Dealing with Sin in the Church

I heard a humorous story recently about Willie Nelson, the country singer.  As the story goes, during the 1970’s, Willie bought a golf course just outside of Austin, Texas.  He said the great thing about owning a golf course was that he could decide what was par for each hole.  He pointed at one hole and he said, “See that hole there?  That’s a par 47.  Yesterday I birdied it.”

After hearing that story, I’ve decided that the only way I can ever hope to break par on a golf course is to buy one.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, whenever we played golf, we could decide what par is for each hole?  But we can’t do that.  When I go to a golf course, it’s not up to me to determine what’s par.  The owner decides what par is and when I don’t measure up, I end up with a bad score.

In a similar way, there are some folks who think it would be nice for us to be able to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.  Who’s to say that it’s wrong for me to have an affair and be unfaithful to my wife?  I want to decide what’s right and what’s wrong!  But it’s not up to us.  God is the one who decides what’s right and what’s wrong, and when we don’t measure up, it’s called sin.

            I don’t have to give you a lot of examples to make the obvious point that we live in a very immoral society.  We live in a world that doesn’t measure up to God’s standards and sin is all around us.  Whether you’re talking about abortion, homosexuality, racial injustice, or sexual immorality, the evidence clearly points to a society that has moved far away from God’s standards.

            In particular, sexual sin has increased greatly over the past 40 or 50 years.  Everywhere we turn, sex is being encouraged with no restrictions at all.  From the movies we watch to the music we listen to to billboards and other advertisements, sex is glorified in our culture. 

            And so, we’re sometimes prone to say, “Never before in the history of mankind have people ever been so corrupt!”  But that’s not really the case.  There have been many societies in history every bit as immoral as our own, and some that were worse.  In the scriptures, we read about the days before the flood and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the days of the judges when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

            And, in fact, the world into which Jesus was born was probably more wicked than our society today.  The Roman world was perverse.  Homosexuality was considered the rule rather than the exception.  Prostitution was not only legal and widespread; it was often seen as a way to worship gods.  Abortion was often practiced and sometimes the child was killed after it was born, especially if it had some handicap or had the misfortune of being a girl.

            In the Roman Empire, the first-century church existed as a tiny island of moral purity in a sea of immorality.  And so, as we continue to look at the problems that existed in the church at Corinth, we’re not surprised that sexual immorality was one of those problems.  The people who became Christians at Corinth were converted out of the pagan world.  They had pagan backgrounds.  And it was difficult for people like that to put their old ways behind them.  And so, Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthians contains frequent warnings against sexual immorality.

            In I Corinthians 5, Paul had something to say about some sin that was in the church.  But this chapter is not directed at the Christian who was committing that sin but at the rest of the church who stood by doing nothing about it.

            It bothers me when I see the very thing that God put into this world to be a place of hope and healing instead becomes a place of hurt and pain.  I hear these stories far too often.  And there are probably many of you who could tell your own story – ways you’ve been deeply hurt in a church.  Different stories, different circumstances, different events, but one thing every single story would have in common: you were wounded because sin went unaddressed.

            And when sin goes unaddressed, people get hurt.  Every time we as leaders are forced to deal with a sin issue, there’s always somebody who says, “Why can’t we just let it go?  Why can’t we just ignore it?” And the answer is, “Because when sin goes unaddressed, people get hurt.”  Sin by its very nature is always destructive, and it’s always infectious. It has to be dealt with.

            But the church at Corinth didn’t want to deal with the sin that was in their midst and so, Paul let them know what needed to be done.  As usual, I’ll read the entire passage and then we’ll go back and take a look at it piece by piece.

            “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! 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 judgment 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.

            “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.  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.

            “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this 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 if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. 

            “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” (I Corinthians 5:1-13)

            I realize that, as soon as we start talking about church discipline, some folks will go into panic mode, where, “Oh no, if I make a mistake, if I blow it, if somebody finds out, they’re going to kick me out.”  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  Church discipline is not a bunch of “pious policemen” out to catch a criminal.  Rather, it is a group of brokenhearted brothers and sisters who dearly love one another and care about one another.

