With Such A One Do Not Even Eat: Considering the application of 1 Corinthians 5:11
I can’t claim the credit for that bon mot, but it neatly sums up an issue with which Christians must wrestle. How do we reconcile our cultural bias towards love, love, love (or tolerance, tolerance, tolerance) and biblical demands for holiness? How do we do the difficult hermeneutical work of taking texts written in contexts very different to our own and faithfully applying them in our place and time? And what on earth are we meant to do with a command like that found in 1 Corinthians 5:11?
This was a subject under discussion at a recent gathering of a number of Think contributors and was provoked by a comment from Preston Sprinkle encouraging someone to have a beer with Matthew Vines. The question posed was, ‘if Vines is teaching things that directly contradict the demands of scripture, should those who disagree with him have a beer with him?’ We might return to that specific example on another occasion, but for the moment I want to summarise our broader conversation in four posts here.
The subject of church discipline is a thorny one. Many of us could recount horror stories of churches acting in abusive, divisive, and frankly cult-like ways in excluding members. Even if we have not seen this first-hand, history has plenty of examples we could turn to, especially among Anabaptist groups. Yet, probably more prevalent today is a laizzez faire approach to church discipline which results in a degree of moral chaos in many churches.
Almost inevitably the question of how we apply 1 Corinthians 5:11 tends to focus around the area of sexual behaviour and attitudes, that being the issue of our day. More specifically, it tends to concern how we respond to issues of homosexuality. For those of us who contribute to this blog it might inform how we choose to engage (or not) with those – like Vines – who claim that faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships can have the same validity as marriage. As pastors it might inform how we relate to other churches in our towns that are pastored by gay leaders, or how we handle pastoral issues in our own churches. What should we do if a gay friend or family member who claims to be a Christian asks us to their ‘wedding’? How should we respond if someone in an active gay relationship wants to be baptised by us?
A bald reading of 1 Cor 5 might lead to a short answer to some of these scenarios: Have nothing to do with them! Indeed, such a response would probably have been the evangelical norm up until fairly recently. This has changed however, for at least three reasons:
• British ‘culture’ in general is far more accepting of sexual diversity than at any previous point in our history. Swimming against the tide is far harder than going with the cultural flow: in a day when everyone condemned homosexuality it wasn’t difficult for the church to stand against it too. Actually, it was all too easy. This is no longer the case.
• Many of us now have friends and family members engaged in practices and lifestyles that would have been dismissed by previous generations as simply wrong. It is far harder to condemn impurity (or even to see certain behaviours as impure) in those we know and love than in imagined strangers.
• The rise of ‘evangelicals’, with all the normal evangelical credentials, who argue for a radically different approach to sexuality than has traditionally been the case: who argue that our hermeneutic has been wrong, and it is perfectly possible (desirable even) to be evangelical and in a faithful, monogamous, same-sex relationship.
These changes mean that many church leaders (never mind typical church members) seem confused about how to proceed in these areas, let alone exercise church discipline in them. 1 Corinthians 5 provides a very uncomfortable backdrop to this – it is the kind of passage that many would rather skip over, or consign to the ‘Corinthians-cultural-context, irrelevant-to-us’ bucket, along with 1 Cor 11:2-16.
In the next post I’ll look more closely at the text of 1 Corinthians 5:11, and try to draw out how it might apply to us.