The Sphere of Discipline
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (5:9–13)
The discipline God commands His church to take against the unrepentant is to be of a certain kind and should be exercised within certain bounds. These verses indicate some types of offenses that require discipline and give further explanation as to how the discipline is to be carried out.
In a previous letter (see Introduction) Paul had commanded the Corinthian Christians not to associate with immoral people. Associate with translates sunanamignumi, which literally means “to mix up with.” In this compound form it is more intense and means “to keep intimate, close company with.”
Faithful believers are not to keep close company with any fellow believers who persistently practice serious sins such as those mentioned here. If the offenders will not listen to the counsel and warning of two or three other believers and not even of the whole church, they are to be put out of the fellowship. They should not be allowed to participate in any activities of the church—worship services, Sunday school, Bible studies, or even social events. Obviously, and most importantly, they should not be allowed to have any leadership role. They should be totally cut off both from individual and corporate fellowship with other Christians, including that of eating together (v. 11; cf. 2 Thess. 3:6–15).
No exceptions are made. Even if the unrepentant person is a close friend or family member, he is to be put out. If he is a true believer he will not lose his salvation because of the sin (v. 5), but he is to lose contact with fellow believers, in order not to corrupt them with his wickedness and to suffer the consequences of his sin. The pain of such isolation may drive the person to repentance.
A church that does not discipline a sinning member is like a person who has good reason to believe he has cancer but who refuses to go to a doctor—because he either does not want to face the problem or does not want to face the treatment. If he waits too long his whole body will be permeated with the disease and it will be too late for treatment to do any good. No church is healthy enough to resist contamination from persistent sin in its midst, any more than the healthiest and most nutritious bushel of apples can withstand contamination from even a single bad one. The only solution in both cases is separation.
The Corinthians had misinterpreted Paul’s previous advice about associating with immoral people. I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world, he explained. Apparently the church had stopped having contact with unbelievers instead of with unrepentant believers. The apostle pointed out that to do so is impossible without leaving the planet. Besides, sin outside the church is not nearly as dangerous to the church as sin within its own membership. Perhaps their wrong response also reflected their wanting to tolerate sin in the church. And their treatment of the unsaved in the world may have indicated their spiritual arrogance.
It is the world to whom we are to witness, to whom we are called to bring the gospel. We are not to conform to the world (Rom. 12:2), but we must be in the world and have contact with unsaved people or we could never evangelize them. In His high priestly prayer, the Lord prayed, “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.… As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (John 17:15, 18). We are to “be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom [we] appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). God intends us to be in the world so we can be its salt and light (Matt. 5:13–16) and His witnesses to it (Acts 1:8).
It is the so-called [onomazō, “to bear the name of”] brother who is a threat to the spiritual welfare of a church and with whom we are not to associate. We cannot know who is and is not a true believer, but discipline is to be administered to any who professes to be a Christian. Since we cannot tell the difference, tares must be treated like wheat. Anyone who carries the name of Christ is subject to discipline.
Paul makes it clear that excommunication is not limited only to cases of extreme sin such as that of the incestuous brother who was living with his stepmother. It should be applied to any professing believer who is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler.
Although true believers are recipients of a new nature—the divine nature, the life of God in their inner person, a new holy self—the flesh is still present and offers the potential for all kinds of sinning. The believer who refuses to appropriate the resources of his new life and yields to the flesh will fall into habitual patterns of evil such as those mentioned here. The Greek terms used here to identify the sins are substantives, indicating patterns of behavior.
Can believers develop such patterns of sin? The answer is yes. In salvation the penalty of sin is paid and the dominion of sin is broken, so that subjection to it is not necessary, but voluntary. Believers who choose sin will develop sinful patterns unless they repent. In 6:9–11 Paul says such unbelievers do not enter the kingdom (salvation), and he assures the Corinthians that they are not like those people anymore. Yet in 6:8 he says that they are acting like them. The point is that in unbelievers there is an unbroken pattern of sinning that cannot be restrained. In believers that unbroken pattern is broken, the frequency and totality of sin is changed. Righteousness and goodness find a place and the life manifests virtue. Because of our humanness, however, sin will sometimes break the pattern of righteousness. If persisted in, it establishes a sinful pattern, interrupting the manifestations of holiness coming from the new nature. That is why there are so many commands and calls to obedience and to church discipline. The believer will never become totally sinful, but may be sinful enough at certain points in his life to be characterized as an unbeliever.
