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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 5

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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B. Lack of discipline in the church chs. 5-6

The second characteristic in the Corinthian church reported to Paul that he addressed concerned a lack of discipline (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). This section of the epistle has strong connections with the first major section. The lack of discipline in the church (chs. 5-6) reflected a crisis of authority in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21). The Corinthians were arrogant and valued a worldly concept of power. This carnal attitude had produced the three problems that Paul proceeded to deal with next: incest, litigation, and prostitution in the church.

"It is frequently said that the only Bible the world will read is the daily life of the Christian, and that what the world needs is a revised version! The next two chapters are designed by Paul to produce a Corinthian revised version, so that orthodoxy might be followed by orthopraxy . . ." [Note: Johnson, p. 1236.]

1. Incest in the church ch. 5

First, the church had manifested a very permissive attitude toward a man in the congregation who was committing incest. Paul explained his own reaction to this situation and demanded that his readers take a different view of immorality than the one they held (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). Then he spoke to the larger issue of the Christian’s relationship to the immoral both within and outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

"What is at stake is not simply a low view of sin; rather, it is the church itself: Will it follow Paul’s gospel with its ethical implications? or will it continue in its present ’spirituality,’ one that tolerates such sin and thereby destroys God’s temple in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)? Thus Paul uses this concrete example both to assert his authority and to speak to the larger issue of sexual immorality." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 197.]

"The unusual feature of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 is the manner in which the community is addressed first and more extensively than the man involved in an incestuous relationship. The congregation is distinguished by its arrogance and boasting and its failure to mourn. At the heart of Paul’s rebuke is an urgent plea for a new, communal self-understanding (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Mixing the cultic images of unleavened bread and the Passover lamb, the text pushes the Corinthians to think of themselves differently-as an unleavened community that demonstrates honesty and dependability, as a community for whom the paschal lamb has been sacrificed. The crucified Messiah lies at the heart of the new perspective, critically needed by the readers." [Note: Cousar, "The Theological . . .," p. 98.]

Verse 1

"Immorality" is a general translation of the Greek word porneia, which means fornication, specifically sexual relations with a forbidden mate. The precise offense in this case was sexual union with the woman who had married the man’s father (cf. Matthew 5:27-28; Matthew 5:32; Matthew 15:19; Matthew 19:9; Mark 7:21). Had she been his physical mother other terms would have been more appropriate to use. Evidently the woman was his step-mother, and she may have been close to his own age.

"The woman was clearly not the mother of the offender, and probably (although the use of porneia rather than moicheia [adultery] does not prove this) she was not, at the time, the wife of the offender’s father. She may have been divorced, for divorce was very common, or her husband may have been dead." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 96. Cf. Barclay, p. 49.]

The verb translated "to have" (present tense in Gr.), when used in sexual or marital contexts, is a euphemism for a continuing relationship in contrast to a "one night stand" (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:2). This man and this woman were "living together." Since the man is the object of Paul’s censure, it seems that the woman was not in the church.

"The word porneia (’sexual immorality’) in the Greek world simply meant ’prostitution,’ in the sense of going to the prostitutes and paying for sexual pleasure. The Greeks were ambivalent on that matter, depending on whether one went openly to the brothels or was more discreet and went with a paramour [lover]. But the word had been picked up in Hellenistic Judaism, always pejoratively, to cover all extramarital sexual sins and aberrations, including homosexuality. It could also refer to any of these sins specifically, as it does here. In the NT the word is thus used to refer to that particular blight on Greco-Roman culture, which was almost universally countenanced, except among the Stoics. That is why porneia appears so often as the first item in the NT vice lists, not because Christians were sexually ’hung up,’ nor because they considered this the primary sin, the ’scarlet letter,’ as it were. It is the result of its prevalence in the culture, and the difficulty the early church experienced with its Gentile converts breaking with their former ways, which they did not consider immoral." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 199-200.]

The leaders of Israel and the early churches regarded fornication of all kinds as sin to avoid (Leviticus 18:8; Deuteronomy 22:30; Deuteronomy 27:20; Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29; Acts 21:25). If the guilty man’s father was still alive and married to the woman, adultery would also have been involved. Most interpreters have concluded that this was a case of incest rather than incest and adultery. If Paul had been living under the Mosaic Law, he should have prescribed the death penalty for both the guilty man and the woman (Leviticus 18:8; Leviticus 18:29), but he lived under the New Covenant and advocated a different penalty (1 Corinthians 5:5). As depraved as Greek culture was, even the pagans looked down on incest, and Roman law prohibited it. [Note: Johnson, p. 1236.]

