Dealing with wicked behavior is grievous, be it our own or another’s sin. The way the apostle Paul handled the case of the Corinthian brother who had taken his father’s wife provides an instructive example of how to deal with a deadly sin when it occurs in the midst of an ecclesia (I Cor. 5:1,5).
Worldly behavior is close to all
Many members of the gentile ecclesias had left a worldly existence to follow their Master, Jesus (I Cor. 6:11; I Pet. 4:3). Corinth, in particular, was an evil city not unlike the cities of today where fornication and idolatry are widely practiced. While higher standards of moral behavior were expected of a brother in Christ, they were difficult to keep in such an evil environment. Old habits had been previously accepted as the norm and were not easy to give up (I Pet. 4:4). We can appreciate the difficulty of their struggle, for we have to some extent been placed in similar circumstances. The media, with its constant of mankind’s evil behavior, feeds our minds with many subtle temptations that appeal to the flesh. We don’t have to stretch our imaginations much to see that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians are applicable to the ecclesias of today.
Fornication in Corinth was widespread and seems to have been a great temptation to those who had left most of their old ways behind. Paul’s simple instruction to“flee fornication” was a vivid reminder of the method Joseph had used to escape the seductive intent of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:12; I Cor. 6:17). When the attraction of sin is strong, fleeing is an effective way to escape. God has promised He “will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (I Cor. 10:13). Our part is to accept the way of escape immediately, otherwise the temptation may become too great for us to bear. The wife of Potiphar’s policy was constantly to wear down Joseph’s resistance. The day Joseph found himself alone with her in his master’s house was as much an opportunity to sin as to escape. Had not Joseph used the God-given option and opportunity to flee, he might have soon succumbed to fornication with her (Gen. 39:11).
Fornication a common problem
Some time before the letters to the Corinthians were written, Paul had participated in the Jerusalem conference where matters regarding Gentile believers were thoroughly discussed. Among the resolutions passed by the church was that believers were to abstain from fornication. After the conference, a letter had been sent informing the ecclesias of the resolution of this matter (Acts 15:22-31). The extent of the deliberations that took place in Jerusalem suggest that fornication was a big problem in all the ecclesias. If one is to believe the frequent rumors, it is a growing problem in the ecclesias of today.
Since the problem seems to have persisted, warnings about the evils of fornication are never far from his pen. Paul’s letters to Corinth mention the word fornication (porneia) 12 times; the only New Testament book with more references to porneia is Revelation (14x). Since the scriptures teach that fornicators will be excluded from the kingdom of God, both Paul and Jesus admonish their disciples not to practice this deadly transgression (I Cor. 6:9).
Old Testament writings tell us many lost their lives by being participants in fornication or adultery. In the wilderness 23,000 died because of it in one day (I Cor. 10:8). Even David, a man after God’s own heart, was guilty of this sin. He was forgiven because of his sincere repentance and love of God.
Strong action required
In Corinth there was one brother whose lifestyle was particularly objectionable. Not only was he blatantly practicing fornication, his was “such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles” (I Cor. 5:1). His sinful ways had become common knowledge in the brotherhood. Yet even though he was fornicating with his father’s wife, the Corinthians seemed unconcerned with his behavior (I Cor. 5:2). While they should have been mourning, they were puffed up (NIV proud). Were they proud of the tolerance they were showing this sinner? Were this brother’s evil actions influencing the whole ecclesia at Corinth? Why else would the other brethren have been so unwilling to reprove him? Paul’s advice was given not only to save the brother enmeshed in sin but the entire ecclesia.
Out of love, Paul’s recommendation was that they “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (I Cor. 5:5). Did Paul draw his advice from the Old Testament scripture that said, “rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him” (Lev. 19:17)? Or had he remembered the righteous act of Phinehas who, when an Israelite brought a Midianite woman into his tent, took a javelin and thrust them both through (Num. 25). In so doing Phinehas stopped the plague and made atonement for the children of Israel. Severe as it was, this courageous act was counted unto him for righteousness (Psa. 106:30,31).
Salvation the objective
Like Phinehas, Paul was also concerned with the whole ecclesia at Corinth. His instruction had been very straightforward: “not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (I Cor. 5:11). Severe advice indeed, but Paul was deeply concerned with the brother’s recovery and hoped that, in spite of the necessity of his expulsion, he would be saved at the Lord’s return. He believed that time spent apart from the Corinthian brethren would destroy his fleshly tendencies and eventually, if he repented, he could be recovered. How similar is Paul’s advice to that of Jesus: “If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Mt. 18:17).
II Corinthians contains two sections that may be an update of the brother’s fate (II Cor. 2:1-11; 7:8-12). Yet even if it is not to the same individual, mentioned in I Corinthians chapter 5, Paul is clearly giving instructions on how a repentant sinner should be treated by members of the ecclesia.
In II Corinthians, we discover that “delivering such an one to Satan” had in fact yielded a positive result (II Cor. 2:1-11; 7:8-10). The brother had repented and now needed to be forgiven and comforted “lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (II Cor. 2:7).
Notice how emphatically Paul urges the brethren to forgive this brother (II Cor. 2:7,10). Not only does he use the words “forgive” and “forgave,” but he also uses other words indicating forgiveness, such as love and comfort (II Cor. 2:7,8). The temporary dismissal had yielded a good result. Now the sinner was sorry and he must be forgiven and accepted back into fellowship. Previously Paul urged the disfellowship of this person, but now he strongly urges the ecclesia quickly to follow through on the joyful step of welcoming the brother’s recovery.
Throughout his letter, Paul used anonymous terms such as “any,” “such a man” or “such a one” thereby avoiding naming the sinner (II Cor. 2:6,7,8). By not mentioning names those reading this letter could only surmise the brother’s identity.
Paul does all in a spirit of meekness, for we ourselves are made up of the same nature, and another’s temptation could so easily become ours. We are left then with the admonition of Jesus: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41).