“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” (1 Corinthians 5:1).
It may not have existed among the Gentiles, but it was an ancient sin warned against in the Law of Moses under the old covenant. Take careful note of the punishment.
- “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness...for whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people” (Leviticus 18:8,29).
- “If there is a man who lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death, their bloodguiltiness is upon them” (Leviticus 20:11). The sentence, “surely be put to death” (מות־יומתו), is an echo of the curse of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (תמות מות, Genesis 2:17).
- “A man shall not take his father’s wife so that he will not uncover his father’s skirt” (Deuteronomy 22:30).
- “‘Cursed is he who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s skirt.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deuteronomy 27:20).
The punishment is to “be cut off from among [the] people,” “cursed,” which is to “be put to death.”
Now compare this punishment to the new covenant discipline mandated by the apostle Paul:
- “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst” (1 Corinthians 5:2).
- “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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” (5:4,5).
- “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. 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” (5:11-13; compare this last sentence with Deuteronomy 13:5; 17:7; 21:21; 22:21,22,24).
Being “cut off from among [the] people” in the old covenant meant death. In the new covenant it means excommunication. What does this say about membership in the congregation as the place of life? To be outside the gathering of the Church is a living death. Is your view of the local Church (for this is undoubtedly who Paul is addressing – it stretches believability to think he is speaking to the universal Church) this lofty? Inside, life. Outside, death.*
There is, of course, a profound difference between the old/new covenant with regards to capital punishment/excommunication. There is grace and mercy extended to those excommunicated in the new covenant:
- “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you. But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree - in order not to say too much - to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:4-11).
- “For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it - for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while - I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (7:8-10).
In the new covenant, the “living death” of excommunication is used by God to produce “the sorrow” which “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation.” This is exactly what Jesus teaches. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Read Matthew 9:9-13. They are objects of evangelism. They are urged to follow Jesus.
Inside, life. Outside, death.
Hear the call. Come in from among the walking dead. Come into the community of life, the gathering of those who follow Jesus, the local Church.
* We’ve developed a sort of cultural allergy to speaking of boundaries with regards to the Church. It is an allergy the New Testament doesn’t share with us in our sensitivity. The New Testament has no problem speaking of those inside the Church and those outside the Church (Mark 4:11; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; Colossians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:12; 1 Timothy 3:7; Revelation 22:5).