Holy churches in an unholy world

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. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

How shockable are you?

We in the western world live in a culture where there is a pressure not to be shocked by anything. A “celebrity”, say, gets into the headlines for wild behaviour and is described, seemingly with admiration, as “a larger than life character” – by which is meant that he is, putting it bluntly, a drunkard, a lecher and no doubt a whole lot more besides.

Any show of shock or distaste is dismissed as hopelessly dated and pathetically old-fashioned. We are a mature, grown-up society! We are not bound by the prejudices and petty-minded views of previous generations! Drop these silly ideas of right and wrong!

This loosening of traditional morality goes back at least to the birth of the “permissive society” some fifty years ago. And we need to say that it wasn’t an entirely bad thing. It waved goodbye to intolerant, censorious and judgmental attitudes which cramped and clouded many people’s lives. We probably wouldn’t want to go back to those days.

But… Is it in fact an entirely healthy development? Is it really a sign of maturity? Or could it be a sign also of a rottenness eating away at the heart of our life together?

Well, way back in the early years of Christianity, things were going on even within the life of the church which caused Paul deep shock. And he wasn’t afraid to say so. What shocked him was, first, that these scandalous things were happening at all; second, that they were things that even pagans (and they were no prudes!) were scandalised by; and third, that the Corinth church apparently thought it was all fine; they seem to have been unshockable.

What’s going on!

It seems that a member of the church was in a sexual relationship with a woman who was, probably, his step-mother (Paul says nothing about her, which suggests that she wasn’t a Christian). And Paul is absolutely adamant that this needs to be sorted out pretty quickly.

And so, in our verses, he lays down the procedure he wants the church to follow. He wants them to have a meeting when he is “with them in spirit” – which presumably means when they are aware of his feeling on the matter – and in which they make a solemn decision to “hand this man over to Satan”.

What can that possibly mean?

The most likely understanding is that the church is to eject the man from their fellowship, to refuse to have anything to do with him. The church is the sphere of Christ, while the unbelieving world outside is the sphere of Satan, the enemy of God – so let him be thrust back out into the realm where such behaviour belongs.

What Paul intends is not (please notice this!) that the man should be given up as eternally lost, but that, by being expelled in this way, “his sinful nature may be destroyed but his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”.

Paul’s recommended procedure is, so to speak, to bring the man to his senses. True, he seems to think that he could suffer physically as a result – “the sinful nature” is, literally, “the flesh” – but his ultimate aim is “the salvation of the spirit”.

In short, strange though it might seem, Paul is motivated by love and by a pastoral concern to see this man return to his true standing in Christ.

And he is motivated by something else as well: a fierce determination to ensure the moral purity of the church, the body of Christ. The thought that pagan outsiders might be able to point an accusing finger at the local Christians horrified and appalled him; it was as if Christ himself was being dragged in the dirt, and this was simply intolerable.

How might Paul’s attitude apply to us today?

Well, let’s stress first that there must be no witch-hunts; Paul didn’t go looking for bad things, like a blood-hound eager to sniff them out. Far from it. And neither must we.

But at the same time the church is called to be an earthly model of the heavenly kingdom of God, and this means that any serious taint of corruption cannot be tolerated.

It can be a tricky and painful thing to deal with – especially in days when a strong emphasis is placed on God’s “unconditional love”, and on the need for the church to be completely “inclusive”. But big issues are at stake…

Here’s a relatively trivial example you might like to think about. I knew a church once where it turned out that one of the leaders, a taxi-driver, had been fiddling his fare-clock and thus fleecing his passengers. The local paper made a head-line of it, and the reputation of the church was damaged.

How should the church have reacted to this situation? I would be interested to hear your thoughts…

Lord God, help us to build churches that are uncompromisingly holy, truly inclusive, and overflowing with the forgiving love of Jesus. Amen.


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