1 Corinthians 5:1-13
Within the Church, the Saints Must Judge
No one can live life without making judgments, whether of ideas, circumstances, things, and yes, of people as well. Some of these judgments are inconsequential, such as what hair style to wear; some are much more important, such as whether we shall allow our child to be around another whom we regard as a bad influence. Indeed, we deem a parent who allows his son or daughter to run around with those up to no good a bad parent, and rightfully so. Making judgments is an inescapable part of life; indeed, it is part of our very humanity, of being created in the image of God.
Here in this passage, Paul makes it clear that making judgments is also a necessary part of being the church of God. Yes, even the redeemed are still sinners, and the local church is a hospital for sinners. But those who contend that the church is not a “museum of saints” miss the point. The local church is supposed to be in the saint-making business as each member is to grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Not only so but the local church herself is a body of the called-out ones who are to testify to the saving work of Jesus Christ both by word and deed, deed meaning the lives we live. And to the extent a church does not do this, to that extent does a church lack integrity and serve as an anti-witness to her community.
People like to quote Jesus’ words, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). And no one person has the right to contemptuously condemn another. But in this case, Paul is speaking of the local church “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” to judge her own members. God judges those outside, but He has given to His Church the responsibility to judge those inside—and judge, she must. When a member is guilty of gross sin that even a pagan would condemn, the local church must act; first, to secure her own witness and integrity before the community; second, to protect her members from such wicked influence (“a little leaven leavens the whole lump”); but, equally important, for the eventual salvation of the erring brother. The church follows our Lord’s words in Matthew 18:15-19, but if the brother refuses to listen, disfellowshiping that brother must be done for those reasons listed above. Paul writes that such a disciplinary measure removes that one from the protection of the church, and into the hands of Satan, where it is hoped that after much tribulation and distress, he shall return. This is not easy: relatives and friends of the brother may leave the church while others will call us Pharisees and legalists. But the church has no choice but to be the church; this we have from our Lord and Master.
The integrity of the local church is a crucial issue for me. I suppose this is because it seems to me that integrity in God’s house means little anymore among God’s people. Indeed, one receives blank stares when even bringing up the subject. The contemporary understanding of the local church among both believers and unbelievers is virtually identical when it comes to this topic; in short, a church is supposed to be a place where everyone feels welcome regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. The very notion of “discipline” seems judgmental and hateful; after all, churches are supposed to accept everyone and judge no one since “we are all sinners,” though there is no agreement on what a “sin” or a “sinner” is anymore.
We live in a day in which Fortune 500 Companies, HR departments, and federal and state employers enact more discipline among their employees than churches. People have lost jobs over saying anything remotely understood as supporting the biblical view of marriage. As I write this, people are fired for saying they do not support Black Lives Matter, not the sentiment, with which no one disagrees, but some of the antichristian proclamations on the family and human sexuality which the organization stands for. So we live in a time when the world stands by its ungodly standards more faithfully than the Church stands by God’s standards revealed to her by His holy word. This is utterly shameful.
Church discipline used to be a given among evangelical churches at least until the early twentieth century when denominationalism and church growth began to take precedence. And that discipline included not just the gross sin mentioned here in 1 Corinthians 5 but even “absenteeism.” We must return to a biblical model. And it’s going to be difficult. Our members have grown accustomed to “easy-believism,” “hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” and “Judge not.” Gee whiz, most believers don’t even discipline their kids anymore; how shall it be instituted in the local church. What if people leave? And even worse, what about the budget!
It boils down to this: Are those born of the Spirit God’s people or not? And if they are, are they to be joined together into a local body of Christ where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments properly administered, and the members held accountable, or not? And if they are to be held accountable, does this not lead directly to a biblical understanding of local church discipline in which that accountability, after several attempts to lovingly confront and convince the brother of his errors, be enforced. Again, the purpose is ultimately that the sinner repent and return. But if that won’t happen, at least that church can say she did her part to warn her members (Ezekiel 3:17-21) and maintain her integrity, even if it be before an increasingly ravenous and pagan world—which won’t like it.