Tag Archives: church discipline

How to respond to deceivers in a church – 2nd John, Part 4

12 Sep
Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

How much should Christians interact with the secular world? I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is known for our Amish community, a Christian sect that practices a form of separation from the world. As I type this, I can look out my kitchen window and see my Amish neighbors wearing their traditional clothing and riding in a horse and buggy. They can look out their kitchen window and see me and my family wearing our contemporary fashions and driving cars. But we would both call ourselves followers of Jesus. I can tell you, living in this community for decades, that it works. I’m not saying that Lancaster is utopia, but for the most part, though we have a fairly diverse Christian population, we get along, allowing people the latitude to practice their faith in their unique ways, even if we might disagree.

I’ve often wondered, though, what would happen if we tried to actively convince each other that our way is right, and their way is wrong. What if we started attending each other’s worship services and gatherings trying to preach and teach them that they need to change and become like us? How would we handle that? The reality is that this very situation has happened in the past, and still does today. Not with the Amish, though! They’re not big on that kind of evangelism. Instead think of times when people might try to teach false doctrine in a church, or when a so-called cult group knocks at your door. How should you respond?

John continues teaching in the letter we call 2nd John, and he has a warning for people teaching false doctrine.  In verse 4, he wrote that he was thrilled that there were many in the church who were walking in truth, but now in verse 7 he warns them about another group, a dangerous group in the church. John calls them deceivers, those who are not in the truth, who do not practice love by obedience.

How did the deceivers deceive?  He says they did not acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh.  In other words, these deceivers were teaching false views about Jesus.  John and the apostles who walked with Jesus, who actually knew Jesus, taught that Jesus was human and God.  These teachers were saying something different. 

So John calls them “antichrist”?  What does he mean?  John is not talking about a concept of THE Antichrist, who is considered to be a future world leader. Instead John is referring to a person who teaches something that is against or anti- true teaching about Jesus.  Jesus and his disciples, including John, taught that Jesus is 100% human and 100% God, while these deceivers said something else.  John comes strongly against them. 

So in verses 8-9, John has a further warning for the church about losing what they have worked for.  He calls it “running ahead,” and “not continuing in the teaching.”  What does all this mean?  To continue in the teaching is the idea of remaining faithful to the true teaching about Jesus.  If you remain faithful, or continue in the teaching, John says in verse 8 that there is a reward.  Running ahead, then, is the opposite of continuing. The deceivers were “running ahead” when they taught false concepts about Jesus.

This is another reminder, as we have seen many times in the short letters of the New Testament, that faith is not merely assent but allegiance.  Faith does not stop at belief, but absolutely must work itself out in obedience.  This is what John already said in verse 6, “this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.”  If you do not have obedience to Jesus, therefore, you do not have faith.  He goes on to clarify this in verse 9 when he writes that the person who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ, “does not have God.”

As he continues in verses 10-11, John answers the question, “What should we do about the deceivers who bring false teaching about Jesus?  Further, what should we do about about people in the church who do not obey the teaching of Jesus?”  His response is, “Do not welcome them in your home.”

Can you feel the tension in this?  I feel it. We want to guard ourselves from false teaching for sure, but aren’t Christians supposed to be welcoming? Why would John say that we shouldn’t welcome people? Maybe if we built a relationship with them, we could earn the right to talk honestly with them? But if we just deny them, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to connect with them.

On one hand, in Psalm 1 we have a teaching that is very similar to what John says about being separate from those who call themselves people of faith but who are living a sinful live or teaching false doctrine.  On the other hand, we see Jesus himself interacting with sinners, talking with them, spending time in their homes and attending their parties.  

There are numerous examples where Jesus does this.  He attends parties with sinners.  He talks with the woman caught in adultery. He purposefully reaches out to the Samaritan woman at the well, and it is clear that her lifestyle was far from the straight and narrow.   What do we see in every one of these situations?  Jesus indulging in sin?  Of course not.  What we learn is that he called them out of a sinful lifestyle.  “Repent and sin no more.” 

