10 Nov 2018

“Drive out the Offender”: Paul, the “Old Testament,” and Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5: An Overview

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, A Gathered People, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Deuteronomy, Discipleship, Exegesis

The Situation 

First  Corinthians 5 tells us how the apostle Paul handled certain matters related to church discipline. It is, in fact, the longest discussion of church discipline in the New Testament. Here we read the infamous tale of a believer having sexual relations with his father’s wife (5.1-2).  Paul does not mince words in this chapter. He pronounces a curse upon the offender in v.3 and finishes with “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (5.13).

What many Christians today do not realize is that Paul has applied the Law of Moses directly to the “church of God in Corinth.”  It will surprise many to learn that Paul’s entire response to Corinthians is grounded in the authority of the Hebrew Bible.  What does Paul do and why does he do this with the Corinthians? That is what we want to explore in this blog.

For Paul, the church discovers its identity only in relation to the sacred story of Israel recorded in the Scriptures. The Corinthians are one with the people of God, the same people located only at a different point on the timeline.  This is why the authority of Scripture for the Corinthians was simply unquestioned, see my Paul and the Unquestioned Authority of the ‘Old Testament.’

I. Israel was Created to be a Light to the Nations

God had promised Abram that through him all nations would be blessed (Gen 12.1-3).  The ultimate blessing was the Messiah but Israel’s role in the world was not limited to producing the Messiah.  Israel was to the world what the temple was to Israel, a city on a hill that could not be hid, a place where God’s will was supposed to be done on earth as in heaven – to show what a blessed experience it is to dwell in an Edenic relationship with the Creator God.  So Moses says,

See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples; who, when they hear all these statues, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deut 4.5-8).

Israel is, as a whole, God’s kingdom of priests on behalf of the world. Again what the Levites and sons of Aaron were to Israel, Israel was to the entire world.  They are holy and set apart. This theme is repeated in various was in the Psalms and the Prophets.

II. Paul Views the Corinthian Church as Israel (Gentiles no more

The first clue to Paul’s approach in 1 Cor 5 is that he assumes the Corinthians are now Israelites. This is of utmost importance.  Paul does not view his converts as Gentiles any more. This is not a rare theme in Paul’s writings but is routinely filtered out by moderns.  They are former gentiles who are now fellow citizens of Israel.   The term ethne in v.1 is translated in the NRSV and most contemporary versions as “pagans” but it is Paul’s normal word for “gentiles.” In 12.2, Paul says “WHEN you were ethne/When you were gentiles …” So NT scholar, Richard Hays, notes Paul “thinks of the Gentile converts at Corinth as Gentiles no longer.”  Paul tells Roman believers that they had been “grafted into the olive tree” thus becoming one with Israel (Rom 11.17).  In Ephesians the apostle tells the gentiles that

you [plural/gentiles] were at that time without Messiah, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2.12)

But that is no longer the situation for gentile believers because “now” they have been brought “near.” Near what? everything they did not have before. “But you are no longer strangers and aliens, but now you [Gentiles] are citizens with the saints” (2.19).

We often fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s language that there is no longer any Jew, Greek, male and female.  These creational distinctions are not removed in Christ.  The stigma attached to them, however, is removed. What was once the basis of division in the fallen age has become to basis of celebration of God’s manifold wisdom in the sanctified diversity of creation (cf. Eph 3.7-13). Gentiles are not Jews but they are now “children of Abraham” and part of Israel and heirs to the covenants of promise.

The Corinthians are Gentile no more. They are Israelites. This is why Paul can claim that the Wilderness generation is indeed the ancestors of the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor 10).  This is why Paul calls the gentiles in Galatia the “Israel of God” (6.16).  Paul does not say “new Israel” or “spiritual Israel” but simply “Israel.” They are grafted by God into the Olive Tree. The church did not replace Israel rather gentiles became part of Israel (just as James indicates in Acts 15). This is fundamental to Paul’s approach to the Corinthians.

