With Such A One Do Not Even Eat, 2: The Text
In these verses Paul uses six terms to describe the kinds of behaviours that are to be expected from unbelievers but which are unacceptable for those calling themselves ‘brother’. They are:
• Sexually immoral
• Reviler (slanderer)
To deal with 1 Cor 5 faithfully we need an understanding of what these terms meant for Paul in the first century, why he chose them, and what they might mean for us, today.
It seems that this is not a random list but a list with precise heritage and intent. As Ciampa & Rosner point out in the Pillar commentary on 1 Corinthians, a clue is given by verse 13, Purge the evil person from among you. This is a quotation from Deuteronomy, and there is “a remarkable parallel” between the sins listed by Paul here and Deuteronomical “covenantal norms.” Ciampa & Rosner illustrate this parallel thus:
1 Corinthians 5:11 [Deuteronomy]
Sexually immoral [promiscuity, adultery (22:21-22,30)]
Greedy [(no parallel, but paired with “swindlers” in 1 Cor 5:10)]
Idolaters [idolatry (13:1-5; 17:2-7)]
Slanderers [malicious false testimony (19:16-19)]
Drunkards [rebellious, drunken son (21:18-21)]
Swindlers [kidnapping, slave-trading (24:7; LXX uses the noun “thief”)]
In Deuteronomy these sins would have led to automatic exclusion of the offender from the community (actually, execution) and it seems that Paul is deliberately adopting a Deuteronomic framework in 1 Corinthians: these sins must also result in the exclusion of ‘brothers’ from the church because there is something especially destructive about them.
Ciampa & Rosner explain why exclusion from the community must be the consequence of such actions:
First, the man must be removed because he is guilty of covenant disloyalty; secondly, because while he remains, the church is implicated in his sin; and thirdly, because the community is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In short, he must be driven out for the sake of the church. A fourth reason for his expulsion is that he must be rejected for his own sake.
If this reading is correct, the terms Paul chooses are not random, but deliberate examples of the kinds of sin that break covenant, and require a decisive response. As Gordon Fee observes, Paul is urging the church to expel “those who persist in their former way of life, not those who simply struggle with former sins.” It is simply not possible for the church to tolerate such behaviour amongst those who claim to be part of the community, even though the believers should in no way disassociate themselves from non-believers who live this way (1 Cor 5:10). To quote Fee again, the Pauline principle is “Free association outside the church…strict discipline within the church.”
Why these issues signify covenant disloyalty
The sins that merit exclusion from the assembly are noteworthy for the manner in which they disrupt community:
• Financial dishonesty undermines trust and the essential Christian characteristics of generosity and hospitality. It is difficult to worship alongside someone who has tricked you out of money.
• Drunkenness prevents clear thought and limits the ability to serve others. Drunkards can often appear threatening, and are deaf to reason. Importantly, in the framework of Deuteronomy drunkenness is associated with rebellion, not with simply drinking too much.
• Slander creates barriers between people and prevents an honest sharing of hearts.
• Idolatry places something other than God on the throne of our lives and destroys the entire basis of our relationship with Christ and his body.
• Greed (which is not directly equivalent to ‘eating too much’) is aligned to idolatry: putting our trust in something other than God.
• Sexual immorality breaks down community as it turns healthy relationships into unhealthy ones and has a cancerous effect on the body.
Each of these sins harm not only the individual committing them but the body as a whole. They discredit Jesus and weaken bonds between believers. Thus they deny the covenant God has made with us by the blood of Christ and the reality of the Spirit at work in us. This means it is impossible for those who persist in such sins to remain within the church.
If, as seems most likely, Paul is thinking within a Deuteronomy-shaped framework in this list of sins we can make some further observations.
Firstly, the sins listed here are those that in Deuteronomy merit the death sentence. While all sins are sin, some sins were identified as being so destructive that they merited the ultimate form of being cut off from the community. In a New Testament context the death sentence is replaced by being cut off from the life of the community through exclusion.
Secondly, Deuteronomy 13 makes plain that if someone has been so disloyal to the covenant as to warrant execution, even family members are not to stay their hand in carrying out the sentence. The incredible severity of this demand should, at the least, make us consider again the primacy of the family of Christ over our flesh and blood relations.
Thirdly, there is another place in Deuteronomy, not cited by Ciampa & Rosner, where the phrase “purge the evil from among you” is employed. This is Dt 17:12 where the reference is to someone who fails to obey the priest. It is possible that this reference can be connected to the category of greed as there is a clear connection between greed and disobedience. Those who teach the word of the Lord faithfully are not greedy, while “teaching for shameful gain” (Titus 1:11) is something that scripture warns against.
This is a hard teaching for us! And of course it raises the question of what degree of exclusion should apply to a brother who persists in sin. This is a question I will turn to next.