Friday, October 23, 2009

Sin in the Church!

Sermon #13 from the First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 5:1-13


Church life does not often hit the Associated Press lines, and when it does it is not usually good news. Some time ago a story appeared about a woman bringing a lawsuit against her church for defamation of character. She had been involved in an extra-marital affair, and the church she was in publicized her sin and put her out of the church. She said the church had humiliated her, and that her private life was no concern of the church's.

What should be the church's response to sin in a member's life? Some churches try to maintain a rigid standard of purity. They pull away from other Christian bodies and set up a list of rules to safeguard holiness. They are visibly conspicuous in the world, but the one thing that often stands out is self-righteousness. Years ago there was a notorious incident in Mechanicsburg where a man was shunned and his wife wouldn't eat at the same table with him. Is that what Paul is talking about here?

Other churches have decided that is not the right response. They see discipline as harsh and unloving. Any move toward discipline is stereotyped as a witch hunt. The trouble with this response is that the people of such churches are seldom different from the world at all. There is no standard of holiness, which makes one wonder how such a church is different from any other social club. What is the church, anyway?

In this fifth chapter of First Corinthians we have a record of sin in the church. We also have God's Word through Paul of what to do about it. A casual reading explains why some churches zealously go after sinning members and practice shunning, but there is more than that here.

A general observation that becomes very important is Paul's emphasis as he deals with the situation. He gives little time and space to the sin and the sinner. He gets far more exercised with the church and its attitudes. We do not give enough thought to what the church is and what we are here for. It is only in that context that we begin to understand what the response should be when there is sin in the church.

When sin is in the church how do we handle it? The answer here is, with authority. When sin is in the church, why do anything? The answer here is, for authenticity. When sin is in the church, what should be the expected result? The answer here is, a visible alternative.

How do we handle sin in the church? With authority. “Authority” has become a bad word in our culture, and it is especially suspect in the church. There is a pervasive mood that no one has a right to tell anyone else what is right or wrong, or what they can or cannot do. But in the overall context of what the church is, we need to do a better job of helping people understand that when they join the church they are putting themselves under a particular authority.

We say that in membership vows, but could it be those vows function as a mere initiatory rite –– something to be forgotten once we are "in?" Whatever the case, the authority is there, and discipline is inherent to authority. Paul is clear as to the source of the authority: I have pronounced judgment in the name of Jesus Christ (v4). The church's first identity is that of representing the actual presence of its Lord. We are to affirm or judge what Jesus would affirm or judge.

Of course there are stipulations to that, but the church today is in greater danger of under-using its authority than over-using it. This is not the only place where Paul used this language of discipline. Writing the second time to the church at Thessalonica (3:6), the authority of Jesus is named as the basis for corrective action. The question for us is to what extent we actually see the church as the physical, earthly presence of our Lord. Jesus told Peter that he was giving the church the authority to bind and loose on earth according to the realities of heaven (Matt. 16:18,19).

Still, the stipulations exist. The context for this judgment and discipline lies in the church –– not in the world. I'll say more on this later, but notice that the discipline is directed toward anyone who calls himself a brother (v11). The authority for discipline is only for those who have placed themselves under it –– members of the church. Any member of the church who persists in sinful behavior implicitly invites the disciplinary authority of the church.

And what is that discipline? Paul says it is expulsion (v2, 4-5, 7, 13). He says the same thing to the Thessalonians ("keep away" and "do not associate" 3:6,14). What does it mean when the church puts someone out?

The first thing it means is a removal from the identity of the church. The Christian church is exclusive. That is one of its offenses. Not any and everyone should have the privilege of belonging to the church. The church is a group of people who, together, find their identity in Jesus Christ. He is their Lord. Jesus is the most important person in their lives, and their expressed purpose is to follow him in discipleship. When anyone in the church lives as though those things are not true in his or her life, one of two things needs to change –– behavior or identity. If a sinning person will not change his behavior, then the church needs to change his identity. Thus Paul's word: Expel the wicked man from among you.

The second thing it means is a removal from the protection of the church. When a person is put out of the church, something else happens. With the instruction, hand this man over to Satan, the implication is that expelling someone from a church removes them from the protection of the church. Satan is called "the prince of this world" (Jn 12: 31), and when a person is put out of a church he or she is put back "into the world," which is Satan's jurisdiction.

Things work differently for people in the church than for people outside. People in the church are under the reign of God in a way those outside the church are not. The "principalities and powers" have full access to people outside the church; Christians have access to the armor of God (Eph 6). Feeling vulnerable to the full force of evil should make a person want the protection of the church, and putting a disobedient person in that position should heighten the issue of repentance and obedience.