Also take note that clearly Jesus did not have the attitude of “Well, I’m the savior of the world, so I don’t go to parties.”  Or “I don’t talk with people who sin.”  He did go to the parties and the places where sinners congregated. He is our example, and that means we can and should reach out as he did. He also confronted false teaching wherever he heard it, whether from the religious leaders or from his own disciples. So John’s teaching in 2nd John is in line with Jesus. While we can and should have genuine relationships with people, we shouldn’t accept false teaching into the church or our homes. When we hear it, we would be wise to graciously and lovingly respond, asking the person to consider changing their view. If they will not, we can just as lovingly agree to disagree. If a person is malicious in their attempt to push their teaching, then a church leadership team can and should respond to that person, even to the point of denying them access to the congregation.

But this requires sensitivity and self-awareness.  As we interact with people like Jesus did, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I being pulled down in the midst of those relationships?  Or am I able to maintain my faithfulness in Christ amidst the pressures and temptation, such that I can have an ability to lift people up?” We need to have honest people around us who we invite to speak into our lives, people who will confront us if we struggling with temptation.  So have a humble mindset, don’t think of yourself as a Christian superhero that rescues sinners.  Trust in God.

A three-step process for resolving conflict in the church – Titus 3:9-15, Part 4

15 Aug

Has your church family experienced disagreements? Divisions? Has your church had to wrestle with how to respond? It can be really tricky, right? Emotions fly, people get offended, and it can seem that no matter what option you choose, someone will not like it, get hurt, and leave the church.

Okay, let’s turn off the pause, hit play, and continue with Titus 3:9-11. There were disagreements in the church, Paul says in verse 9, that were unprofitable and useless.  Clearly, then, Christians are to focus on what is profitable and useful. 

Remembering that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we should want to live in such a way that even in our disagreements we should be Christ-centered.  There is a way to disagree that is loving and caring and in line with Jesus. 

Agree to disagree in love.  Recognize with humility that you could be wrong.  Remember that the other person is also made in the image of God, and is loved by God. 

Paul also teaches a method for addressing a situation when a person refuses to handle disagreement well.  Paul says, sometimes people are divisive, meaning that they can cause division in the church.  So in verses 10-11 he says, “Warn a divisive person once, and twice, then have nothing to do with them.” Paul is once again talking about church discipline, as he did back in chapter 1

Now, though, Paul mentions warnings.  Who does the warning? Paul doesn’t say specifically, but because the letter is to Titus, and Titus primary objective on his short trip to Crete was to appoint leaders, we could surmise that it was Titus and the church leaders who were to do the warning. Because Jesus also talked about something similar in Matthew 18:15, let’s determine if we can connect Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ three-step process, and perhaps we’ll have a better idea of how to handle this.  Go ahead and read Matthew 18:15-17.

See how Jesus’ teaching is similar to Paul’s?  Step 1, you approach the individual, and try to resolve it. If it doesn’t work, Step 2, take one or two other persons with you.  If that doesn’t work, Step 3, take it to the church. Churches have varying approaches to what body in a church should be responsible for Step 3. At Faith Church, our Leadership Team handles such concerns, and I recommend that for most churches some equivalent leadership group, comprised of spiritually mature leaders/elders, rather than the entire congregation, be tasked with Step 3.  So for Jesus, that’s how to resolve conflict in the church.

Back in Titus 3, notice what Paul says in verse 11: if a divisive person will not submit to this process, he calls them warped, sinful, and self-condemned.  They are not truly a Christian, as he said in Titus 1:16.  There he says that though they claim to know God, they show their true colors by their behavior.  It doesn’t matter if you say you are a Christian, or if you believe you are a Christian, when you do not act like one.  Paul says those people will do what they want to do.  Have nothing to do with them.  That doesn’t mean we can be unkind and unloving towards those people.  We should be kind and gracious and loving in all situations.

Paul doesn’t give us specific instructions for much for the nitty-gritty details of each situation.  Our Leadership Team has had to wrestle with these issues, and every situation is unique. Because of that uniqueness, we don’t always choose the same responses for each situation.  I can tell you this, though, that our Leadership Teams over the years have worked hard to preserve confidentiality, and we have prayerfully sought the Lord’s wisdom in the way forward.  That means we oftentimes take it slow, allowing time for prayer, for discussion, for situations to unfold.

