How Can Church Discipline Be Loving? 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

Dr. John Smith served as a Family Doctor for over 40 years in his home town. His town was small and he was one of only two doctors. He loved his patients. He was raised with many of them and had the privilege to serve multiple generations through his family practice. His motivation to serve well was always his love for his patients. There were many days he left the office exhausted, but full of joy as he saw the impact he made in the lives of those he loved. And there were other days that caused his heart to sink and be full of grief as
he gave his patients bad news. It was the worst part of his job. He hated to have to tell his patients, his friends, that they had serious medical problems that if not corrected would lead to death. He cried with many of his patients over his 40 year career, but never enjoyed speaking hard words to the people he loved. Although he never enjoyed it, he still did it because of his love for his patients. He did not want them to die so he was willing to speak hard words and do hard things so that he could help destroy that which was trying to destroy the people he loved.

Dr. Smith is not real, but there are many doctors like him who in love have had to be willing to give bad news to their patients whom they love. No one ever questions a doctor’s motivation in sharing the hard news of disease or cancer with their patients, because they know it is extremely unloving and illegal to intentionally give a false diagnosis. Have you ever heard of the doctor that refused to tell his patients they were sick? It is almost uniformly accepted that a doctor must tell the patient the truth about their illness, but that was not always the case. Peter Dixon, a former oncologist and current primary-care doctor, says,

I remember being in medical school years ago and being distinctly told that when a person has lung cancer, never tell them they have lung cancer. We were told to give them a dose of morphine and wash our hands of it. Things have certainly changed.[i]

Would you go to a doctor that you knew would intentionally lie to you? What about one that would intentionally mislead you on the severity of your diagnosis to protect your feelings? How could you go to a doctor that was not willing to be straight with you about something that could lead to your death? Would it not be extremely unloving for a doctor to say that you are in perfect health while in reality you had terminal cancer with 3 months to live? How much more unloving would it be for a pastor to say that you are in perfect spiritual health while in reality you are living far from God, under his judgment and in danger of the fires of Hell? One lies to you about a temporary earthly death while the other lies to you about an eternal death in a place of unquenching fire with the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sadly, many churches are lying to their people in giving them confidence of eternal bliss while their faithless lives are denying that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. As I mentioned last week, the Protestant Reformers said of the church, “Where the word of God is truly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, there the one true holy and apostolic church is present.”[ii] Most Baptists have no problem with a church where the Word of God is truly preached and taught or where the sacraments are rightly administered, but church discipline, on the other hand, seems to be avoided at all possible costs. Historically there are two forms of Church Discipline: Formative and Corrective Church Discipline.

Last week, I mentioned Regular Formative Church Discipline and Regular Corrective Church Discipline (if you missed last week’s sermon I recommend going online and reading it). Formative Church Discipline is how the church gets into shape spiritually. The regular preaching of the Word during Sunday morning gatherings, Sunday School, one on one relationships all work to mold and shape Christians to be conformed to Christ. Our goal as a church should Paul’s goal in Colossians 1:28-29, “Him (Jesus) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (emphasis added). All that we do as a church should be to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ so that we would become like Jesus Christ. This happens through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God in various settings both corporately and in our relationships.

Regular Corrective Church Discipline is when we lovingly warn and correct our brothers and sisters when they are walking in the darkness instead of the light. We should regularly invite others to speak words of correction into our life so that we can be made aware of our blind spots. We have to believe that corrective discipline is a good thing. Revelation 3:19, Jesus says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” And Hebrews 12:5-7,

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom he father does not discipline?

Being disciplined by the Lord proves to us that we are his children whom he loves. The Lord regularly and correctively disciplines his children. We should not disregard it, but embrace it.

Today we are going to look at Irregular Corrective Church Discipline. I pray that you will see the importance of this practice for the church today and how not practicing is one of the most unloving acts we could ever do. We are going to look at one specific corrective church discipline situation in 1 Corinthians 5. First point,

The Problem

Paul writes in verse 5:1, “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.” People from the church in Corinth reported to Paul of the situation involving sexual immorality. A man had entered into an adulterous relationship with his stepmother. It was a grievous sin, but one that was tolerated in the church. One problem is the sexual immorality of this man, but another huge problem is the church tolerating this sin. Paul goes on in verse 2, “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 the body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.”