The third thing it means is a removal from the fellowship of the church. The phrases here to imply this are "out of your fellowship," "not associate," and "do not even eat" (vs 2,9,11). This means the church should not act toward an erring person as though everything is fine. Fellowship implies approval, and people whose behavior is marked by disobedience need to sense the church's disapproval. One of the needs the church fills in our lives is a sense of belonging. The church cannot afford to give that to one whose actions deny and defy the church.

This does not necessarily mean "the cold shoulder." When Jesus gave the order for discipline (Matt. 18), he said to treat one who would not listen to the church as you would a pagan (18:17). And how should the church act toward a pagan? With love and with a call to repentance. Paul's word here, with such a man do not even eat (v11), may mean a calculated refusal to include him at the Lord's Table (Communion). It may mean as much as not being friendly and accepting at a fellowship (Agape) meal. What it probably does not mean is that the members of the church are to individually shun this man and treat him as if he has a plague. The action called for is by the church within the church, so for example, the incident where the wife would not eat at the same table with her husband at home is a gross exaggeration of the meaning here.

A fourth thing we need to acknowledge here is problems with trying to practice this at all. One problem is equity; we in the church have a problem treating all people and all sin the same. If it's a heavy contributor or the son of a deacon it's too easy to overlook the sin. Or if the sin is greed or slander, we do not seem to notice as we would if it is adultery or drunkenness.

Another problem is the fragmentation of the church. If a church does put someone out, he or she (and probably the whole extended family) just goes over to another congregation who welcomes them with open arms and asks no questions. The whole intent is then lost.

The biggest problem, though, is with the church. Churches that do discipline are seldom as hard on themselves as the ones they catch in sin. Before a church would take such a step, there should be tears and questions asking where we failed that the situation ever developed to the place it did. But to put this all in perspective, all of these former things come into focus when we start looking at how to handle sin in the church with any measure of authority.

Then there is the second question: Why do all of this? The answer is authenticity. It has to do with who a person is and what the church is.

It is right to put a disobedient person out of the church for his own sake. The tone throughout this chapter is redemptive. When the church disciplines someone, it is not giving the person false assurance. The church is saying, "You are not living like a Christian and so we cannot treat you like one." Paul implies that by saying a person in the church guilty of evil things only calls himself a brother (v11). In the next chapter he will affirm that people who do wicked things will [not] inherit the kingdom of God (6:10). The church should not give such people false assurance.

Another reason for discipline is given with the words so that the flesh may be destroyed, and his spirit saved... (v5). Some think this means a person's physical death is judgment for the sin, but that does not agree with anything in Paul, nor the general flow of New Testament theology. For this destruction to happen, the person is handed over to Satan. We saw earlier what that meant. It is to put a person in a situation where he is subject to the full repercussion of his choice. The other way to understand "flesh" here is "sinful nature" (as the NIV has translated it). Out in the world, buffeted by Satan, such a person may re-learn that, indeed, the sinful nature is death (Romans 8). If that lesson is truly learned and there is repentance, then the wayward person will again have assurance of spiritual life. Redemption is always the purpose of discipline.

Earlier in my ministry I was in a church that took discipline seriously. On one occasion a woman began to get involved with a man who had recently left his wife because of her mental illness and institutionalization. The man divorced his wife, and this woman in the church came to ask for marriage. She had been cautioned about the relationship from the beginning, and with the formal request the board said no, and that she should break the relationship. She not only ignored the counsel, she sought another clergyman and married. The church's response was discipline; her membership was revoked and announced to the church. She was invited to attend, but it was made clear that she was "out of fellowship." Within six months the man died in bed with a heart attack, and the woman returned to the church openly confessing her disobedience; she was fully reinstated. Whatever you think of the details, that has been an incident in my experience where discipline worked correctly. There was redemption for the individual.

There is another reason tied to authenticity. Discipline is necessary for the sake of the church. If discipline prevents false assurance for the individual, it helps prevent false witness for the church. The church, remember, is the physical presence of the Lord in the world. The church gives witness to who God is.

One thing the world desperately needs to know is that God is holy. If holiness is not a standard in the church, then we are misrepresenting God. If discipline seems harsh and unloving to us, it only shows how far removed we are from a right understanding about God. Most people in churches today would do well to experience a vision like Isaiah's (ch 6) where he saw God high and lifted up, with all the hosts of heaven covering themselves and only able to say, "holy, holy, holy."

Another thing the church must witness to is a right understanding of the death of Christ. That is Paul's point in verses 6-8. The crucifixion tells us what God thinks of sin. It takes the death of Christ to make us new –– and when God makes us new we cannot help but live differently. That is the distinctiveness of the church.

