1 Corinthians 5:1-6:11

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Week 5Church Discipline

1 Corinthians 5:1-6:11

By Harvey Edwards IV


Has anyone ever prejudged you as a stereotype? Have you been judged by previous past choices or even things beyond your control? Maybe someone has shamed you for your hometown, family, skin color, age, etc. We have all experienced being evaluated by our associations. Sometimes it works in our favor, but not usually. As unfair as this is at times, it is part of the difficulty of living in a broken world.

            In this week’s passage, the church at Corinth is being corrected by Paul for how their actions are damaging their witness for Christ and endangering the spiritual health of those in their community. The Corinthian church has not only accepted behavior by one who calls himself a believer—behavior that even pagans in Corinth would reject—but they are boasting in their acceptance of it. This causes a number of problems. First, the name of Jesus is besmirched. Their acceptance of sin denies the holiness of God and devalues the gift of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin. Second, the man who is committing this sin in an open and unrepentant way demonstrates that he may be deluded in thinking he is a believer. To tolerate this behavior keeps this man from examining whether or not he actually knows Jesus and increases the difficulty of his restoration. Third, other believers in the church might be drawn into sin because of this acceptance. Paul calls the church to discipline this man—and not to protect their own name—but in hopes that this man would turn to Jesus and be saved. 

Read 1 Corinthians 5:1-6:11 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. How does the concept of church discipline make you feel? How does a biblical understanding of church discipline address your or someone else’s concerns about it?
  2. What is the purpose of church discipline?
  3. When Paul addresses lawsuits among believers, he says it would be better to be defrauded than to besmirch the name of Jesus. How can we as believers apply this to our lives?


5:1-8 – The church at Corinth was highly influenced by the surrounding culture, and this passage shows it. The Corinthian church was boasting in their acceptance of sexual immorality within the church. In what appears to be an attempt to differentiate themselves as a more cultured and progressive group of believers, they are boasting in sexual sin that Paul said even pagans would not tolerate—a man was sleeping with his father’s wife. Paul says they should mourn—not boast, in their acceptance of sin. They should take steps to correct what is happening in the body, because how we live as believers says something about what we believe about Jesus. Paul instructs the church to remove this man from the fellowship of believers. This is one reason why he writes to them. He pronounces judgment on the man and is calling for his removal from the church. Paul is calling for church discipline. 

Church discipline is an often misunderstood concept. Though they are mistaken, many believers, and even some unbelievers with a surface knowledge of the Scriptures, say that passing judgment on someone is strictly forbidden by Jesus. In an attempt to prove this, many reference the woman in John 8 who is to be stoned for committing adultery. In this passage, Jesus stops the people from stoning the woman by saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).[1] Some believe this means that no one who has ever sinned has a right to call out another’s sin. Of key importance to understanding Jesus’ comment here is to note that he is talking to an unbeliever. Jesus approaches her as he approaches all sinners, with the offer of grace. This grace is available to all who will receive it. The problem is not that the woman’s sin is exposed. Her sin will ultimately lead to her demise if she does not turn in repentance to Jesus, because sin leads to death. The problem is that the scribes and Pharisees who are going to stone the woman think they are accomplishing the will of God by stoning her. Jesus points out that those who would stone her are just as guilty as she. It is God’s place to judge sin in this capacity, and he has entrusted the execution of this kind of judgment to governing authorities (Romans 13:4). The judgment Paul pronounces is different from this interaction as we will see below. Paul is calling for the judgment of the sins of a believer.

Another passage commonly used to decry judging others’ behaviors is Matthew 7. In Matthew 7:1-3, Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Many use this passage in an attempt to silence someone who is pointing out sin. However, this pulls these verses out of their context. Jesus continues, “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:4-5). Jesus has no problem with the man pointing out his brother’s sin. But it must be pointed out from a right heart with right motivations. 

This is evident in what Jesus says in Matthew 18:15-17, “15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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.” Sin is to be confronted, particularly within the church, but Jesus wants those who do so to have considered the motivations and conditions of their own hearts before they do.

The Bible does not teach a “live and let live” philosophy towards sin. Rather, sin must be dealt with if we are to be saved. God has made forgiveness from sin available to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He has also empowered us to live by the Spirit in the new life and identity that Jesus has given us, free from enslavement to sin. We are to live by the Spirit, putting to death our sinful ways and living according to the righteousness God has gifted believers in Jesus. Sin brings death, and we are tasked by Jesus to preach the good news of what he has done so that others can believe and be saved. Our lives and actions should show how Jesus has saved us and changed us, and they should proclaim that hope is found in him. 