Verses 1-5

Paul’s judgment of this case 5:1-5

Verse 2

The Corinthians’ attitude about this situation was even worse than the sin itself. Rather than mourning over it and disciplining the offender they took pride in it. They may have viewed it as within the bounds of Christian liberty thinking that their position in Christ made sexual morality unimportant. Another possibility is that their worldly "wisdom" encouraged them to cast off sexual restraints.

". . . Paul is not here dealing with ’church discipline’ as such; rather, out of his Jewish heritage he is expressing what should be the normal consequences of being the people of God, who are called to be his holy people (1 Corinthians 1:2). It is this lack of a sense of sin, and therefore of any ethical consequences to their life in the Spirit, that marks the Corinthian brand of spirituality as radically different from that which flows out of the gospel of Christ crucified. And it is precisely this failure to recognize the depth of their corporate sinfulness due to their arrogance that causes Paul to take such strong action as is described in the next sentence (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 203. See also Barrett, p. 122.]

Verse 3

Paul had spoken earlier about not judging others (1 Corinthians 4:5). That kind of judging had to do with one’s degree of faithfulness to the Lord. Here the issue was blatant immorality. This needed dealing with, and Paul had already determined what the Corinthian Christians should do in this case even though he was not present. The case was so clear that he did not need to be present to know the man was guilty of a serious offense that required strong treatment.

Verse 4

The apostle wanted the believers to view his ruling as the will of the Lord. He assured them that God would back it up with His power as they enforced the discipline. The phrase "in the name of the Lord Jesus" probably modifies "I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (1 Corinthians 5:5). [Note: See Fee, The First . . ., pp. 206-8, for supporting arguments.] In passing the following judgment Paul was acting in Jesus’ name, with His authority.

"The church’s refusal to act against the offender in 1 Corinthians 5:2 provides the most striking example of their arrogance and doubt that Paul would execute discipline (1 Corinthians 4:18). Here, therefore, he does execute discipline (1 Corinthians 5:5). They may doubt his ’power’ (1 Corinthians 4:19-21), but he acts by Jesus’ power (1 Corinthians 5:4)." [Note: Keener, p. 48.]

Verse 5

Paul had determined to deliver the man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Probably Paul meant that he had delivered the man over to the world, which Satan controls, with God’s permission of course, for bodily chastisement that might even result in his premature death. [Note: H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 97; S. M. Gilmour, "Pastoral Care in the New Testament Church," New Testament Studies 10 (1963-64):395; J. C. Hurd Jr., The Origin of I Corinthians, p.137, p. 286, n. 5; G. W. H. Lampe, "Church Discipline and the Interpretation of the Epistles to the Corinthians," in Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox, pp. 349, 353; Morris, pp. 88-89; Johnson, p. 1237; and Bruce, pp. 54-55.] This was the result of Peter’s dealings with Ananias and Sapphira, though the text does not say he delivered them to Satan for the destruction of their flesh. God was bringing premature death on other Corinthians for their improper conduct during the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30; cf. 1 John 5:16). We have no record that this man died prematurely, though he may have. Premature death might be his judgment (the "worst case scenario") if he did not repent.

Paul passed similar judgment on Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20). In that case he said he just delivered them to Satan. He wrote nothing about the destruction of the flesh. Deliverance to Satan must mean deliverance to the authority and control of Satan in a way that is different from the way all believers are under Satan’s control. Everyone is subject to temptation and demonic influence under the sovereign authority of God (cf. Job 1-2). [Note: See Sydney H. T. Page, "Satan: God’s Servant," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50:3 (September 2007):449-65.]

A variation of this view is that the delivery to Satan would eventuate in a wasting physical illness but not death. [Note: William Barclay, By What Authority? p. 118; M. Dods, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 118; H. Olshausen, Biblical Commentary on St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians, p. 90; H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 471; W. G. H. Simon, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: Introduction and Commentary, p. 78; and M. E. Thrall, The First and Second Letters of Paul to the Corinthians, p. 40.] However the term "the destruction of the flesh" seems to imply death rather than simply disease.

