From the Archives – Church Discipline: The Correction of a Believer or the Excommunication of an Unbeliever? (Part 2)


Harmonizing Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

From Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (DBSJ), Volume 20: 2015. Used with permission. Read the series so far.

1 Corinthians 5:1–13

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. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. 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. 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. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 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. 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. 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 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.

Literary Context

The second key text on church discipline is found in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church recorded in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13. The body of the letter (1:10–16:12) comes after an epistolary introduction (1:1–9) and is followed by an epistolary conclusion (16:13–24). The body itself can be conveniently divided into two halves. In the first half (1:10–6:20), Paul responds to problems that have developed within the Corinthian church and that have been reported to the apostle by others (1:11; 5:1; 16:17). In the second half (7:1–16:12), Paul addresses questions over doctrine and practice that the Corinthians have raised in a letter previously sent to him.1

The above passage is located in the first half, where Paul addresses problems within the Corinthian congregation. The verses record Paul’s directives in response to a case of incest involving a member of the congregation, a sin that was being tolerated or even condoned by the church.2 The passage contributes directly to the present discussion in that it provides information on the spiritual status of the disobedient and, at the same time, on the nature and purpose of the discipline the church is to exercise.

The structure of the passage is fairly straightforward. Paul begins by describing the problem and his dismay over the fact that the church has not taken action (5:1–2). He then gives his judgment on the situation and what the church as a whole needs to do to discipline the disobedient (5:3–5). Following this, he supports his judgment and the actions to be taken by drawing an analogy with the Old Testament Passover celebration and the removal of leaven as part of that celebration. In the analogy, Paul uses leaven as a metaphor for sin and directs the Corinthian readers to remove the leaven from their congregation (5:6–8). Paul then concludes the passage by linking his directives regarding the disobedient to a previous letter he had written to the church. In the previous letter, Paul had called for the readers not to associate with those members who were living in this kind of sin (5:9–13).3

The Spiritual Status of the Disobedient

It is clear from the overall context that the individual to be disciplined, the incestuous man, is a member of the Corinthian church. Paul describes him in 5:1 as “among” the readers and in 5:2 as in their “midst.”4 In addition, addressing the readers’ responsibility in disciplining this individual, Paul establishes the point in 5:12 that they are to judge not those who are “outside” but those who are “inside,” that is, those who are inside the church.5 Thus, the evidence indicates that this individual had at one time made a profession of faith and had become a member of the Corinthian congregation.

In addition, Paul places this individual in the status of one who is called a “brother” or fellow believer. In support of his directives against the disobedient, Paul calls the readers’ attention in 5:11 to a former letter he had written to them.6 In that letter, Paul had instructed the Corinthian congregation to take action against anyone who is “called a brother” (NIV) and who is engaged in immorality or some other serious sin. Thus, to be called a “brother” means that the one sinning is viewed by the congregation as a fellow believer, a fellow member of God’s household or family.7

However, Paul makes other statements in the passage that raise questions about the status of this individual. The first is the description of the sin. In 5:1 Paul declares that this sin is one that is not found even among unbelievers. Paul’s point is that even unbelievers recognize and roundly condemn incest as a heinous sin.8 Furthermore, Paul in this same verse refers to this sin by the statement, “he has his father’s wife.” The expression “he has,” when used of a marital or sexual relationship and in the present tense as here, is a common idiom for an ongoing relationship, not just a momentary one.9

The tension comes in harmonizing the description of this individual as one who is called a brother and is a member of the Corinthian congregation with the fact that he is involved in flagrant immorality that is persistent or ongoing. Again, assuming the perseverance of the saints in sanctification,10 in what way is this individual persevering in the faith and in faithfulness to God and his word? How can the life of this individual not fall under the opprobrium of one who is “characterized by sin” or who is “practicing sin”? Both phrases are used elsewhere in Scripture to describe the conduct of unbelievers.11

The best way to view this individual is that he is someone who has made a profession of faith and is a member of the Corinthian congregation. As such, it is assumed by the Corinthians that he is a “brother” or true believer, at least initially. This is consistent with Paul’s placing him in the category of one who is “called” a brother. However, his persisting in egregious immorality brings that assumption into question. His continuing in an ongoing incestuous relationship and his failure to repent are the characteristics of an unbeliever, not of a believer. Consequently, his gross, protracted disobedience means he is now to be viewed as an unbeliever. As will be argued below, Paul’s call for the church to expel this individual supports this conclusion.12

