One of the first lessons Bible college students learn is to refrain from including “Corinth” or “Corinthian” in the name of their church or ministry. Whether fair or not, Corinth’s reputation has endured through the ages as, perhaps, the most licentious city Paul ever evangelized. “As a wealthy hub for commerce and seafarers,” S. J. Hafemann remarks, “Greek Corinth was evidently renowned for its vice, especially its sexual corruption.”1 Promiscuity became indicative of the city’s colloquial image, such that “to act like a Corinthian” was euphemistic for salacious living. “To ‘corinthianize,’” James Moffatt comments, “had become an equivalent in Greek for practising fornication.”2 The rampant sexuality of Corinth was not confined to the commercial sphere, however; the church was similarly overrun with immorality. In fact, the apostle declares that what the Corinthian church was tolerating was reprehensible even in the court of public opinion, let alone in the auspices of an omni-holy God. (1 Cor 5:1)
Paul takes aim, therefore, at the reported sexual immorality among the Corinthian Christians, namely, the obscene circumstance of a man “sleeping with his father’s wife.” (1 Cor 5:1) Remarkably, the Corinthians were not scandalized by this affair. Instead, they carried on boasting in their aggrandized spiritual attainments and asceticism. Such is why the apostle reprimands their arrogance and apparent lack of concern for the spiritual well-being of Christ’s Body. (1 Cor 5:2, 6–7) Rather gloating over the scholarship present in the church, the Corinthians should have been grieving this impropriety and doing whatever they could to rectify it.
To that end, Paul is desirous that the elders of the Corinthian church confront this man with the objective of making his sin readily apparent, for which he can either repent or risk expulsion from the Body. (1 Cor 5:3–4) The seriousness of this sin arises out of its blatant disregard for the health and holiness of one’s body, both corporately and individually. As a member of Christ’s Body politic (1 Cor 6:15), the man’s indiscretion reverberated throughout the entire assembly. Paul warns of the cumulative effects with which this sin was ravaging the whole parish. (1 Cor 5:6–8) In so doing, the man was compromising the health not just his own soul but of the whole fellowship. Such is why the apostle recapitulates what he has apparently already enjoined the Corinthians to do, namely, to abstain from all association “with sexually immoral people.” (1 Cor 5:9) This they twisted in their sophist minds to mean strict avoidance of “the immoral people of this world.” (1 Cor 5:10) But Paul’s intention was not for the church to ostracize itself from society in the aegis of pious ascendancy. Rather, it was “to make it clear,” asserts Hafemann, “that one’s new position in and worship of Christ demand a corresponding purity and separation, not from the world, but within the world.”3 The aspiration of the apostle was, therefore, to “clean out the old leaven” and purify the Body that they might glorify God in “sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor 5:7–8, 11–13)
Furthermore, the sexual scandal in which the man was living, and of which the church was tolerant, was not merely an unseemly situation (which it was). Rather, it was a defiant revolt against the One who had already claim ownership of his body, that is, Christ Jesus himself. It was an insubordinate riot in opposition to the Maker and Proprietor of one’s corporeal frame. (1 Cor 6:18) “Nothing so outrages God and alienates the Christian,” Moffatt continues, “as a loose behaviour which assumes that he has the right to do as he pleases with what he has already allowed God to possess.”4 The flagrant immorality of this man betrayed his claim to be brother in Christ. (1 Cor 5:11) Thus, the lewd man necessitated an ecclesiastical cleansing. He was the “leaven” that was leavening “the whole batch of dough” — the mold that was spoiling the whole loaf. (1 Cor 5:6–7) His immorality was polluting the entire assembly and, therefore, required purging before the whole Body was contaminated. The seriousness of this sin is accompanied by serious consequences. Such is why Paul instructs the church to rightly judge the offender and remove him from their congregation. (1 Cor 5:4–5, 12–13) Like a cancer, serious surgery was necessary as a result of his violation of the Body.
Notwithstanding the severity of the apostle’s words, however, his censure is tinged with the hopeful grace of the gospel. Paul’s sentence of handing the profane man “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” is immediately followed with the tragic supplication that the man’s “spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:5) Even as the discipline was being enacted, there was mercy on display. “It is not a vindictive punishment,” notes Moffatt.5 It was a punishment sanctioned with the errand and expectation of remedying the health and restoring the fellowship of the Body. The supplication is tragic in that no formal word of repentance or restoration is given. In fact, in all likelihood, this man, excommunicated from the Corinthian fellowship, further engrossed himself in immorality. (2 Cor 12:21)
Ultimately, though, even the Corinthians’ present scandal was not enough to deter the work of the Spirit and the movement of God’s kingdom among them, for they, too, “used to be like this” — they, too, were the unrighteous idolaters, adulterers, and swindlers who had no claim with which to “inherit God’s kingdom.” (1 Cor 6:9–11) But, even still, they were those who had experienced the washing, sanctifying, justifying flow of Jesus’s blood. (1 Cor 6:11) Such is what Paul calls to mind when he writes of the price for which they were bought. (1 Cor 6:20) In this, the Corinthians were “reminded fo the Lord who had emancipated them,” says Moffatt, “at the price of his own life, from sin and death, and reminded also to glorify God with their bodies instead of desecrating his shrine by physical lust.”6 There was grace for the incestuous man just as there was grace for them. And, in like manner, there is grace even now for all sins committed against the body because Another Body was pierced for those selfsame sins. Another Body withstood the penultimate sentence owed because of the insubordination of immorality and has purchased the curative balm by which the Body is made whole once again.
S. J. Hafemann, “Letters to the Corinthians,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 172.
James Moffatt, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Bros., 1890), 67.