A third interpretation understands the term "flesh" metaphorically as referring to the destruction of the man’s sinful nature. [Note: F. W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistles to the Corinthians, p. 123; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians, p. 217; J. J. Lias, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 67; and G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul, p. 83.] The destruction of the flesh in this case refers to the mortification of the lusts of the flesh. However it seems unusual that Paul would deliver the man to Satan for this purpose. Satan would not normally put the lusts of the flesh to death but stir them up in the man. It is hard to see how handing a person over to Satan would purify him.

Still another view takes the flesh and spirit as referring to the sinful and godly character of the church rather than the individual. [Note: B. Campbell, "Flesh and Spirit in 1 Corinthians 5:5: An Exercise in Rhetorical Criticism of the NT," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36:3 (September 1993):341; K. P. Donfried, "Justification and Last Judgment in Paul," Interpretation 30 (April 1976):150-51; H. von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries, pp. 134-135, n. 50; and the early church father Tertullian.] Paul may have been identifying the sinful element within the Corinthian church that needed destroying. This would result in the preservation of the spirit of the church. The main problem with this view is that Paul seems to be referring to an individual rather than to the church as a whole. Certainly the man’s actions would affect the church, so it is probably proper to see some involvement of the church here even though the judgment seems to be primarily against the man.

Another interpretation is that Paul was speaking of the man’s excommunication from the church. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 208-15; Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 50; Robertson, 4:113.] In this view Paul meant that he was turning the man over to live in the sphere of Satan’s authority, the world, from the sphere of the Spirit’s authority, the church.

"What the grammar suggests . . . is that the ’destruction of his flesh’ is the anticipated result [Gr. eis] of the man’s being being [sic] put back out into Satan’s domain, while the express purpose [Gr. hina] of the action is his redemption." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 209. See also Craig L. Blomberg’s discussion of this verse in William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar: Second Edition, p. 54.]

I think Paul meant excommunication with the possibility of premature death. [Note: Cf. Lowery, p. 514.] His analogy concerning the Passover (1 Corinthians 5:6-8) stresses separating what is sinful from what it pollutes. Paul meant that the Lamb was already slain on Calvary, but the Corinthians had not yet gotten rid of the leaven.

Is this a form of church discipline that we can and should practice today? There are no other Scripture passages in which the Lord instructed church leaders to turn sinners over to Satan. Consequently some interpreters believe this was one way in which the apostles in particular exercised their authority in the early church for the establishment of the church (cf. Acts 5). I think modern church leaders can turn people over to Satan by removing them from the fellowship of other Christians and the church. People may commit sins that may ultimately lead to their premature deaths today, and there are, of course, other biblical examples of excommunication as church discipline (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13; Matthew 18:17; 2 Corinthians 2:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).

The last part of the verse gives the purpose of Paul’s discipline. "Spirit" contrasts with "flesh." "Flesh" evidently refers to the body so "spirit" probably refers to the immaterial part of the man. The "day of the Lord Jesus" refers to the return of Christ at the Rapture and the judgment of believers connected with it (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:8).

From what would his punishment save the incestuous man’s spirit? It would not save him eternally since faith in Christ does that. It might save him from physical death if he repented, but the reference to his spirit makes this interpretation unlikely. Probably it would guard him from a worse verdict when Christ would evaluate his stewardship of his life at the judgment seat. Evidently Paul regarded it better for this sinning Christian, as well as best for the church, that he die prematurely, assuming that he would not repent, than that he go on living. Perhaps Paul had reason to believe that he would not turn from his sin but only worsen.

Some have interpreted Paul’s allusion to "such a one" in 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 as referring to this incestuous man. The text does not warrant that definite a connection. "Such a one" is simply a way of referring to someone, anyone, without using his or her name. [Note: Bruce, p. 54.]

Verse 6

It was not good for the Corinthians to feel proud of their permissiveness (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:2). Sin spreads in the church as yeast does in dough (cf. Galatians 5:9; Mark 8:15). Eventually the whole moral fabric of the congregation would suffer if the believers did not expunge this sin from its midst.

Verses 6-8

The analogy of the Passover 5:6-8

Paul argued for the man’s removal from the church with this analogy. It was primarily for the sake of the church that they should remove him, not for the man’s sake.