The Nature and Purpose of the Discipline

The action the church is to take against this individual is nothing short of excommunication.13 In 5:2 Paul chastises the readers by stating that the one sinning should have been “removed” or “expelled” from their midst.14 In 5:7 Paul directs the congregation to “clean out” the old leaven, a reference to the readers’ removing the incestuous man from their membership.15 And, in 5:13 Paul cites Deuteronomy 17:7 to the effect that the readers are to “remove” the wicked man from among them.16

Added to this is Paul’s instruction in 5:11 where he refers to his previous letter, reminding the readers that they were not to “associate” with such sinners, not even “to eat” with such.17 Thus, Paul’s intent is clear. He cites his previous instruction because of its application to the present situation. The readers are to regard the incestuous man as an unbeliever, expel him from membership in the church, and restrict their contact with him to efforts to bring him to repentance.18

Lastly, Paul’s declaration in 5:5 about turning the incestuous man over to Satan is consistent with the above conclusions. The expression “to give” someone “over” to someone has an established metaphorical use of giving someone over to the realm or authority of another.19 The only other use of this particular combination, “give [someone] over to Satan,” is found in 1 Timothy 1:20, where it has a similar meaning.20 In both passages, the idea is that of placing someone in the realm and under the authority of Satan.21 From the larger context, Satan’s realm refers to his dominion over the present fallen world of lost sinners (John 12:31; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2).22

Paul, in effect, sees two realms or spheres of existence in this verse. There is the sphere of the church and there is the sphere of the world. Therefore, to deliver someone over to Satan means to remove that person from the sphere and protection of the local church, in which the Spirit lives and works (Eph 2:22). And, by doing that, the person is placed back into the community of lost humanity, where Satan exercises power and control.23 Thus, the expression “to deliver such a one to Satan” is simply another way of saying that the church is to excommunicate the incestuous man.24

The one remaining tension with viewing the incestuous man as an unbeliever is Paul’s statement in 5:5 about the purpose or goal of handing this individual over to Satan. Paul declares that his decision to deliver this individual to Satan is designed specifically “for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”25

Based on Paul’s “flesh-spirit” antithesis, the initial expression “destruction of the flesh” refers metaphorically to putting to death the sinful inclinations that are dominating the individual.26 In short, Paul calls on the readers to expel the incestuous man from the church and to expose him to the hardships of Satan’s rule and activity. Paul’s intent is that through Satan’s attacks and the shame of public censure, the incestuous man will be led to renounce his sinful ways. That Satan is the unwitting foil in all of this is consistent with God’s sovereign control over all that Satan does.27

The second expression “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” identifies the purpose or goal of delivering this individual to Satan.”28 Again, based on Paul’s “flesh-spirit” antithesis, “spirit” has in view the whole person as oriented toward God.29 Furthermore, Paul’s common use of “saved” to refer to salvation from sin fits the context.30 And, the expression “the day of the Lord”31 is consistently used in the New Testament to refer to the eschatological “Day of the Lord” in harmony with how the Old Testament Prophets used the expression.32 Thus, Paul’s goal in all of this appears to be the final salvation of this individual and, specifically, his glorification at the judgment seat of Christ in connection with the future Day of the Lord.33

The tension comes in harmonizing the readers’ viewing the incestuous man as an unbeliever in the action they are to take and Paul’s statement that the purpose of the action is his final salvation. In other words, how can Paul instruct the Corinthians to view the unrepentant man as an unbeliever and, at the same time, speak of his final salvation? Does not Paul’s hope for this man’s ultimate salvation indicate that he is, after all, a true brother in Christ?

Without question, Paul’s statement about the purpose of the church’s action indicates that the action is intended to be remedial or redemptive. Paul intends the action to have as its goal the future salvation of this person. But this fact alone does not require that the incestuous man be viewed as a true believer. Paul’s purpose statement, “that his spirit may be saved,” involves an element of contingency. Before Paul’s purpose for this individual can be realized, there is a contingency or condition that must be met. And, the contingency implicit in Paul’s statement is that the incestuous man must first repent of his sin. The converse is that, were he not to repent, he would not be saved.34

In sum, the actions of the incestuous man bring into question his profession of faith. While he professes to be a believer and is a member of the Corinthian congregation, his actions are in fundamental conflict with his profession. His flagrant, unrepentant immorality is the characteristic of an unbeliever, not a believer. As such, the church is to treat him as an unbeliever and expel him from membership. Yet, this action is remedial, designed to bring him to repentance. Were he to repent following his expulsion, he would show that he is a true believer and the intended purpose or goal of the action would be achieved. However, if he were not to repent, he would show that he is not a true believer and the intended goal would not be achieved.


