September 10, 2022 - 1st Corinthians Chapters 5-8

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Today, as we continue our series in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, as we get to chapter 5, Paul has to regretfully deal with a shocking case that he’s heard about all the way across the Aegean Sea at Ephesus, a situation unheard of even among the pagans in their sex-saturated city: a man has taken his father’s wife, his widowed stepmother, as his partner.

Now, the Roman writer Cicero gagged when he heard about a case like this, where a woman married her son-in-law. No doubt the church’s Greek and Roman neighbors at Corinth also would have thought this was a scandalous relationship (if they’d known about it). But Paul complains that rather than grieving over what’s going on, a lot of church members seem to be puffed up with arrogance, as if there was nothing wrong and no action needed to be taken.

Paul tells the Corinthian church that they need to remove this offending church member from their midst, until he recognizes his error. (Paul says nothing about the woman; she may not have been a believer.) The purpose of removing the man is to reclaim him in the long run. To “deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (as Paul describes it) means to let the devil make this man’s life miserable enough to break the power of the old human nature (“the flesh”) over this person’s life, so that in the end, his soul can be restored.

Paul’s rationale for his advice is in verse 6: “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the entire batch of dough?” In other words, if this case is not handled promptly and firmly, it will contaminate the entire church. Paul fears that not only is the church’s witness at risk, but its very survival is at stake. Whatever evil we allow to grow unchallenged in our midst will grow like a cancer, whether it is greed or gossip or sexual misconduct. If a church has a case of domestic violence going on, and people in the church know about it, but take no action or even try to cover up the dirty secret, the church as a whole becomes guilty.

A little yeast penetrates the whole batch of dough. Whenever the church lowers its standards, it drags everyone down together. How can a church maintain its enthusiasm for high standards, if people can see those standards are not being taken seriously? A church cannot keep high standards for itself when it tolerates actions that lower those standards.

Whomever we permit or will not permit in leadership sends a message louder than words to the public at large. We’re not setting up a double standard. If the standard in question doesn’t apply to leaders, it doesn’t apply to anyone. We must expect no more from our church leaders than what we want the whole church to do likewise.

Now, the flip side is: churches can also make the mistake of being unloving, of being too heavy handed when we correct people. In cases of misconduct, we always need to listen first, to get our facts straight, and to understand the person and why they did what they did.

None of this applies to those who are outside the family of God who make no claim to follow Christ. It’s not our job to punish the sins of non-Christians. We cannot be the world’s moral police. We cannot demand that the non-Christian world live by our standards. They must answer to God alone, not to us. Paul writes here, “I never told you to avoid non-Christians who live like the devil. To do that, you’d have to move to Mars! What I’m saying,” Paul says, “is: Don’t tolerate those who claim they can be Christians and still practice intolerable behavior.”

Correction is not about kicking people out. It’s about reclaiming people who are running off the road and heading for a cliff. It’s about giving the world a clear picture of what our love looks like, and what our limits look like. Correction must always be done in love, for the good of the individual, and for the sake of the name of the God to whom we belong.

In chapter 6, we see that fighting and bickering in the church at Corinth had even spilled over into the marketplace, where some were filing lawsuits against each other right there in public, to be settled by pagan judges. How embarrassing! Paul asks, Isn’t there anyone there who is competent to handle these disputes? Don’t you know that we shall some day judge angels? Can’t you handle these disputes in house? To be demanding your rights like this is already defeat for you. Wouldn’t it be better to just let yourselves be wronged or defrauded? Instead, you inflict these evils on each other! Now, Paul does insist on his rights in court at times in the book of Acts. But churches need to have in-house systems of justice where we can settle disputes between believers. When brother sues brother, the body of Christ gets the black eye.

At this point, Paul launches into one of his sin lists. None of these lists is complete, but here Paul warns that those who practice such behaviors (without repentance) “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Several of these are sexual sins. At the top of the list is pornoi, those who practice non-marital sex, followed by idol-worshippers, adulterers, and 2 terms for the passive and active partners in same-sex intimacy. (The second term means literally “males who have koitos with males.”) Next comes thieves, followed by those who are “greedy” or “covetous,” followed by “drunkards” (we can add other substance abusers), those who “revile” God or other authorities, and extortionists or swindlers (literally “grabbers,” those who steal by force). The wonderful surprise Paul adds at this point is, “Such were some of you.” Former sex addicts, former gays, former substance addicts, former crooks – none of these were hopeless. Are they locked out of the kingdom of God? Not the ones Paul’s writing to! “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were put right with God,” because they had placed their faith in Christ. It is not sin itself, but continual unrepentant sin, which indicates that a person may not truly be saved.

