“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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is tough stuff! Let’s just lay bear what Paul is saying here: If someone insists on claiming the name of Christ, but is also incorrigibly committed to a lifestyle of sin, we are to kick them out of the church and not even be willing to fellowship with them. Can you imagine anything that would so fly in the face of our culture or be so inviting of a lawsuit today? Why would Paul call us to such a thing?
Well, in context, the guy in question here was having an open affair with his step-mother. That’s not acceptable behavior for anybody, let alone a follower of Jesus. Everybody knows that whether they are in the church or not. And he wasn’t even ashamed about it. What’s worse, the church was boasting of how tolerant and welcoming they were for letting him continue in fellowship there!
What this kind of thing did was to send a message to the world that the church, the fellowship of followers of Jesus, was no different from them in terms of their moral code and in some ways was even worse. This kind of thing, if left unchecked, threatened to dilute the attitude toward sinfulness and being separated from God of the whole church and mark it for many of those outside the church as a place not worth associating. In other words, this was a serious issue which merited a serious response.
Here’s the bigger issue: What makes the church stand out, what made Jesus stand out, is not that we tolerate the sinner, but that we love the sinner. Those are two very different things. Once a sinner (that would be all of us before Christ) has come into the church, embraced the Gospel and the life of Christ, and been made holy and righteous by the Spirit of God, the body as a whole has a say in how she is living.
For a host of reasons, we cannot tolerate sin among our ranks. Not even a little. Sin corrupts everything it touches. It divides person from person and person from God. It disrupts fellowship and intimacy with Jesus and with one another. It carves out a fantasy world where God is not Lord. None of that can be allowed in the church. Such things will undermine and ultimately destroy the church if left unchecked.
Now, it may be that a fellow member of the body is hiding their sin and we don’t know about it. There’s nothing we can do about that. But, when we do know about it, it is time to act. What Paul calls for here is a matter of last resort or for extreme situations (as this one was). Because we love one another, disfellowshipping like this is never our goal. We gently, but firmly, call our brother or sister back to the path of righteousness. If they refuse after multiple and increasingly direct attempts, then they are demonstrating that their claim to be following Jesus may be false and their intent is to harm the church. As a result and because of our love for both them and the church, we remove them from the body and refuse them fellowship until they are ready to repent.
As an imperfect illustration, about a year ago my appendix fell into “sin” and tried to kill my body. There was going to be no treating it or getting it to shape up and act right. The only option was to remove it from my body before it poisoned the whole thing. When a part of the body of Christ goes similarly rogue and shows no willingness to repent, removing this part from the body is the proper solution. This is never easy to do (especially given our culture today), and it should never be done without love for the person and a sincere desire for repentance, reconciliation, and restoration as its goal. But when the time comes that it is necessary, we need to stand with courage for the purity of the body.
But, this only applies to followers of Jesus. In part two I’ll talk about the other things Paul says here about folks who are not a part of the body.