1 Gordon D. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 21–23; similarly, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 56–58; William Baker, “1 Corinthians,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2009), 12–13. Another popular option is to see Paul structuring the body of the letter around key themes and alternating between responses to oral reports brought to him by others and answers to the previous letter from the Corinthian congregation (David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 20–23; Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians, New American Commentary [Nashville: B&H, 2014], 21–31). With either structuring, the passage is placed within Paul’s response to oral reports (5:1). For a rhetorical analysis, see Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 73–77.

2 For discussion on the readers’ complicity in the problem, see Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 388– 90; Craig S. Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 48–49.

3 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 215, and, similarly, Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 232. On the development of Paul’s argument in this chapter, see John Paul Heil, The Rhetorical Role of Scripture in 1 Corinthians, Studies in Biblical Literature (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 92–99.

4 The prepositional phrase ἐκ µέsου ὑµῶν refers to a position within a group (BDAG, 635).

5 The combination of the article plus the adverb of place robq gaw describes those within a particular group, here of those within the Christian community (Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, 51; Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 233, 244; Merkle, “The Biblical Basis for Church Membership,” 42‒43; BDAG, 398).

6 The consensus among interpreters takes the aorist indicative “ἔγραψα” in 5:9 as a preterit, pointing to a previous letter the apostle had sent to the Corinthians that is no longer extant. The debate is over the force of the aorist indicative “ἔγραψα” and the adverbial modifier “νῦν” in 5:11. Some interpret the adverbial modifier in 5:11 as a logical marker and take the aorist “I wrote” as another preterit, parallel to the preterit in 5:9 (NASB). As such, Paul continues in 5:11 the discussion of his previous letter he introduced in 5:9 (see, for example, Garland, 1 Corinthians, 187). Others take the adverbial modifier in 5:11 as a temporal marker and see the aorist as an epistolary aorist (ESV). In this case, Paul transitions from discussing his previous letter in 5:9 to his present letter in 5:11, clarifying comments he made in his previous letter (see, for example, Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 241–45). In either case, the issues discussed here are not materially affected.

7 The construction ὀνομαζόμενος is taken as a passive, “is named,” or “is called,” which suggests that “brother” is a name given this individual by others, specifically by other members of the Corinthian congregation (BDAG, 714).

8 See the discussion in Garland, 1 Corinthians, 156–59, 181–82, and the cross references to Rabbinic and Roman literature in Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999), 209–10; Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 231– 35. On the parallels between Paul’s directives against the incestuous man and Roman law, see Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 44–52.

9 The construction with the present tense is used in the NT to describe a marriage relationship (Mark 6:18) or an ongoing sexual relationship outside of marriage (John 4:18). See Taylor, 1 Corinthians, 132–33. The expression “father’s wife” is employed in the LXX to refer to one’s step-mother (Lev 18:8; 20:11; Deut 27:20). Thus, interpreters generally agree that the woman is the man’s step-mother, but are divided whether or not the relationship involves marriage. See Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 104; Garland, 1 Corinth­ians, 157–58.

10 Paul’s description of the believer’s sanctification in 2 Cor 3:18 depicts a process that is both ongoing and progressive, that is, increasing in Christ-likeness. See the dis­cussion in Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 313–18.

11 E.g., 1 John 3:4–10.

12 Garland, 1 Corinthians, 173–77; Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 244–45. Com­menting on 5:13 and Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians to remove the wicked man, Fitzmyer writes, “Paul’s final instruction is thus similar to the punishment of Roman law, which made use of relegatio [a form of banishment]. For the wrongdoer no longer belongs to the body of those who are being saved, but to those who are perishing.” On the OT antecedents to Paul’s directives, see Brian S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5–7, Biblical Studies Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 994), 61– 93.

13 Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 238; Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 197–98.

14 BDAG, 29.

15 BDAG, 303. So Garland, 1 Corinthians, 178‒81; Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, 50– 51; Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 241.

16 A compound form of the verb in 5:2 (NIDNTTE, s.v. “αἲρω,” 1:178; BDAG, 344).

17 It is unclear what Paul intended by the expression “not to eat.” Paul could be referring to church-related activities and, specifically, to the Lord’s Supper and to the fellowship meal observed in connection with the Lord’s Supper. Or, he could be referring to table fellowship outside the activities of the Corinthian church. Deciding between the two options is difficult. Fortunately, the question does not materially affect the present discussion. See Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 247; and Ciampa and Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians, 218–19.

