan for destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. vv.4-5 The administrative action Paul took was to place the offending man outside the assembly into the hands of Satan for the destruction of his body, in order that the spirit of that brother might saved. It is because of “the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ” that the assembly must act to disassociate His name from the evil. And it is because of His Name that the assembly has His authority so that they can act. Let us examine these subjects one at a time:
Delivering unto Satan is an apostolic function, which we cannot do today. An example is seen in 1 Tim. 1:20, where Paul speaks of “Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan, that they may be taught by discipline not to blaspheme”. These two men were delivered to Satan for doctrinal evil, and here in 1 Corinthians it was for moral evil. Deliverance unto Satan results in “the destruction of the flesh”. Satan is a destructive agent, and given permission he will rip and tear everything God has made to shreds (e.g. Luke 8:33; Mark 9:18). God restrains Satan, but on occasion allows him to destroy things as part of God’s government. We see an example of the destruction of the flesh in Job, as a mechanism of chastening. Job eventually repented in dust and ashes, and the chastening was lifted. This shows how God can used Satan, in all his destructive energy, for the blessing of God’s people when chastening is needed. Just as a man builds a fire, or contains it in an engine to produce work, so God in His government uses Satan as a tool to work out His will. It isn’t “a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16). A “sin unto death” results in death regardless of repentance. But a person once delivered unto Satan could find relief from the physical pain by repenting. It was very effective because the man was ready to be received into fellowship one year later when the second epistle was written! We do not have apostles today, and so we cannot deliver unto Satan. But we do have the presence of the Lord in the midst of those gathered to His Name, and we do have the power to put out the wicked person from our midst.
The Authority of Christ in the Local Assembly. Notice that Paul would not act independently of the local assembly. They were to be involved with this action, so he says “ye and my spirit being gathered together”. Can we still put away a person without apostolic authority? Yes. We cannot deliver to Satan, but v.13 makes it clear that the assembly is still to judge evil by putting away the wicked person. Has the “power [or, authority] of our Lord Jesus Christ” to deal with evil vanished with the apostles? No. In Matthew 18 we have the principles laid out, that Christ has invested the local assembly of two or three gathered unto His Name with His own authority. When all other attempts to reach an offending brother have failed through his stubbornness, the authority of Christ can still be appealed to, and the actions taken by the local assembly are ratified in heaven. “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18). Why are those actions ratified? Is it because the actions are perfect? No. It is because there are great numbers in the assembly? No. Is it because there are important brothers present? No. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). The presence of Christ is what give the authority.
Assembly Action: Binding and Loosing. The local assembly has been invested with authority to bind or loose a person’s sin; i.e. to “retain” or “remit” their sin (John 20:23; see Matt. 18:18). Binding and loosing are two administrative actions that are done “in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and are backed by His authority (1 Cor. 5:4). The authority to bind and loose with heaven’s ratification was given first to Peter (Matt. 16:19), then extended to the local assembly (Matt. 18:18). To bind a person’s sin upon them is to associate them with that sin in an official sense. Morally, they were associated with it the moment the sin was committed. But this is a special association of an official character. Paul does this in 1 Cor. 5:4 with the words “being such”; that is, he formally connected that man with his sin. Excommunication of the wicked person follows binding of the sin (v.5). In 1 Cor. 5 we have an example of binding, and in 2 Cor. 2 we have the loosing. Once a person has turned from their sin, and their repentance is manifest, the assembly ought to loose the sin, or formally disassociate the person from it. The whole assembly, wherever it may be found “on earth” is required to acknowledge an administrative action once taken, because it is bound or loosed in heaven. To continue fellowship with a person that is put away is to ignore the action taken, and to rebel against the authority of heaven. The binding or loosing would occur in a solemn meeting for judicial action; “when ye are gathered together” (v.4). It is only when the assembly is formally gathered together that the presence and “power of our Lord Jesus Christ” is there to give weight to the action. read more…
Assembly Action: Excommunication. Those in a position of oversight might gather together to discuss the matter (Acts 15). This is the “care meeting” where details might be discussed, and principles weighed, etc. Often these details can be defiling, and it is wise to limit the circle. But the matter must be presented before the assembly with the scriptures that the consciences of all might be engaged. When the assembly comes together it is not for a vote, or some democratic process. It is for administrative judgment. God may use it in His governmental judgment to work with the soul, but the government of God is His prerogative. Judging evil in the assembly is our responsibility. Therefore, excommunication is not really assembly discipline. It is what is required when all discipline has failed. It may be discipline in the government of God, but not of the assembly. Once excommunication occurs, the person is “without” (v.13), and now beyond the reach of discipline. It is possible for those with the gift of a pastor to reach out to the excommunicated person, but it ought to be done in fellowship with the oversight in the local assembly.
Saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. This expression shows that this man was really a believer. God allows Satan to break down the flesh to turn the spirit back to God. If there was still unwillingness to repent, the destruction of the flesh would go so far as death, and still the spirit would be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. But in this case, the man did repent and was restored! “The day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14) is a reference to the appearing of Christ, the day of Christ, but in the aspect of the fruit of judgment or chastening. When judgment is brought in, the term “Lord” is used instead of “Christ”. The fornicator in 1 Cor. 5 would be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus if he accepted the judgment of God against his sin. He would be “spared” a place along side the wicked who will be cast into the lake of fire when Christ appears.
Reasons for Assembly Action Against Evil. The assembly cannot prevent someone from doing evil, but it is responsible to judge the evil. The assembly is identified with Christ in a public way as the house of God, and as such evil must be dealt with. “Holiness becometh thine house O Lord forever” (Psa. 93:5). Here the Corinthian assembly was slow to judge evil. There are a number of different reasons why the local assembly must act to judge evil when it is manifested.
- For the Lord’s glory, to disassociate His name from the evil (v.4).
- For the assembly’s good, to purge the leaven out that the assembly might be a new lump (v.7).
- For the offender’s restoration, for his correction and restoration (v.5).
6 Your boasting is not good. Do ye not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? v.6 The Corinthians did not understand that unjudged evil in one person implicated them all. Instead of feeling each one’s responsibility, the Corinthians were boasting! It would seem from the earlier chapters that they were boasting the in the greatness of gift among them. Paul rebukes this by saying, “your boasting is not good”. They did not understand the principle of defilement, as illustrated by a little leaven put into a lump of dough. Leaven in scripture is always a symbol of sin. As in physical baking, leaven is characterized by its infesting and spreading character. This is why it works so well to create evenly spaced bubbles in bread. The Church is warned twice that evil must be judged, or the whole will be corrupted; here in 1 Cor. 5:6 in connection with moral evil, and again in Gal. 5:9 in connection with doctrinal evil. Doctrinal evil is the more dangerous, because the natural mind tends to view it only a differences of opinion, instead of positive evil. Also, which is worse: to murder, or to teach that it is acceptable to murder? This is why Paul’s rebuke of the Galatian error is even stronger than that of the Corinthians (Gal. 3:1). In any case, as soon as evil is known, the assembly is responsible to judge that evil. If it goes unjudged, the evil attaches itself to the entire assembly, and all are compromised.
7a Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, according as ye are unleavened. v.7a The “old leaven” refers to those sins that are characteristic of the old man. But isn’t the old man “crucified” (Rom. 6:6) in the sight of God and “put off” (Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:22) the believer? Yes. But these ones had fallen back into their old sins from before they were saved. Ignoring the symbolic meaning of the cross had resulted in old leaven. The assembly is to “purge out” that evil through administrative judgment. The results would be a “new lump” of dough; a new “clean” state for the assembly with which God can have fellowship. The new lump would be “according as ye are unleavened”; that is, the action taken would bring their state up to their standing. The assembly is positionally holy, but it has a responsibility to be practically holy. Corinth was unleavened positionally, but practically they were not a new lump. The only way to become a new lump is to purge out the leaven. From 2 Cor. 7:11 we learn that the assembly was not clear until the un-repented evil was put out. Many have tried to use the Parable of the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) to justify inaction by the assembly; but the Lord is clear that “the field is the world”, not the assembly. The world is an evil place and God will take care of it (v.13), but the assembly must judge those within it (v.12) because “the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:17).
