On Church Discipline

(a sermon on 1 Corinthians 5, at All Saints Crowborough, 27 Jan 2013)

One of the things I’m sometimes asked as Director of Music is: “Have you ever thrown anyone out the choir?”

Well, asking someone not to take part in a group (to use more moderate language!) is always a really hard thing to do, especially when that person might be a personal friend, or a close friend or relative of others in the group.

But imagine it’s you as the Director of Music. On what grounds would you say someone ought to step down for a time? Would it be about their musical performance, or personal relationships, or attitude? And imagine now that we’re not just thinking about a group of musicians, but about the whole church. Is it ever right to exclude someone from church groups? Or is that an outrageous thing to say, when God is a God of love and grace?

This is a crucial issue for churches today, because there are so many serious temptations that people can get dragged into, and we need to know how to react as a church when that happens to someone. And it was also a crucial issue at the time when Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, as we saw in our reading from 1 Corinthians 5.

At the beginning of that chapter (on p165) we actually see not one but two problems. Firstly, there is a man who is living and sleeping with his step-mother. But second, and just as bad, is the reaction of the rest of the church: they think this is wonderful! They are puffed up with pride. And so Paul says (v6):

Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Unless you work in a bakery you probably don’t think about yeast every day! But here are two lessons which we can learn from it.

Firstly, in v6, ‘a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.’ In other words, a little wickedness can quickly go a long way. Tragically, it can happen frighteningly quickly to a church. What is tolerated soon becomes accepted, and then becomes normal, and then eats the church apart like a cancer. With this specific man in 1 Corinthians, the issue is sexual immorality, and that’s certainly still a big issue today; but as v11 makes clear there are other people equally in the frame: those who are greedy, idolaters, slanders, drunkards or swindlers. We might personally find some of those more comfortable or excusable sins, but they are all just as undesirable in the church.

Secondly, the yeast teaches us about God’s great purpose for a church full of forgiven sinners to BE what he has made them. ‘Clean out the old yeast,’ says Paul in v7, ‘so that you may be a new batch [of dough], as you really are.’ As Christians we are to be different from what we were before. Paul says there’s a great visual aid of this in Jewish history. 1500 years previously, when Moses led the Israelities out of Egyptian slavery, on Passover night, they had to eat bread made without yeast, as a symbol of the urgency of leaving – there was no time for the dough to rise. The yeast is a picture of the old life, of ‘Egypt’, so to speak, with all that God has saved his people from. Orthodox Jews still celebrate the Passover with a grand ceremonial sweeping of the house, to get rid of every bit of yeast. And likewise, we shouldn’t be going back to the old, pre-Christian life, but should be “a new batch of dough…the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

So, to recap: the ‘yeast’ picture gives us two reasons why we need discipline in the church. It’s because, just as yeast spreads silently and invisibly through the dough, evil spreads so easily through the church to cause harm to others. And secondly, it’s because God didn’t save us – he didn’t sacrifice the Easter Lamb, Jesus, for us – so that we could just remain the same! We must get rid of the ‘old yeast’.

How big is your vision for the church, for this church? Do you share God’s passionate vision for a holy people, living a new life? And if you do, are you willing to play your part in it? Those are two questions we’ll come back to later: sharing God’s vision, and playing our part.

This is a challenging subject, and to help us understand it better we’re going to look briefly at three other things about church discipline which we can learn from this passage. We’ll only really scratch the surface, and for a wider overview it’s well worth getting hold of Rupert Evans’ talk on this passage from last Sunday morning’s services.

My first observation is that confrontation is often a means to change. Look with me at verse 5, where we read: “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” There’s a hope behind the punishment. It’s not just about pulling down the weak and guilty. The aim is that his spirit will be saved when the day of judgment comes! I have seen that proved true on numerous occasions, with my own sins and with other people’s. For example, I once worked closely with someone and it became apparent that I couldn’t always trust what he said. He was a lovely guy, but it was as if he sometimes just lied compulsively. Trying to speak to him about it only produced indignant denials, and the situation rumbled on until, in the end, he was asked to step down from the role. That was very hard, but over the following months the grace of God brought dramatic change in his life.

So appropriate discipline brings hope: confrontation is often the means to change. I’m grateful for people who, at times, have had the guts to challenge me over things in my life.

Secondly, church discipline must be carried out by all of us.  Did you see in v13:

Drive out the wicked person from among you

– a repeated refrain quoted from the book of Deuteronomy. And in verse 11 Paul says:

Do not even eat with such a one.

This is a last resort, for serious, unrepented sin, and it’s to be regulated by the leaders of the church, just as it was by Paul here; but it needs to be carried out by all of us. Church discipline goes chaotically wrong when the church leaders challenge a member on some serious issue, but then other church members rally round with the wrong kind of support.

Isn’t it striking that Paul says the church shouldn’t even eat with the man here? He says a similar thing on a different occasion to the Thessalonian church, and that time he says a little more about the reasons why:

“…do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thess 3:14-15)

We should not at all stop loving the person caught in sin; but we need to express that love in a tough way which will honour God and hopefully bring about change.

Finally, the third observation: we tend to be hard on non-Christians and soft on our friends in church; whereas we should be the other way round.

Look with me at verse 9:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons – not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister [i.e. a fellow-Christian] who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not each eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside.

It is easy for Christians to react to wickedness in the world by cutting ourselves off from ‘bad people’, and having as little as possible to do with them. It’s easy to sit in a place like this and ‘tut tut’ over how bad people ‘out there’ are. It’s easy not to invite them for a meal, even though they are exactly the kind of people Jesus would eat with. And who do we think we are to judge people? Our job is to engage with a sinful world, with the aim of leading people to Christ, the Lamb who has been sacrificed for our sins, to save them from God’s judgment!

But on the other hand, we are to judge those inside the church, he says. Not to be judgmental, but to keep each other on track. It’s hard to challenge friends in church, perhaps even harder to challenge those who are friends of our friends, and if necessary to cut them off from the social circle. But if necessary that’s what we must do; and it’s not as bad as it seems because, actually, being socially in the church is not what will save someone when the “day of the Lord” comes. It’s an illusion! Far better to deprive someone of that, if necessary, so that ‘his spirit may be saved’. How easily we can get this wrong, failing to challenge our Christian friends while shunning those outside who need to hear the gospel!


So let me finish by asking those two questions again. Do you have God’s big vision for a people that are forgiven, set apart for him, and ready for Jesus’ return? A ‘new batch’ of bread dough?

And are you willing to play your part? Are you ready to rebuke a friend for the sake of their soul? And when serious matters arise, are you ready to support our church leaders here in taking biblical action that might be painful, might make you unpopular, but which God says will be for everyone’s best and his glory in the end?


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