            The church is a place where those who struggle and fail are surrounded by people who will love you and extend grace to you, and walk with you and help you.  All of us struggle, all of us sin, all of us fail.  That’s not what this is about.

            This is about a situation where a Christian is living in an obviously immoral way and has no intention of repenting – and, in fact, he is flaunting his sin in the face of the church and in the face of God, and it is a sin of such nature that even people outside the church are offended by it.  So, keep that in mind as we go through this discussion – we’re not talking so much about the sin itself as we are the attitude of this sinner.

            Paul begins by explaining…..

I.          The Need for Discipline

            In verse 1, ” It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you.” (I Corinthians 5:1).

Paul says, “People have been talking about what’s going on in that church.”  You’ve got to wonder just how far the news of this sin had spread throughout the community.  Since the beginning of the church, people in the world have tried to find fault with the church and with Christians.  People are watching us, and they’re ready to pounce on anything they can find.

            And here, in the church in Corinth, there was plenty to pounce on.  Paul said there was something going on in that church that everyone was talking about.  It was sexual immorality.  The Greek word here is a word that can refer any sort of sexual sin.  But Paul says that this sexual sin is “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.” (I Corinthians 5:1).

            Even the people in the world who have low moral standards don’t practice this kind of behavior!  Now, that’s a pretty strong statement for a church that was living in a society as immoral as Corinth was.

            Remember from our very first lesson, Corinth was regarded as perhaps the most immoral city in the entire Roman Empire.  It was filled with Greek temples, and most of those temples included temple prostitutes.  Sexual immorality was a way of life for these people.  So, when you start talking about a sin that was offensive to the non-Christians in Corinth, you’re talking about something terrible.

            And Paul tells us what that sin was.  “A man [a member of your congregation] has his father’s wife.”  In other words, one of the Christians in Corinth was having a sexual relationship with his stepmother.  This was something that was forbidden to the Jews in the Law of Moses (Lev. 18:8).  Cicero, a Roman historian, tells us that it was something that even the Romans regarded as an absolute no-no.

            But here was a Christian committing that sin.  Can you imagine the impact this must had on the church as they tried to share the gospel with their neighbors?  “Oh, you’re part of that church of Christ?  Isn’t that where John Doe is a member, that guy who’s sleeping around with his stepmother?”  It must have made it very difficult for that church to evangelize.

            But even more shocking to Paul than the sin itself was the church’s attitude toward it all.  While pagans would have been shocked and outraged, the Christians at Corinth were tolerating what was going on!   In fact, Paul says, “You’re arrogant.”  The New Living Translation says, “You are so proud of yourselves.”

Now it’s hard to imagine how they could be proud of something like that.  Maybe they looked on their toleration of sin as an expression of grace and Christian love.  “You know, if we confront this brother about his behavior, that means that we’re being judgmental.  So, we don’t want to say anything about it because we think it’s important for us to just love one another, no matter what.  Isn’t it great to be a part of such a loving group?”

            Even today, we sometimes see sin in the church, and we’re hesitant to do anything about it. Because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the sinner or his family.  Or we’re afraid if we deal with someone’s sin, they might leave the church.  And so instead of dealing with sin, we look the other way.  We hide behind the idea that we aren’t supposed to be judges.  We don’t want to cause a commotion in the church.  We want to extend grace.  And we just ignore it.

            Paul said these Christians had no right to be proud of how they were handling this situation.  Instead, they should have mourned.  It should have made them sad that one of their brothers was in danger of losing his soul.  It should have made them sad that the church was losing its influence in the community.  A church that doesn’t mourn sin, especially sin within its own fellowship, is in serious trouble.  God takes the purity of his church seriously, and he commands us to take it seri­ously as well.