Our heart’s desire, just like Paul’s is that all people in the church will grow closer to Christ, turn away from sin, and love and be loved in the fellowship of the church family.

Should Christians make rules to follow? Titus 1:10-16, Part 4

5 Jul

When my wife and I were students in Bible college, at the beginning of every semester we had to sign a document stating we would abide by the student handbook which had loads of rules.  You couldn’t go to the movies.  You couldn’t kiss on campus. There were pages and pages of rules. One rule was that you couldn’t dance.  That was in the early 90s when grunge music was popular, and our area was a hotbed for local Christian bands. Every weekend we could pick from multiple venues featuring grunge style rock and roll.  If you’ve ever been to a grunge concert, you know that you don’t really dance to that style of music.  Instead there is a mosh pit, featuring a rowdy form of jumping around and crashing into each other.  It is a lot of fun.  So because we Bible college students couldn’t dance, we would mosh. 

Were we breaking the college rules? Should the college even have rules like that?

As we continue studying Paul’s teaching in his letter to Titus, I want us to think about the intersection of Christianity and rules. In Titus 1:15-16, what we saw in our last post is that Paul was teaching something very new about rules. I want ask: are there ways in which we have been taught that Christians have certain rules to follow?  Oh yes. 

A heritage of rules is a long-held part of evangelical Christianity.  Yet, I think Paul would say the same thing to us that he said to the churches in Crete in his letter to Titus: We are free. We shouldn’t have rules like the OT Law. 

So where did our contemporary Christian rules come from?

Our evangelical heritage had a strong holiness emphasis.  It started off well and good, I believe, where people wanted to pursue the blamelessness we talked about in the series of posts on Titus 1:5-9.  But it is so interesting how a pursuit of blamelessness can lead to creating new rules. 

When my Bible college’s administration discovered, for example, that many students were moshing at grunge concerts, and they created a new rule about it. I’ll never forget the college chapel service when the dean of students got up in front of the student body and tried really hard to read the new decree that there would be no more…and he stuttered…he couldn’t get the word out right…he said, “mooshing?”  He didn’t know how to properly pronounce it, so he kept saying, “mooshing.” We were not allowed to moosh.  There was much laughter in the crowd that day. 

My dad was a professor at the time at the college, and he regularly taught in his New Testament classes the exact kinds of passages that we are looking at this week, “To the pure, all things are pure.”  His suggestion was that we should scrap the entire student handbook, and just allow the Bible to guide us.  I agree. 

This is tricky, though, because we have so many rules in a church family that we disagree about.  We’ve talked about this many times over the years on this blog.  Can girls and women wear bikinis?  Can we watch R-rated movies, smoke, drink, dance, curse, work on Sundays, and on and on it goes

Clearly, Paul was saying to Titus that those people in the church who made following OT cleanliness rules a test case for faith were wrong.  Likewise, we should not be creating any rules and regulations and trying to bind people to follow them.  We Christians are under the New Covenant in Christ, which is the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.  That is what guides our lives.  When people are trying to teach us to follow some other rules and regulations, we should rebuke them just as Paul is saying here. 

But as we rebuke, we can do so using the principles of patient encouragement and inclusion that Paul taught Titus. We want to encourage people to sound doctrine so that they can be part of the church family.  We give them chances.  To that end, we pursue unity, not uniformity. 

There is plenty of room for disagreement, so long as people in a church family are willing to agree to disagree, in a gracious manner.  There is a phrase that I have mentioned before, and I’ll say it again here because I think it is so helpful to guide us during those times when we disagree.   

