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Understanding the Role and Purpose of Excommunication According to Scripture

by | Jul 15, 2022

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1st Corinthians 5 (NASB)
1-It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. 2-You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.

3-For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4-In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5-I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

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6-Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7-Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ, our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8-Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9-I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10-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. 11-But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is 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. 12-For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13-But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.

There are several points that must be considered, grasped, and accepted before a proper understanding of this difficult passage is possible. Not difficult in the sense of being particularly elusive in its meaning, but difficult in its subject matter. These are as follows:

1) The purpose of excommunication is twofold and motivated by love for Christ and His church. To hopefully rescue the erring member and preserve the safety and purity of the body.

2) At no point in this passage is the man under consideration called by the apostle a brother in Christ. (we’ll get there)

3) The “judgment” Paul is talking about is not the final judgment of eternal destiny, but a judgment of the man’s fruit and hence the present credibility of his claim on Christ.

4) Excommunication is both the sentence of that Judgement and the judgment itself.

5) While gross sexual immorality is the example at hand, excommunication is to be carried out upon all flagrant, stubbornly practiced, unrepentant sin.
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There can be no disagreement on the nature and severity of the sin being here not only tolerated but fallaciously held up as an object of liberty from law by the Corinthian church. (another story for another time) Leviticus 18:8 specifically forbids relations with one’s father’s wife. Paul makes clear that this perversion is of such a nature that it would raise the eyebrows of even the pagan residents of Corinth who were certainly no strangers to deviance and debauchery.

Paul’s mind, as he sets forth in verse 5, is not to exact vengeance or to look down on this man in self-righteous condemnation, but his hope is that through this, the severest of Church discipline he may be finally saved.
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The offender is referred to directly 7 times in this passage and indirectly a few more. The first direct reference is in v.1 where Paul uses a simple pronoun (τινα – tina), rendered here by the NASB crew as “someone”. A person.

The second is in v.2 where he is called “the one” in the NASB. “Him” in the ESV. This is a single-letter article, the rough breathing omicron, pronounced “haw” which is most often translated as “the”. The English word “one” is added to make the thought flow in our language. “The one who has done this”.

The third is in v.3. Here we have the article again except in the accusative case this time. (It is nominative in v.2) Translated “him” in the NASB and “the one” in the ESV.

We have 2 references to this man in v.5. The first is the pronoun τοιοῦτος (toy oo toss), which indicates classification or kind. The NASB renders this as “such a one”. Meaning “a guy like this”. The ESV is a little bland here with “this man”. The KJV actually flavors this more fully with “such an one”. The second reference in v.5 is another article. Here in the neuter gender. “The” spirit is what it actually says. The KJV translates it that way. More modern translations change the gender in English to “his”. Masculine. A legitimate liberty as it is indisputable that that’s what it means. “his spirit may be saved”.

The sixth time we find the “someone” from verse 1 being referred to directly (though as part of a category) is in v.11. This one is VERY important. Here we have a participle form of the verb ὀνομάζω (on omad zo). Paul’s use of this word and phraseology carries with it his intention that his readers understand the inconclusive nature of this man’s status as a “brother”. This word used this way brings the meaning of taking a name or designation. Technically, it could be understood either in the middle voice, which would mean that the man is calling himself a brother or in the passive voice, which would mean that others are calling him that. Or both. The point is that his being CALLED a brother is not the same as his actually being one.

While not incorrect, the ESV regrettably sort of obscures this with the rendering “bears the name of brother”. My beloved NASB nails it with “so-called brother”. That is EXACTLY what is being conveyed. This man is being considered a Christian brother when the evidence does not necessarily support that conclusion. It’s not necessarily the case that he is NOT a brother either. We don’t know yet. We have to wait to see how he responds to excommunication. More on that a little later. If Paul wanted them and us to consider this man a brother, he would have simply said “any brother” and not included this phraseology at all. It would have been less work to do so.

