With Such A One Do Not Even Eat, 3: Degrees of exclusion image

With Such A One Do Not Even Eat, 3: Degrees of exclusion

In the previous post in this series we looked at the way Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 about excluding persistent sinners from the church are grounded in the expectations of covenant membership described in Deuteronomy. In this post we’ll look at the question that then arises as to what the degree of exclusion should be.

The commentators are unanimous in agreeing that at the least Paul would have intended for the offender to be excluded from the Lord’s Table. This is the place at which the covenant is recognised and enacted, so it is impossible for those who are denying the covenant in their actions to participate in it. What is less clear is the extent to which the offender should be shunned by church members in other contexts.

Paul’s use of ‘not even’ here logically implies that contexts other than the Lord’s Supper are in view: “You shouldn’t even eat with such a one, let alone have any more meaningful connection with them.” The issue is what eating with someone in persistent sin ‘messages’: even granted the different cultural contexts of contemporary western society and first century Corinth, sharing food is one of the most basic ways in which humans express approval and acceptance of one another. So if we are seen eating with someone who claims to be of us, but lives in a way that disgraces us, the messages communicated are mixed, to say the least.

In bridging the cultural gap between first century Corinth and 21st century Britain I’m not sure there is anything especially complicated in applying the general principle expressed in 1 Cor 5:11. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the instruction that would render it irrelevant in our context; and there are no symbols (such as the head coverings of 1 Cor 11) that need to be translated. Perhaps we can imagine the practical outworking of Paul’s instruction being that the offender was excluded from the regular worship of the church, and not welcomed into ‘social’ gatherings of the church, yet individual church members were not to be discourteous should paths happen to cross – a reconstruction perhaps warranted by 2 Thes 3:14-15, If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. We could perhaps paraphrase this instruction as, “Don’t hang out with someone who is refusing to listen to the teaching of the church – but don’t be unpleasant to them if your paths cross.”

At this point it is helpful to note other NT instructions regarding exclusion…

For example, 2 John 10-11 tells us, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. This is a somewhat stronger instruction than that given in 2 Thess 3, probably reflecting the fact that John is more concerned with how to handle a false teacher, rather than simply another church member who has gone off the rails. A contextual issue for us is about how to apply this instruction in an internet age – if nothing else it is one reason among several for us having removed the ability to leave comments on this blog.

Another key verse to consider is Matthew 18:17, If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. It has become fashionable to interpret Christ’s instruction here as meaning we should treat rebellious brothers with love and acceptance, just as Jesus did with Gentiles and tax collectors. However, this seems to me to come into the category of ‘too clever by half’. Surely Jesus is using a preachers illustration, and his hearers’ natural reaction to Gentiles and tax collectors as the benchmark for dealing with a rebellious person.

If this is a fair interpretation we might posit that those who claim to be followers of Christ but are guilty of persistent sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness or dishonesty should be excluded from the normal life of the church in Poole or Eastbourne or London, just as Paul expected them to be in Corinth. This is not a comfortable conclusion, but seems inescapable. Of course, we face the not inconsiderable additional difficulty of Christians under discipline simply moving to another church – but the fact that this happens doesn’t in itself render irrelevant our own response to scripture.

In the next, and final, post in this series I’ll try to give some further clarification to the terms Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 5:11.

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