Christ has died for us not simply to give us passage to heaven, but to re-create us in his own image. And how horrible it is when God's people look more like their surrounding world than they do the Lord himself. The image Paul uses is a loaf of bread. The church is God's new loaf. We need to understand this word "leaven" to know what the point is. Leaven was not just yeast like we use today. Leaven was a chunk of old dough that was in process of fermentation. When mixed with new dough, it caused the whole to rise.

Sin is like leaven. It is the old rotting thing. Sin in the church is like leaven in bread; it spreads to the whole. It is like our more modern saying, "One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel." And when sin permeates the church, the church cannot truly be the church. There is no authenticity. Sin must be removed from the church, or sin will destroy the church. And to go back to something Paul said earlier:

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple (3:16,17).

Finally, do you know what happens when the church exercises its authority so that it practices authenticity? It becomes a visible alternative to the world.

Discipline gives the church internal integrity. It is then the church can be a new community. The world needs to see a new community; it needs to see there is another way. Corinth was marked by three things: sexual immorality, greed and idolatry. It should almost go without saying that we live in "Corinth." But "Corinth" is not part of the church's identity, and it has no place among the new community of God's people. That is easier said than done.

Paul had written the Corinthians a previous letter instructing them in this matter (v9). Their response was to disregard it or deliberately misinterpret it. Paul had told them not to associate with sexually immoral people; they looked at the world they lived in and decided Paul was crazy –– a convenient way to disregard his teaching.

Now Paul makes his intent clear. He does not mean the church should withdraw from the world. That is the opposite of what the church is here for. Too often the church has pulled away from the world, saying it is "too evil." Of course it is evil. There is no reason to expect anything else. But when the church has internal integrity, it becomes just what the world needs –– an external witness.

Internal integrity is what sets the church apart. Christians are different; that is our very reason for existence. The church has a different standard: God's holiness. The church has a different motivation: the death of Jesus Christ. The church has a different identity: God's new human community.

That is why Paul said they were not to associate with immoral people in the church. If the church is to go into the world as a new community, then it cannot be like the very world it is trying to reach. To use the imagery of Jesus' prayer (Jn 17), the church is to “be in the world, but not of [like] it.”

Now, does this mean that only "sinless" people can be part of the church? I need to ask this –– and answer it –– or I will sound the way Paul did to the Corinthians. Of course Paul is not saying only sinless people can be members of the church. Neither am I. As I said at the beginning, some churches have taken it that way, and then split hairs and gagged on gnats while the rest of the world looks on at the camels they swallow.

We never fall back to the idea that our performance is what qualifies us to be in the church. At the same time, we do not want to say that our performance can never disqualify us from the church. That seems to put us in a quandary.

The issue here is people who persist in the very activities from which they have supposedly been forgiven and freed by the death of Christ. It is people who try to have it both ways –– trying to be a part of the church while fully living like the world. People who persist in their old ways –– who live like the world –– do not belong in the new community. This does not mean people who genuinely struggle or people who get caught in temptation and sin, and then repent, do not belong to the church. That is just the kind of people who do belong in the church, for what Christian is there who does not daily come before the Lord in humility and say, "Jesus, I'm such a poor servant; make me more like you."

Neither is this passage a focus on one kind of sin. Sexual sins are nothing special compared to any others. The issue here is not a certain sin. Yes, this man in Corinth was involved in an immoral situation, but that just became the springboard to the larger issue. Even the list in v11 is not inclusive; it is a sample. The kinds of situations in which the church needs to exercise its authority are when people are, among maybe other things, sexually immoral, greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and swindlers. The issue is the authenticity of the people of God. To be an alternative, we must be authentic, and to be authentic we must exercise the authority of our Lord in the lives of people in the church who persist in sin.

One last thing is the principle of judging which Paul gives here. It is not the function of the church to judge the world and its people. God will do that. The world has no reason to do what is "Christian." The “world” is living out of the only reality it has. The only way it will see another way is when the church shows it with integrity.

What the church is to judge is its own. We know the standard. We have the Spirit. Ours is the task.

My observation is that too often we reverse these two things. We look out and judge the world, but do nothing about the inconsistencies in the church! It's easy to judge the world. Like I said, they have no reason for doing anything other than they do. They do not need our judgment; they need our Lord. Then the behavior will change.

It's harder in the church. It is the people who have become our friends. It is the people who know our faults so well, so we find it to be easiest if no one points the finger –– if no one rebukes, if no one is put out. But in the process we lose our authenticity.

Sin in the church? It is likely a given as we live in this evil world. The issue is how the church responds to it. We can do nothing. We can do too much. Either one is easier than being God's redemptive people in the world. But only one response is really available to the church. Are we really being the church?

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