'Don't be so judgmental.' That's a criticism often levelled at Christians – and it's sometimes justified. For example, when Christians pronounce judgment on people when only God – the Judge – knows all the facts, including motives; or when Christians take issue with every single bit of non-Christian behaviour around them, rather than having the wisdom to challenge some of it in an appropriate way, while just living alongside people, as they are. But often, when people say, 'Don't be so judgmental,' what they actually mean is, 'Please don't make any moral judgments at all. And if you have a moral standard, keep it to yourself.' But then the irony is that they're being judgmental, because they're saying, 'My moral standard is that nothing is absolutely right or wrong. So if you say something is, you're wrong.' The fact is: you can't get away from making judgments. Everyone out there has a moral standard and is making judgments by it. The question is: are they right judgments?
And that's what the start of 1 Corinthians is all about; making right judgments. We've just finished chapters 1 to 4 – which are on making right judgments about Christian ministry – because, as we've seen, the Corinthians were making the mistake of judging Christian ministry by non-Christian standards. But chapters 5 and 6 then deal with another of their mistakes, which was: failing to judge Christian behaviour by God's standards. And the problem in chapter 5 is that this church was tolerating sexual sin right in its midst.
Now I'm aware that some people's perception is that we talk too much about sexual sin in our teaching here. I haven't researched what percentage of sermons have mentioned it. It is sometimes mentioned in application when the Bible passage hasn't explicitly raised it. And you can certainly do that too much, and I'm sure we've got that partially wrong. But today, it is explicitly in the passage, so I have to talk about it. But it's important to say that it's not the sexual sin that Paul majors on, but the church's failure to respond to it as God would want. And it's also important to say that it could easily have been a totally different sinful situation that made Paul write chapter 5 – like the church tolerating teaching which denied the gospel, or drunkenness or rampant greed and materialism among its members. And as you find out later in this letter, all that and more was going on in this church.
So although the 'presenting issue' is sexual sin, that's not what chapter 5 is about. Because it's about the holiness of the church. It's about our corporate responsibility to help one another live holy lives – even though we remain sinners and are not going to be sinless this side of heaven. So would you turn in the Bible to 1 Corinthians 5, and here's my first main point from this part of God's Word:
1. A Church Shouldn't Tolerate Sin, But Should Encourage Turning from Sin
So look down at chapter 5, verse 1:
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans [in other words, unbelievers, non-Christian people], for a man has his father's wife."
And 'has' was a euphemism for 'has her sexually.' So this was an ongoing sexual relationship – maybe cohabiting – between a man who professed to be a Christian, and his stepmother (which is why it says 'his father's wife', not his actual mother). So this was incest. And Paul says, 'not even non-Christian people would tolerate that.' Because even people without the Bible have a natural, God-given sense of what is and isn't right sexually. They might suppress it and go against it, but they have it. And if you have a Bible, you have even more reason to believe incest is wrong. Because in God's Old Testament law, he spells out what are called 'the forbidden degrees of marriage' – in other words the close family members whom you must not marry. And God laid down his judgment on that to protect members of the family and close extended family from inappropriate sexual advances. So verses 1-2:
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant!"
Now Paul has already challenged them for being arrogant and full of themselves and thinking they were really 'spiritual'. So he might have meant, 'And you're arrogant – despite this sin in your midst.' But he might actually have meant, 'And you're arrogant – because of this sin in your midst.' Which may sound strange, but just look over to chapter 6 and verse 12:
""All things are lawful for me"…"
Now that's in quotation marks because Paul was quoting the Corinthians back at themselves, to correct them. So, verse 12:
"[You say:] "All things are lawful [in other words, permissible] for me", but [I'm saying:] not all things are helpful. [You say:] "All things are lawful for me", but [I'm saying:] I will not be enslaved by anything [in this case, by sexual desire]."
So they were saying, 'I can do anything sexually and it won't affect me spiritually, because what I do with my body and my relationship with Jesus are two separate compartments.' Now that's wrong theology – as chapter 6 explains. But you can see how it could lead them not just to tolerate sexual sin, but to celebrate it. And, underpinned by a different wrong theology, the celebration of sexual sin is what's going on in the Church of England today – with people saying, 'Isn't it great that Jesus loves and affirms us as we are, in all our sexual diversity, and that he wants us to express our love in line with that diversity?' So verse 2 again:
"And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?"
Like the Lord Jesus said (Matthew 5.4):
"Blessed are those who mourn…"
In other words, blessed are those who see their sin in the light of God's standards, and mourn over it. Is that you and me? And the Lord Jesus also said (Matthew 5.6):
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…"
In other words, blessed are those who don't just want to be forgiven their sin, but want to be rid of it, and to live up to God's righteous standards. Again, is that you and me?