Verse 7

In Jewish life it was customary to throw away all the leaven (yeast) in the house when the family prepared for the Passover celebration (Exodus 12:15; Exodus 13:6-7). They did this so the bread they made for Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread that followed would be completely free of leaven. This may have been for hygienic reasons as well as because of the symbolism of the act. This is what the Corinthians needed to do as a church so they could worship God acceptably. In one sense they were already free of leaven; their trust in Christ had removed their sins. However in another sense they possessed leaven since they had tolerated sin in their midst. Paul described the same situation earlier in this epistle when he said the Corinthians were saints (1 Corinthians 1:2) even though they were not behaving as saints. God had sanctified them in their position, but they were in need of progressive sanctification. They needed to become what they were. This was Paul’s basic exhortation.

"1 Corinthians emphasizes that the gospel issues in transformed lives, that salvation in Christ is not complete without God/Christlike attitudes and behavior.

"The classic expression of Paul’s understanding of the relationship between gospel and ethics (indicative and imperative) is to be found in 1 Corinthians 5:7.

"Ethics for Paul is ultimately a theological issue pure and simple. Everything has to do with God and with what God is about in Christ and the Spirit. Thus (1) the purpose (or basis) of Christian ethics is the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31); (2) the pattern for such ethics is Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1); (3) the principle is love, precisely because it alone reflects God’s character (1 Corinthians 8:2-3; 1 Corinthians 13:1-8); and (4) the power is the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 6:19)." [Note: Fee, "Toward a . . .," pp. 51, 53.]

The mention of the removal of leaven before the Passover led Paul to develop his analogy further. Christ, the final Passover Lamb, had already died. A type is a divinely intended illustration of something else, the antitype. A type may be a person (cf. Romans 5:14), a thing (cf. Hebrews 10:19-20), an event (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11), a ceremony, as here, or an institution (cf. Hebrews 9:11-12). Therefore it was all the more important that the believers clean out the remaining leaven immediately.

Verse 8

The feast of Unleavened Bread began the day after Passover. The Jews regarded both Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread as one festival (cf. Exodus 23:15; Exodus 34:18; Deuteronomy 16:6). As believers whose Pascal Lamb had died, it was necessary that the Corinthians keep celebrating the feast and worshipping God free of leaven that symbolically represented sin. The old leaven probably refers to the sins that marked the Corinthians before their conversion. Malice and wickedness probably stand for all sins of motive and action. Sincerity and truth are the proper motive and action with which we should worship God. This verse constitutes a summary exhortation.

Verse 9

Paul had written this congregation a previous letter that is no longer extant. [Note: See my comments on this letter in the Introduction section of these notes.] In it he urged the Corinthians to avoid associating with fornicators. The same Greek word, pornois, occurs here as in 1 Corinthians 5:1. In view of this instruction the Corinthians’ toleration of the incestuous brother in the church was especially serious.

Verses 9-13

The Christian’s relationship to fornicators 5:9-13

Paul proceeded to deal with the larger issue of the believer’s relationship to fornicators inside and outside the church. He did this so his readers would understand their responsibility in this area of their lives in their immoral city and abandon their arrogant self-righteousness.

Verse 10

However, Paul hastened to clarify that in writing what he had he did not mean a believer should never associate with fornicators outside the church. He did not mean either that they should avoid contact with unbelievers who were sinful in their attitudes and actions toward people and God. Even our holy Lord Jesus Christ ate with publicans and sinners. Such isolationism would require that they stop living in the real world and exist in a Christian ghetto insulated from all contact with unbelievers. This approach to life is both unrealistic and unfaithful to God who has called us to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16; Matthew 28:19-20). Many Christians today struggle with an unbiblical view of separation that tends more toward isolationism than sanctification.

Some interpreters view this discipline as excluding the offender from the community of believers gathered for worship: excommunication. [Note: E.g., Fee, The First . . ., p. 226.] Others view it as social ostracism.

"The Apostle is not thinking of Holy Communion, in which case the mede ["not even"] would be quite out of place: he is thinking of social meals; ’Do not invite him to your house or accept his invitations.’" [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 107.]