It is the Pyramid of Doctrine: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

What are the “essentials”?  I would suggest that the top part of the pyramid should be tiny.  It is why I so appreciate the my denomination’s membership ceremony which does not require new members to agree with the 25 Articles of the EC Church.  Admittedly, different denominations and churches have disagreements about what should be included in this top level, but for the EC Church we only ask people to agree to faith in and discipleship to Jesus, baptism, and commitment to the church.  Some people have suggested that we Christians should just rally around the Apostles’ Creed.  Either way, the top level is reserved for the major doctrines of the faith, and we should major on the majors, and minor on the minors.  As the phrase goes, at this top level of the pyramid, we should have unity. Not uniformity, by the way, as, even at this level, we can have some differences.

What are the minors, the “non-essentials”?  I would suggest that they are things like Predestination vs. Free will, Church government format, Evolution vs. Creation, how to do baptism, communion, and worship services.  There are a great many issues about which Christians will disagree, but we should do so with grace, love and humility.  In our church, we have a variety of opinions about these matters.  As the pyramid moves downward, the levels grow larger, meaning that there will be more and more areas of disagreement.  But that is okay.  At this middle level of the pyramid, we should have liberty, meaning we give people freedom to choose and disagree, while still maintaining loving family relations with them. Again, it is unity, not uniformity, that allows for liberty.

Finally, what are “all things”?  In this, the largest level of the pyramid, there are so many areas we could include: politics, issues of ethics, gray areas in Christian behavior, and so on.  Here, as the phrase goes, we should have charity, meaning love is our focus, because we could have sharp disagreements, but we should still love and not break relationship with one another. 

Paul is saying, in other words, that leaders take divisiveness in the church seriously.  We pursue unity in doctrine and in relationships.  Paul said we should not tolerate sin and divisiveness in the church family.  Church leaders should commit to following his teaching of silencing, rebuking and encouraging rebellious ones among them to return to sound doctrine. 

How to have restorative church discipline – Titus 1:10-16, Part 2

2 Jul

When you discover troublemakers in the church, what is a faithful way to respond to them? Confrontation is difficult, so we might be tempted to avoid the troublemakers and think the problem will work itself out on its own. It rarely does, though. Instead, as we will see in our continuing study of Titus 1:10-16, Paul teaches Titus that he (Titus) and the leaders in the churches in Crete will need to confront the troublemakers. Paul has some very specific guidelines for this action, and it might surprise you to learn that it is filled with grace.

First in verse 11, Paul says, “They must be silenced.”  This is a bold claim, and it doesn’t sound gracious, does it?  Shouldn’t there be freedom of speech in the church?  Yes…and no.  Let’s see what Paul has to say about this. 

Having heard Paul describe the rebellious circumcision group in verse 10, we can see why Titus had to be so careful about who he picks as church leaders, and why it is so important that those church leaders are strong in the faith, self-controlled and blameless.  Those church leaders are going to have to implement church discipline.  In verse 9, for example, Paul said the church leaders will refute those who oppose sound doctrine.  Now in verse 11, he is saying that the church leaders silence the people in the church who are teaching false doctrine.  This is a very picturesque word.  It is the idea of putting a muzzle on an animal.

Our dog is so loud when he barks.  If you pull into our driveway, he immediately hustles to our backdoor like a sentry, barking incessantly.  He will not stop until whoever has arrived enters the house and greets him.  I can understand why muzzles were invented.  Paul is saying that when there are rebellious, idle talkers in the church, deceiving people, they have to be muzzled.

Why?  Look at how Paul describes the consequences of their teaching in the rest of verse 11: “They are ruining whole households.” Here I suspect he is talking about the fact that the churches were house churches.  But how could it be that false teaching was breaking up families?  How many of you have families where you can’t talk about certain things without starting a shouting match?  My guess is that relates to just about every family, and Paul knew the same thing could happen in these families who were new Christians, hearing conflicting doctrines because these idle talkers were teaching things they ought not to teach.  He’ll explain the content of what they were teaching when we get to verse 14. For now Paul teaches Titus, and the leaders Titus will appoint, “Muzzle those people.”

