God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 5:2 The purpose of excommunication
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, January 2, 2023
2 Yet you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been filled with grief so that the man who did this deed would have been removed from among you?
In Corinth, sex was a problem. There were so many perversions, so many things that would have been forbidden in other places, that for some people a sort of scale of perversions must have been a way of coping. What would be worse than a married man being offered sex with a homosexual prostitute when he went to consult with an oracle? What about a city counselor boasting in public about the multi-gender, multi-generational orgy he had in his home? What about a well-to-do widow in the city who was known for having intercourse with various animals? What about the temple high above the city where the only kind of worship possible was to have sex with a stranger? Or the children captured in war with other nations, sold into sexual slavery in the homes of the wealthy, and especially the homes of the lawmakers and philosophers? And there were other things, worse things, darker things only hinted at in whispers. In the blizzard of such sins, a young man who took his father’s second wife, now a widow, into his home and into his bed, may not have seemed so bad.
But to do a thing that was not as bad as other Corinthian sins was nothing to be proud of. Yet the Corinthians were proud! They were puffed up like bullfrogs with their own pride over this disgrace, this case of incest. If we bring a set of sins out into the open, away from the foul city where they take place, and lay them out for everyone to see, then there is clarity: A murder is still a murder, even if it is less savage than some other murder. A theft is still a theft, even if it is not a kidnapping. And incest is still incest, even if it is not some other sexual sin. God’s will is to preserve human life, and so there is a commandment forbidding murder. God wants us to respect one another’s property, and so there is a commandment forbidding theft as well as kidnapping. And God wants us to respect and honor marriage, and so there is a commandment forbidding sex apart from marriage.
For those who transgress, there is repentance, but the Corinthians were not asking the man or his step-mother to repent. They themselves were proud of it: “There are terrible crimes and sins here; but this seems to be not so bad. And more than that, in our eyes this is a beautiful thing! We’re proud of him!”
Yet if it had been done in Antioch, or Berea, or Ephesus, the church would have put the man outside their fellowship already. He would have been removed from their group. When Abram’s deception caused Pharaoh to fall into a sexual temptation, the king sent Abram and Sarai on their way, removing them from Egypt (Genesis 12:20). There had not yet been any sin committed (for God did not permit it), but Pharaoh removed the Patriarch from his country. “What fellowship has a wolf with a lamb? No more has a sinner with a godly man.” This is what the Corinthians should already have done.
Such a removal cannot be commanded by a pastor, but finally it is the work of the congregation or its representatives. In certain cases, a pastor might exclude someone from the use of the Lord’s Supper before their case has been reviewed, “Because he thinks he will get good results by doing it that way” (Hoenecke, Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics IV:209). This “good result” is the idea that such a temporary exclusion will show the man in question that his actions are under review, are known and are a concern, and that he may very soon find himself under excommunication. However, such an exclusion without proceeding further “must not be extended to a long period of time.” But when someone is openly wicked and despises the sacraments and the commandments, then excommunication is pronounced against him. As the ancient believer said: “Do not help the sinner. No one will pity a man who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in his sins.”
No one should ever think that they themselves are somehow above and beyond the Word of God, nor is anyone capable of living a life that is completely free of sin (recall our condemnation of perfectionism, one of the evils of pietism, in the comments on 1 Corinthians 4:20-21). Let me always pray with David, “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). “He that fears the Lord will repent in his heart.” Yet the repentant Christian is still required to differentiate between a repentant brother or sister in Christ and an unrepentant sinner in their midst.
When there is repentance, there is forgiveness. Here, as we will see, there was no repentance yet, and so the church was compelled to judge the sin for what it was. Without such judgment, the gospel cannot be proclaimed, for someone who is secure in their sins is not ready or able to hear about forgiveness, for “concerning the sinfulness of the wicked, there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1). But when a man’s sins are shown to him, and the fear of punishment crushes him and terrifies him, he will have no choice. He will pray with Nehemiah: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed” (Nehemiah 1:6). God will then call the sinner back in repentance with the mercy he proclaimed through Moses: “You will return to the Lord your God, for the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget his covenant with you” (Deuteronomy 4:30-31). His forgiveness covers over everything. His arms wrap around the foulest sinner, the most prodigal son. And his mercy endures forever.
Pastor Timothy Smith