III. Cursed is Anyone 

In 1 Cor 5.2-5, the apostle uses some rather shocking language according to some modern believers. First, Paul rebukes Corinthian arrogance for tolerating this man’s behavior (Paul does not think they were being gracious or merciful to him).  They are “arrogant” because (as we shall see) Paul assumes they are in the holy Presence of God.  It takes some serious hubris to flaunt the Presence of God. Second Paul curses the offender (vv. 3-4), “I have already pronounced judgment.

This language by Paul is hardly shocking for any steeped in the language of Scripture, as both he and the Corinthians are (Paul’s numerous allusions to even technical matters of Scripture show the Corinthians knew the Bible).  Paul’s language comes straight out of the “holiness code” in Leviticus and Deuteronomy regarding the very situation at hand.

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife …” (Lev 18.8)

You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife …” (Lev 18.20)

But it is Deuteronomy that supplies the immediate words to Paul

Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has violated his father’s rights” (Deut 27.20)

Paul imposes this covenantal curse upon the Corinthian church straight out of the Law of Moses. Paul’s directive to remove the offender bringing the curse upon him is from the Law because Paul believes the Corinthians are gentiles no more.

IV. Whole Community, Not Only the Offender

It has been noted by many that Paul does not merely condemn the offender with his curse. Paul condemns the entire community itself.  The whole community shares in this gross sin and offense to the Presence of God.  “You [plural] are arrogant!” Paul is not only a first century Jew steeped in the world of the Hebrew Bible, he is not an individualist like most American believers. Corporate responsibility is anathema in America.  But Paul is not an American.

So Paul is shaped by stories like Achan who brought guilt upon all Israel (Josh 5).  David numbering his mighty men and bringing suffering upon the entire nation (2 Sam 24).  Ezra mourning, confessing and praying over the sins of the entire people (Ezra 9.6-15; Neh 9) and Daniel who does the same (9.4ff).

But it is the community that is in danger not merely the perpetrator in Paul’s mind.  This is because the Corinthians are part of Israel.

IV. Holiness Code is Binding on the Corinthians

Centuries of reading Paul as the enemy of Judaism, and the destroyer of the Old Testament, has literally blinded Christians to the real Paul.  Our unfamiliarity with the “Old Testament” has enabled us to perpetuate myths regarding his teaching and practice. It may not be far from the mark to confess that we have, at times, fundamentally misread Paul. But Paul was at Jerusalem during that epic “council” meeting of elders with James and Peter.  That council clearly did not bind certain “ceremonial” aspects of the Law upon gentiles. However it also did bind certain aspects.  Those aspects come from the Holiness Code in Leviticus regarding the behavior of aliens that live among God’s people.  The rational for the whole is frequently ignored,

for [gar] Moses has been preached in every city on the sabbath for generations” (Acts 15.21)

The point in Acts is that the gentiles would know the ethical do’s and don’ts because they know Moses, who is proclaimed among them.  First Corinthians 5 shows Paul is in complete harmony with the Jerusalem Council.  Leviticus states clearly that the community as a whole is in danger when blatant evil is allowed to dwell in the midst of God’s people. In fact the offender is to be “cut off from the people” otherwise the land will “vomit out” the people from the promised land (which eventually happened), Leviticus 18.24-30.  Paul’s concern for the community as a whole and his directive is based on the Hebrew Bible and the Holiness Code.

VI. Core of Israel’s Story 

Suddenly Paul makes a move that makes no sense to moderns.  He “out of the blue” brings up an extremely technical point about the Passover Feast (5.6-8).  But we need to remember two things, Paul believes the Corinthians are gentiles no more and he believes the entire community is in danger.  Since the Corinthians are not gentiles but now part of Israel, the Exodus is part of their story.  Clearly Paul, or Crispus, has taught the Corinthians the ins and outs of the mechanics of the celebration of the Passover else the paragraph is meaningless to them.

The Passover tells the central story of God’s redemptive grace to create a people within the rebellious world. While Passover involves sacrifice, it is not a sacrifice of atonement. Passover tells of deliverance and ownership. Passover tells of divine protection and distinctiveness. As 1 Corinthians 10 makes clear these Corinthians, former gentiles, are now in the historical line of that generation that experienced the Exodus and the Passover of God. Paul places the Corinthians in the very core of Israel’s story.