In 2 Thessalonians 3:14 Paul used the same phrase (Gr. sunanamignusthai, lit. mix up together), translated "to associate with" (1 Corinthians 5:9), with regard to busybodies in the church. There not associating was to be the last resort of faithful believers in their social dealings with their disobedient brethren (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). They were not to treat them as enemies, however, but as brothers. Probably Paul had the same type of disciplinary behavior in view here. I tend to think it means excommunication and social ostracism in view of the next verse.

Verse 11

Paul now clarified that he had meant that the Corinthian Christians should not associate with such a person if he or she professed to be a believer. The Greek phrase tis adelphos onomazomenos literally means one who bears the name brother. The translation "so-called brother" (NASB) implies that the sinner was only a professing Christian. [Note: F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, p. 210.] However he could have been a genuine Christian. [Note: Robert N. Wilkin, "The So-Called So-Called Brother," Grace Evangelical Society News 6:10 (October 1991):2-3.] Only God and that person knew for sure whether he or she was a genuine Christian. The important point is that this person’s behavior threw into question whether he was a genuine Christian. The Corinthian Christians were to exclude such a person from table fellowship with the other Christians in the church.

In the early history of the church eating together was a large part of the fellowship that the Christians enjoyed with one another (cf. Acts 2:46-47; Acts 6:1; et al.). To exclude a Christian from this circle of fellowship would have made a much stronger statement to him than it normally does in many parts of the world today.

This exclusion was a strong form of discipline that Paul designed to confront the offender with his or her behavior and encourage him or her to repent. Some modern congregations have adopted the policy of excluding such offenders from participation in the Lord’s Supper. However this form of discipline does not carry much impact when a congregation observes the Lord’s Supper only monthly or quarterly. Modern church leaders need to give careful thought to what form of discipline would have the same impact and effect on such a person in their particular society.

"Church discipline is not a group of ’pious policemen’ out to catch a criminal. Rather, it is a group of brokenhearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:586.]

Paul’s list of sins here seems to be suggestive rather than comprehensive (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). It includes fornicators, the greedy, idolaters, people who abuse others verbally, drunkards and perhaps others addicted to enslaving substances, and swindlers. [Note: See René A. López, "A Study of Pauline Passages with Vice Lists," Bibliotheca Sacra 168:671 (July-September 2011):301-16.] The failure of many church leaders to discipline professing Christians who practice these things today is a sad commentary on the carnality of the modern church. In some cases it is evidence of unwillingness or inability to exercise tough love.

Verse 12

Paul’s authority as an apostle did not extend to judging and prescribing discipline on unbelievers for their sins. He did, of course, assess the condition of unbelievers (e.g., Romans 1; et al.), but that is not what is in view here. His ministry and the ministry of other Christians in judging and disciplining sin took place only within church life. Judging means more than criticizing. It involves disciplining, too, as the context shows.

Verse 13

Judging and disciplining unbelievers is the Lord’s work. Obviously this does not mean that Christians should remain aloof when justice needs maintaining in the world. God has delegated human government to people as His vice-regents (e.g., Genesis 9:5-6). As human beings Christians should bear their fair share of the weight of responsibility in these matters. The point here is that the Corinthians and all Christians should exercise discipline in church life to an extent beyond what is our responsibility in civil life.

Paul did not explain the objective in view in church discipline in this passage. Elsewhere we learn that it is always the restoration of the offender to fellowship with God and His people (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). It is also the purity of the church. [Note: For general studies of church discipline, see J. Carl Laney, "The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline," Bibliotheca Sacra 143:572 (October-December 1986):353-64; and Ted G. Kitchens, "Perimeters of Corrective Church Discipline," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:590 (April-June 1991):201-13. On the subject of lawsuits against local churches and church leaders who practice church discipline, see Jay A. Quine, "Court Involvement in Church Discipline," Bibliotheca Sacra 149:593 (January-March 1992):60-73, and 594 (April-June 1992):223-36.]

Chapter 5 deals with the subject of immoral conduct by professing Christians. [Note: See also Timothy D. Howell, "The Church and the AIDS Crisis," Bibliotheca Sacra 149:593 (January-March 1992):74-82.] The first part (1 Corinthians 5:1-8) contains directions for dealing with a particular case of fornication that existed in the church. The Corinthian Christians were taking a much too permissive attitude toward sin, which reflects the impact of their culture on their church. The second part (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) clarifies our duty in all instances of immoral conduct inside and outside the church.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-5.html. 2012.
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