The immorality Paul has in view here is especially heinous, “of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.”
Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth:
“that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst.” (v.2)
“I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (v.4)
“Clean out the old leaven” (v.7)
“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people” (v.9)
“I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person…not even to eat with such a one.” (v.11)
“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” (v.13)
The word Paul uses for “associate” in verses 9 and 11 means to “mix up together” or “be mixed up with” and is used in only one other place, 2 Thess. 3:14 where Paul urges the Thessalonians not to associate with the undisciplined members of their church who were not working for their own food. The present tense of the verb in 1 Cor. 5 implies ongoing associations.
The word Paul uses for “eat together” implies social eating and does not mean the Lord’s supper, although his admonition would certainly encompass this holy meal as well. Others passages where this word is used are Acts 10:41; 11:3; Gal. 2:12.
Paul clarified what he wrote previously because the Corinthians had understood him to mean they were to have no associations with any immoral person.
“I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world…for then you would have to go out of the world.” (v.10).
Paul did not forbid having a meal with an unbeliever:
“If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake.” (1 Cor. 10:27)
Paul cautioned against getting too close to unbelievers:
“Do not be bound together [unequally yoked] with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship [koinonia] has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14)
Jesus ate with sinners:
“Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him. And he entered the Pharisee’s house, and reclined at the table.” (Luke 7:36)
“And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:2)
“And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ And he hurried and came down, and received Him gladly. And when they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:5-7)
Jesus had a different approach to those who were hard-hearted and hypocritical in their faith. (see also Matthew 23).
“Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee, asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at the table. And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones…woe to you Pharisees!…Woe to you Pharisees!…Woe to you Pharisees!…Woe to you!…And one of the lawyers said to Him in reply, ‘Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too.’ But He said to him, ‘Woe to the lawyers as well!…Woe to you!…Woe to you lawyers! (Luke 11:37-52).
Jesus declared His purpose in Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Yet, Jesus considered his audience and the state of their heart in His approach to them. To those who were hard-hearted like the Scribes and Pharisees, He used very strong language; to those who were soft and vulnerable, He used milder language, albeit still confronted their sin (John 4 woman at the well; John 8 woman caught in adultery). We must assume that although He spoke firmly on some occasions and softly on others, His purpose was the same - to proclaim the gospel.
SUMMARY & APPLICATION
Only God knows the true condition of man‘s heart, but if a man claims to be a Christian and does not bear the fruit of his testimony, then his profession is questionable on the grounds of Matt. 7:15-23; 12:33-35 and Luke 6:43ff and the church is permitted to judge him accordingly. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?“ (1 Cor. 5:12). Other members of Christ’s Body should call this person to fidelity to his profession and make clear that Christian fellowship cannot occur with him until he repents.
If he persists in unrepentance and justification of his sin, then one should follow the pattern in Matthew 18:15-17,
“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact me be confirmed.’ And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
The so-called brother should be barred from activities within the church such as partaking of the sacraments, participation in Bible studies, ministry or service projects, fellowship meals, formal positions (elder, deacon, SS teacher) etc., anything that would imply that he is still a true brother in Christ by his participation.
However, I’m not convinced that Paul’s admonition about not associating with so-called brothers is applicable only in the context of the covenant community. At the time of Paul's writing he assumed a mutual membership in the same church - Corinth - because that's all there was and that was the occasion for the writing. But Paul didn’t limit its application strictly to local church life. There is nothing in the words “associate” or “eat with” that require applications be restricted to the community life of the church. The word “associate” appears to be benign since it is linked with social eating in verse 11. Paul could have used a stronger word like fellowship (GK: koinonia) to make more explicit the meaning of exclusive Christian fellowship if he had wanted to, but he didn’t.
Moreover, the problem nowadays is that most professing Christians are not members of true churches which practice elder oversight and discipline of it’s wayward members. Many so-called brothers can easily shop around and find a church willing to accept, if not even embrace, their sinful lifestyle. Since there is no local church to exercise discipline over these individuals, at least the larger Body of Christ (I.e., Church, capital “C”) can do so in order to preserve the purity of the Church and be a witness to the so-called brother that if the Body of Christ no longer acknowledges him as a member of that Body, than surely the Head of the Body, Christ, does not either.
Therefore, true believers should re-examine their own relationship with the so-called brother and not get too close or “mixed up with” him. For what fellowship has light with darkness? It doesn’t mean he should be avoided like the plague, but one should be guarded in his presence, lest his deceitfulness influence the true brother. If a believer is susceptible to corruption under the oversight of church leaders in the context of church life, how much more in everyday life where the believer is more vulnerable because church oversight is not physically present? Paul warns,
“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?” (1 Cor. 5:6)
“Do not be deceived: ‘bad company corrupts good morals.” (1 Cor. 15:33).
What types of social interactions with the so-called brother should be re-evaluated? Marriage and dating, business partnerships, financial assistance, babysitting, standing social engagements, etc. This list isn’t exhaustive, but offers examples of areas that should be considered.
Is family excluded from this prohibition? What about a family getting together for a holiday meal? This gets messy when family is in view because God has placed us into families for unique relational purposes that can be used advantageously to build His kingdom. However, Scripture also makes it clear that faith runs thicker than blood and we now have a new spiritual family in Christ and in His Church that supersedes all earthly ties (Lk. 8:19-21; 12:51-53; 18:28-30; 21:16; Jn. 19:26-27).
Participation in an occasional family gathering where a so-called brother is also present does not necessarily imply recognition of his false profession and could pose an opportunity to witness to the so-called brother, either in word or deed. If we eat with someone for the purpose of bringing salvation to them, then we follow the Lord’s example by dining with sinners. On the other hand, if other family members expect us to accept the sin, condone the sin, be quiet about the sin, not lovingly confront the sin, or pretend that we have fellowship with the so-called brother, all for the sake of false peace, then this meal should be avoided.
The judgment inflicted upon the so-called brother has correction as it’s goal, not mere punishment. The hope is that he will repent and be restored to fellowship with Christ and the Church (if he was a true believer to begin with). If he does repent, then it is the Church’s duty to forgive and welcome him back.
“Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your live for him.” (2 Cor. 2:6-8).
“Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive ? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:21-22).
One might ask, how can he be evangelized if he is being avoided? First, he is not being avoided altogether. I may choose to meet with this person in order to intentionally speak to him about Christ, the gospel and his sin. Certainly his elders (if he has any) would also be intentional about trying to bring back the wayward brother. Contact with him may now be more limited or look different, but he is not shunned altogether or regarded as an enemy.
“And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (2 Thess. 3:14-15).
Second, let us remember that this person has previously participated in the life of the church and has already heard and even publicly embraced the gospel. While his profession may be invalid, he still knows the gospel. Now the Spirit must apply that which he knows to his heart. We can pray towards this end. On the other hand, if his profession is valid then this judgment by the Church could wake him up to the gravity of his sin and lead him to repentance.
While we must be bold in confronting sin, we must also be careful how we handle others. Although Jesus took a very firm stance with some, we don’t have the benefit of His omniscience and sinlessness when we confront people in their sin. We, too, will be judged by the standard with which we judge others (Matt. 7:1-5). So we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15; 25); restore others in a spirit of humility and gentleness (Gal. 6:1); and remember that the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
Nevertheless, in as much as the Church follows the directives of Scripture it can be confident that its course of action is aligned with God’s disposition towards the so-called brother.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19)
“Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18)
“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23)