This is why they must remove the unclean leaven of gross immorality from their midst. Paul calls them to celebrate the festival which cannot be done with the offender among them.

VII. Back to Deuteronomy: Expel the Wicked 

Paul closes his discussion of discipline by reminding the Corinthians of a previous letter (5.9) and with a list of vices that will not inherit the kingdom of God (5.9-13).  Paul’s directives are not toward nonbelievers but only those who are now the church of God. The Corinthians are distinct from the world but they are not isolated from the world.

For many years, because I too shared in the malady of not knowing my Hebrew Bible, I did not recognize Paul was applying Moses to the Corinthians (remember James said “for Moses is preached”). I did not even know that Paul explicitly quotes the Law in this passage. Paul’s vice list comes straight out of Deuteronomy.  They are:

Immorality (Deut 22.21-22, 30)
Greed (paired with robbers in Corinthians)
Idolatry (Deut 13.1-5; 17.2-7)
Reviler (Deut 19.16-19)
Drunkenness (Deut 21.18-21)
Robber (Deut 24.7, LXX uses “kleptes” for thief)

This is the outline found in Deuteronomy, except for the sexual immorality which Paul places at the beginning because that is the matter at hand.   At the end of this list, that comes from Deuteronomy, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 17.7 from the version the Corinthians would know, the Septuagint.

“Expel the evil person from among you [plural]” (1 Cor 5.13).

Paul’s entire discussion has been grounded in the Hebrew Bible and it culminates in a direct and immediate application of the Law to the Corinthians, “Expel the wickedness.” Richard Hays in his great book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, notes,

“Paul could have written, ‘Just as Moses commanded Israel to drive out the evil person, so you too should practice church discipline … But he did not write in this way. The scriptural command is treated as a self-evidently valid word addressed immediately to these Gentiles” (p. 97).

Summary 

Paul’s approach to the Corinthians is grounded in the assumption that his gentile converts are now Israelites, the sons and daughters of Abraham.  He approaches them as if they are part of the covenant and amenable to the covenant standards of holiness.  Paul’s curse on the man is straight out of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and applies to the man because of the covenant.  Paul’s holding the entire church accountable is also rooted in his firm belief that the Corinthian church is now part of Israel.  They must as a whole break off from association from this person because he has brought pollution into the entire assembly. After taking the Corinthians through a condensed list from his former letter (which may have been instruction in the ethics of the Law) he quotes Deuteronomy to them, “expel the wicked.”  They are to do what Paul has already done in verses 3 and 4. The goal is the salvation of both the individual and the holiness of the Gathered People who are in the Presence of God.

First Corinthians 5 is highly instructive. It destroys the claims that Paul never applied “Old Testament” commands, standards and ethics to Christians in his letters.  Instead we see, once again, that for Paul his gentile converts are now part of God’s renewed Israel which stands together in the Presence of the Creator bringing praises to God’s name (cf. Rom 15.76-13).

First Corinthians 5 shows us, as well as anywhere, what Paul means in 2 Timothy 3.15-17.  The Scriptures of Israel are good for doctrine, good for teaching, instruction in righteousness and equipping the people of God for the life of faith in relationship to God.

Resources for this Blog

G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians 

Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul

Richard Oster, First Corinthians 

4 Responses to ““Drive out the Offender”: Paul, the “Old Testament,” and Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5: An Overview”

  1. Glenn Browning Says:

    Wow! How did we miss this all these years. We certainly can’t be called Bereans, just accepted what our accepted leaders told us 1 Corinthians meant.

  2. Jerry Starling Says:

    Thank you, Bobby, for a direct, concise exposition of the connection we still have with the Old Testament scriptures and how these scriptures are still ours for our learning (Torah), comfort (God’s hesed love), and hope (Messianic blessing).

  3. Robert Limb Says:

    Good, sound, pertinent, as usual.

  4. Rob Says:

    Its interesting that Paul did not question that the Corinthians were true believers even when they tolerated something as extreme as incest. I can imagine many Christians today saying that this proves that the Corinthians (or anyone with such permissive viewpoints today) are *not* genuine Christians. Paul seems more tolerant, yet one wouldn’t say he was tolerant at the same time!

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