What happens if an assembly fails to judge evil? William Kelly remarked: “When the assembly knows evil, and either forbears to judge through indifference, or (still worse) refuses it when appealed to according to the word of God, it is playing false to the name of the Lord, and can no longer be regarded as God’s assembly after adequate means to arouse have failed.” Where is that line, where a local gathering ceases to be an assembly? The scripture isn’t precise about when, but God is gracious. On one hand, the Lord threatened to remove the candlestick from the assembly in Ephesus if they did not repent from leaving their first love (Rev. 2:5). But on the other hand we have Corinth. Even with this flagrant evil in the assembly, Corinth was still an assembly, and the Lord’s presence was still among them. Perhaps that answer is that we should be hard on ourselves, and gentle toward other assemblies? But there may come a time when one local assembly will have to recognize that another gathering is no longer an assembly gathered to the Lord’s name. If that happens, the Lord will remove the candlestick from that location. This is a solemn recourse, and a step not to be taken quickly or lightly.
7b For also our passover, Christ, has been sacrificed; 8 so that let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with leaven of malice and wickedness, but with unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. vv.7b-8 We are called on to fulfill the type of the feast of unleavened bread, just as Christ fulfilled the type of the Passover feast. When we think of the cost to the Lord Jesus to put away our sins as the the Passover Lamb, we find motivation to live a sanctified life for Him. The feast of unleavened bread is the whole life of a believer, from start to finish; this is the significance of “seven days”. It isn’t that we are to judge evil only on Sunday morning; it must be judged daily. Two types of leaven are warned against:
- Old leaven. These would be the old sins that characterized the old man. It is those habits and practices that the Corinthians had been consumed with before they believed the gospel.
- Leaven of malice and wickedness. This would be the new sins that are in danger of creeping in, not as a result of old habits, but as a result of new opportunities as we rub shoulders with our brethren. “Malice” specifically is hurtful feelings. “Wickedness” encompasses actions taken against one another. The root of wickedness is malice. The cure for malice is sincerity, and the cure for wickedness is truth.
The point is that all leaven, old or new, is to be shut out. They are to have no place in the believer’s life. If the individual is unwilling to judge them, then the assembly is responsible to deal with the offender. The unleavened bread of “sincerity and truth” is a holy walk that is unpretended and honest before the Lord. Live out Rom. 6:13.
Separation from Evil in the World: With Exceptions (vv.9-10)
¶ 9 I have written to you in the epistle not to mix with fornicators; 10 not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the avaricious and rapacious, or idolaters, since then ye should go out of the world. vv.9-10 He wrote to them first of all to practice separation from evil in the world, but separation from evil in the world is coupled with exceptions. In v.11 he will show that there are no exceptions for separation from believers who are living in wickedness. But he tells them that isolation is not the answer. This shows the folly of the monastic system. They try to practice holiness by “going out of the world”. You have to go to work and school, etc. You might have to work with a boss who is living in wickedness, but you should not seek out their fellowship. This verse is not an excuse to have fellowship with those in the world who are living in sin. It isn’t because we are immune to defilement from the world, like the Lord Jesus, but simply because total isolation is not the answer (John 17:15, 18). The Lord wants us to witness to the world, but not be defiled by it. However, our day-to-day fellowship should be with brethren, not with this world which is full of “fornicators” who sin against their own bodies, the “avaricious and rapacious” who sin against their fellow man, and “idolaters” who sin against God.
“The epistle”. There is no textual evidence that Paul wrote another letter to the Corinthians that is not included in the canon. It wouldn’t present any difficulty if there were, but there is no reason to assert it. Mr. Kelly says that if Paul were referring to the epistle he was presently writing, “the tense used would be what is called the epistolary aorist” like is used in four or five other places. In 2 Corinthians 7:8 Paul refers to a different epistle (the first), and there the tense is different. Here it is the epistolary aorist, and so the idea of an order in time is not there. It could be true, but there is nothing to indicate it. To help you understand I will paraphrase like this: “I have written unto you in the epistle not to have fellowship with evil doers into the world, but not to extreme isolation (v.9). But now as regards your present situation, I have written unto you not to have fellowship with anyone professing the name of Christ that carries on in evil, etc. (v.11)”. He wanted them to get the general idea of separation in v.9, but wanted to give them also specific instructions about their case in v.11.
