When Immorality Comes to Church

1 Corinthians

Lesson Focus: God’s standards – not prevailing cultural standards – form the basis for the Christian’s morality. The church must uphold God’s standards of morality.

Does Sin Still Shock Us?: 1 Cor. 5:1-2.

[1]  It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. [2]  And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.  [ESV]

[1]  Paul’s indignation is prompted by an oral report from unnamed sources, perhaps Chloe’s people [1:11]. It was an awkward matter that the Corinthians were unlikely to write to Paul about in their letter but something that those displeased by the whole affair would leak to Paul. He is not present and cannot visit soon to take matters into his own hands and so he must try to resolve things from a distance through his letter. Only after laying the theological foundation and reasserting his authority over them in chapters 1-4 can he turn his attention to this urgent matter. Paul expresses shock, amazement, and horror at the report that such brazen immorality was committed by a Christian. Claiming that this sin is not tolerated even among pagans serves rhetorically to heighten the Corinthians’ guilt. Since Paul so disdains Gentile sexual morality [1 Thess. 4:5], their disapproval of such a sin marks it as utterly despicable. By appealing to a universal norm of decency, Paul intends to evoke shame in the Corinthians to puncture their inflated pride and make them more amenable to change. If the church tolerates sin that even pagan society condemns as deviant, it torpedoes its moral witness in the world. If its standards of sexual morality sink below those of the unconverted society around them, something is badly amiss. Their conduct in the world should bring glory and honor to God and, at the very least, respect for their faith from outsiders. If they appear to condone egregious sin, they will eradicate any moral boundary lines that set them apart as a holy people from their unbelieving neighbors. Has his father’s wife refers to sexual intercourse but father’s wife does not refer to the man’s biological mother, but probably his stepmother. Since Paul gives no further details, we must leave open the question about the exact relationship between the man and the woman and why it came about, but the suggestion that this man possessed some social standing best explains the church’s incriminating silence.

[2]  The reference to being arrogant ties the discussion of this case to Paul’s concern about their spiritual arrogance in chapter 4. From Paul’s admonitions in chapters 1-4, we can surmise that their inflated opinion of themselves sprang from an overweening sense of spiritual power, knowledge, and wisdom. It expresses itself in boasting [5:6]. The implication is that with such a pestilent moral virus infecting their fellowship, they of all people have no justification to be boastful. In Scripture, pride, dishonorable acts, and destruction are assumed to be somehow intertwined. In this case, Paul warns that the deadly combination of pride and the toleration of dishonorable acts threatens the entire community’s destruction. Rather than boasting, they should be mourning which would acknowledge the iniquities in their midst that hazard God’s crushing retribution. Their mourning is not to be passive lamentation, waiting for God to do something to the man. They are to take action against him by removing him from their fellowship.

How Should We Respond to Immoral Members?: 1 Cor. 5:9-13.

[9]  I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– [10]  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. [11]  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. [12]  For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? [13]  God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."  [ESV]

[9-10]  I wrote refers to an earlier letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church warning the members not to associate with sexually immoral people. Their nonchalance about the man who entered into an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife sadly reveals that this warning was not taken seriously. Paul is not calling for them to be unsociable or to withdraw to their own island universe but to make unwelcome any Christians in name who ignore core Christian moral values. Those who claim the name “Christian” and act no differently than pagans have broken down fundamental boundaries. To draw back from such persons prevents the church from being tarnished by the moral stigma attached to such behavior so that it does not impair their evangelism efforts. It notifies both the offender and the world that the Christian’s God does not tolerate such defilement and thereby safeguards God’s honor and credibility so that the name of God is not blasphemed in the world because of their crimes. In verse 10 Paul moves beyond sexual sin to include the greedy and swindlers whose aims in life are entirely directed by self-interest and the urge to gain the edge over others. Idolaters are also included in the list, which would have included nearly all the inhabitants of Corinth. If Paul were expecting them not to have any associations with these kinds of people, then they would be duty bound to leave the world. This comment reveals his bleak appraisal of pagan morality and his conviction that Christians are a distinct minority in this immoral world. The gospel does not call Christians to retreat from the world but to witness to it. The problem, however, is that the wicked and perverse have made inroads into this congregation. The basic premise behind Paul’s statement is that the church’s purity can be contaminated only from within, not from without. Bad characters abound in the world; they are not to abound in the church. Paul’s grievance is that they cannot witness to an unbelieving world when one of their own members is guilty of a sin that causes even the heathens to blush.

[11]  Christians are identifiable by their conduct, not simply by their doctrine or verbal professions. If anyone goes by the name Christian and is guilty of the list of sins in verse 11, they are to be ostracized: not even to eat with such a one. When Christians ate together, it reinforced and confirmed the solidarity established by their shared confession of faith in Christ. Refusing to eat with fellow Christians guilty of such acts breaks all social ties with them as well as excludes them from the Lord’s Supper. This exclusion may seem harsh and intolerant, a reversion to the narrow separatism of the Pharisees, but Christians who are no different morally from unbelievers blur the clear distinctions between the church and the world and destroy their testimony to God’s transforming power in their lives. Those who are blatantly immoral, without repenting, cannot be allowed to appear to represent what it means to be a Christian. Obviously, this approach has its dangers. The church can degenerate into a defensive community that regards everyone with suspicion and deals out harsh discipline. It can lead to a vain self-righteousness, a chilly exclusivism, and a spirit of suspicion. The context, however, refers to a glaring sin that is very public and brings disgrace upon the community. There is a limit beyond which patience, toleration, and charity toward another’s sin ceases to be a virtue.

