Summary: Church discipline is a very unpleasant thing - But because we love God, because we love His church, because we love the people who are a part of it, it is something we need to be willing to do
Fifteen years ago, next week, I was called to become the pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church, Wentworth, Wisconsin. As I began my first full-time ministry position, my rookie season, I found myself facing a couple of situations which were probably as difficult as any that I have dealt with the last fifteen years. The second Sunday I was there, a fellow named Bob was sitting in the front row. The next Sunday a woman named Linda was sitting beside him. After a few weeks, I learned that Bob and Linda had recently been expelled from a nearby Covenant Church, where they both had been members. Bob had abandoned his wife and moved in with Linda. He rejected the admonition of the Covenant Church leaders to return to his spouse. We had a number of discussions at our deacon board meetings as to how our church should respond to the situation, but we never came up with an answer. A few months later, Bob and Linda got married and they attended Lakeside Church for a few years, but never became members. The second situation involved a man who, until one year before my arrival, had been the chairman of the church at Lakeside. It came out that he had been having sexual affairs with two women in the congregation. He was asked to resign his position in the church which he grudgingly did, but he expressed no remorse for his actions. He quit attending worship services, but the church never rescinded his membership. Some folks in the congregation continued to be his close friends, while others said they would stop associating with him until there was some evidence that he had repented from his sin.
As I look back on these two situations now, fifteen years later, I have a feeling that as a pastor and as a church, we should have handled things differently. I still, however, am not sure what exactly we should have done. Church discipline, dealing with individuals in a congregation who persist in serious sin and refuse to repent, is a very tough issue. Yet, it is an issue which God, through the Bible, tells us is important. Our journey through the Book of 1 Corinthians brings us today to Chapter 5:1-13. This is not an easy passage with which to come to grips, but I do believe God has some very important things to say to us in these verses. Let's pause and pray that we would listen and hear as He speaks today.
I want to start out by saying that of all the sermons I have preached over the last fifteen years, this is probably one of my least favorites. Church discipline is tough stuff. So why this topic? #1) For the church, including First Baptist Church, to be healthy we need to be willing to implement discipline sometimes. In fact, in protestant churches, preaching the Word faithfully, administering the sacraments correctly, and exercising church discipline have been identified as the marks of a true church. We will talk more about what this discipline involves during the rest of the sermon. #2) My job as a pastor is not to tell you just what I want to say, or to tell you what you want to hear. My responsibility is to proclaim and explain what God has said to us in His Word, the Bible. Here, in this church, we believe the Lord worked through human authors, inspiring them to write the Scriptures. This means that when the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he was writing not only his own words, but also putting down the very words of God. When God speaks, we'd better listen. And when He chooses to spend thirteen verses talking about church discipline, I think it would be very foolish for me to say something like, "1 Corinthians, Chapter 5, is too difficult or controversial, so we will just skip it and move on to Chapter 6." Whether we realize it or not, we need to hear what God is saying in this text.
Let's walk through the text and look at Paul's message to the Corinthians. Here we find instructions about dealing with immorality in the church. 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. A man (just to make things clear, we will give him a name -- Adam) is having a sexual relationship with his stepmother. Whether the father has died, or divorced the woman, or was still married to her we don't know, but Paul notes that even in Corinth, a place where moral standards were very low, people were shocked by what was going on. 5:2a And you are proud! Paul is not saying they were proud of what Adam was doing, but is referring to their general attitude which we talked about last week. 5:2b Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? The Corinthian church was guilty of ignoring a serious moral problem in their midst. 5:3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. Remember, Paul was the founding father of the Corinthian church and was deeply concerned about what was happening there. 5:4,5 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. It is clear that Paul is instructing the Corinthians to expel Adam from the church. But the details of the last verse have been the subject of lots of discussion. What does it mean to hand the man over to Satan? Though Paul certainly believes in a personal devil, he is probably not anticipating a direct demonic attack upon Adam. Rather, by expelling him from their church, they would be putting him out into the devil's territory, severed from the protection and support of God's people. What is the purpose of doing that? Literally Paul says, "So that his flesh might be destroyed." Some think this means he will suffer physical affliction which will lead him to repentance. Most Bible scholars go along with the New International Version , however, and believe Paul is using the term flesh to describe our inner, sinful nature, our dark side. Thus, the hope is that being officially ostracized from the church will make Adam so emotionally miserable that he will repent so he can regain a right relationship with God and can rejoin the fellowship.