Separation from Evil in the House of God: No Exceptions (vv.11)
11 But now I have written to you, if any one called brother be fornicator, or avaricious, or idolater, or abusive, or a drunkard, or rapacious, not to mix with him; with such a one not even to eat. v.11 Now Paul is getting to the specifics of the case. If a professing believer (“called a brother”) is wicked person, we are not to mix or mingle with them. This means there is to be no socializing with a wicked brother, that he might be broken down in repentance. What is a wicked person? This is not a complete list, because it says “with such”. For example, a thief or murderer isn’t mentioned, but certainly those would be included. And who would like to draw the line on “avarice”? We cannot turn this chapter into a rule book, and say “if it’s not on the list you can do it”. On the other hand, “a brother overtaken in a fault” (Gal. 6:1) is not a wicked person. They are to be restored, not separated from. A wicked person is one who has refused to judge evil in their own lives, and that evil has become characteristic of their lifestyle. It doesn’t say they are a brother, but “called a brother”. Their profession of Christianity is called into question by their lifestyle. They can confirm their profession by repentance. But in the meantime, they are to be put out, not as an erring brother, but as a wicked person. This exhortation applies to the whole House of God; anyone who is “called a brother” is to be separated from if they are a wicked person. It doesn’t matter whether they are meeting on the scriptural ground of gathering or not. The separation is to be severe; “not even to eat”. This is not talking about eating the Lord’s Supper. That a wicked person should be refused the Lord’s Supper is a given. This is taking about a common meal, which is the most basic symbol of fellowship is just about every culture, worldwide. We are not have any fellowship with wicked persons, even so much as a meal. However, if a wicked person is hungry, we are to provide for them. But we are not to socialize with them. Failing to separate from wicked persons is sometimes done in the name of love, but it really hurts that one in the end. Separation will cause them to see the error of their ways, and turn in repentance to the Lord.
The Assembly is Responsible to Judge Evil Within (vv.12-13)
12 For what have “I” to do with judging those outside also? “ye”, do not ye judge them that are within? 13a But those without God judges. vv.12-13a In these verses we have a “within” and a “without”. Clearly the “within” refers to the fellowship of believers in the local assembly (see v.13b, “among yourselves”). In the day that Paul lived in, the public testimony of the Church was not divided. If a wicked person was put “without” in Corinth, they would be out everywhere. Nowadays a person who has been “judged” by the local assembly can walk down the road to the next church and be received. However, even today, those believers who are gathered to the Lord’s name must recognize a “judgment” made by another assembly gathered on the scriptural ground of gathering because that action is bound in heaven. The assembly judges the sphere of the local assembly (within), but God judges the world (without). Judging “within” is an administrative judgment, but judging “without” is a governmental judgment. Those who are without do not fall under the jurisdiction of the assembly, but they still fall under the jurisdiction of God’s government. Administrative judgment of evil “within” the assembly is imperative. Paul says “Do ye not?” because it was something they should have known at least in a basic way, but carnality had dulled their spiritual senses. We must label sin for what it is! An administrative judgment is the binding of a person’s sin on them. The aftermath of such judgment is in v.13; excommunication.
13b Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves. v.13b Once a person had been identified as a wicked person, the assembly is to “remove” that one from the fellowship of the assembly. This is not up for debate, we have clear instructions about what the assembly is supposed to do. But remember, this only applied to “wicked persons”. Sadly, some believers use excommunication as first course of action, when really it ought to be the last resort. There are many forms of assembly discipline: rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20; Tit. 2:15), and withdrawal (2 Thess. 3:6) are two kinds. But it shouldn’t even start there, there should be feet-washing (John 13), and brotherly restoration (Matt. 18:15-16, Gal. 6:1) before the assembly needs to get involved. Some think to use excommunication as a form of “assembly discipline”, but what it really does is put the person beyond the reach of assembly discipline. It is only the wicked that are to be put out. Where is a person once “put out”? You can’t put a person out of the House of God (in the universal sense), nor can you put them out of the body of Christ. They are outside the fellowship of the saints that are on the scriptural ground of gathering. Even to say they are “put away from the Lord’s Table” is not really a scriptural expression. Surely, one who has been excommunicated as a wicked person would not be allowed to break bread, but this is more. It is to be removed from the sphere of fellowship altogether.