            So, now that Paul has laid out the need for this church to some action, he then tells them how to carry this out, he gives them…

II.        The Method of Discipline

            “ Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:2).  Paul says that this brother who was committing this sin should be disfellowshipped.

            As I said earlier, there is a hesitancy for most churches to practice discipline.  We tend to say, “Who am I to judge?  After all, none of us is perfect.”  And it’s true that we all sin from time to time, and that we all wrestle and struggle with sin.  But we’re not talking here about a Christian giving in to a momentary weakness.

Rather we have a man who was living in sin, and who absolutely refused to repent.  This was an open and repeated sin so obvious that Paul says the man knew it was wrong even before he became a Christian.  But there’s no sign of remorse, no recognition that he had done anything wrong, no attempt to try to change his behavior.  And so, Paul instructs this church to disfellowship him.

            I have heard that before Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere, the Eskimos lived in tightly knit clans.  They had no prisons and no death penalty.  If one of the Eskimos was found guilty of murder or some other horrible crime, they were simply excluded from the fellowship of the tribe.  They were told that from that day on, their names would never be mentioned again.  They would not be received into other igloos nor their existence acknowledged in any way.  And the Eskimos feared this punishment so much that serious crime among them was rare.

            Sociologists tell us that one of the basic needs of a human being is to belong to a social unit in which he is made to feel valued, appreciated and protected.  Wherever those feelings exist, the thought of losing that fellowship is a matter of great concern. 

            But disfellowship is only an effective action if there is fellowship to begin with.  You see, the early church was more than just a gathering for worship.  The church was their family, it was their support system for every area of life.  So, the thought of that fellowship being withdrawn was a powerful motivator.

            And it was always done with the hope that it would cause this brother or sister to reconsider their actions and make things right with God.  And sometimes it does happen that way.  There are Christians who are disfellowshipped who come back and say, “I was wrong. I want to be a part of this family again.  I want to be right with God.  I want to be right with you.”  That’s the goal.

            But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes people harden their heart, and they say, “Well, I’ll just find another church that will let me do whatever I want to do.”  And, unfortunately, there are plenty of churches that will accommodate them.  “Come on in. We won’t hold you accountable. We don’t care what you do. We don’t care what’s your belief system is.  Do whatever you want to do.”

            But back in those days, there was only one church at Corinth.  There weren’t 15 different congregations.  So, Paul says to “deliv­er such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”  Satan is the ruler of this world and turning a believer over to Satan involves putting that Christian back into the world on his own, apart from the care and the support of Christian fellowship.  But it’s important to see that the purpose of their actions was “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” 

            Paul wants us to know…

III.       The Purpose of Discipline

            It’s important for us to see that the purpose of church discipline was never to hurt someone, but to save that person’s soul, to shock the Christian, as it were, into seeing the seriousness of what he’s doing and cause him to come back. 

And apparently, that’s exactly what happened in Corinth.  In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul talks about a brother who had repented and we assume that it was this same brother.  Paul tells the church that he should be forgiven and welcomed back in love.  Any time an unfaithful brother or sister repents, he or she is to be forgiven and welcomed back in love. 

            But what Paul was asking the church to do here in I Corinthians was going to be painful — both for the man who was the sinner and for the congregation as a whole.  Church discipline is never a pleasant thing.  But it’s always done with the hope of saving a soul.

            But there was another reason Paul gives for the church taking action.  In verse 6, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?  Cleanse out the old leaven….” (I Corinthians 5:6-7)

            Paul makes it clear that there was a real danger to the entire church if they didn’t disfellowship this brother.  By keeping such an immoral person within their ranks, they would be holding onto a negative influence which would eventually spread and infect others.

            For the church to close its eyes to sin and look the other way is not the right or helpful thing to do — either for the individual offender or for the church as a whole. 

            Paul says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”  Using more modern terminology, he was saying, “Don’t you know that one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel?”  In scripture, leaven represents influence, usually the influence of evil.  If given opportunity, sin will work its way throughout the entire church in much the same way as leaven or yeast works its way through a pile of dough.

