My high school math teacher had a collection of vicious paddles on display in a locked glass case in his room. There were some like the ones in the picture, and then there were others of more sadistic nature. One with spikes sticking out, for example. Any Warwick High School grads remember Mr. Pillion’s paddles?
For Mr. Pillion, the paddles were part of an expertly-crafted persona. Freshman and sophomores who happened to be in his room for study hall or homeroom or another class would see the paddles and wonder what kind of horrors happened in his classes. When you actually had him for class, you learned pretty quickly that his air of intimidation was done completely with a twinkle in his eye, and that he was an amazing teacher.
Something like that is going on in 1st Corinthians 5. Last week I mentioned two dreaded words, the D and A words: Discipline and Accountability. Like what the paddles in Mr. Pillion’s case could be used for on unsuspecting calculus students.
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul confronts the church in the Roman colony of Corinth because they were not using the D and A words. In other words, they needed to get the paddles out. There was a situation and the church not only looked away, they seemed proud about it. Paul describes the situation as “A man has his father’s wife.” Scholars suggest that this is likely a case of a man sleeping with his stepmom. That’s not meant to decrease the seriousness of the incident because, as Paul says, that kind of thing would not happen even in the non-Christian Roman culture that was very sexualized.
So why were the Corinthian Christians proud of this?
It is possible that they misunderstood God’s grace, which was a problem Paul addressed with churches in the cities of Rome and Galatia, as well as to Titus who pastored the church at Crete. If God was so gracious, why not live it up in sin? God will forgive, right? Yes, he will. And, yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection covered all that sin. But as Paul says to Titus, God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to sin. To gratefully live lives pursuing holiness, which is the abundant life Jesus said he came to offer.
Paul’s reaction is to tell the Corinthians Christians to deal with this man, very gingerly: “Hand him over to Satan!” “Do not eat with such a man.” Quoting the OT: “Expel the wicked man from among you!”
You can see why some people don’t like Paul very much. I swallowed hard and trepidatiously typed what he said. I type it, afraid it will be a major turn-off to people who are hesitant about God. But maybe there’s something more here. Maybe Paul isn’t just an arrogant jerk on a power trip. He says a couple things right in the middle of the “hand him over to Satan” rant that don’t fit, things that cause you to scratch your head: “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
Destruction of his flesh? Most commentators, and some translations, look at the word for “flesh” and believe Paul is referring not to this man’s physical body, but to the spiritual reality symbolized by the word “flesh”, namely his human sinful nature.
Destroy his sinful nature? Save his spirit?
These sound like potentially very good things. So whatever Paul is saying about Satan and excommunication, he is hoping it will lead to a very positive result. A restoration, a salvation. Like Mr. Pillion, it seems there’s more to Paul than meets the eye.
Have you ever seen or heard of an excommunication, a shunning, church discipline that led to restoration or salvation? I would love to hear your stories. Sadly, there are plenty of people who could share horror stories, more in line with “hand him over to Satan for destruction”. But I wonder if there are good stories of church discipline done well.
Paul is saying that we should not be proud of sin, but instead we should confront it. Churches need to practice church discipline, but they need to do it in a loving way. It is far too easy to do church discipline in a hasty, harsh and damaging way. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Further, just because it is so easy to get wrong, that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. If Paul is teaching churches anything here, it is that we need to lovingly, graciously, mercifully confront our brothers and sisters who are persisting in sin, so that they might be restored to the abundant life of Christ.
If we turn our heads the other way and don’t say anything, then we are in the wrong too. So do you need to speak up?