Throughout the latter half of John’s Gospel we’ve seen the incredible importance of the local church. In John 13 Jesus washed the disciples’ feet—something normally done by one’s self or by a slave—and then he had the audacity to tell them to do the same for each other. Serving one another in the church is simply not optional: the Lord himself commands it. He gave a new commandment to the disciples when he told them to love one another. That in itself is not new; what is new about the commandment is what this love must look like: love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). Love in the church must be sacrificial. In John 14 Jesus promises to send the Spirit who will lead and guide and direct the disciples. In chapter 16 he promises that though they will be put out of the synagogues and lose their social capital on account of the name of Jesus, yet they will have the Spirit of God in their midst. In chapter 20 after he rose from the dead Jesus appeared to ten of his disciples (Thomas was absent) and breathed on them and told them to receive the Spirit. In this very first gathered assembly, assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus, he promised them that the Spirit would empower and lead and guide them in their mission.
When we read 1 Corinthians 5, we hear significant echoes of this. Paul writes to the church in Corinth for a number of reasons, and in chapter 5 he deals with an issue of sexual immorality in the church involving a member of that church engaged in an affair with his step-mother. The man is unrepentant of his sin—this is key—and the church has done nothing about it. Paul then says something about their gathered assembly that is quite extraordinary:
For though 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. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.1 Corinthians 5:3–5 ESV
Though Paul was not physically present in Corinth he was present spiritually. He says how: when the church in Corinth assembles in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present. How does assembling in the name of the Lord Jesus result in Paul’s spiritual presence? The promise is that when we assemble in the name of Jesus, Jesus is present in a unique and powerful way. Since every believer is also in God’s presence and since his presence is made manifest in his assembly, God’s people are somehow present spiritually. This is that great cloud of witnesses we read about in Hebrews 12:1, and especially in Hebrews 12:18–24.
Paul instructs the church to deal with the man when they are assembled in the name of Jesus. Specifically, they are to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”. Because he remains in unrepentant sin and is acting as a hostile (to God) unbeliever, they must remove him from their assembly. They are to deny him access to the community of believers by excommunicating him. This puts him outside of the Holy Spirit’s temple on earth, as Paul called the church in Corinth in chapter 3 of this letter (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). This action is what it means to “deliver him over to Satan” by removing him from the protective confines of the church.
Though this seems harsh to modern ears, Paul’s aim was the man’s salvation. Being unrepentant means there was little or no evidence the man was a believer and so he was to be treated as an outsider by being excluded from the assembly of Jesus. Paul’s aim is clear: “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” The good news in this story is that the church did this very thing, though perhaps a little too well. In his second letter Paul had to urge them to forgive the repentant sinner and reaffirm their love for him and welcome him back into the church (2 Corinthians 2:5–11).
In his instruction to them to practice the final step of church discipline, Paul referenced an earlier letter he had written to them (which we do not have):
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”1 Corinthians 5:8–13 ESV
Paul had to clarify that his point was not to go around judging unbelievers. The aim of the church’s insistence on holiness is not to conform the culture around them to a Christian understanding of moral and ethical behavior, but of purifying those inside the church. As he put it, we, the followers of Jesus, have nothing to do with judging outsiders. Instead, our pursuit of holiness is within the church. For this reason, he says, they must not associate with a person “who bears the name of brother”, that is, one who claims to follow Jesus but lives in unrepentant sin. He clarifies that the issue is not simply sexual immorality but also greed, idolatry, revilement (abusive language!), drunkenness, and swindling. In other words, if a brother or sister in Christ is engaged in unrepentant sin—this is key—that person must be dealt with, even if it includes the drastic step of excommunicating that person from the assembly of Jesus.
Part of this excommunication means having nothing to do with that person, and this is the truly difficult part. Paul says we are not even to eat with such a person. Again, he does not mean an unbeliever who does unbelieving things. He means a person who has so persisted in his or her sin that a local church has deemed it necessary to remove that person from the church. This is the final, last-ditch effort in calling a person who bears the name of brother to repent. (Paul is following the instructions of Jesus given in Matthew 18:15–20.)
Church discipline does two things. First, it shows us God’s mercy. Paul says in this chapter that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). Just as yeast or leaven will work its way through a batch of dough all on its own, so sin, if left unchecked, will work its way through an entire church. Whatever the sin, if it is tolerated in one or two or a few, that sin will eventually become rampant throughout a church, so purging the church of unrepentant sin is an act of mercy by God.
The second thing church discipline shows us is the value of the local church. God in Christ is creating for himself a people—a holy people. Jesus did not die to leave us wallowing in our sins. His death, burial, and resurrection were not so that we would remain enslaved to sin. Jesus died to set us free and he has given us church discipline to urge us on to love and good works, to urge us on to holiness, to urge us to live in the newness of life that is ours in Christ. He has given us his church as the primary means of our growth as God in Christ through his Spirit is making all things new, beginning with us.
The mission Jesus has given his church is to make disciples, followers who faithfully follow him. This includes evangelism and it includes teaching them to obey what he has commanded. We must value what God values, and God values our holiness. Just as God shows great patience with us, so we must show great patience with one another. It is only when no other avenues of disciple-making remain when a brother or sister persists in sin without repentance that we must take this drastic step. Knowing this ought to encourage each one of us to allow others in the church to speak into our lives, to exhort us, to encourage us, to strengthen us, to walk with us as we strive to follow Jesus faithfully. He has given us his church; let us not waste such a wonderful gift.