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Unholy Tolerance

*1 Corinthians 5:1-5
January 28, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:50 in the audio file.

Or, Church Discipline and the Inescapability of Destruction

The Lord is serious about holiness, His own and His people’s. Christ died and rose again, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to satisfy God’s standard to to sanctify, that is, to make holy, a people for Himself. Each and every individual believer has been forgiven for his unholiness and has also been given everything necessary for life and godliness. Christians are saints; they are the holy ones.

In saying that the Lord takes seriously the holiness of His people, we must not limit this to individual members, it also applies to the group. The Lord takes seriously the holiness of the church, of the temple. “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Holiness must be considered on both levels, that of believers and that of the whole body.

The church in Corinth had some problems. Actually, they had a lot of problems. Starting in chapter 5 Paul addresses some of their shameless problems: incest, greed-driven lawsuits, and prostitution. It wasn’t merely that these things were present but being addressed with patience and persistence. These things were accepted with an arrogant apathy. I don’t believe there is evidence to argue that the Corinthians celebrated such unholiness among them (which does not say much for many churches in our day who do celebrate it), but the Corinthians had an unholy, sinful tolerance for unholy living among them. At the start of chapter 5, instead of addressing the professing Christian man in sin, Paul admonishes the congregation to humble themselves and pursue purity.

Unless we think Paul needed a running start before dealing with such serious subjects as in chapters 5 and 6 (again, the issues of sexual immorality, lawsuits against one another in public courts, and additional sexual immorality), it’s worth considering the order of Paul’s letter. Paul spent the first four chapters confronting the pride of preachers and the petty divisions among the people. Was he easing them into this more personal confrontation?

The lack of transition between the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 suggests that, while he is changing subjects in one way, in another way he’s continuing to expose the problems rooted in the same soil. They valued and pursued acceptance from those outside the church, from those in the world; how could this not lead to acceptance of worldly behavior inside the church?

And how could positioning for power and superficial manipulation among some of the teachers not encourage positioning for power and superficial accommodation among some of the flock? The leaders weren’t pursuing holiness, why would the followers care about it? If the leaders were busy building loyalty to their personal brands, how were they building the unity and sanctity of the church? The sinful relationship Paul confronts in chapter 5 is bad, but their sinful boasting was already not good (see 1 Corinthians 5:6).

So the question and threat from chapter 3 still apply. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). In the world we live in, a world full of sin and sinners, destruction is inescapable. Sinners will be destroyed by God’s judgment, or the church will be destroyed by sinners, or the church will discipline the sinners so that the sinner’s flesh will be destroyed. Patience is one thing, but inaction results in destruction; there is no rest from vigilance in this battle. The seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman are still in conflict. Unholy tolerance in the church will corrupt the church.

Chapter 5 brings us to the subject of church discipline. The word “discipline” isn’t found in the chapter, but it is a fitting word that summarizes the process and goal. My take is that there are more churches that do not practice this corporate obedience than churches that do, and there are more that don’t practice discipline than those who do tyrannically. Failure to discipline is an unholy tolerance, and failure to discipline according to God’s Word is also unholy, though that’s not the problem among the Corinthians (and again, it’s an existing but minority problem today).

Here is a call to love purity and to hold holy tolerance but never unholy tolerance.

The Problem: Arrogant Toleration of Flagrant Sin within the Church (verses 1-2)

The Report of the Problem (verse 1)

Without much of a transition from his admonishment in the previous paragraph (4:14-21), Paul refers to another report of a second problem (the first report was about quarreling among the brothers in 1:11). This problem is likewise prominent and also obscene.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated among the pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. Paul’s tone is almost one of disbelief. He’s heard something that one wouldn’t expect to hear about a church for a couple reasons. There is sexual immorality, a translation of the word porneia which is a word that includes all sorts of unholy, sexual practice. Before naming the subcategory, Paul heightens the shock by saying it is a kind of impurity not tolerated among the pagans. By itself this doesn’t prove what is moral, but it does prick at pride. Pagans translates a word for Gentiles, of the more barbaric, uncivilized kind. Even they don’t think this sort of behavior is decent, and all they have is nature and history to know what normal is. It is the “ew” factor; no Greek boy wanted to be Oedipus when he grew up. It doesn’t make it wicked, but the cultural distaste should have made it distasteful. The Corinthians wanted cultural acceptance, and yet the culture didn’t accept this.

The problem is a man has his father’s wife. The man isn’t named. In fact, the man isn’t the main issue; the Corinthians’ toleration of the man is the primary problem. As for the man, this is incest with his stepmother, using terms established in the Old Testament law (cf. Leviticus 18:8). Where the father is, we don’t know. Why the man “has” his stepmother, we don’t know either. It could have been for financial reasons, such as family assets and inheritance. It could have been for sexual/romantic reasons. The woman is not targeted by Paul, which means she must not have professed belief in Christ.

The Response to the Problem (verse 2)

They were arrogant, they should have been mournful and diligent.