In the second half of chapter 6, Paul concentrates on how non-marital sex does violence to our body as a temple of God. Paul asks in verse 15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ (meaning: parts of Christ’s body)?” The Greeks in Paul’s audience had very different ideas about their bodies. They believed the body was junk, an unfit place for God to live. That belief led to 2 different responses. One approach was to punish and deprive the body of what it craves, to wean it away from pleasure. The other approach was to indulge the body, with the idea that body and soul are so separate that nothing the body does can harm the soul.

New believers at Corinth went to both extremes. Some tried not to sleep with their own spouses (as if that were unspiritual). Others believed they were free to sleep with anyone, anytime. They thought: What does God care what I do with my body? Paul teaches here that no, there’s a fundamental connection between body and soul. What we do with and in this body counts forever. Paul declares that every other sin we can commit is outside the body (so none of them affects the body), but non-marital sex is a sin against our own body.

Christians at Corinth faced sexual temptation up to their eyeballs. They were surrounded by as much sexual freedom of all kinds as we have today, possibly more. Paul urges his audience: if you want to take good care of God’s temple as a place God dwells, run as fast as you can away from sex outside of marriage. Why? It’s because sex creates a powerful emotional bond, whether or not we intend to create such a bond. Paul quotes the Jewish law: “The 2 shall become one flesh.” Paul teaches that even a 20-minute encounter between strangers is enough to join them together into a relationship that cannot be erased or taken back.

“The 2 shall become one flesh.” God created sex to unite 2 lives, to give us ecstatic joy. God designed it to create such closeness that no one can walk away from such a relationship without experiencing pain. God wants to protect us from that pain.

You’re part of the body of Christ! Paul exclaims. How can you take part of Christ’s body and make it a part of some stranger, or someone with whom you don’t belong? Some tried to say, “All things are lawful for me.” Paul says that’s not liberty, that’s bondage. That’s slavery. And Paul says in verse 12, “I will not be enslaved by anything!” (That’s good advice, whether we’re talking about tobacco, alcohol or drugs, gambling, or even good gifts of God like sex and food.) God is not a cosmic killjoy. God wants to set us free. God wants the very best for our love life.

Some might say, “I can do whatever I want with my own body!” (We’re hearing that a lot right now.) God says: It’s not “your” body. Verse 20: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God with (or in) your body.” Knowing that our bodies are not our own, that they belong to Someone else, throws a new light on our moral decisions.

In chapter 7, Paul begins fielding questions from Corinth. So many at Corinth have gotten burned by their past misuse of God’s gift that some of them asked Paul: Wouldn’t we be better off without sex entirely? Paul says, Yeah, that would be great, but it’s not gonna work. Paul knows what God says in Genesis 2: “It is not good for the human to be alone.” Paul knows that too many people crave companionship, and they’re going to seek it somewhere.

Paul teaches here that Christians have only 2 options. To those who are unmarried or widowed (like himself), Paul says: It is ideal for them to remain like I am. Paul thinks being single is a tremendously freeing way to live: free from unnecessary distractions, free for single-hearted devotion to God. But if we can’t control our desires, Paul writes, we should marry, “for it is better to marry than to burn (with passion).” God gives us no third alternative.

Marriage between a man and a woman is God’s only provision for those who do not wish to live alone. But as much as a gift from God as marital love is, Paul argues that the very best gift is the gift of being single, the ability to be content without intimate involvements. (Paul could never have written what he wrote if marriage was required in God’s plan of salvation.)

Paul is not badmouthing marital love (far from it!). Paul’s not teaching that sex is evil. He’s not arguing that marriage is for weaklings. No! In verse 7, Paul observes that contented singleness is a gift from God, a gift that not everybody has. Being happily married is also a gift that not everybody has. It’s easy to do a lousy job being single or married, but to do either of them well takes a gift from above.

Advocating the single life was a radical move for Paul. In ancient Israel, choosing not to marry was to be deviant from the norm. The rabbis taught, “No one is exempt from the command ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ unless they already have children.” God has to command Jeremiah, “You shall not take a wife,” otherwise Jeremiah would have run off and got married before God could stop him. But John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul throw an entirely new, positive light on singleness, a message that ran counter to the culture in which they lived.

