Summary: Discipline is also for the purpose of protecting the purity of the church. How does one person's sin harm the purity of a whole congregation?
This is the last of three sermons on the subject of discipline; you just have to get through this one more sermon. Then we can relax a bit as we go into chapter 6 and only deal with conflict between Christians and Christians engaged in sexual immorality! What is with these people? Their church was founded by the greatest church planter in the history of the Church; they are of the first generation of believers who are caught up in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; they speak in tongues, prophesy, and heal. What is their problem? Why, they are like us. They have the same sins and same problems we do. I guess it doesn’t matter if we go back 2,000 years or ahead 2,000 years. Solomon was right; there is nothing new under the sun.
Let’s review what we have considered so far. In the first sermon we defended church discipline, noting its benefits; in the second sermon we present the reasons church discipline is difficult to exercise in a productive way or exercise at all. This morning, we will discuss how to positively exercise discipline.
We have also considered the different types of discipline. There is the discipline of governing and admonition. This form of discipline goes on in the daily life of the church. Church officers and teachers are screened for their beliefs and behavior. My teaching is monitored. The elders have authority over what activities may take place in the church, and so on. I discipline you every Sunday through the admonition I give in the sermon. The other form of discipline is the one we normally associate with the term, what our Book of Church Order refers to as judicial process, and we call punishment. We saw that kind of discipline exercised in our scripture text, 5:1-5, in which Paul calls on the church to excommunicate a member. We also noted the reasons given for such discipline: to maintain the glory of God; to keep and reclaim sinners; and thirdly, to maintain the purity of God’s Church.
This last reason is the one given in our opening verse.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
This leaven is dough from the previous week’s batch. The cook would save dough, allow it to ferment, then mix it into the next batch to produce a lightness in the loaf of bread. A small amount was sufficient to affect, or infiltrate, the whole loaf. That is the problem with sin in the body of Christ. If it is allowed to go unabated in one person, it will infect the whole body, i.e. the church.
The sin at hand is an incestuous relationship between son and stepmother. The Corinthian Church is not only allowing the sin to be publicly carried on, but somehow seems pleased. Paul refers to their boasting. How could they boast about sin? By boasting in their freedom in Christ. We will explore this skewed understanding of the gospel another time. Suffice it to say now that their pride in the spiritual gifts has blinded them to the doctrine of sanctification in Christ. Here is a case where doctrine does matter. It is also a case of how pride can spark and fan other sins. Paul is trying to put out the flame.
Don’t you realize, he is saying, that sin is infectious? Once it is allowed to enter the church body, it infiltrates every part of the body until some action is taken to stop it. Like leaven, though, once it is begins to spread, it is almost impossible to remove it without further damage. It has already done its work.
How? For one, this man’s behavior will encourage similar behavior by others in the church, and, indeed, we will get to them in later chapters. To let a public sin go unchecked is to endorse the behavior in the eyes of others. This sin is also stirring other sin such as pride. The real issue in the text is not so much this man’s sin, as it is the church’s sinful response. Finally, regardless of how much the sin influences others in the church, the purity of the church is already stained, making the church a mockery before the world and disillusioning members within.
Verse 7 presents the answer to dealing with the present problem and preventing others like it from reoccurring: Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
In the present case, the Corinth Church needs to cleanse from its midst the offender. It needs to start new without the old leaven. But in a broader sense, it also needs a new perspective on the Christian life. The language sounds similar to Jesus’ admonition that new wine is not to be kept in old wineskins or new cloth used to patch old cloth. The old cannot handle the new.