The last time in this chapter that our subject is referred to directly is the quotation of a principle found in several places in the book of Deuteronomy. (13:5, 17:7, 17:12, 21:21, and 22:21. Also Judges 20:13) This is in verse 13. “REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.” Caps as per the NASB translators indicating a quotation from the Old Testament. The word “man” does not occur in the text. It is presumed. A standard practice when translating Koine Greek into English. (though this is almost certainly a quotation from the Septuagint) In every instance of this principle under this phrase in the above cited OT passages, it simply says “remove the evil” and the offender was to be put to death. The crimes ranged from disrespecting authority to falsely prophesying to immorality. Saints are never referred to as evil or wicked persons. They may lapse into evil or wicked acts sometimes, but they are never referred to in these terms as persons. Of course we don’t physically execute such folks in the new covenant age, but it does help us understand how seriously to view the man in our passage here.

To sum up this section on that note, it is an illegitimate imposition upon the text to refer to this man or anyone else like him as a brother or sister in Christ. The apostle never does so and in fact, uses specific language in v.11 to make that explicitly clear.

Satan is referred to in scripture as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4)“the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) and he under whose power lies the whole world. (1 John 5:19)

Being cut off from the comfort and strength of the fellowship of believers as well as being denied the means of grace in the administration of the word and the communion table IS being “delivered to Satan”. It is being sent into exile outside the camp to fend for oneself in enemy territory. The hope being that the pain and misery of this state of affairs might drive the subject to repentance as is befitting one who is the heir of final salvation.

Let’s now take a closer look at verse 5. After declaring his judgment upon the offender in v.4 (we’ll touch on judging a bit later too), Paul defines this judgment, as I went into above, as “delivering to Satan”. The purpose is for the “destruction of the flesh”. The short version for this phrase is that “flesh” is here being used to connote the whole of the sinful carnal man still dead in Adam and who will not be completely shed while we are still in this body.

It should be noted that some tie this to Romans 1 where this same Paul refers to those involved in homosexuality as “receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

In the Romans 1 passage though, the penalty is received in their “persons” (NASB) or “themselves” (ESV). This is a pronoun (reflexive) ἑαυτοῦ (heh ow too) and carries with it the idea of personhood itself. It is not the same as the flesh (σάρξ – sarx). Though the “dishonoring” of their bodies (ch. 1:24) may be part of the penalty, it is not intended to be redemptive in any way that can be gotten out of the text of the Romans passage. But the “destruction of the flesh” in 1st Corinthians 5 is overtly stated to hopefully be the instrument of that man’s rescue from the path to perdition. The people group described beginning with the 24th verse of the first chapter of Romans is not comparable to the man in 1st Corinthians 5 whom Paul judges and commands the church to judge by putting him out into the Devil’s world in the hope of saving him. In Romans 1 these people are abandoned by God Himself under His direct unmediated judgement. Not Paul’s or the church.

One major key to understanding the lesson of 1st Corinthians 5 is the aorist, subjunctive, passive form of σῴζω (sode zo) which pretty much every translation anybody should care about renders as “MAY be saved” in vs.5. The aorist, subjunctive, passive (3rd person singular, which person and number aren’t as important in this case) is very precise. I had to do a good bit of research on this. I’m just good enough with Koine Greek to stumble through and know that one can get into trouble quickly by oversimplifying the grammar.

The aorist tense is already somewhat mystifying because we don’t have one in English. The subjunctive mood is the mood, generally speaking, of contingency. Combined with the aorist tense and passive voice as here, it can be used differently than if in the middle or active voices. The bottom line is that this form of this word translated as “may be saved” in this context, indicates that the credibility of his testimony as a Christian brother depends on how he ultimately responds to his excommunication. His spirit MAY be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus. But maybe not too. We don’t know yet until we see what he does. That this is the meaning of the subjunctive passive here is strengthened by what I have said above in reference to ὀνομάζω (on omad zo) in verse 11.

