It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:1-5
You may recall that in the introduction to this letter I mentioned that Paul uses a writing structure that can be a bit tricky to follow− here’s a case in point. He completed his first section about division in the congregation at the end of chapter four, and without transition or warning, he jumps into another subject; this time it’s sexual immorality. More specifically, it’s a case of incest in the church.
Evidently there was a guy in the congregation who was sleeping with his father’s wife. Of course, that begs several questions: Was she his mother, or was she his step-mother? Did his father know about it? Was his father dead? Was his father divorced?
Paul doesn’t say, but then he didn’t need to say, for it would appear from the context that the good people of Corinth knew exactly what was going on, and the news of this affair had made its way to Paul in Ephesus. Whatever the exact particulars were, it appears that Paul was almost as mortified by the man’s acceptance in the church as he was by the man’s behavior.
I should also point out that Paul engages in just a bit of hyperbole in verse 1 when he says that this is a behavior that even the pagans don’t tolerate. We do know that incest went on back then, for we have Cicero’s denunciation of the practice, for example. Why would he denounce a practice that wasn’t going on? Most likely, that day was much like ours when there is a sexual practice that went on but was repugnant to many or most people.
In the second verse, Paul shames the congregation for allowing this man to continue in fellowship with them in a way that hearkens back to their trips to woodshed in the previous section; how can they be so proud of their wisdom and greatness while allowing this in their midst? That is followed by Paul pulling rank for the first time in the letter as he commands them to put this man out of their fellowship. His words are crystal clear in vv. 3-5, at least for the recipients of the letter, but verse 5 can be a bit of a stumbling block for us.
hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
When Paul says that they should hand him over to Satan I highly doubt that they would meet at some border check point under cover of darkness and send the man walking across no man’s land to a waiting Satan, as we might have seen in an old Cold War era movie. Instead, since this phrase is found elsewhere in the New Testament, I think it is used as a sort of idiom to refer to this world around us. This man has apparently accepted Christ, but hasn’t repented of the old ways of living, and his old way of living is so egregious that he cannot remain in the fellowship until he changes his outlook on certain things, and this is to protect the congregation, which as we have already seen, is very immature in the faith. It is quite clear that the man is not beyond redemption because Paul goes on to say that this would be to save his soul in the end.
Even so, there is still a stumbling block for us in the sentence: for the destruction of the flesh.
This is a hard one to translate; even the NIV has not one, but two footnotes. Many have suggested that this means the man would die, but that seems very unlikely, for how can he repent if he is dead?
The Greek word that is used here is sarx which requires some interpretation to translate. It can mean the human body, but it can also mean the material condition of the body, or the flesh as the center of passion or frailty. The way I read this, and you are welcome to disagree, is that Paul intends that this guy needs to be put out of fellowship so that he can learn his lesson in the situation, while protecting the “young” of the congregation itself.
Does anyone think this twisted relationship can end well?
Well, we only just started this section, which continues through chapter 6; I’m sure Paul has a great deal more to say!