What constitutes an assembly action? We do not need unanimity to effect an assembly action. In 2 Cor. 2:5 Paul says that the sin of this wicked person had grieved “in part” you all. Not everyone was really grieved about the sin, but it did not stop the action from taking place, nor did it invalidate the action, because it was recognized by the body of Christ at large (2 Cor. 2:6), and by Paul himself (2 Cor. 2:10). What then constitutes an assembly action? We have already shown that it is not unanimity, not is it the majority (democratic principle). The scripture simply says “when ye are gathered together” which indicated that the action had to be taken when the assembly was convened as such; i.e. an assembly meeting. If an action is taken when gathered thus, the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ is in the midst of two or three gathered unto His name (Matt. 18:20), and therefore the action is ratified in heaven (Matt. 18:18). If some disagree with the action, they are still to submit to it, but then seek to make it right. To ignore the action is if it is not bound in heaven is to reject the authority of Christ.
Submission to assembly action. The whole assembly is to be involved in the action, and the whole assembly is to recognize the action once taken; “put away from among yourselves (plural) that wicked person”. In reference to the fornicator in this chapter, Paul says that when repentance was worked in the man’s heart, the whole assembly (“ye” and “you” are plural) was to act together to lift social restrictions; “ye should rather shew grace and encourage” (2 Cor. 2:7) and restore him to full fellowship; “to whom ye forgive anything, I also” (2 Cor. 2:10). To act independently of the local assembly in these matters of putting away and restoring is really to undermine the authority of the Lord. Furthermore, socializing with the wicked person may be well intended, but it doesn’t really help that person. And this is not just locally. The responsibility to judge evil lies with the local assembly, but all who are gathered on the ground of the assembly will recognize their action. “Sufficient to such a one is this rebuke which has been inflicted by the many” (2 Cor. 2:6). “The many” is an expression which refers to the body of Christ at large. Even if the action is unrighteous, all believers in all local assemblies must submit to it as “bound in heaven”. This does not mean there is no recourse when an unrighteous action is taken. If it is was a wrong decision, bring up to the assembly and they will be made responsible to correct the action. God may raise up prophets to speak to the assembly about wrong judgments, or send individuals from nearby assemblies to remonstrate with them. Ultimately, if the local gathering refuses to judge the evil, it will cease to be an assembly. To fellowship with a person who has been excommunicated is to ignore the action which has been bound in heaven. Often times this is done out of ignorance, and other times in self-will. In any case, independency is (1) a rebellion against the authority of Christ in the local assembly, and (2) a denial of the truth that there is one body of Christ. You cannot practice independency and “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). The result is confusion; “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”.
Actions taken “without”. If one is put out in a Baptist church, should we recognize that action? Not in the same way that we would recognize an action taken by another assembly of believers gathered to the Lord’s name. When receiving someone into fellowship it is proper to have one or two additional witnesses to vouch for that person’s character and doctrine (including the individual, that makes two or three). Had someone recently come from a Baptist church and been otherwise unknown to the assembly, inquiry should be made with the Baptist church. This is part of good shepherding care. If they were under any kind of discipline, that would likely be transferred to the oversight in the assembly. If they were put out, the reasons should be understood. If the person is a “wicked person”, we are not to have fellowship with that person. However, the Baptist church is not gathered on the scriptural ground of gathering, and their actions are not “bound in heaven” (Matt. 18:18-20). But if the person came from another assembly of believers gathered to the Lord’s name having been excommunicated, we must recognize that action as it has been ratified in heaven… even if we do not agree with it! If repentance has been worked, the proper order would be to receive the person into fellowship along with the agreement of the other assembly. In this way we can “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
Summary. You could summarize these verses like this: both the fellowship of the assembly (vv.9-10) and the administration of the assembly (vv.11-13) are to be limited in their extent to brethren.