Why Does Paul Tell the Church to Deliver Someone to Satan? (1 Corinthians 5)

Why Does Paul Tell the Church to Deliver Someone to Satan? (1 Corinthians 5)

A local church delivers a person to Satan when it excommunicates an unrepentant professing believer from that church. As God’s dwelling place by the Spirit (3:16–17; Eph. 2:22), the church protects its members from Satan’s sphere, but when a church can no longer affirm that a professing believer is a genuine believer, it must return that person to Satan’s sphere.

1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 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. 6Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
1 Corinthians 5:1–6

Sexual Immorality

The report Paul has heard has two parts: (1) “there is sexual immorality among you,” and (2) “you are arrogant” (cf. v. 6a).

The specific kind of sexual immorality is incest—a man is pursuing sexual relations with his father’s wife. In the phrase “has his father’s wife,” has indicates ongoing sexual relations but does not specify if the two people have married or are cohabiting.1 Because Paul writes “his father’s wife” (rather than “his mother”), he probably refers to this man’s stepmother. She may be roughly the same age as (or even younger than) the incestuous man, since men often married women who were much younger.

The sins Paul corrects throughout this letter were common practices in Corinth. The church in Corinth has grown up in this pagan context that views sex much differently than Jews and Christians did. And since the Corinthians have converted only recently (no more than three years before Paul writes this letter) and do not have generations of Christians in their culture, it is not surprising that they continue to share Corinth’s worldly values regarding sex. Jews, of course, forbade a father and son from sleeping with the same woman (Lev. 18:7–8; 20:11Deut. 22:30; 27:20). But so did the ancient pagan Romans. Thus Paul describes this sexual immorality as “of a kind that is not tolerated even among [the] pagans.”2

So how is it that the Corinthian church tolerates a sin that even their own culture repudiates? The text does not answer this question, so we can only guess. It could be related to their view of the body and the resurrection (cf. comments on 1 Cor. 6:12–20; 15:1–58). But it is unlikely that the Corinthians boast about tolerating incest, since incest was scandalous in both Jewish and Roman cultures. Most likely, the Corinthians ignore the incest and boast that a man with such a high social status is a member of their church. The incestuous man is likely socially powerful, and the church is simultaneously (1) honored that a person with such a prominent status would be part of their congregation and (2) unwilling to confront him about his incest. He might be a generous benefactor to the church and a patron to clients within the church. Thus the church does what their culture occasionally does for socially prominent people: turn a blind eye to that person’s sin rather than risk losing his favor and becoming his enemy.3

A Rebuke

Paul rebukes the Corinthians and commands them to correct their error. Paul first rebukes the Corinthians with a rhetorical question. In contrast to how they are being arrogant, they should mourn over the man’s publicly scandalous and characteristically unrepentant sin, which entails that they should remove the incestuous man from their church.

Throughout this passage Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to excommunicate this man, a church member who claims to be a brother in Christ.4 Consequently, chapter 5 is one of the most significant NT passages for three interrelated theological issues: excommunication, church membership, and congregational church government (I list those three issues from what is more explicit in Scripture to less explicit).5

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