Paul emphasizes in chapter 7 that marriage is not a sin. It’s not a concession to the weakness of the flesh, unlike what some at Corinth seemed to think. No, marriage is a good gift from God. (Hebrews 13:4: “Let marriage be held in honor by all.”) In fact, here in verse 5, Paul urges married couples: Don’t deprive one another in bed! (You might want to memorize that verse.) But those who marry will have worldly worries, Paul says. Marriage limits your availability to God. So Paul says, Don’t complicate your life if you don’t have to.

The married person can’t have as much time to devote to the Lord as the single person. The married person’s attention is divided between God and meeting the needs of spouse and children, the cares and worries of family life. Paul says, “I want you to be free from that kind of anxiety.” That’s why Paul writes, “So he who marries his fiancée does well, and whoever refrains from marriage does better.”

In fact, in view of how quickly the world is headed for its final days, Paul offers some radical advice: “From now on, let those who have spouses live as if they had none… Let those who have dealings with the world live as if they had no dealings with it.” Paul’s not telling us to abandon our responsibilities to our families or our businesses. What Paul means is: Try not to get too entangled with earthly entanglements that distract us from the urgent needs of the hour.

Not everyone is single by choice. I wasn’t; back then, I knew what I wanted, if I could find it! Some folks are single because they’ve had a tough time meeting the right person to marry, or they’ve had tragedies that deprived them of a spouse. That’s part of the brokenness of the fallen world Adam and Eve inflicted on us. Contented singleness is a gift from God. If you have been blessed with it, that gift sets you free to offer single-hearted devotion to the Lord.

In chapter 8, Paul addresses the tough question: Could a Christian eat pagan sacrificial meat? Could you eat in an idol’s temple, if they served the best steak in town? Roman society was shot through with idolatry; you couldn’t get away from it. In Corinth (like elsewhere), the meat market was right next to one of the pagan temples, and most of the meat sold there had been offered to Apollo, Artemis, or some other pagan god. Do you dare buy or eat such meat?

Or what if your pagan friend invites you out to dinner? Many dinner parties held in private homes were held in honor of some pagan god. Imagine getting invited to a birthday party for your friend’s daughter where you knew that a pagan god would be worshipped. Can you imagine the social pressure? Now for many Greeks and Romans, these dinners were nothing more than pure social events. Many of them no longer took the old gods seriously. These sacrifices were for purely social reasons. So why not accept an invitation to one of these parties, knowing that the meat is only meat, and that the false god doesn’t really exist, anyway?

There was some powerful logic in this argument. But the rabbis taught that God’s law forbids anything remotely connected to idolatry. The rabbis taught that you couldn’t do business with anyone who was on their way to a pagan festival. You couldn’t shop in stores decorated by idols. If you sold an animal to a pagan, you first had to cripple it to make sure they couldn’t offer it in sacrifice. You couldn’t use hides or meat from a pagan sacrifice. Jewish priests exiled in Rome lived on fruits and nuts to avoid being defiled by eating the wrong kind of meat. In a pagan city, if you wanted to be sure about your meat, you became a vegetarian.

Paul approaches the issue from the angle of the freedom we have in Christ. Paul states that there’s nothing wrong with eating any meat unless you know it’s been offered to idols. Paul quotes Psalm 24: “The earth belongs to the Lord, and everything in it.” It’s God’s meat, not anyone else’s. “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market,” Paul says. “Eat whatever your friend serves you for dinner. Don’t even ask where it came from.”

But Paul realizes that some believers at Corinth won’t be comfortable with that kind of freedom. Some of the new Jewish Christians still have hangups from the teachings of the rabbis.

Also, some of our new non-Jewish believers still have trouble with anything that reminds them of idol worship. They were brought up to believe that idols were real. For us to eat food that may have been offered to an idol could easily tempt them to fall back into idol worship.

Therefore, Paul says, we must make sure that our freedom does not encourage other believers to violate their consciences. “It is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what they eat.” “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”

We must never cause any brother or sister to fall back into idolatry or unbelief. And by all means, Paul says, we must avoid meat that we know has been offered to idols. We must avoid any feast that we know is being held in honor of an idol. Christians must make a clean break with idolatry. To eat in an idol’s temple is to eat at the table of demons. Not even the strongest of you should get so deeply involved in pagan worship! Dealing with such questions of conscience is not about trying not to offend people who are touchy or easily offended. The issue is how to avoid undermining the faith of a soul who is at risk by our unwise use of our freedom. We’ll look at more of what Paul says about this topic next time on Biblical Words and World!