In this essay we are studying 5:1-13, a section that deals with immorality in the church. This is one of several crises Paul is dealing with in relation to the Corinthian church, and he feels the need to exercise discipline.
In verses 1-2 Paul expresses astonishment that the Corinthian believers are allowing fornication in their midst. The better translation of “fornication” in today’s American culture is “sexual immorality,” which we find in both the NRSV and the NIV.
Paul’s astonishment is due to the fact that the church has done nothing about a grossly sinful situation, even though pagan Gentiles disapproved of it. And pagan standards were really low. The specific sin was that one of the Corinthian believers was having his father’s wife. In those days, to use the verb “to have” in a sexual context referred to a relatively long relationship, rather than a brief fling. Notice that Paul does not use the term “adultery,” so the father had died, or had divorced the woman. Paul also does not us the word for “incest.” Therefore the woman likely was the man’s stepmother, not his mother. And since Paul says nothing more about the woman, she apparently was not a Christian.
It is uncertain whether the church is simply tolerating the behavior, or that they were approving of it as a demonstration of their understanding of freedom in Christ. But either way, Paul is disgusted by the church’s failure to do anything about it.
Verse two informs us of Paul’s main concern. He is concerned about the fact that the church is “puffed up,” that is proud (NIV) or “arrogant” (NRSV), even when this kind of sinfulness was in their midst. He tells them that they should be in grief, or mourning, rather than being proud. And they should have removed the one who was doing this from the fellowship.
Verses 3-5 have certain difficulties associated with them, but Paul’s overall message is clear. In verses 3-4 Paul declares that he is absent from the Corinthians in body, which is obvious, but he is present with them in spirit. Some scholars find this statement that he is present with them in spirit puzzling, but he clearly means that in some mystical, spiritual way he is present with the Corinthians. Furthermore, Paul announces that he is taking the action that the Corinthians already should have taken, namely, deal with the sinful man. Indeed he declares that he already has pronounced judgment on the man.
It is significant to notice that Paul does not simply impose his will on the church. He informs them that when they would meet as an assembly in the name of Jesus, both his spirit and the spirit of Jesus would be present. He doesn’t say it, but he undoubtedly was depending on the Holy Spirit to make his spirit present. During this gathering, the assembly was to take action as a church and remove the man from the fellowship. In other words the action would be one made by the Corinthian church, not just by Paul.
The real scholarly controversy is caused by verse five. Paul tells the Corinthians to deliver the man “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” There is considerable debate over what Paul meant by delivering the man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Most scholars conclude that at least physical suffering was intended, and probably death.
However I agree with Gordon Fee that physical death was not meant, because of the second half of verse five. We see there that the purpose of the excommunication was to save the man’s spirit. That is, it was intended to be remedial, not simply a form of punishment. Therefore I believe Paul was using the word “flesh” metaphorically as he usually does, to mean, one’s sinful life. Therefore the man’s deliverance to Satan for the destruction of the “flesh” was intended to destroy the man’s sinful life and bring him back to his senses. Hopefully, he would repent; and they could restore him to the body of Christ.
In verse six Paul points back to the theme of boasting as a reminder to the Corinthians that boasting is inappropriate, especially when gross sin is in their midst. Then he turns to the analogy of leaven (yeast). Among Jews leaven traditionally symbolized evil. And he commands them to remove all the leaven, because it affects the entire batch of dough. Thus he was making the point that the evil had to go.
Paul’s mention of leaven leads him to think of the Jewish Passover, during which all leaven had to be removed from the house in order for the family to celebrate it. The reason for that was the fact that leaven causes fermentation corrupting all the dough. So Paul demands that they get rid of all the leaven (the evil) so that the new batch of dough (the church) will be pure.
Next Paul, without any explanation, reminds them that Christ is our Passover sacrifice, which means that he assumes the Gentiles at Corinth will understand this strictly Jewish imagery. As the death of the Passover lambs on the first day of Unleavened Bread served to remove the leaven (that is, the evil) from the Jews, the death of Christ as the Passover Lamb removes the sinfulness of Christians (see John 1:29). In verse eight Paul describes the new life as one in which “malice and evil” (or wickedness) is replaced by “sincerity and truth.”
When we began our study of the Corinthian correspondence, we noted that verse nine indicates Paul wrote a letter to Corinth prior to this one. In that letter he told them not to associate with immoral people. They had misunderstood him to mean sinful people outside of their fellowship. Bur Paul corrects them. He meant immoral people inside the fellowship. Neither he nor they have the right to judge those outside the church. God will take care of that. But Paul demands that the church judge sinful church members and purge evil from their midst. The word for evil in verse 13 could mean evil in general, the evil one (Satan), or the evil man of verses 3-5. I agree with most scholars, who believe the evil man was intended.