And you are arrogant! This is a defining problem for them, and it’s why they hadn’t acted. Paul has already addressed their puffed-up-edness multiple times in the letter (4:6, 18-19), and here it is again. They are probably not arrogant because of the immorality, as if promoting this relationship to demonstrate how enlightened they were; their unbelieving culture thought it was gross. They were arrogant despite the immorality, thinking themselves to be great but deceived about their true condition.

Rather than being so high on themselves, ought you not rather to mourn? This is different than being angry, righteously or otherwise. They ought to have been humbled by one of their own choosing sin over holiness, and they ought to have been busy calling him to repent rather than allowing it to continue.

Such mourning would have led to action. Let him who has done this be removed from among you. There is no further investigation required because the sin is public; everyone knows. The discipline process in Matthew 18:15-20 takes a few stages because the sin is being confronted personally and privately for as long as the sin is private. But this foul relationship has been exposed and no one has done anything about it. They ought to have the man removed, and multiple verses throughout the chapter will explain this even more. “Execution [is replaced] with excommunication” (Ciampa & Rosner).

There was flagrant sin within the church and the church’s tolerance of the sinner was sinful.

The Process: Formal Removal from the Church in Jesus’ Name (verses 3-5)

The reality is that the congregation’s apathy toward unholiness was unholy and they were not to wait any longer in removing the man from the congregation. Verses 3-5 are one sentence in Greek that show a couple things about the process.

The Nature of the Process (verses 3-4)

The process is public, corporate, and representative.

Verses 3 and 4 are the set up for the process, providing a number of qualifications. It starts with Paul’s connection to the congregation. For though I am 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. There is no doubt in Paul’s mind about the situation or the sentence. He is present in spirit, not in a metaphysical way, but in a systemic way. He is the one who laid the foundation. He is not just a teacher but a father to them. They are connected, and this unholiness pains Paul, and they cannot ignore his judgment on the matter.

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus, when they are at a formal gathering of the church, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, so this is a corporate judgment, not just Paul’s personal vendetta. Discipline is not up to an apostle, let alone one pastor. The whole church is affected, the whole church bears responsibility. And the church represents the Lord Jesus. It is for His sake and in His name that the discipline must take place. He is the one who requires this removal, and the church fails to honor Him by failing to deal with the unholy.

The Purposes of the Process (verse 5)

There are two purposes, one immediate and one ultimate. The goal of the discipline is the destruction of the sinners fleshiness for sake of repentance and restoration.

In the name of Jesus you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Christians are those who have been transferred out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Christ. Christians are those redeemed out from their slavery to the father of lies to become sons of the Father of truth. But this man is not living according to truth, which would be confession and repentance. Because he is unwilling to repent he must be put out from under the church’s protection and handed over to Satan’s power, which Satan unwittingly uses for God’s purposes.

The destruction of the flesh is not the death penalty. The “flesh” in this case is fleshiness, it is the “sinful nature,” it is is the lusts of the flesh, it is the “the sin-bent self characterized by self-sufficiency that wages war against God” Garland), that is not humbled before the word of the cross. That fleshiness needs to be ruined, which is a kindness to him.

The clause that follows, for the destruction of the flesh, is made use of for the purpose of softening; for Paul’s meaning is not that the person who is chastised is given over to Satan to be utterly ruined, or so as to be given up to the devil in perpetual bondage, but that it is a temporary condemnation, and not only so, but of such a nature as will be salutary. (Calvin)

This destruction is salutary, as in, something unpleasant producing good effects. The destruction it is not the desired end-state. The prayer is that the destruction of the flesh would work so that his spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord. The ultimate goal is a return to the Lord. If he is saved, being removed from the fellowship of the church should make him miserable. He will learn through indulging in his lusts how empty and demeaning those lusts are to one’s soul. It is called church discipline, but in some ways it is the devil’s discipline, with Satan the unwilling teacher. I suppose Satan’s School of Sanctification is similar to the Schick Shadel approach; an aversion tactic where the overload of the substance and negative associations make a man sick of it.


There is much more to say about this discipline. Next week we’ll see the Principle (verses 6-8) and the Proviso (verses 9-13).

In our day tolerance has become a god, and to refuse worship to Tolerance has become the target of the severest intolerance. In the church, something must give. Either the church is destroyed by the corrupting presence of flagrant evil or the flesh is destroyed, either by the Spirit in sanctification or by Satan in a pit of gross misery.

Sin is easily overlooked in a context of pettiness and positioning, especially when it’s among the preachers, and it is tolerated in a context of culture pleasing. We won’t be holy if we aren’t holy.

Church discipline is for the church as much, if not more than, for the individual. So, church, love God, fear the Lord, hate evil, especially in pride and perverted speech and impurity (see Proverbs 8:13). Pay attention. See things, especially the visible ones. Say something. Don’t destroy the temple or let it be destroyed.

And if you want to be dumb, be prepared to be confronted. There is no right to sin in public and be ignored. Even if it isn’t flagrant and gross, it is still destructive.


Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. He who is in the world is still working trouble and seeking to devour and destroy whoever he can. But he cannot win, and even his worst is used by God to accomplish God’s good. Beloved, you are in God’s Son. You know what is true. You cannot be snatched out of His hand. And as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.


We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:19–21)