Paul goes on to say that the idle talkers are teaching false doctrine for the sake of dishonest gain.  He doesn’t explain how they get money from their teaching, but we know from the historians that Cretans were known for their greed.  One of those ancient historians, Polybius, said this about Cretans, “So much in fact do sordid love of gain and lust for wealth prevail among them, that the Cretans are the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful.”  Cretans were known for their love of money. That still doesn’t tell us how the false teachers gained wealth through their teaching. All we need to know is that it was an issue, revealing their selfish desires rather than a commitment to Jesus and his Kingdom.

In verse 12 Paul supports his claim about the character of the greedy Cretans, using a quote by one of their own, Epimenedes, describing how rough the Cretans were.  We do not need to read Paul as saying that every single person on the Island of Crete was like this.  But this tendency of Cretans being wild and unruly was prevalent enough that Paul says, in verse 13, this quote is true. He is saying, Epimenedes knew what he was talking about, it is true. Sadly, that wild rebellious spirit was present in some who were in the church.  So Paul builds on what he said in verse 11.  There he said, “Silence them,” to stop the false teaching, and now in verse 13, he adds: “Rebuke them sharply.” 

Those are strong words.  It is the idea of a public, audible statement to the person, saying to them, “You are wrong.  Here is the proof.”  When people are wrong, church leaders are to silence them, and to correct them.  Paul adds the qualifying word, “sharply,” which can be translated “to deal harshly with someone.”  When I read that I think, “Really, Paul?  Are you saying that when someone is acting sinfully or teaching false doctrine, we can be mean to them?” I doubt that’s what Paul is saying.  Here’s why:

Paul could have suggested that these people should just be put out of the church immediately.  See Paul’s heart here.  It is not a heart of shunning and just getting rid of people.  Instead his heart is for reconciliation and growth, so that the people who are not dwelling in the truth would be corrected and become healthy. 

Again, we need to refer back to verse 9 where the leaders are to encourage others by sound doctrine.  Paul wants the rebellious ones to be encouraged.  He wants the leaders to see their task of correcting as a task of encouragement.  I love that.  If we encounter those with whom we disagree, or those who we believe are rebellious, Paul has now said that those behaving badly in the church must be silenced and they must be rebuked. While those sound like harsh words, remember that he is also saying that the posture of the one doing the rebuking should have a heart and a tone of encouragement.

Rebuking is for the purpose of healing.  How do we know this?  Because he says in the next phrase, “So that they will be sound in the faith.”  What does it mean to be sound in the faith?  Sound doctrine.  What is sound doctrine?

Paul first explains what it is not.  Look at verse 14.  He wants the false teachers rebuked so that they will pay no attention to Jewish Myths or the commands of those who reject the truth.   Here again we can make the connection that Paul is talking about Jewish Christians who believed that Christians needed to follow the OT Law.  But he is saying that they need to be rebuked so that they don’t pay attention to that stuff anymore. 

Turn over to Titus 3:9 briefly and notice how Paul reiterates his teaching.  There were numerous speculative teachings within Judaism, some pertaining to the genealogies the OT Law, and Paul says that disciples of Jesus should avoid all that.  Sounding very much like he does in 1:10-16, in chapter 3, he says, “warn a person about this.”  He calls them “divisive” meaning that their teaching was dividing the church.  So warn them to stop.  If they keep going, give them a second warning.  If they keep going, he says in verse 10, “have nothing to do with him.”  Again, these are very strong words from Paul to Titus and the church in Crete.  Paul is taking decisive action against false teaching to the point of breaking fellowship with people who are unwilling to repent.  But note that he teaches a process, and it is not quick.  As we saw above, church discipline should involve grace and multiple chances to help restore people. 

Spotting deceivers in the church – Titus 1:10-16, Part 1

1 Jul

“They didn’t teach that in seminary.”  I had a wonderful seminary experience, and I would recommend my seminary to anyone. But there are some aspects of pastoral ministry that you just have to experience, and it is about those that pastors can say, “they didn’t teach that in seminary.” Dealing with funerals.  The emotional toll.  How it can feel being on call.  But for sure one of the most difficult is dealing with church discipline.  I’ve never met a church discipline situation that I liked, and we’ve had a number of them over the years.  Each is unique.  Each is emotional and taxing. But each one is important. 