The church did not understand the importance of holiness for the church. We are to be holy as he who called us is holy. Peter calls the church a holy priesthood and a holy nation. Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us from all sin and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). Jesus died to bring us to God, but also that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). And because the church forgot about God’s holiness and likewise their holiness, Paul calls the church to act. He calls them to remove this man from among them. He calls them to take this man of your church roll. Paul uses slightly harsher language that we may be accustomed to, verse 4-5, “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” (emphasis added).

“Deliver this man to Satan.” Those seem like very hard words, but as we will see in a moment, they actually are very loving words. First, let us just pause for a moment and realize how seriously God takes sin. God hates sin with a holy love. Leviticus 10:1 says, “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire on it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded.” Two of God’s people were doing something in worship that he had not commanded offering unauthorized fire and what does the Lord do? Does he tolerate their sin? Does he ignore it? On the contrary, verse 2, “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “this is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.” God takes sin seriously. God wants to be honored and treated as holy. In verses 10:10-11, we see that God created the Levitical priesthood, “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statues that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” God’s newly formed people must be taught what is holy and what is unclean. They were called to live holy lives.

Similarly we see God purifying his people in the New Testament, in Acts 5, with Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias and Sapphira sold a field, but keep a portion for themselves. Ananias lied to Peter about the proceeds from the land and Peter said to him, “Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” And after hearing these words, Ananias dropped dead. Three hours later the same thing happened to his wife. God takes sin very seriously and so should we!! Secondly, to understand how this corrective church discipline is loving, we must know its purpose.

The Purpose

There are three things we can see in this passage that show us that this act of excommunication is an act of love. In verse 5, Paul tells the church, “you are to deliver this man to Satan.” This phrase is most likely referring to the removal of the visible kingdom of God, the church, to the kingdom of Satan, the world. In God’s economy, there are only two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Jesus makes this point in John 8:42-44,

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Paul, like Jesus, is establishing the two kingdom truth.

But why does Paul want to deliver this man to Satan? We see two purpose clauses in verse 5, “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” (emphasis added). Paul wants this man’s flesh destroyed. This does not mean that he wants him dead, but he wants his fleshly nature that is opposed to God destroyed. Romans 8:8, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Paul wants this man to please God so he sends him into the dominion of Satan to destroy what is standing in the way of God’s pleasure; his flesh. The second purpose clause (and final purpose of church discipline) is, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Sin is serious. So serious that it has to be punished, but Paul does not want this man to be punished eternally. He wants him to be saved in the end. Paul willing enacts discipline in order to save this man in the final day. Is that not love? It is one of the most difficult kinds of love, it is a love that may be spurned and rejected.

It is never good for a child not to hear the word “no.” A child must be told no. Whether it is to candy, to staying up too late, to strangers, or to expensive toys, a child must be told no. If a child never hears “no”, they become the center of the universe. And when a child, who doesn’t normally hear the word, is finally told no, what is the response? “You don’t love me.” If you do not give me what I want, then you do not love me, but rather you hate me. We know that is ridiculous statement from a child, because we really do love them therefore we are willing to upset them in the short run so that they will have a happier life and benefit society in the long run.

Although this is a simple concept to understand in parenting, it is harder to see in our culture. Our society has redefined the word love from the perspective of an ornery child. People do not want to hear the word no to their ideas and opinions and desires. If you tell a person no to their ideas and desires, and say that you disagree with them, what is their response? “You don’t love me.” “You don’t value me.” If you do not accept what I want to do, then you do not love me, but rather you hate me. Our culture has redefined the word love, but that is not real love. Real love is willingly to graciously say hard things that may cause someone to reject you because you love them and do not want them to be harmed. Church discipline is one of the greatest acts of love because it helps someone see how God treats sinners in judgment and implores them to turn from their sin to God. As a doctor looks into his patient eyes and tells them the harsh reality so they can provide a treatment to save them from death, likewise the church tells the wayward member the harsh reality of one who denies Jesus Christ as Lord either with their words or with their lives so they can provide the healing words of the gospel of Christ to save them from eternal damnation.

