Summary: A biblical view of how to handle sexual immorality in the church.
Sexual Immorality in the Church
I’ve wrestled with two different and opposing intuitions. I’m talking about when you see a friend making a big mistake that could really hurt them and others. Have you ever felt a nudging that you were supposed to say something? Then on the other side, have you heard that voice in your head saying, “It’s not my business. Who am I to judge anyway?” The issue gets much tougher in a family or on a team. Have you ever been in a position where you knew that an athlete was dragging down the whole team by his bad behavior? In a classroom, when do you remove a student who consistently disrupts the whole class? Have you worked with someone on the job who should have been removed, but was not? When do you vote someone off the island?
Churches face a similar dilemma. Churches are to be full of grace, welcoming to all people, regardless of how sinful they are. And yet the church is to be a holy people, standing for righteousness. At Christ Fellowship we are both all welcome, people of grace and we are all-in, people who hold nothing back in terms of obeying God.
How can a church be both accepting of all sinners and at the same time a holy people? At each extreme lies danger. On one end, the church ignores sin and becomes indistinguishable from the world. On the other end the church becomes harsh and judgmental. Then there is the obvious problem: if we removed all people who sin, there would be no one left.
Our text today, First Corinthians chapter five, addresses this hot potato: How does a church deal with sexual immorality in the church? Why should a church ever remove someone from the fellowship? We are studying Paul’s letter to Christians in ancient Corinth, in which he addresses hot potato issues to show us how to find spiritual wisdom in a foolish world. Fundamentally we are to live out our identity in Christ.
So what was the specific issue in the church in Corinth? Take a look at First Corinthians chapter five, verse one. Paul names the issue. He says in chapter five, verse one, It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.
Culturally it was common for Romans at that time to marry younger wives later in life so a stepmother could be in the age range of older sons from a previous marriage, much like us today. A man in the church was having sex with his stepmother. The Greek phrase indicates it is an on-going relationship, not a one-time affair. It was a crime of incest according to Roman law. The Greeks would likely have been familiar with the tale of Oedipus, who unknowingly married his mother and destroyed his family. How can the church tolerate what even the pagan society condemns as deviant? Based on this text and others we can assume this man is a believer involved in the church and that the church has appealed to him to repent.
What’s striking is that the man himself is never directly addressed. Rather Paul’s concern is with how the church is mishandling the situation by ignoring it. The burden of chapter five is to explain why the church should remove the immoral person from their fellowship.
In four different ways through the chapter Paul makes this same basic point: we should remove an immoral person from our fellowship. Why? Why should we take such drastic action? In our day we really need to understand the “why” because for most of us this is a very challenging command not because it is hard to understand what it means, but because it is hard to understand the value of doing it.
Comparing the issue with similar situations in other contexts helps me to get it. Picture a family living room, a school classroom, a team locker room, and a work conference room. Years ago, my wife Tamara and I had to exercise tough love with our oldest son. We set clear guidelines for staying in our home which if broken would mean he had chosen to leave. At eighteen years old, a green trash sack in our living room overflowing with beer cans marked the moment that he had to go. We cried many tears. On one of the hardest days of my life, in another green trash sack, our oldest son carried his clothes out the door. It was incredibly painful, but it was the right decision.
As a teacher, perhaps you have had to remove a student from a classroom. Sometimes their behavior is so disruptive the rest of the class suffers until he or she leaves. Maybe you played on a sports team, where one person’s bad behavior wrecked the chemistry of the whole team; sometimes it happens with the most talented player on the team. Or in a work environment, have you endured a co-worker whose negativity or immorality made you not even want to go to work? There are times when an employee needs to be fired; a player released from the team, a student removed from the classroom, and even a child removed from the home. In the church there are times when an immoral member needs to be removed from the fellowship.