That's why a church shouldn't tolerate sin, but should encourage turning from sin - because in between forgiving and accepting us in the first place, and taking us to be with him in heaven when we'll finally be sinless, God's plan is to make us more holy, more like he wants us to be. And so a church should be a bunch of fellow-sinners who are helping one another to be more holy. And most of that isn't done when things have gone badly off the rails, like here in chapter 5, when serious discipline is needed. Most of that's done in our normal life as a church, as we meet around God's Word on Sundays and in small groups, as we encourage one another to live for the Lord, and as we pick one another up on matters of godliness, where we've got the appropriate relationship to do so. In that sense, we're disciplining one another all the time – or should be.
So that's the first main point: a church shouldn't tolerate sin, but should encourage turning from sin. Here's the second one:
2. There Are Times When a Church Has to Take Disciplinary Action
And on the one hand, that's for the good of the individual – in this case, the man in this wrong relationship. So look down to verses 2-5:
"And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord."
Now at first sight that looks both very harsh and very weird. So let me explain some of the detail. In verse 2 Paul says:
"Let him who has done this be removed from among you."
In other words, removed from recognised church membership, and from taking part in church life as before. And since that sounds harsh, let me say two things.
One thing to say is that this man's behaviour was known publicly by the whole church – which is why it needed to be dealt with publicly. Otherwise, Christians were going to be confused and left wondering, 'Is what he's doing actually OK?' By contrast, those of us in leadership here find ourselves looking after people who've fallen into serious sin (and none of us is above doing that) which isn't publicly known. So they need challenging and helping privately – but it's not appropriate for that to become public, which is why you're probably not aware of much of the 'church discipline' that goes on in our church.
The other thing to say is that Paul wouldn't have seen this as the very first step in responding to this man's sin. The Lord Jesus said that fellow Christians should first be challenged privately about ungodly behaviour. And I guess that would have happened here, before this situation was publicly known about – but that this man hadn't listened. So this wouldn't have been a first response – as if Paul was like some pastoral bull in a china shop. It was a final response to long-term, unrepentant, sinful behaviour. Well, skip on to verse 5, where Paul says that when the church has met together,
"you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord."
What on earth does that mean? Well, elsewhere, Paul taught exactly what the Lord Jesus taught – which is that there are only two possible kingdoms (or realms) to belong to: the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Satan. To put it another way, you either belong to: God's repentant people (not sinless, but turning from sin), or you belong to Satan's rebellious people (in other words, to the world, which continues to fall for his temptation to live as if God wasn't God). So where Paul says "you are to deliver this man to Satan", it's just a graphic way of saying, 'You're to remove him from taking part in church life as before.' In other words, 'You're to say to him, 'You're choosing to live as if you still belonged to Satan's rebellious people – so we're going to treat you as you're choosing, and put you back out of church membership, for now.'' But why? What's the point of that? Well, read on in verse 5 – it's…
"for the destruction of the flesh"
That's the Bible's word for our ongoing sinfulness. So Paul is saying: this disciplinary action is in the hope that his ongoing sinfulness – in his case, the wrong relationship he's in – will be 'destroyed', that is, stopped. So the disciplinary action is 'for the destruction of the flesh'…
"so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord."
In other words, so that he comes back (if he really is a Christian) or comes for the first time (if he isn't yet a real believer) onto the side of those who've been forgiven, and who are living as God's repentant people, and who'll be saved from judgment in the end through Jesus' death on the cross for them. In other words, it's disciplinary action for his good. It's designed to bring him to his senses, and draw him to – or back to – the Lord. But then Paul says: it's also for the good of the whole church, as well. Look on to verse 6:
"Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?"
So now Paul takes us into the world of Bake Off. If you're making bread, you mix your dough, including some yeast to make it rise. And for next time you bake, you can save a bit of that dough uncooked – that's your leaven. And you then add your leaven into the next lump of dough you mix, and it'll work through the whole thing and make it rise. And Paul is saying to the Corinthian church, 'Look, you're like the lump of dough. And this man whose sin you're tolerating is like the leaven – because the influence of his attitude to sin will work through the whole church.'
It's really important to get what Paul's saying here, because challenging sin is always harder than just letting things be, and it always seems so unloving. But in fact it's not loving to the individual concerned just to let things be – and, more importantly, it's not loving to the church. Because the message it sends to those who are faithfully trying to say 'No' to sin is that they've actually got their definition of sin wrong, and that God would be equally happy if they said 'Yes' instead.