Paul’s thought, as we combine this text with 6:9–11, is that believers can act like unbelievers, those who are shut out of the kingdom. We cannot always tell wheat from tares, or know whether a so-called brother is genuine. Such acts of sin make a believer indistinguishable from a nonbeliever to the world, to the church, and even to himself. All assurance is forfeited (cf. 2 Pet. 1:5–10; 1 John 2:5). It is essential to realize that in a true believer the flow of sin will not be uninterrupted, as in one who is unredeemed. There will be some fruit of righteousness, for the new nature must be manifest (John 15:1–8).
The Corinthian church had members who practiced all of those sins. An immoral member is the primary subject of 1 Corinthians 5. That some were covetous is implied in 10:24; and some were involved in idolatry (10:21–22). Apparently many of them were revilers, or slanderers, running down members of other parties (3:3–4) and likely to despise Timothy when he came to minister to them (16:11). They had drunkards (11:21) and they had swindlers (6:8). The whole epistle reminds us of the sinning capability of believers. All offenders were to be put out of the congregation unless they repented and changed. The rest of the believers were to withdraw from them in any social setting that implied acceptance, and were not even to eat with such a one.
We have no responsibility for judging outsiders. We are to witness to outsiders, but not judge them. We cannot chasten them, and no remedial steps will alter the sin of the ungodly. Those who are outside, God judges. But we do have a responsibility to judge those who are within the church. We must remove the wicked man from among [our]selves.
Discipline is difficult, painful, and often heartrending. It is not that we should not love the offenders, but that we should love Christ, His church, and His Word even more. Our love to the offenders is not to be sentimental tolerance but correcting love (cf. Prov. 27:6).
It is not that everyone in the church must be perfect, for that is impossible. Everyone falls into sin and has imperfections and shortcomings. The church is in some ways a hospital for those who know they are sick. They have trusted in Christ as Savior and they want to follow Him as Lord—to be what God wants them to be. It is not the ones who recognize their sin and hunger for righteousness who are to be put out of fellowship, but those who persistently and unrepentantly continue in a pattern of sin about which they have been counseled and warned. We should continue to love them and pray for them that they repent and return to a pure life. If they do repent we should gladly and joyfully “forgive and comfort” them and welcome them back into fellowship (2 Cor. 2:7).
12. For what have I to do to judge them that are without? There is nothing to hinder us from judging these also—nay more, even devils themselves are not exempt from the judgment of the word which is committed to us. But Paul is speaking here of the jurisdiction that belongs peculiarly to the Church. “The Lord has furnished us with this power, that we may exercise it upon those who belong to his household. For this chastisement is a part of discipline which is confined to the Church, and does not extend to strangers. We do not therefore pronounce upon them their condemnation, because the Lord has not subjected them to our cognizance and jurisdiction, in so far as that chastisement and censure are concerned. We are, therefore, constrained to leave them to the judgment of God.” It is in this sense that Paul says, that God will judge them, because he allows them to wander about unbridled like wild beasts, because there is no one that can restrain their wantonness.
The Church and the World (5:9–13)
Paul concludes this section on the Corinthians’ toleration of immorality in their midst with a broader section on the relationship of the church and the world. In doing so, he reflects on an earlier letter he had written to the believers in Corinth that they had apparently inadvertently or even deliberately misunderstood. What precipitated that letter we do not know.
9 There is a virtual consensus among scholars that the letter Paul refers to here is an earlier letter written to the Corinthians. This means that egrapsa (translated “I have written” in the NIV) is a true aorist, not an epistolary aorist. Apparently in that earlier letter Paul had instructed them “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (pornos, GK 4521; cf. porneia in 5:1 and the comments there). Whether the situation of the incestuous man is in the background of the earlier letter cannot be determined; the way Paul writes in 5:1 suggests that this is a new situation. Since Corinth was known for its sexual immorality (see Introduction), a generic instruction or reminder to avoid such people would never be out of place.
It seems, then, that when Paul heard about the new situation of the incestuous man—perhaps from the people of Chloe’s household (cf. 1:11)—he asked these visitors how the Corinthians could justify such actions in the light of his earlier letter. The response he received ran something like this: “Well, the Corinthians felt that your instructions were impossible to keep. After all, we live in the city of Corinth, and we rub shoulders every day with immoral people. The only way we can avoid mingling with such people is to move to some island all by ourselves. But that’s impossible.” It is probable that this was not so much a sincere response as it was a rationalization on the part of the Corinthians. Or perhaps it reflects what the “arrogant” in 4:18 were saying, trying to poke holes in Paul’s letter and attempting to make it sound ludicrous.