For this reason, we are instructed to preach the gospel—a message that begins with the hard reality that we are all sinners in need of grace. We should not apologize for this truth. But it is not our job to judge those who are not believers. We present unbelievers with the gospel in hopes that the Lord will save them (just as Jesus offers grace to the sinful woman in John 8).

In contrast, as Paul instructs the Corinthians, we are to pronounce judgment on those who claim to be part of God’s people, but whose lives demonstrate that they do not have the Spirit. This man in Corinth is living in open, unrepentant sin even as he proclaims to be part of the body of Christ. This is harmful in many ways. First, if the man is able to live in unrepentant sin, he appears to be unsaved. When we become believers, we will still wrestle with our old sin nature until Christ returns. But that is just it—we will wrestle with it. If someone does not wrestle with their sin, it may be that they do not know Jesus. It would not be loving to let them continue in the false assumption that they have been changed. The church should bring judgment by removing him from fellowship with the body. This is not to be mean, or to make ourselves feel better about our own sin struggles, but for the man’s own good. As Paul says, “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). The reason for judgment is the hope of restoration—that the man will feel the reality of his sin and turn in repentance to Jesus and be saved. It is not loving to allow unbelievers to convince themselves they are saved.

In addition, sin that is undealt with is like leaven—it begins to work its way into everything it touches. The Corinthian church had begun to convince themselves that tolerance of sexual immorality in their fellowship was a thing to be commended. Rather, Paul says they should remember what Christ has accomplished. He was sacrificed to cleanse us of sin. We are called to live in light of our new identity out of love for Christ and love for others, that our lives might point to the forgiveness and life that is only available in him. To allow unrepentant sinners to continue under the guise of being a believer does harm to them, to the church body, and to the witness of Jesus and his life-changing power. The church should discipline the unrepentant person who claims to be a believer by barring them from fellowship until they are repentant. Remember, the goal is restoration.

5:9-13 – Paul’s instructions are to pronounce judgment on those who call themselves believers but whose lives demonstrate a pattern of unrepentant sin. The Corinthians should not even associate with one who claims to be a believer but lives in unrepentant sin. Paul is not saying that the Corinthians should not associate with sinners. In order to live that way, believers would have to leave this world. Paul expects unbelievers to be unrepentant sinners because they are enslaved to their sin, just like we were before Christ set us free. We aren’t meant to judge outsiders (it is God’s place to bring consequences on unbelievers for their sins, not ours); we are to point them to Jesus. In contrast, we are to judge those who claim to be part of the church and cast them out of fellowship if they continue in unrepentant sin. We are to avoid associating with someone who calls himself “brother” in hopes that he might turn in faith to Jesus from his life marked by unrepentant sin.

6:1-11 – How we live as believers says something to the world about what we believe about Jesus. And where we go to settle our disputes with other believers says something about where we think ultimate authority lies. Paul says that believers should settle their disputes amongst themselves. Paul says that the saints will judge the world and angels in the time to come. How can the Corinthians not think that the things of this world are trivial compared to that? Rather than solving their problems inside the church, they seek unbelievers to settle their disputes. Paul says in doing so, they have already suffered a defeat. This belittles the name of Jesus. The Corinthians wrong and defraud their own brothers. Instead, believers should be willing to suffer wrong or be defrauded rather than besmirch the name of Christ.

            Paul reminds them of the righteousness God requires. He says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10). These things should not mark believers, because those who have trusted in Jesus have been made new. This is what Paul reminds them of as he encourages them to live according to their calling. He says in verse 11, “11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The point is not to work for salvation, or to look down on unbelievers, but to remind believers of the forgiveness received in Jesus and the new life we are now freed to live in the Spirit. 

The Main Point

How we live our lives says something to others about what we value. If we claim to be believers in Jesus, yet behave in ways inconsistent with who he is making his people to be, we besmirch that name of Jesus. For this reason, we are meant to help guard the church and its witness through church discipline and through how we settle disputes amongst ourselves.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Matthew 7:1-5 – Jesus discusses the way we approach confronting others.
  • Matthew 18:15-20 – Jesus discusses how sin should be dealt with when a church member is unrepentant
  • John 8:1-11[2] – Jesus shows grace to a woman caught in adultery.

[1] See our commentary on this passage in the study guide on John, pages 36-37. You can view the Anchor Church study guide for John here.

[2] Again, see our comment on this passage in the John study guide.

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