IN CASE ANYONE WERE TO READ 1 Corinthians 4 and conclude that no standards whatsoever are to be maintained in the church—after all, maintenance of standards requires judging, doesn’t it?—the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 5, provides a case where Paul berates the church in Corinth for not exercising judgment and discipline. We must reflect a little on this case itself, and then on the way it is linked to the previous chapter.
Paul insists that, with respect to the man he describes in 1 Corinthians 5:1, two evils are in view. The first is sexual. A member of the church “has his father’s wife.” The peculiar language suggests he is sleeping with his stepmother. In any case the sin is so gross that it would be shocking even among the pagans. The second is the limp response of the church. Despite this wickedness among them, their penchant for arrogant strutting, which surfaces in many chapters of 1 and 2 Corinthians, never falters. They should have been consumed with grief; they should have excommunicated the man who did this (1 Cor. 5:2).
We cannot reflect on all the elements of this judgment, but observe the following:
(1) The judgment Paul wants meted out is to be communal. The entire church, “assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4), in the consciousness of his powerful presence, is to take action. Thus the failure to do so is a church-wide failure.
(2) One of the reasons for taking this action is because “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor. 5:6); evil in the church that no one deals with soon affects the entire church.
(3) This has nothing to do with disciplining the outside world. Paul assumes that the world outside the church will allow sin to fester. What he has in mind is discipline within the church of God (1 Cor. 5:9–10).
(4) Paul’s understanding of what conduct should be subject to church discipline is not restricted to the sexual arena, or this particular form of sexual sin. He means to include major moral defection and gives an exemplary list: greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, swindling. Elsewhere, he adds to major moral defection two other arenas: major doctrinal deviation, and persistent drive for schism.
Now all of this he openly calls “judging” (1 Cor. 5:12–13). Christians are to judge “those inside,” while God judges “those outside.” At the very least, chapters 4 and 5 must be kept in creative tension. More importantly, the Corinthians in chapter 4 were imposing judgments “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6), i.e., deploying standards and criteria with no basis in God’s revelation, and out of mere party interest. They were not imposing judgments in chapter 5 despite what Scripture, properly understood, says. Both are breaches of God’s revelation.