10 In response, Paul now clarifies what he meant. He says, as it were, that when he instructed them in that earlier letter not to associate with immoral people, he did not mean “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” (emphasis added). Paul freely acknowledges that Christians are in the world, though not of the world (cf. Jesus’ comments in Jn 17:6–19). Note that the sins Paul mentions here in addition to sexual immorality are also known to have been prevalent in Corinth (cf. Fee, 223–26).
11 What the apostle really meant in that earlier letter was that believers “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” (emphasis added; on these sins, see comments at 6:9–10). Since the Corinthians have taken their mingling with the sexually immoral to the next level—tolerating someone of this nature in their own midst—Paul now needs to make his comments more specific: With such a man they should “not even eat”!
What does the prohibition against eating with an immoral person mean? Does it refer to any and all eating? This cannot be ruled out, especially since eating was a highly social event in the ancient world. Eating with someone was an indication of social acceptance with that person. Note the criticisms against Jesus for eating with tax collectors and “sinners” (e.g., Mk 2:15–17; Lk 15:1–2). But since Paul’s instructions in this section have to do primarily with the community of the church acting as a united body (with Paul’s spirit present! vv. 2–4), perhaps the primary focus of his last instruction in v. 11 has to do with eating together as a church—in the Lord’s Supper and probably in the meal that apparently preceded the Lord’s Supper (see comments at 1 Co 11:17–22).
12–13 Paul is now ready to wrap up this part of the letter with a brief statement about judging (which, incidentally, leads to the next section on lawsuits among Christians, 6:1–11). Paul suggests once again that it is not their responsibility as Christians to judge the outside world and decide who are terrible sinners and who are not. They do not have to draw up a list of untouchables. That sort of judging is God’s business (cf. Ro 12:19–21).
But when it comes to those inside the church, especially when the actions of certain people are shocking even the pagans around them (5:1), then believers had better exercise judgment—the sort of judgment advocated in 1 Corinthians 5:2–5. Thus Paul concludes with his final admonition: “Expel the wicked man from among you.” This verse is a quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7, which instructed the Israelites in what to do if they discovered an idolater in their midst. While the OT’s method of expulsion involved death by stoning after the situation had been certified by two or three witnesses, Paul transforms this method into moral and spiritual expulsion—letting the sinner know in no uncertain terms that he or she can no longer look to the church for fellowship or support.
5:12–13 / Four short statements—two rhetorical questions, a declaration, and a quote from the lxx—summarize and epitomize Paul’s directions to the Corinthians concerning judgment. First, he queries, What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? This question assumes that judging those outside the church is not a task given to Christians, and it implies that the judgment of the world is God’s responsibility. Second, Paul asks, Are you not to judge those inside? The question is put to the congregation as a whole, not to each individual; and although there is a negative cast to this question, the Greek grammar assumes the answer, “Yes, we ourselves are to judge those in the church.”
Following these questions Paul makes a brief declaration that clarifies the anticipated answer to both questions, God will judge those outside. This comment gives the basis for the two previous points. Because God judges those outside the church, Christians should not judge them. Because God judges those outside the church, Christians have the responsibility to judge those who are part of the church. Paul’s declaration looks back to these two points, but in context it anticipates and clarifies the point he makes in the citation of Deuteronomy 17:7, “Expel the wicked man from among you.” The church failed to render responsible judgment, so Paul quotes Scripture to certify his point that the man must be returned to the world, where God alone executes judgment. The sad situation is that the church failed God, itself, and the man who was in error. The only hope in this hopeless situation is the drastic action of returning the man to the context of the world, where God alone is his hope—not the church and not the man’s own sensibilities. The church’s failure to correct the man, not merely the man’s wickedness or Paul’s vindictiveness, necessitated this seemingly harsh course of action.
A Point of Clarification (5:9–13)
Supporting Idea: Paul clarified and reaffirmed a point he had made in an earlier letter: Christians should not associate with grossly sinful people in the church, such as the incestuous man who was the subject of the current controversy, but believers should not disassociate from all sinful people.
