1 Corinthians 5:1-13 (NIV)
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 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. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Okay, confession time (no pun intended). When I decided to do a seven-week series on the Schleitheim Confession, I did not expect to be challenged so much in only the second week. But here we are, and I have concerns. I agreed with most of what we looked at last week when we studied adult baptism, but today’s article is much more difficult for me. It is difficult because I don’t like it, and it is even more difficult because it is biblical. But when have we ever backed down from a good challenge at Staunton Mennonite Church?
As much of a challenge as today’s article is, I must admit that this is exactly why I wanted to do this series. Some of us are Anabaptist by birth while others are Anabaptists by choice. And regardless of which camp you belong to, I think that it is important to look at the beliefs of your particular worshipping community and ask what they believe, why they believe it, and if you believe it as well. The question of what you should do if you don’t agree with the beliefs of your worshipping community is an entirely different topic for another day, but I will simply say that it is important to surround yourself with people that think like you and people who think differently than you as well.
So, without further ado, Article II. of the 1527 Schleitheim Confession of Faith is:
II. We are agreed as follows on the ban: The ban shall be employed with all those who have given themselves to the Lord, to walk in His commandments, and with all those who are baptized into the one body of Christ and who are called brethren or sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and sin, being inadvertently overtaken. The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned according to the command of Christ. Matt. 18. But this shall be done according to the regulation of the Spirit (Matt. 5) before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.
The ban, or perhaps you have heard of it called excommunication, is our topic for this morning. We are talking about kicking people out of the church. Does that sound like a good thing to anyone? Maybe if there is someone that you really don’t like and would prefer to not have to see them every Sunday morning. Really, doesn’t this seem a bit harsh? But again, it is biblical.
Matthew 18 is referenced in this article and it is a passage that I have preached on a number of times and strongly affirm. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples that if a brother or sister is found to be in sin that they are to go to the person and let them know about it. If the person doesn’t listen, you are to bring another witness or two, not to gang up on them, but to back you up. If they still don’t answer, you are to discern this issue with the church. And if they still don’t listen, then Jesus says that you are to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (verse 17b) That last line is important, and we will come back to it shortly. But first, off to the scripture that is highlighted at the top of this page.
In our passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul is urging the church to take some kind of action against a man that has been committing a sexual sin. The actual sin isn’t the point as Paul goes on to lift out several other sins that would warrant the same response (verse 11). Paul is telling them to break off fellowship with the man. Don’t even eat with him.
My initial response is, Well Jesus ate with the tax collectors and the sinners! Why would Paul instruct the church to break fellowship with this man? But Paul goes on to answer that question in verses 10 through 13. This isn’t how you are to relate to people outside of the church. If you were supposed to avoid eating with all people that participated in these actions that Paul deems inappropriate, well then you would have to leave this world to fill your tummy. This is how you are to discipline someone in the church.
This is where the early Anabaptists came up with this idea of the ban, and it is still practiced in some of the more conservative groups like the Amish. There is no doubt in my mind that this is biblical, but is it effective today?
There is a number of differences between first century Christianity and what we have today, which I think helps us better understand this passage. This letter was written to a specific congregation, the church in Corinth, a city of about 400,000 people. The church was made up of about 40-50 people at this time. So that means that Christians were a bit of a minority. They made up about .01% of the population. The church was made up of mostly Greeks, which means that they had left the pantheistic religion of their families to follow Jesus.
As cruel as it sounds, the church cutting off fellowship from a straying member had a major impact on that individual. They had left family and friends to follow Jesus, and now they didn’t have the support of the church, either. They were all alone in this cold, cruel world.
This is a mirror image of what happened in the 16th century with the early Anabaptists. They were by far a minority among the other religious groups. Sure, everyone was a Christian at that time in Europe, but very few were Anabaptists, and the other Christians were persecuting the Anabaptists. They too had left family and friends behind to follow Jesus. So in these situations, the ban, or excommunication worked really well. We even find in II Corinthians that the person that Paul was suggesting that church ban was restored to their fellowship.
So as I keep saying, the ban is biblical. But I don’t think it works today. The reason it doesn’t work today is because if someone is kicked out of a church, all they have to do is go a block or two down the street to another church that will be more than willing to welcome them in with open arms. Imagine if a Mennonite church in Harrisonburg excommunicated someone. There is a Mennonite church on every corner in Harrisonburg. You don’t even have to leave the conference; just walk a few more steps to the next church and they will be waiting on you, with open arms.
So I get why Paul instructed the Corinthians to practice the ban in their church and I get why the early Anabaptists practiced it as well. It was surely effective in their context. But I believe that today it would cause more pain to practice the ban in the church than it would do good. And I don’t think we need to interpret what Jesus said in Matthew 18 as teaching the ban. But again, we will come back to that later.