            Sin simply cannot be allowed to have an influence on the body of Christ.  Lastly, Paul talks about….

IV.       The Sphere of Discipline

            Paul seems to anticipate an objection to his instructions.  Someone might argue that if we’re not going to have anything to do with anybody who’s sinning, we’re going to live a very lonely life.  So, Paul says,

            “I wrote you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.  Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 

            “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person.” (I Cor. 5:9-11).

            There is a sense in which sin outside the church is not nearly as dangerous as sin that is inside the church.  The truth is, we don’t have any control over people who are not Christians.  And we shouldn’t expect that people who aren’t Christians are going to behave in a godly manner. 

            But God’s standards must be respected and enforced within the church.  And so, when a member of the body of Christ is consciously and deliberately following a course of sin, we need to care enough about him to rebuke him and bring him to repentance.  If he persists in sin and refuses to turn away from his life of sin, then there’s only one recourse left – remove fellowship.  

            For three reasons:

  •  To protect the influence of the church in the community.
  • To keep sinful behavior in the church from spreading to others
  • To encourage the sinner to repent so that he can be saved and once again enjoy the benefits of fellowship.

            I think it’s significant that while many people in the church at Corinth were committing sins of various sorts, this is the only case where Paul specifically called for an action of disfellowship.  I think the reason for that is clear:  this brother was determined and arrogant in his defiance of what was right.  Such conduct could not be tolerated among the people of God then, and it cannot  be tolerated now.

            It’s not that everyone in the church has to be perfect.  Every one of us sins and has imperfections and shortcom­ings.  The church has been properly described as a hospital for those who know that they are sick.  We are a group of people who strive to follow Christ with all our hearts, sometimes more perfectly than others.  But it’s not the ones who recognize their sin and hunger for righteousness who are to be put out of fellowship, but those who persistently and unrepentantly continue in a pattern of sin about which they have been counseled and warned.

            Yesterday, I was joking with some folks helping with the food pantry and I said, “Tomorrow, I’m going to be preaching on church discipline, so we need to figure out who we’re going to kick out of the church.”

            And I suppose that could be one application of this lesson, but I prefer to leave you with a different application.  So, I want to close my lesson by saying once again that disfellowship is only effective and meaningful if there is true fellowship to begin with.

            I heard somebody give this scenario.  Imagine that Jimmy is disfellowshipped from your congregation.

            You say, “Jimmy, I can no longer eat a meal with you.”  Jimmy says, “So what.  We’ve never eaten together before anyway.”

            You say, “Well, you are no longer welcome in my house.”  To which Jimmy says, “I don’t even know where you live.  You’ve never invited me over.”

            You say, “Well, your kids can’t play with my children anymore after church.”  To which Jimmy replies, “I didn’t know you even had kids.  You always leave as soon as the services are over.”

            The reason that church discipline doesn’t work most of the time is not because God gave us a bad plan.  It’s because we aren’t acting like the church of the first century.  We don’t spend time together.  We don’t get to know the person who sits across the aisle from us every week.  We see each other at services, share an obligatory hello, pretend that we have no problems in life, and then go our separate ways to not see or speak again until the next week.

            And, in a church like, someone who is disfellowshipped may not even notice a change in the relationship he has with everyone in the church.  In order for church discipline to be effective, that person needs to feel like he’s been removed from being part of the family.  He needs to feel a void in his life where the church used to be.  He needs to notice an emptiness where his church family used to be.  It should tear at his heart.  It should bring him to tears knowing he can no longer spend time with his family.

            And don’t use the excuse that it doesn’t work simply because he’ll just go to the next congregation down the road.  If his congregation is really a church family, then he wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.  He would want to be right back where he was.   And he would put sin out of his life because he needs his family back.

            And so, my application to the lesson this morning is simply this – let’s create a church family that is so connected that any of our members would find it painful to be separated from us.


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