The Church of England recently voted in favour of allowing blessings for same-sex couples although with assurances that the church’s doctrine of marriage will not change. To many this seems incoherent, and it exposes a lack of clarity on the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable in the realm of sexuality and marriage. In the New Testament model, the church and the world are on different sides of a clear line of demarcation and the church has no need to feel pressurised into adopting the agenda and mores of the world. In the early days of the church of Corinth the pressure was real and the church in some significant ways capitulated to societal expectations. The boundary markers in these ways collapsed and the apostle Paul needed to write more than once to reinstate them. Particularly in the area of sexual ethics the divergence needed to be crystallised between how the surrounding culture regarded people’s behaviour, and how Jesus’ apostles expected the church to react. Immorality of any kind, including same-sex relationships, is not something for the church to bless, but to help people avoid. As David Dickson’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians draws out in the following updated extract, Paul teaches both that sexual immorality has no place within the church, and that forgiveness is available.
Indifference to sexual purity is a pagan attitude
Like the other Gentiles, the Corinthians regarded sexual immorality as a “thing indifferent,” neither right nor wrong in itself. But in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul rejects this point of view. Anticipating and forestalling that their excuse would be, “All indifferent things are lawful for us now that we are Christians!” Paul makes several counter-points.
Firstly, in verse 12, he qualifies their major assumption, “All indifferent things are lawful!” by limiting it to “lawful as far as they are beneficial,” i.e., helpful, and, “lawful as long as our sinful desires do not win the mastery over us,” for by the intemperate use of our liberty we can sin even in the use of indifferent things.
Then in verse 13 he also challenges their secondary assumption, that fornication is something indifferent. He says in effect, “Granting that food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, there is a big difference between food and fornication!” It is lawful to eat any kind of food, because God has ordained food to be a natural good. Yet we have to reckon with the fact that God will destroy both food and the stomach, at least as far as its current functions are concerned. So for the sake of our stomach we must not endanger our eternal salvation, or the salvation of others, by eating in a way that causes others to stumble. However, the big difference is that sexual immorality is never lawful. It is simply a sin, and to be avoided.
The body is simply not made for immorality – it is not in any way comparable to how food is ordained for the stomach and vice versa. The body is ordained to be a member of Christ our Lord, who is ordained to be the head, to govern the whole body, so that it would be kept holy. In fact, in the resurrection our bodies will be raised as glorious bodies, just as the body of Christ was raised. Therefore they ought not to be defiled with fornication.
Paul goes on to refer to what should have been an obvious, known fact about marriage: the two become one flesh. The members of Christ are not to be made by fornication the members of a prostitute (verses 15-16). For “he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit” (verse 17). Believers are members of Christ, because they are united to Him by faith, and are one mystical body with Christ – one spiritual body, or one spirit with Christ.
Paul then provides an exhortation. “Flee fornication!” (verse 18). Returning to his argument, he draws a comparison with other sins. Other sins misuse something or other that is external to the body, but sexual immorality abuses its own body, and for that matter dishonours the body more than any other sin (verse 18).
Especially considering that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, they ought not to be polluted with sexual immorality. Additionally, believers are not their own – they have been purchased with the blood of Christ. They must therefore take heed that they do not defile themselves with immorality, but rather by a holy way of life both in body and soul they should endeavour to glorify God their Redeemer, whose they are.
Sexual impurity has no place in the church
Towards the end of chapter 4, Paul has been warning the church of Corinth that formal church censures would come their way if they continued in their schismatic and divisive ways. Lest they should think these are empty words, he tells them at the start of chapter 5 that they must excommunicate a certain individual who had committed a certain type of sexual sin. “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Corinthians 6:1-2).
Paul here reprimands the church because they ought long ago to have grieved for this great offence, and excommunicated the wicked person from fellowship, instead of excusing his fault by minimising it, or making a joke of it, or glorying in it as if they were impressed with what he had done.
One reason for excommunicating this individual is because he was defiled by heinous wickedness. Even the Gentiles would not so much as speak of this sin without detestation.
Paul recognises that as a church, they have the power to excommunicate a wicked person like this. But now he adds his additional apostolic authority to the situation. “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:3-5).
“Truly,” he is saying, “you have my opinion and authority concerning that wicked person. Therefore, when you are gathered together, be fortified by this letter, which comes with apostolic authority, and by the authority of Christ, in whose name the censures of the church should be given, and excommunicate this wicked person.”
Paul uses the expression, “Deliver him to Satan,” because when anyone’s outward status is that they have been rejected and cast out of the church, and excommunicated from the privilege of the fellowship of the saints, then as far as their outward status is concerned, they are declared to belong instead to the kingdom, slavery, and power of Satan. To be a citizen of the kingdom of God (that is, the church) even outwardly, is a greater honour than to reign outside of the church. To be excommunicated is to lose your reputation and honour and dignity, and be reckoned as belonging to the subjects of the devil.
Having said this, the actual purpose of excommunication is to be a means of repentance and salvation. Truly by the censure of excommunication the pride of the flesh should be mortified, and the new creature will be saved in the day of judgment.
Impurity is a contagion
Paul continues in verse 6, “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” The risk was that the whole church would be infected and polluted by the contagion of so great a wickedness, just as a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. That is why they needed to excommunicate the wicked person. Continuing with the metaphor, Paul says that the Christian church must be purged from things which bring reproach on Christ and cause others to stumble – and the hearts of Christians must be purged from all the corruption of their old nature – with at least the same diligence as the houses of the Jews were purged from literal leaven before the Passover. Doing this would have the beneficial effect “that ye may be a new lump,” a new and holy society, new creatures really and indeed (verse 7).
The church should be a place where holiness flourishes
Confirming his argument, Paul explains that the thing signified in the Passover – the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – commits Christians to have a care that holiness would flourish in us and in the church. Putting away malice and wickedness both from ourselves and from the church will mean that we can worship and serve the Lord cheerfully and in a holy way, in sincerity and truth. We cannot live in a holy and righteous way (as the meaning of the feast of the Passover lamb requires of us) unless the leaven of our past life and our wicked practices are purged away out of us and out of the house of God, and unless we endeavour to keep sincerity and truth in us and in the church.
The church should not judge the world, but itself
Paul wraps up his argument by referring to a previous letter he had written to the church of Corinth, in which he had told them not to have fellowship with fornicators (verse 9). By consequence they should have understood that fornicators were to be excommunicated from the church, and much more so those who committed incest.
Of course, this gives them no excuse for thinking that this instruction about immoral persons referred only to those who were in the world, or outside of the church. That would have been to command something impossible, because they must necessarily either live amongst such wicked persons or else go out of the world (verse 10). They lived in Corinth, after all, where the majority remained pagans. Paul clarifies that he means they must not keep fellowship with anyone who claims to be a Christian, or a brother, who commits sexual immorality. That brother is to be excommunicated, if after the church has convinced him of his sin he remains wicked and impenitent (verse 11).
Neither the apostle nor the church had the right to impose church censures on those who were outside the church. Those outside the church are left to the judgment of God. But the conclusion they ought to have drawn from this is that judging members of the church certainly is part of the church’s work – this power does belong to the church. That is why their responsibility was to put away or excommunicate that wicked person from among them.
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