I believe that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church were specific for that congregation and not intended to be normative for all of Christianity. I know that it can seem like a slippery slope to start contextualizing scripture and saying one thing in the Bible applies to everyone and others do not. But if we are all honest, we know that we all do this. I like to lift out passages like Leviticus 19:19, which speaks of clothes, crops, and cross-breeding. It says don’t make a cloth out of two different kinds of materials, yet we all wear poly-cotton blend shirts. It says not to plant two different kinds of seed in the same field, but our gardens are filled with a variety of cultivars. And it says that we should not breed two different kinds of animals, yet who among us doesn’t want to see a liger?
These commandments in Leviticus, which none of us really thinks we need to keep, are intended for a specific purpose. And that is to keep people from cheating one another. The reason for these commandments is still just as applicable today is it was 3,000 years ago, but the way it is lived out and enforced will change with the time.
My point is that Paul’s reason for instructing the church in Corinth to practice the ban is just as relevant today, even if the practice of the ban is not. Paul’s reason for the ban is to bring a brother or sister back into right relationship with God and the others. And that is just as applicable today as it was in Paul’s day.
In verses 6-8, Paul addresses the effects of sin on the church and why it is so important to not just let these issues go. He says, “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
You see, the church was not only turning their backs to the immorality of this individual, they were boasting about it. They had learned about the grace of God offered through Jesus, and they were reveling in it. But Paul compares the sin of this man to bad yeast. Just as bad yeast will spread through dough and ruin the entire loaf, so too will malice and wickedness spread through the church.
So while I don’t think that the ban is effective for today’s church, I do think that some sort of action is called for. If nothing is done, then the person involved could hurt themselves, and they could hurt others.
I was doing some electrical work around my home recently, and of course I had my little helper with me. My little boy, who turns two on January 16th, loves to help dad by taking my tools and hiding them in his sandbox. In his defense, you never know when you are going to need a 9/16” wrench to build your next sandcastle.
When you install a duplex outlet, you use a screwdriver to tighten a couple of screws around a wire, pinching it against a copper contact, which travels to the plug. So Paxton had watched daddy taking his screwdrivers and putting them inside the outlet box all day long. So when I put down my screwdriver, he saw his opportunity to give it a turn (pun intended). I had the outlet all closed up so there were no wires or screws exposed. Paxton took the flat-head screwdriver and put it in the only place it would fit: in the slot where you would plug in an appliance.
I knew that the breaker was turned off, so I simply told him, “No, no. That’s ouchy.” He wasn’t going to be hurt, but I didn’t want him to think it was a game that he could play. He listened to me, put down the screwdriver, and went off and did something else.
I was just finishing up with that project and I went down to the basement and turned on the breaker. I started cleaning up after myself, and as I turned around, I saw Paxton going to the outlet again with the screwdriver. This time I yelled, “No!” and rushed to pick him up as…he…started…screaming.
He wasn’t screaming because he was shocked. He started screaming because of my reaction. I yelled, I moved briskly, I snatched him up in my arms and coddled him. He just wanted to do what daddy had been doing, but he didn’t understand that what he was about to do would cause him pain and perhaps suffering. The good news is that he hasn’t tried to stick anything in any outlets since.
I believe that sin causes pain. It causes pain to us and it causes pain to the church and it causes pain to God. It causes pain to God because it hurts to see the ones we love suffer. So much of what we are told to do and not do in the Bible is for our own good. And as the church, we are called to correct other members of the church when we believe that they are involved in something that is detrimental to them physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
If Paxton had shocked himself because he was trying to do what I had done, I would have felt terrible. No, I wasn’t shocked myself, but it hurts me in a different way to see a loved one in pain. So I responded to his actions according to the level of danger that he was putting himself, and my emotional well-being, into. And if we truly believe that sin is harmful to a person, to the body of Christ, and to God himself, we cannot sit back and allow a person to continue in their harmful ways.
So I come back to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 18 on how to correct a person who is sinning. Jesus never says to cut off fellowship with the person; Paul says that in a letter written to a specific church with a specific issue(s). Jesus says to treat that person as you would treat a tax collector or a pagan. Paul himself says not to cut off fellowship from a tax collector or pagan. We are called to love the tax collector and pagan. We eat with them, sharing our goods, and sharing the love of Christ. We are to teach them gently, as a father corrects his little boy, not cut them off from the body.
The ban may have been effective in situations where Christians were a minority, but I don’t believe it is effective in our society today. And I don’t believe that Jesus endorsed the ban. But this doesn’t mean that we do nothing when a brother or sister is hurting themselves, hurting their relationship with God, or hurting their relationship with others. The point that Paul made was that sin hurts us all, and we need to address it. But as Jesus points out, the goal is always to restore people to right relationship with God and with others. This isn’t about feeling morally superior to others. It is about feeling spiritually at one with God and others.