Friend, if you are visiting today and are not a believer in Jesus Christ, can I encourage you to consider what the Bible says about sin? Think about how serious the Bible takes sin. Sin separates people from God and commends them to Hell. God is holy and in his holiness, He hates sin. How do you deal with your sin against a holy God? The Bible says there are only two ways you can deal with your sin. First, you can pay for them yourself forever in a literal Hell being rightly and justly condemned for your sin against God. Or secondly, you can turn to Christ and have your sin forgiven on the cross. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” All who turn to Christ have their sins credited to Jesus which he paid for in his death. And all who turn to Christ have His righteousness credited to them because of his resurrection of the dead. Friend, turn Christ. Let Jesus take your sin and receive His Righteousness.

Believer, if you come today in sin, turn to Christ. Destroy your flesh. Embrace his grace. See His love spilled out for you on Calvary. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin.” God loves you so much that he sent Jesus to be punished in your place. Do not love sin more than you love God. He deserves so much more. Avoid the greater judgment of possible removal from God’s people by hearing the word of God now.

Third act of love in church discipline is that it protects the congregation from more sin and protects the sinner for greater judgment in causing God’s children to sin (Matthew18:5). Paul continues 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 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.”

Sin spreads. If a little sin is allowed to take root, it is easier for that sin to grow stronger and stronger as the conscience is dulled to those smaller sins. The Corinthian church was boasting in many ways. They were boasting in their spiritual gifts, their power, their willingness to tolerate sin and accept the sinner as he is without repentance, etc. Paul lets them know that they are endangering the whole church as well as the sinner. To not confront sin exposes the entire body to potential destruction. Third point,

The Process

Paul mentions his letter in verse 9. 1 Corinthians is actually his second letter. Paul is addressing a similar topic in this letter, but he offers clarification. Verse 9-12,

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?

Paul makes a distinction between believers and non-believers. Previously Paul told them not to associate with sexually immoral people and here he clarifies that he does not mean those types of people that are in the world. We should be around those people so that we can call them to turn from their sin and trust in Jesus Christ. He is not judging the people outside the church for their behavior for he expects that type of behavior because they are living in the dominion of darkness. He is writing not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother and commits consistent, habitual unrepentant sin against God. They are tearing down the name of Jesus Christ and therefore, Paul recommends you do not even eat with them. People who profess Jesus confuse the world about what it means to be a following of God. They wrongly teach that you can have Jesus and their sin too.

How does church discipline start? It usually starts with a conversation. The first conversation should happen privately, one on one with the one in sin. If repentance does not occur, one of the elder/pastors should get involved. No one likes these conversations. They are awkward and uncomfortable and they run the risk of damaging relationships. They never get easy, but they must be had. We have to be reminded that when we confront a brother, we could help save their soul from death. James 5:19-20, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” We know this is important, but how do we do this? Practically, how do we do church discipline? I have been discussing this with Bill and the deacons on how to develop a process of church discipline. We are working on the process, but we must develop a process because we cannot lie to people who are on our church rolls that have no outward evidence of saving faith. We cannot tell them that they are safe and secure in Christ if their lives proves they are not. Church discipline is not the final authority for Jesus Christ will judge the living and dead. Jesus has given the church the authority to address sin. We cannot be tolerant of sin. Sin desires to destroy people. We must lovingly restore the practice of church discipline to save people from deception and destruction.

I do not think this list Paul mentions here is exhaustive for sins that require church discipline, but typifies a person living according to the flesh rather than living by the Spirit. There is a longer list in Galatians 5 where Paul adds at the end, “and things like these.” He then says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:21).” We cannot tolerate sin because sin deceives those who are living in the flesh. And those who live in the flesh cannot please God. Lastly in hopes of warning people of their eternal state, we must purge them from membership.

The Purge

Verse 13, “God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” This chapter ends with Paul quoting Deuteronomy. The phrase “Purge the evil,” appears 9 times in the book of Deuteronomy in reference to the community removing a person because of grievous sin. Paul is reminding his readers that God has not changed. He is holy and expects his people to be holy. Jesus Christ died to redeem us from our sin and to purify us.

Would you trust a church that would not listen to God’s Word about sin? Would you trust a church that would not be honest with people who were in eternal danger? Would you call a church unloving because they didn’t want people to go to hell? Would you call God unloving because he doesn’t want his people to go to hell? God called sin, sin and for our sake made Jesus to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. Let’s agree with God. Let us call sin, sin and understand that our Lord died to make us righteous. Let us walk in a manner worthy of that calling. And let us be honest with those who walk in an unworthy manner, for their sake and for ours.