An Outline of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (Part 7)

M.A. Rudge

God’s Holy Sanctuary: The Assembly and its Sanctity (5:1-6:11)

"It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife." (5:1). The opening sentence of the sixth main section of the epistle provides an insight into the low moral conditions in the assembly at Corinth, in addition to the low spiritual conditions which have been so apparent in chapters 1-4. The order in which Paul deals with the twin evils of carnality and immorality is instructive and draws our attention to the fact that it is difficult to envisage an assembly dealing properly with matters which call for discipline, unless it is in a healthy spiritual condition.

The case which called for discipline at Corinth was punishable by death under both Jewish and Roman law (Deut 22:30; 27:20) and was scandalous, even by Gentile standards. The exceptional nature of "such fornication", can be seen in the words used by Cicero (106-34 BC), Roman orator, politician and man of letters, when he says in his defence of Cluentius, "O incredible crime for a woman and such as has never been heard of in this world or in any other than her solitary case."

There are a number of practical lessons to be noted here. Firstly, even though this was such a serious matter, Paul has given priority to the matter of spiritual conditions among them and their divisions, before dealing with it. This is not only an indication of the relevant importance of spiritual matters but also, that right spiritual conditions are essential to proper assembly discipline. Secondly, it is possible for the conscience of a believer to become more insensitive than that of an unregenerate person and lead to behavior which is not acceptable, even by worldly standards. Thirdly, whilst this case and the party divisions which affected the assembly testimony existed among them and had not been dealt with, the next chapter shows that they were ready enough to take action on what were purely personal matters, and in the public law-courts, before the world. There is a parallel to this situation at Corinth in the book of Judges 17:1-13 and 19:29,30; 20:1,2, where no action was taken on a matter which had a direct bearing on the service of God and the glory of the Lord. This resulted in the introduction of an idolatrous priesthood into the tribe of Dan, whereas a case of personal wrong brought action at a national level. Sadly, this type of inconsistency still occurs all too frequently where spiritual conditions are at a low level. We can easily be more concerned with matters which affect us personally than with matters which affect the Lord’s interests.

"And ye are puffed up and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you" (v. 2). Paul was as much concerned with the insensitivity and failure to take action at Corinth, as he was that such an extreme case should have occurred. The immediate and most pressing need was the sanctity of the assembly in its temple of God character as God’s dwelling place and the removal of the offending person "That he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you." Godet makes the point that "the verb ‘taken away’ is passive and indicates a result which would be produced independently of them (the assembly), in consequence of the mourning called for by the apostle." The passive sense of the verb implies that Paul had in mind that mourning could possibly have led to Divine intervention, which is something different to the collective action which the assembly had failed to take. He would have in mind a definite humiliation and seeking the Lord’s intervention, which even if undertaken by a lesser number in the face of widespread indifference, could have led to the person being removed. In this situation, it was possible that the Lord would deal with the matter that the assembly failed to deal with. This leaves undefined, the way that the Lord might have intervened to deal with it, as something distinct from collective assembly action. Some at Corinth had been removed by death (11:30-32) or it may have been in some other way (Cp. Rev 2:20-24). Verse 2 shows that the Lord may intervene in His own way and for His honor if there is a definite mourning and seeking His face about assembly conditions. He can "take away" what men fail to "put away," so that it can remain an assembly of God. This is helpful guidance in those circumstances where it becomes necessary to give consideration to withdrawal from a company that is unrepentant and unprepared to deal with sin that requires an individual to be put away.

Even where the most necessary discipline is not exercised in an assembly, and the most serious sin is tolerated, hasty and headstrong action is to be greatly deplored. God is still on the throne and can by his own intervention preserve His own assembly, even from the failures of those that compose it. These facts need to be borne very much in mind when there is so much failure to deal with sin and godly saints are provoked to the limits of their endurance by a flagrant failure to exercise godly discipline.