18 Garland, 1 Corinthians, 177. Garland notes, “As one who is cast out, the man becomes an outsider (5:12) and is to be treated differently by ‘insiders.’ He is not to be admonished, as one would a fellow Christian, but evangelized, as one would an unbeliever.”

19 TDNT, s.v. “παραδίδωμι,” by F. Büchsel, 2:169–70; NIDNTT, s.v. “παραδίδωμι,” by H. Beck, 2:367–68; NIDNTTE, s.v. “παραδίδωμι,” 3:623–24; BDAG, 762.

20 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 68‒70; Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 160‒62.

21 Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 228‒29; Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 237‒38.

22 Judith M. Gundry Volf, Paul and Perseverance: Staying in and Falling Away (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 118; Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 233.

23 Gundry Volf, Paul and Perseverance, 118; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 169‒73.

24 Ciampa and Rosner, conclude similarly, “In other words, v. 5 states metaphorically what Paul says literally in vv. 2 and 13: the man is to be excluded from the community of faith” (First Letter to the Corinthians, 208).

25 There is debate whether the expression, “the destruction of the flesh,” represents the intended result or the initial goal of delivering this individual to Satan. For example, Fee, argues for result (First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 230), while Garland opts for purpose (1 Corinthians, 169). Fee’s argument is that when Paul employs sequential purpose clauses, he does so with paired constructions, not by a prepositional phrase followed by a final clause as here. Fee’s point is well-taken, though as Garland notes it is difficult to distinguish purpose and result in this context. Fortunately, the choice between the two does not materially affect the issues discussed here.

26 The debate with the interpretation of this expression is roughly between taking it as a reference to the physical death of this individual and taking it as a reference to the metaphorical destruction of his sinful desires. The consensus among recent commentaries is for the second interpretation. See, for example, the discussions in Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 229-34; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 169-77; Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 207-9; contra TDNT, s.v. “ὄλεθρος,” by J. Schneider, 5:168–69; BDAG, 702. For a history of interpretation, see David Raymond Smith, ‘Hand this Man over to Satan’: Curse, Exclusion, and Salvation in 1 Corinthians 5 (London: T & T Clark, 2008). Smith opts for taking Paul’s statement as a curse formula that ultimately involves the death of the incestuous man.

27 James T. South, “A Critique of the ‘Curse/Death’ Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5.1-8,” New Testament Studies 39 (October 1993): 539-61; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 169-77; Ciampa and Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians, 208–9.

28 Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 230.

29 Ibid., 233. See also TDNT, s.v. “πνεῦμα,” by E. Schweizer, 6:434–36.

30 TDNT, s.v. “σῴζω,” by W. Foerster, 7:992–94; NIDNTT, s.v. “σῴζω,” by J. Schneider, 3:214; NIDNTTE, s.v. “σῴζω,” 4:431; BDAG, 982-83.

31 On the textual variants, whether to read “the day of the Lord,” “the day of the Lord Jesus,” “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ,” or “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the shortest reading “the day of the Lord” has good external evidence and the longer readings appear to be scribal additions influenced by the use of the phrase elsewhere in Paul’s writings. See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 485.

32 TDNT, s.v. “ἡµέρα,” by G. von Rad, 2:944–47; TDNT, s.v. “ἡµέρα,” by G. Delling, 2:950–53; NIDNTT, s.v. “ἡµέρα,” by C. Brown, 2:890‒91. In the immediate context, the “day of the Lord” has in view the evaluation of the believer’s works and the issuing of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ. See Taylor, 1 Corinthians, 45, 107–8, 115, 137. From the larger context, this future Day of the Lord encompasses events following the Rapture of the Church (2 Thess 2:3) and includes the judgment seat of Christ in heaven (1 Cor 1:8), the Day of the Lord judgments on the earth (1 Thess 5:2), the millennial kingdom, and the destruction of the present heavens and earth in preparation for the new heavens and earth of the eternal state (2 Pet 3:10).

33 Garland, 1 Corinthians, 177.

34 Gundry Volf, Paul and Perseverance, 116, 119‒20; similarly, Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 84– 86; Baker, “1 Corinthians,” 80–81, 84; Ciampa and Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians, 209. On the relationship between the incestuous man in this passage and the repentant individual in 2 Cor 2:5–11, see the discussion in David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1999), 117–23.

Bruce Compton Bio

Dr. Bruce Compton is professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1984. He received his A.B. in political science from UCLA, his M.Div. and Th.M. from Denver Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. in Greek and New Testament with a minor in Hebrew and Old Testament from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, IN.