I became senior pastor in July 2008, and by the first week of August we were embroiled in a really thorny situation.  I’ll never forget the day in the office as the phone rang, and who was on the other end, but my bishop at the time.  In my denomination the bishop is leader of the whole denomination. In that era, there were actually mid-level conference ministers who were my direct “bosses.” The bishop was their boss. So I was getting a call from my boss’s boss. Maybe you’ve experienced that too. I answered and said, “Hey Bishop Kevin, how can I help you?”  Imagine my surprise when he revealed that he was calling me because some of the people in the difficult situation in my church had called him to tattle on me!  I will admit that I had not handled that difficult situation perfectly, and as I talked with the Bishop, I conceded that there were some things I would have done differently. 

The larger context, though, was that there was sin in the church family, and not just me alone, but our Leadership Team had confronted the sin, and the disgruntled people ended up leaving the church. We tried very hard to handle the situation in a faithful manner, and the result was very hurtful. Just about every church discipline situation I’ve encountered has been like that. I’ve learned that when our Leadership Team has confronted people, they usually don’t say, “Thank you, I needed that.”

As we continue reading other people’s mail, we come to Titus 1:10-16, where Paul talks about confronting sin in the church.  What Paul says relates to church discipline for any reason, but what Titus needs to deal with in Crete is a very specific situation.

When we studied Titus 1:5-9, we learned that Paul gave Titus his primary mission, which was to select leaders for the churches in Crete.  Now in this series of posts we learn why Paul had such specific guidelines for who Titus should appoint as leaders. 

Remember the one word that Paul used to describe the leaders?  It’s like bookends to verses 6 and 7: blameless.  There Paul gave Titus a variety of lists, so Titus had an unmistakable idea of what blameless leaders are all about. 

Why?  Because those blameless leaders had a job to do in Crete.  Look at verse 9.  Those leaders were going to hold firmly to the message as it had been taught, so that they could encourage others by sound doctrine, and refute those who oppose it. 

There were people in the church in Crete, Paul is saying, who opposed sound doctrine.  Now in verses 10-16, Paul teaches Titus who these people are and how to refute them.  Go ahead and read Titus 1:10-16, and see if you can discover why Paul is so concerned. 

Verse 10 presents a very negative view of a certain group of people in the church.  Who were they?  He calls them, “rebellious, mere talkers, and deceivers.”  Paul’s mention of rebellious people needs to be seen in the context of what he has just talked about in verse 9, sound doctrine, which is the true faith.  The rebellious ones are rebelling against that true teaching, as Paul will go on to describe in the verses that follow.

Paul describes them as mere talkers which conveys the idea of idle talk, empty talk, that they are foolish babblers.  They talk a good game, and likely talk a lot, but it is empty, and it is not in line with the true faith.  Think about babbling.  It is what infants do when they are learning to talk.  They love to hear themselves make sounds.  But their noises have no meaningful content.  Paul says those rebellious people in the churches in Crete are teaching something that has the doctrinal equivalency of baby talk. 

Finally, he says they are deceivers.  That flows from the rebellious description and from the mere talking.  By being rebellious and by their empty talk, they are deceiving the church. 

Next he points out a subset of the larger rebellious group.  Paul has a special name for them: the “circumcision group”.  That’s a pretty focused word, and it is not coded at all.  Paul is talking about Jews.  They were Jews who said that they believed in Jesus, but also the believed that Christians must still follow the Old Testament Law.  Do you know the outward sign that indicated that a person was a Jew who followed the Law?  Circumcision.  All male babies in Jewish families would be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth, showing that they were a part of the covenant God made with Israel.  It was a special mark that distinguished Jews from others. 

There on the island of Crete where Titus was going to appoint leaders in the churches, many people were not Jews, and thus were likely not circumcised.  Paul is saying that the circumcision group, the Jewish Christians were especially the problem in the church.  We’re going to see why in the next post.

Mr. Pillion’s Painful Paddles and thoughts on doing church discipline the right way – 1 Corinthians 5

2 Apr

 

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?