[12-13]  Paul asserts that it is not his business to judge those outside and he intends his readers to apply what he says to themselves. The context implies that to judge involves formally condemning someone and taking disciplinary action. It does not mean that the church should refrain from prophetic judgment of its society. Christians have no jurisdiction over outsiders and have no business usurping a task that belongs to God alone. Those outside are left in God’s hands and the church has the responsibility to them to seek to win them over, not to nag, browbeat, or seek to control them. The church is responsible for keeping its own moral house in order, and God will hold them accountable for it.

What’s Wrong with Sexual Immorality?: 1 Cor. 6:15-20.

[15]  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! [16]  Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two will become one flesh." [17]  But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. [18]  Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. [19]  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, [20]  for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.  [ESV]

[15-17]  With the question, do you not know, Paul carries on an imaginary debate with the Corinthians and presents his first argument to buttress his statements in 6:12-14. The question assumes that they should understand that the power of Christ’s resurrection is active now in their lives because they have been made members of the living Christ. Union with Christ affects not only a Christian’s spiritual relationship to God but also a Christian’s bodily relationship to others. Paul uses the image of being a member of Christ to play up the individual’s responsibility to Christ as His limb and organ rather than the corporate relatedness of each limb and organ to one another – something he develops in 12:12-16,27. The emphasis is not on many individuals becoming the one body of Christ but upon an individual’s union with Christ. Christ, who lives in us, is to have charge over how His members are to be used. Paul believes that Christians are to be motivated and directed by the transcendent power of Christ pulsing through their lives. Paul adds a second do you not know question to explain why sex with a prostitute is so serious a matter. Sexual union creates an enduring bond. The verb joined implies that the man and the prostitute are wedded together even if there are no wedding vows. They may regard their union as only a temporary liaison but it is more entangling than that; neither is free from the other when they part company. Paul derives his proof for this view from Scripture. It is a bold move to apply the one-flesh union created by marriage to the seemingly casual sexual union with a prostitute. The assumption is that every sexual act between a man and woman, whether licit or not, fuses the partners together into one flesh. There is no such thing as casual sex that has no enduring consequences, even when the partners have no intention of forming a mutual attachment. If a Christian joins himself to a prostitute, and if the prostitute represents forces opposed to God, this immoral act has aligned the Christian over against God. Paul’s primary concern is how this act violates one’s relation to Christ. The argument here assumes that when something holy is joined to what is unholy in an unholy union, the flesh becomes corrupted and the body desecrated and made unfit for the Holy Spirit.

[18-20]  Paul’s emphatic command to flee draws the conclusion to his argument. When one has sex with a prostitute, what God intended to be a means of sharing one’s life with another is dehumanized into a momentary coupling for the sole purpose of sexual release. It leaves a legacy of alienation and guilt rather than loving intimacy and mutual commitment. Paul’s third do you not know question either reminds them, if they have forgotten, or informs them, if they did not know, that their bodies are the shrine of the Holy Spirit now. He first applied this temple imagery to the entire church [3:16-17] and now adapts it to individual Christians. The Holy Spirit stamps their bodies as belonging to God and set aside for God’s use, guarantees their common destiny with God ]2 Cor. 1:22], and makes their bodies a sacred place of God’s presence. To engage in sexual immorality not only defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit but also rejects the life God has given them. Reminding them that they received the Holy Spirit from God also reminds them of God’s authority over their lives. Reminding them that they house the Spirit means that they not only sin against their own bodies when they are guilty of sexual immorality, but they also sin against the Holy Spirit. They must also recognize that they are not their own. The Lord has full property rights over them. The imagery derives from the slave auction, familiar to Corinthians because Corinth was a major center for slave trafficking. They had been bought with a price and now belong entirely to Christ. God now has the title deed to their bodies. Christ’s death purchased them, and they have been transferred from Satan’s household to serve in Christ’s household. It brings improved status, new duties, and increased accountability. They now must glorify God with their bodies.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why does Paul call the Corinthians arrogant in 5:2? How are they showing their spiritual pride? What is this pride doing to the health of the church and to its witness to the Gentile community?

2.         Why is it necessary for the leaders of the church to deal with blatant and unrepentant sin by members of the church? How does Paul say the church should deal with such members  [See also Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:3-5; 2 Cor. 2:5-11]? What positive message does church discipline send to both the offender and to the watching world?

3.         Three times Paul uses the phrase do you not know to enter into debate with the Corinthians in 6:15-20. Summarize Paul’s debate. Why is he so concerned about sexual immorality? What do these verses say about our world’s view on casual sex?

4.         Paul concludes his argument with the command: So glorify God in your body. How are we to glorify God with our bodies? During this coming week, use this command as your focal point in deciding how you will use your bodies. What difference does this make in the way you live your life?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, Baker.

The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

1 Corinthians, Peter Naylor, Evangelical Press.

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