And yet, to be honest, and to face all the facts, we must add that if a "wicked person" is neither "put away" or "taken away, "and all representations before God and men produce no results after sufficient time, or space for repentance (Rev. 2:21) as it were, then the godly would have no alternative but to withdraw. For the assembly of God is, and must remain, essentially "a new lump" an " unleavened lump." An holy God cannot dwell with unjudged sin of a fundamental character whether moral, doctrinal or ecclesiastical. We can have no doubt that the one reason that allowed Paul to address his second letter to the Corinthians "to the church of God which is at Corinth" (2 Cor 1:1) was that the assembly heeded the teaching of the first epistle and put away the wicked person, so cleansing the assembly from such gross sin (J.G. Toll).

Paul was absent from Corinth (v. 3), but because of the nature of the case, no further investigation was required apart from confirmation of the details and he could give guidance on the course of action to be taken, even though he was not present (Cp. Josh. 7:10). Some cases are not so clear cut and require special care and prayerful consideration before action is taken, e.g. a charge of railing, which is not an isolated incident of speaking inappropriately, which calls for apology, but abusive language which is persisted in, even where a person has been warned. There are only a specific number of matters which call for the extreme measure of excommunication and many other matters call for wisdom and guidance from God, to decide on the measures to be taken and the level of discipline. See Rom. 16:17-20; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 5:17-22; Titus 1:10,11; 3:10,11; James 5:14-16.

It is important to notice the way in which the apostle limits the action to be taken and its result, to the assembly at Corinth. He writes, "when ye are gathered together..." (v. 4); "Purge out ...that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened." (7); "do not ye judge them that are within? ...Therefore put away from among yourselves... " (vv. 12, 13). The action to be taken is not at the direction of a central body, or any other outside body. It is the action of the assembly itself in direct responsibility to the Lord Himself. (Cp Matt. 18:15-20; Rev. 2 & 3). "A new lump" is clearly descriptive of the assembly at Corinth. It does not envisage or include other assemblies who have been called upon to agree with the action taken. This does not overlook the need for other assemblies to recognize Scriptural discipline, when this is called for, which would not normally be necessary unless the person under discipline sought fellowship elsewhere. In which case, responsible brethren would need to come to an impartial decision after having investigated the matter fully from all sides. A case of wrong teaching or questionable practices involving another assembly, might also make it necessary for representatives of assemblies to meet together to consider the matter, e.g. Acts 15:22-24, "Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you ..."

The details of this chapter remind us that there are important guidelines for specific matters of assembly discipline - (i) Assembly discipline has the Lord’s honor and the sanctity of the assembly in view (Psa. 93:5; Hos.. 11:9; 1 Cor 3:16,17). This is the most important aspect. The presence of God amongst His people calls for sanctity in keeping with His own personal holiness (Num. 5:1-4; Deut. 23:14). (ii) It is necessary in order to preserve the character of the assembly (1 Cor 5:7; 2 Cor 7:12) and its inviolability (Deut. 23: 14; Psa. 46:4,5) and is a condition which must be fulfilled if further progress is to be made (Acts 5:12; Num. 12:15; Deut. 13:4,5). (iii) Appropriate steps must be taken by responsible brethren and a decision arrived at, which must have the seal of the Lord’s approval in order to be binding upon the individual and each believer in the assembly (Matt. 18:12-20); note "unto thee" [singular] (v. 17). (iv) The assembly is gathered with the Lord’s personal presence and authority (v. 4). His "power", together with the collective action of the assembly, is necessary, in order to make it effective. "Human action does not become efficacious except in union with Divine power." (v) The assembly is not gathered to decide on the action to be taken but to hear the details of the case and in order to bring about the collective action which it is responsible to uphold. This makes the announcement of the details most important. The person should be named and the nature of the discipline to be taken (vv. 3,5,11) "not to keep company...with such an one no not to eat.", 13. (vi) Discipline has the spiritual welfare of the individual in view and their recovery and restoration (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 2:2-11), and (vii) it is necessary for its salutary effect upon others and so that the whole assembly is deeply exercised by it (1 Cor. 5:2,7,8; 2 Cor. 7:8-12; Acts 5:11; 1 Tim. 5:20).