“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
(1 Corinthians 5:1–13 NIV)
There are two sermons that people do not want to hear: sermons on money and sermons on sin. When it comes to sin, the church really does not know what to do. I grew up in a church that never spoke about sin. I remember hearing from the pulpit that there was no point in parents telling their children not to have premarital sex because they would anyway. The attitude was that people could choose to do whatever they want to. There was no sense that God might disapprove of anything we do. I then switched to a more conservative church. There was a very different message preached here. Almost every detail of life had to be regulated. God had very specific opinions on the music you listened to and the television shows you watched. It took a while to find out what exactly was allowed and what was not. I am not sure that either of these two extremes are healthy. However, it is fair to ask: in our society that values toleration as the highest good, is there any place for discussion of sin? Before we look at what the Bible says, I want to make one point. We use the word tolerate as if we mean that we think all choices are equally valid. But the word tolerate really means that you reluctantly accept, at least temporarily, something that you do not like. For example, you tolerate Buckley’s if you have a cough, but you never think of it as being equally as good as chocolate ice cream. In our current series, we are looking at the nature of the church. What we find in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is that Paul saw sin as something that very much affected the church and needed to be addressed. Let us look at what he had to say.
Sin at Corinth
I am almost hesitant to describe the nature of the sin that Paul was addressing, not because of its horrifying nature, but because today we too often equate sin with sex. For the sake of context I will explain what was happening. There was a man within the church at Corinth who was in a relationship with his step-mother. Paul was shocked by this. This was a type of sin, that even non-Christians thought harshly of. But the nature of the sin was not the biggest shock, it was that the Corinthians were accepting of it. You have to understand how the Corinthians thought of themselves. They were not just regular folk who happened to believe in Jesus. They saw themselves as spiritual people, Christians no longer worried about sin because their spiritual experiences testified to the special status they had with God. Since they were so spiritual, there was no reason to deal with this situation. Paul was absolutely livid. The Corinthians were boasting of their spirituality and Paul thought that they should be mourning, that they should be weeping over what was taking place in their church. Paul has some very definite opinions about what to do. Paul, in his pastoral compassion, argues that they should hand over the man to Satan. What does he mean by this? Paul says that this man who is in deliberate rebellion against God, should be released into the world where Satan is their leader. But Paul’s purpose is not to punish him or to take vengeance on him but to rehabilitate him. Paul’s hope is that if the man is forced to see that there consequences, he will rethink his choices and come back to God. Paul continues by comparing the situation to two linked festivals in the Jewish calender. Passover and the feast of the unleavened bread were celebrated together. Paul compares sin to leaven. The Hebrews would remove all leaven from their homes. If some leaven was introduced, it would leaven whatever it came into contact with. That is the way sin is. You cannot just have some sin within a church family sitting over there on a shelf, not affecting everyone else. If you choose to embrace sin, you are making that choice not just for yourself, but you are choosing to affect everyone else. When sin is ignored, it too will affect us some time down the line. Paul includes in this discussion a mention of the Passover. The Passover was a Hebrew celebration of the sacrifice of the passover lamb so that God’s judgment would pass over. Paul makes note that Jesus is our Passover lamb. This is important. Sin is so serious that God sacrificed not some nameless animal but his own Son. If that is the case, how can we take sin lightly? But how are we to deal with sin, especially the sin in other people’s lives? After all, Jesus tells us to judge not, lest we also be judged (Matthew 7:1). First of all, we must understand what Jesus was addressing. He was confronting hypocrisy, people who were attacking others without reflecting on their own weakness. It would be like a habitual liar being critical of someone else’s falsehood without being willing to have their own words examined. Paul says, in the proper way, we are actually expected to judge. But what he says is far from how the church has judged. If you talk to people outside the church, they might say that Christians are too judgmental. By that, they mean we judge people outside the church. Paul tells us that only God will judge those outside the church. Our job is simply to judge within the church.
Sin in the Modern Church
It would be really easy for me stop there. We can look at how Paul and Corinth dealt with sin and see it as an interesting situation. But what does this look like today? Do we start a new committee called the “sin police” who would regularly hand people over to Satan? Do we start offering rewards for people who identify sins in other people? Or do we just forget about it and enjoy our worship services and programs? There are some principles here that we must apply. First of all, we need to regain the sense of horror when it comes to sin. In general the church has lost this. There have been numerous pastors in recent months who have revealed involvement in sin. Whereas even ten years ago there would be a sense of shock, now all it did was get them some free and helpful media exposure. How do we feel about sin? I am not just talking about sexual sin. Earlier in this letter, Paul said: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17 NIV) Destruction of the temple of the church comes about when the church divides, often by the words we use. If we see sin active in the church, we need to mourn as Paul tells us, and not boast at how accepting and tolerant we are. So what is the purpose of identifying sin? Is it to point fingers and to reassure ourselves that at least we are not as bad as that one? Are we to be God’s punishers? Not at all. Our goal and only goal is to help the person. If you hear someone gossiping, help them to see the destructiveness of their words and walk with them as they attempt to change. I believe that the best way to deal with sin in our context is to provide a culture that balances grace and holiness. The Christ of this church, just as the Christ of Corinth, died for sins. We must take sin seriously. But we can do that as a family would deal with any issue. It can be made clear that we are not looking to humiliate, punish or attack any one. We take seriously the spiritual health of both the church and the individual and we want to work together to get all of us where we want to be. We do not want to be a church where we are snooping into each other’s lives but a church where we trust each other enough to confess our sins one to another. We want to be a church where we can challenge each other to greater holiness because we are giving permission for people to keep us accountable. As your pastor, I will not be naming sins from the pulpit and pointing fingers. What I will do is push you toward a holy God and pray that all of us (including me) will be changed in his presence. I will be one of the many people in this church to walk with you as we seek greater holiness.
Sin is the sermon that I do not want to preach. Sin is, at the same time, the sermon that I must preach. If we pretend that it does not exist, or pride ourselves in our tolerance, or just keep to ourselves, sin will appear, it will thrive and it will destroy. We can not force people to stop sinning, we have enough trouble stopping ourselves from sinning. But we can build a culture of grace and holiness. We can see sin as a serious issue, something so serious that Jesus had to die. We can be reminded that God expects a level of holiness. But we can do this with grace, helping each other as we are aware of our own weaknesses.