The Death of Discipline and Recovering its Sting

The fifth chapter of First Corinthians is well-known for containing the application of Matthew 18:15-20 and what is commonly called the practice of church discipline. The author of this letter, Paul, under divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit has to this point been focusing on the report of divisions within the body of believers at Corinth, specifically related to their factionalism and preference for preaching personalities, but ultimately rooted in their arrogance and pride. Chapter 5 continues with the undercurrent of pride, however this begins a new section of problems that have been reported, namely the presence, acceptance, and tolerance of sexual immorality. In this particular case, a man within the church has an ongoing relationship, denoted by the little word has, his father’s wife. Since it could have easily and perhaps more strongly been stated as having his mother, most believe that this is a reference instead to his step-mother. The background, or what Paul draws upon to support his statement that this type of relationship is not allowed, even more that it is not named among the pagans, is Leviticus 18. The relationship with this passage and the question of relevance and applicability of Leviticus 18 today is perhaps a subject for another post.

The problem that Paul is specifically addressing is obviously the unlawful sexual relationship, but more directly the arrogance with which the Corinthians have accepted it. In doing so, there are twin dangers first to the man committing the sin and second to the remaining body of believers. Both are at high risk due solely to the presence and acceptance of sin. In order to deal with sin’s presence in the body, it must be cut off as we see a practical application of Matthew 5:29-30. In verse 4-5, we find the practice of discipline for this case outlined for the Corinthians.
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5
First, we note the necessity for the assembly of the body in order to administer the discipline, when you are assembled. This is important, indeed necessary, for a number of reasons not the least of which is that the discipline wasn’t to be administered in an abstract way, or handled in isolation, nor was it to be handled by a select group, or delivered by so-called leaders. Instead the discipline was to be delivered in the assembly and by the assembly. Not surprisingly, assembled here is the word synago, which could also have been translated as gathered, and is the exact same word used by our Lord in Matthew 18.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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 collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:15-20
After highlighting the importance of actually assembling, next we find in the Corinthian passage that the gathering is qualified as such by assembling in the name of the Lord Jesus. This is precisely what we also see above in the passage from Matthew 18:20, so it is clear that Paul’s instructions are derived explicitly from the prescription laid down by the Lord Jesus Christ. Further qualifying this, Paul states that his spirit is present – likely a reference to the spirit of his teaching or the application of what he had taught, along with the power of the Lord Jesus. This statement on the power of the Lord being present affirms the exercise of His authority in administering the discipline (there I am among them).

Next, we find the actual administration of the discipline spoken of in terms of delivering the man to Satan. Relatedly, we might be able to see in the passage from Matthew above (verse 18) the application of Christ’s power through the binding and loosing, elsewhere referred to as the keys (Matthew 16:19). There is an important distinction being made here with reference to the spiritual domain or realm. The implication of delivering the man to Satan by removing him from the fellowship of believers, which we will look at more closely, is that within the assembly of believers Christ is present. To be cast out, or better, cut off, from this assembly is to be handed over to the realm of Satan. In essence, it is to be removed from the light and cast into darkness.

In delivering him over, we find two purpose statements for the discipline: the destruction of his flesh and the (possibility) that his spirit might be saved in the Day of the Lord. This brings up an interesting question regarding what exactly the destruction of the flesh might be referring to. It’s likely that this could be the removal of divine protection thereby allowing a physical affliction of some type for the purpose of restoring and saving the spirit. In this way, it is a physical chastisement or discipline for spiritual purposes and it would leave the man without the comfort that would normally come from fellowship with the body of believers (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). This disconnect from fellowship is key, a crucial point often overlooked today, but one that must be absolute. In practice, it is the command above from our Lord to, ” let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” One final note to add is that discipline administered in this way is actually loving and merciful. We needn’t go far to see how discipline was administered in the Old Testament (Numbers 15:32-36; Joshua 7:25; ) and how it was also administered by the apostles to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). Any opportunity for repentance is nothing less than the sovereign mercy of God (Hebrews 12:17).

Seeing the application of discipline properly described, and later properly administered (sort of – 2 Corinthians 2:5-8), we must ask ourselves have we seen and practiced discipline after the pattern given to us and secondarily, does it have the same effect today that it was meant to have in our Lord’s instruction and the Corinthian application? Experience shows that it can function as patterned and commanded, however, more often than not it seems to have lost its sting. The reasons could be multifaceted, but seem reasonably summarized as the following
  • Disconnected believers in a geographic area
  • Accessible congregations
  • A loss of meaningful fellowship
  • A lack of life in the body
Each of these are of course related and primarily due to the breakdown of fellowship of believers within a community. Because there is so much disconnect between believers in rural areas, small towns, let alone large cities, it is easy for discipline to fail because the offending believer can simply move down the street to another church. The ease at which this happens is because our Christian communities have lost the meaning of fellowship. We’ve substituted Scriptural koinonia for shaking hands and talking about the weather. Genuine fellowship looks much more like family. The weightiness of being cut off from fellowship because of unrepentant sin should feel much more like cutting off an immediate family member and being cut off from your family. Scriptural fellowship is perhaps best summarized by the passage below from Acts, which of course is when these Christian communities began to develop in their infancy
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
Finally, and fundamentally, the reason why discipline has lost its sting among today’s Christian communities is the lack of life within the community. Being cut off from fellowship, much like a limb of a body or a branch of a tree, is to be cut off from your source of life. However, if the body is ailing or even more, dead, then the loss of a limb is irrelevant to both the limb and the body.

The pattern of discipline prescribed by our Lord and described in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians was meant to be a painful last resort. Yet the threat of ‘the ban’ would’ve been an impediment to ongoing sin and a motivation for accountability within the body. Given all this, the question might arise – Do we even have enough life and genuine fellowship in our congregations today to know whether there is ongoing, unrepentant sin, yet alone properly administer discipline?

Perhaps a little unknown leaven has leavened the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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