This man is treated as a “so called”, possible brother whose testimony is contingent upon how he responds to ecclesiastical excommunication.

If he is a brother, he will repent and return. If he is not a brother and is to have any hope, it will come through the painful lash of excommunication. That is God’s definition of love in this circumstance. If he does not repent and shows himself not to be a brother after all, he needed to go anyway because Paul says that the leaven of his tolerated sin will pollute the whole church. Others will think they too can have what they see as the literal best of both worlds. Do what I want now and then an early retirement in Gods’ paradise. VERY dangerous and those who preach it will have the blood of those who believe it on their hands.

All Paul had to do was use a future indicative (or maybe even the subjunctive mood, but not the passive voice) to say his spirit “WILL be saved” if he was making that guarantee. That’s not what he said though.

With that in mind, I have also heard it preached that this passage is a glorious exposition of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. That through all this, this man was kept safe in Christ and his salvation was never in question. This is simply untrue for all the reasons I have given. His salvation was the very thing that WAS in question until his repentance and restoration. Some solid expositors say he was unregenerate until his repentance and restoration. Some say his repentance and restoration demonstrated his regenerate state. I say it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Paul says to treat him as unregenerate, a wicked man (vs.13) and give him no comfort or assurance of salvation until his repentance and restoration are forthcoming.

Maybe the toughest part of this passage of all is that it’s somewhat easier to excommunicate somebody for raw public immorality or some other very “serious” sin. This passage is even harder when we consider the following quick points.

Paul makes it crystal clear that this applies only to those inside the visible church. “So-called brethren” (v. 11) Those closest to us and hence most painful to deal with in this manner. Not those in the world (v.10) In fact we are everywhere commanded to portray Christ to those who don’t know him, by our gracious love for them. We should live amongst them and be in their lives except when it would be disobedience to other commands of God to do so.

He also makes it crystal clear that he is speaking about ANY flagrant, open sin. We know this because he gives 2 representative lists in vs. 10 and 11 that include immoral people, the covetous and swindlers, idolaters, revilers, and drunkards. His indisputable intent is to have them understand that everything he’s said in this chapter (though there were no chapters when he wrote it) about this man with his father’s wife, also applies to any open flagrant and unrepentant sin. A swindler is a thief. A reviler is essentially an abusive loud mouth and a gossip.

He says not to associate or even eat with them. In that culture, taking a meal with somebody was a significant act of acceptance and fraternity. It was not the bare action of chewing and swallowing food that was being forbidden though. It was any and all friendly association or interaction whatsoever.

I hasten to clarify that he is absolutely NOT referring to those who are fighting the Romans 7 war. A brother or sister who hates their sin, calls it sin and wars against it, is to be embraced, walked with, and supported for as long as they fight. Excommunication and shunning are for obstinate, unrepentant, practitioners of sin who have exalted their own desires over the Word of God, the purity and safety of the flock, and the reputation of Christ.

It is noteworthy as well that in v.12 the apostle Paul, somewhat sarcastically, but very rhetorically, chides this church for… hang on… NOT judging. He tells them not to worry about the corruption in the world, but you dern well better git yourselves about the business of judging those who claim to be one of us. This flies squarely in the face of the loud chanting mantra of our day, which is … “JUDGE NOT!!” The most biblically illiterate scriptural simpletons on the face of God’s green earth can quote Matthew 7:1 even though 90% of them don’t even know where in the Bible it is. There certainly is such a thing as self righteous, legalistic judgment which the Lord hates at least as much as immorality. (Luke 18:9-14, Proverbs 6:16-19) By far the greater problem we have today though is timid permissiveness.

As always, I welcome thoughtful, constructive criticism and engagement. I will believe whatever I am convinced the Bible teaches, no matter who or what it costs me or makes me wrong about. Show me my error from the text and you will have my sincere and enthusiastic gratitude for having been used by the Lord to bring your brother into greater truth.

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