5:9–10. Paul clarified one aspect of his instruction that may have been easily misunderstood. He referred to a previous letter in which he had written that believers were not to associate with sexually immoral people. This instruction could easily have been misunderstood (or purposefully twisted) to mean that believers should withdraw entirely from all immoral people. Paul ridiculed this misunderstanding of his earlier words by noting that avoiding all immoral people can only happen if Christians leave this world.
Since Christians must minister to the world, they must not separate themselves from all who are greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. These people are the church’s mission field (see Matt. 9:10–13; Luke 15:1–32).
Possibly, those in Corinth who opposed Paul used this misunderstanding to undermine Paul’s ministry and authority. They may have suggested that Paul called Christians to stay away from all sinners, and on that basis discounted all his teaching. Paul treated the Corinthians harshly for this misunderstanding for three reasons: it stemmed from a wrong reading of his prior letter; it had led to wrongful pride and corruption in the church; and it had allowed the church’s toleration of the incestuous man.
5:11. Lest there be any confusion, Paul explained that he did not have in mind the sexually immoral people of this world (i.e., unbelievers), but anyone who calls himself a brother (people in the church). Such people may not truly be believers, even though they claim to be. If they fail to give evidence of new life in Christ, there may be sufficient reason to doubt their salvation. To protect the church from the corrupting influence of these so-called brothers, followers of Christ must not even eat with anyone in the church who is immoral or greedy, an idolater … slanderer … drunkard or a swindler. As Paul was to write in this same letter, “Bad company corrupts good character” (15:33).
5:12–13. Paul concluded that he and the Corinthians had no right to judge those outside the church. Such people make no pretense of being Christians, and God alone will judge those. Even so, the church must judge those inside the church. Those in the church submit themselves to the authority of the body of Christ. Church discipline is a difficult and troubling process, and many churches try to avoid it. Yet, the church must take action when its members flagrantly violate the ways of Christ. Consequently, as much as the Corinthian church did not want to take action, they had to expel the wicked man.
The phrase expel the wicked man from among you alludes to the legal language of Deuteronomy (Deut. 17:7; 19:19; 24:7). In all these occurrences of the phrase, the wicked are “expelled” or “purged” by being executed (Deut. 21:21). In Old Testament Israel, God ordained execution as the means by which the nation was to purge itself of severe wickedness.
Paul applied these standards of holiness to the church, God’s New Testament people, but he applied the law somewhat differently by recommending excommunication rather than execution. Nevertheless, the fact that he used language typical of death sentences from the Old Testament reflects that he considered excommunication in the New Testament age to be quite serious. This form of church discipline should be reserved for the worst of circumstances.
12. For what right do I have to judge those who are outside [the church]? Do you not judge those who are inside?
- Paul’s right. Paul comes to the end of his discourse on excommunicating willful sinners. He refers to his misunderstood letter and his subsequent explanation (vv. 9–10): he is not talking about sinners outside the Christian community. When Paul uses the expression those who are outside, he discloses his Jewish background. The Jewish rabbis designated people who belonged to a different religion “outsiders.” The “insiders” were those adhering to the Jewish faith. In this passage, Paul applies these terms respectively to the world and to the church. He openly admits that he does not have a right to judge the world. In the next chapter, Paul asks the Corinthians if they know that the saints will judge the world (6:2). But that particular verse speaks of the last judgment and not about the present time.
This is not to say that Paul condoned the sinful lives of unbelievers. On the contrary, when he walked the streets of ancient Athens, he was agitated because the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). But Paul lacked authority to judge outside the church.
- The church’s duty. Within the Christian community, not Paul but the entire church must judge those cases that call for decisive separation between church and world. When a member of the church intentionally persists in sin and refuses to repent, the church must exercise discipline. Then the church regards this person no longer as one of its own but rather as one of the world. Hence, Paul asks the Corinthians a rhetorical question that demands a positive answer: “Do you not judge those who are inside?”
Anyone who claims to be a member of the church must pledge obedience to Jesus Christ. But if he or she chooses to live in disobedience to the Lord, the entire congregation must exclude this person from its ranks. If the church fails to judge, it places itself on the side of the sinner and is equally guilty before God. Not an individual church leader but the entire church is responsible for administering discipline to unruly members. Writes C. K. Barrett, “Responsibility for judgment is in the hands of the whole body of believers, not of a small group of ministerial authorities.”
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, pp. 195–196). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 303–305). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, p. 172). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.