Excommunication of Unrepentant Sinners (5:2b-5)Paul commands the church to disfellowship or excommunicate the man who is living with his step-mother.
"2b Shouldn't you rather have ... put out of your fellowship the man who did this?
3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present.
4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." (5:2b-5)
Paul's instruction to Timothy has some similarities.
"Some have rejected [faith and a good conscience] and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme." (1 Timothy 1:19b‐20)
Many modern-day believers choke on these passages. In many traditions, church discipline is only rarely exercised. There is functionally no discipline, and therefore no standards concerning which the church will take a stand and say, "No!" It is not love that we have absorbed from the culture, but tolerance -- tolerance to a degree that it turns a blind eye to sin, just as our culture does.
This was exactly the problem of the Corinthian church. They were tolerant -- and prouder of their tolerance than of their desire to please the Lord. Paul commands them to take action:
"When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present...." (5:4)
Three qualifications are mentioned.
In other words, in a formal assembly that is seeking the Lord's presence, will, and power -- not just a dry business meeting -- they are to take action, spiritual action, but also action that affects the church's relationship with the unrepentant person.
Look at several elements that are found in both our passage and 1 Timothy 1:19-20:
1. Gross, unrepented of, sin. In Corinth there was sexual immorality and pride in the church's tolerance of it. In Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering, there were people who had rejected the teachings of Jesus and his moral standards, and were blaspheming God.131 We in Christian congregations must notbe picky and judgmental. Paul teaches us to "bear with" -- that is, "put up with" -- our fellow Christians with all their weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and foibles (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13; Romans 15:1).132 Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). But what we cannot tolerate is blatant, proud, sin over which people feel no sorrow or willingness to repent. This destroys the community.
Jesus instructed his disciples about excommunication for those who are unwilling to repent of sins over which they have been confronted by the church.
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (Matthew 18:15-17)
2. Excommunication is next, that is, exclusion from the Christian community. Paul tells the Corinthians that during one of their assemblies -- perhaps an occasional meeting of all the house churches in Corinth together -- that they are to "put out of your fellowship" (NIV), "remove" (NRSV), "take away" (KJV) the sinning member. The verb is exairō, "to exclude or remove someone from a group, remove, drive away."133 Our English word "excommunication" comes from two Latin words ex-, "out, out of" + communicare, "to communicate," from the root communis, "common." The Greek equivalent would be koinōnia, "fellowship, partnership, what we share in common." So excommunication means to exclude from the "community" of believers, those who hold in common their faith in Jesus and his teachings. In some traditions this is referred to as "shunning" or "disfellowshiping." Excommunication may be required for several reasons: (1) to protect the body from this pernicious influence, (2) to maintain standards of Christian behavior within the congregation, and (3) to get the attention of the sinner so that he will hopefully repent.
3. Deliverance to Satan for instruction. This one is more difficult to understand. "Hand over" (NIV, NRSV), "deliver" (KJV) is paradidōmi, "hand over, turn over, give up a person," as a technical term of police and courts, "hand over into [the] custody [of]."134 So the unrepentant person is handed over for punishment to Satan -- pretty scary. Notice that the purpose is not eternal damnation, but instruction and salvation:
"Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." (5:5)
"... whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught135 not to blaspheme." (1 Timothy 1:20)
What does it mean to hand someone over to Satan? The exact nature of this is debated, but it probably means to "put back out into Satan's sphere," that is, outside the church and the fellowship of God's people, based on Paul's apostolic authority. Some kind of physical harm is likely.136 But this is not vindictive. Does this person forfeit eternal life? We're not told that. Rather, the purpose is that their spirit might be saved.
How can a congregation exercise church discipline when it is necessary? Gently and lovingly -- but firmly. Paul instructed the Galatians:
"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore137 him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted." (Galatians 6:1)
We're afraid that if we exercise discipline, that person will leave the church (with his or her money) and not return. Perhaps. But the alternative is to allow that person to stay, thereby letting it be known that the church and its leaders aren't really serious about sin. Often, the appropriate discipline is a private conversation between the offender and the pastor, church leader, or another respected layperson. Most of the time, this is quite effective. Only when the person is unrepentant -- and the matter is of serious import -- does it need to come to the church.
The procedure for church discipline in the case of an unrepentant person in your congregation is probably defined in your denomination's book of order or your church's bylaws -- along with reference to the passages mentioned above.
We all want healthy congregations. For that to happen we need to decide that we will indeed be obedient to Scripture and trust God to work through his Word. Whether we're willing to exercise church discipline or not has a lot to do with our own faith in and obedience to the teachings of the New Testament -- and our fear of men.
Q2. (1 Corinthians 5:2b-5) What are levels of correction and discipline short of excommunication? Who should exercise that kind of correction? What do we do when a sinning member repents? Why is excommunication sometimes necessary? Why are we so unwilling to exercise it in our day?