Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
I Corinthians 5:1-8
Expel the Immoral Brother
1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who has been doing this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.
At this point every two years, the lectionary reading schedule comes to a day on which there are several different listed readings could all be the basis of a particularly meaningful Reflection. Just to review, each day the lectionary gives us two morning readings from the Psalms, one from the rest of the Old Testament, one from the four gospels, and one from the rest of the New Testament. Most days we base our Reflections on the gospel reading or the one from the rest of the New Testament, and once in a while on the Old Testament reading.
This is one of those days when I could imagine writing Reflections on each of the four readings listed – they all have something pretty meaningful to say to us as followers of Jesus in the 21st century.
Two of today’s readings deal with the issue of sexual immorality. The gospel reading from Matthew 5 includes the famous passage in which Jesus warns that ‘looking at a woman lustfully’ is the moral equivalent of committing adultery with her. And what Jesus says in that passage applies to human sexuality the same principle yesterday’s reading applied to anger – that his disciples are to strive to control our thoughts as well as our actions. It seems to me that Jesus’ concern is the same in both cases: that if we indulge in furious or lustful thinking, eventually that thinking will lead us to take violent or sexually immoral action.
One thing that always needs to be said about this passage, it seems to me, is that we need to be clear about what Jesus had to say about looking at a woman lustfully. Some parts of the church have traditionally insisted that any time you see someone and experience attraction to them, you are guilty of the moral equivalent of adultery. I suspect that a main reason for this traditional interpretation is that it’s been found to be a particularly effective way to make Christian men feel guilty, and so to keep them under the control of church leaders.
Sorry to be judgmental, but I suspect that most of the leaders of those parts of the church know that they are using what Jesus says in an unethical way. A really accurate way to translate this passage from the Greek is that what Jesus actually said was that “anyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He’s not talking about experiencing momentary attraction. He’s talking about deliberately indulging in watching the neighbor lady bathing. And as King David tragically discovered, if you do that long enough, you just might act on that lust.
In the other New Testament passage for today, the one from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle tells the church in Corinth that they should expel a member of the congregation who has created a scandal for the church by having a sexual relationship with his stepmother.
On the face of it, this seems to contradict the direction of Jesus when he said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (That’s actually in another part of the Sermon on the Mount.) But there’s an important distinction to be made here between followers of Jesus being individually judgmental and the church as a body maintaining discipline in its ranks.
As Reformed Christians, we believe that one of the marks of the true church is ‘discipline rightly administered.’ The case Paul is writing about here would seem to call for that kind of discipline to be rightly administered. A member of the church was behaving in a way that even the pagan Greeks found scandalous. (And you had to be pretty wild to seem scandalous in ancient Greek culture.) The guy messing around with his stepmother was bringing dishonor on the church and on the God we’re supposed to glorify, and that can’t be tolerated.
When one individual passes judgment on another, even if we mean well, then our egos and our personal agendas are bound to color our judgment. On the other hand, when the church rightly exercises discipline as a body, there’s a much greater chance that the disciplinary process will be led by the Holy Spirit. That’s why in our Reformed tradition, discipline is never exercised by a single person (like bishops in other denominations). With us, it’s always by groups of people acting prayerfully together.
There are two other ideas in this passage that are especially helpful to stop and think about as we reflect on this question.
First of all, Paul makes it pretty clear that the goal in exercising discipline – in this case in punishing wrong-doing in the church – is always to be the correction of the wrong-doer. Paul’s language in verse 5 is a little confusing, because it says the church is to ‘hand the man over to Satan.’ But in Hebrew tradition of the time, Satan was regarded as “the accuser.” (That’s actually what Satan means in Hebrew.) So the point Paul is making here is that punishing the sexually immoral man was done with the goal of causing him to see the error of his ways and be restored to the fellowship of believers. Like we said, that’s always the goal of church discipline.
The other important idea in this passage is what Paul writes about yeast, and the way it “works through the whole batch of dough.” Paul is using yeast as a metaphor for sin, so the point he’s making is that if the church allows uncorrected sin to go on in its ranks, that sin will have a corrosive effect on the moral and spiritual life of the whole church. Instead of being the kind of group it’s meant to be – one characterized by “sincerity and truth,” the church will be marked by “malice and wickedness.”
Discipline in the church must be exercised rightly – with prayer and discernment. Its goals are always to restore the wrong-doer to correct behavior and to protect the harmony of the church, not to make sinners suffer as much as possible. But although we are commanded not to judge one another individually, the body of believers is collectively responsible for holding one another accountable for the way we represent Jesus in the world around us.
Let’s pray. Lord, by your Holy Spirit, move in our hearts and lead us to act morally in every aspect of life. And when we sin, protect the church from being damaged by our sins. And when it must exercise discipline, guide the church to be firm but loving in leading us back to your way. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 54 and 146; II Kings 5:19-27; and Matthew 5:27-37.)