So, for example, I have good Christian friends (some of them in ordained ministry) who are same-sex attracted, but who understand the clear teaching of the Bible that it's not God's will for them to act on that attraction. Now that's not easy to live out. But they tell me that the current tolerance and even encouragement of same-sex relationships within our denomination makes their Christian lives much, much harder. Because they're basically being told, 'You've got your definition of sin wrong, and God would be equally happy if you said 'Yes' to that desire instead', which is why Paul says what he says next. Verse 7:
"Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened."
In other words, 'Cleanse the church of this man's influence, so that you may be the new people God has made you, in Jesus – not sinless, but turning from sin.' And then he underpins that with gospel reasoning. Read on (v.7-8):
"For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 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."
That may not be entirely clear at first, but he's simply talking about what Jesus has done for us, using the picture of the Passover (see Exodus 12). He's saying, 'Remember how God's people were serving the Egyptians? And how he rescued them by bringing judgment on Egypt – but saving them through the Passover lamb sacrifice? And how he told them, once they'd left behind their old life in Egypt, to celebrate a festival of unleavened bread to signify their new start in relationship with him ('no old leaven – this is something new')?' 'Well,' he's saying, 'that was all a picture of what Jesus would one day do for us – rescuing us on the cross from the judgment our sin deserves, so that we could leave behind our old life of serving sin, and have a new start in relationship with God.'
And then, sticking with the Bake Off picture, he's saying, 'You don't want the 'old leaven' in the church – in other words, the influence of those who say they're Christian, but are still basically serving sin. Instead, you want the 'unleavened church' – which isn't where people are sinless, but where they're 'sincere' (v.8) – where they accept God's definition of sin and try to turn from it, even though they fail continually and need forgiving continually. That's the kind of community God means the church to be, which is why there are times when it has to take disciplinary action. Now Paul had already written to the Corinthians to say this kind of thing. You can see that in verse 9:
"I wrote to you in my letter [which must be one he sent before 1 Corinthians] not to associate with sexually immoral people"
So he'd already written about this kind of situation, and he'd said there comes a point where you need to take the disciplinary action of not associating with the person concerned – which means: not allowing them to take part in church life as before. But some of the Corinthians were misquoting Paul and saying, 'He's passing judgment on everyone living in sexual immorality, and telling us to have no contact with them – which basically means we'd have to leave Corinth – or even the planet!' That brings us to the last point, which is that:
3. A Church's Business is to Live by God's Standards – Not to Judge the World for Failing to Do So
So look on to verses 10-13, where Paul says, 'No, you're misquoting me. I was...'
"not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world [in other words, the non-Christian world], or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother [in other words, calls himself a Christian] if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler [which means guilty of long-term, unrepentant, sinful behaviour – like this man in chapter 5; it's not talking about Christians trying to turn from sin, but periodically failing to (which is the normal Christian life)] – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? [In other words, non-Christian people] Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? [Not in the sense that we should play God and pass judgment on where others in church really stand with God; but in the sense that we should hold one another to living by God's judgments of what's right and wrong and best.] God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you." [In other words, your business is to challenge this man inside your church, your business is holiness, together.]"
There's too much to unpack there at the end of a sermon. But the point is: a church's business is to live by God's standards, not to judge the world for failing to do so - because Christian believers profess to live by God's standards. And so we should hold one another to living by those standards, and pick one another up on it, gently and appropriately, when we don't. By contrast, non-Christian people don't profess to live by God's standards, so we shouldn't pick them up for failing to live by standards they don't profess.
So, for example, if a professing Christian couple came to me and told me they were co-habiting, my response would be different to my response to our non-Christian neighbours who are co-habiting. Because the Christians are professing to live by a different standard. And by belonging to a church they're giving their fellow Christians permission to hold them to those standards.
Now don't get me wrong. This isn't saying, 'Don't make any moral judgments out there in the world.' So, for example, if my neighbours said, 'Ian, do you believe it would be better for us to be married?' I'd say, 'Yes' – and explain why. And, for example, in a democracy where everyone has the right to influence politics, we should try to bring public standards and laws more in line with God's revealed truth, because the Bible doesn't just give us Christian morality that's good for Christians. It gives us human morality that's good for all. So marriage is better for you than co-habiting – whether you're a Christian or not. And the baby in your womb does have a God-given sanctity of life – whether you're Christian or not.
So this isn't saying, 'Don't make any moral judgments out there.' It's saying, 'Don't spend your time picking non-Christian people up for failing to live by standards they don't profess. By all means, hold them to the standards they do profess. But don't expect them to live by God's.'
But most importantly it's saying to those of us who are Christians, 'And make sure you get on with the business of living out what you profess – the business of holiness, together.' Because, as Ghandi once said to his Christian friends, 'I might be able to believe in your Redeemer if you looked a little more redeemed.'