What is 1 Corinthians 5:5 all about?

Question
What is 1 Corinthians 5:5 all about?
Answer

1 Corinthians 5:1-5: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

The incestuous relationship in view in this text is explicitly condemned in Scripture (Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Deut. 22:30). Here Paul is teaching that, since the offender is a part of a professing Christian church, the church should temporarily give him over to Satan for the destruction of his fleshly nature. In other words, the church should exclude this person from the covenant community as an act of church discipline, turn him over to the sphere of Satan's influence (John 12:31; 16:11; Eph. 2:2; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20), and treat the offender "as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt. 18:17) in the hope he would prayerfully see the error of his ways and repent (John 20:23; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; cf. Job 2:4-6; 2 Cor. 12:7). Temporary exclusion from the covenant community places the person in question in a position before God to judge (1 Cor. 5:13) so their "spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Cor. 5:5).

Many have written to Third Mill over the years stating that they are a believer and yet they feel they are lost at times. You can hear fear in the words they have written. They often quote the book of Hebrews (cf. Heb. 6:6; 10:29), even asking if they are saved at all. How can this tension exist?

Look at Paul's use of the phrases "the destruction of the flesh" and "the day of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians 5:5. The phrases are directly related. The word "destruction" (Greek, olethros) is also used in reference to destruction in the end times (cf. 1 Thess. 5:2-3). So Paul is contrasting the destruction of the fleshy nature (i.e. the importance of our ongoing sanctification) and the destruction that will accompany him on the day the Lord returns in glory. Through Paul the Holy Spirit is revealing the seriousness and yet the extent of God's love found in the discipline of his sons and daughters (cf. Heb. 12:3-11). This tension for the believer is purposeful to bring him to repentance (cf. 1 Thess. 5:23). Though the eternal security of the believer is never in question, the overwhelming means that God will go to in order to keep a believer secure is a testament to the "breadth and length and height and depth" of his amazing love for us (Eph. 3:18; cf. Rom. 8:35-39). We should praise God for this tension and repent.

Regarding church discipline, consider the following from the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible :

The Christian concept of discipline includes the whole range of nurturing, instructional and training procedures required in making disciples of Christ. Reformed theology has highlighted the importance of Church discipline, recognizing it as a necessary mark of a true Church (along with the preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments). Church discipline includes informal encouragement to learning and devotion, worship and fellowship, righteousness and service in a context of care and accountability (Matt. 28:20; John 21:15-17; 2 Tim. 2:14-26; Tit. 2; Heb. 13:17). The New Testament also shows that formal or judicial discipline has a significant place in the maturing of Churches and individuals (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 2 Thess. 3:6,14-15; Tit. 1:10-14; 3:9-11).

Judicial discipline was instituted by God in the Old Testament and is clearly evident in passages that command judicial punishment against particular crimes. For example, corresponding to modern excommunication, the punishment for many crimes in the Old Testament was that the offender be "cut off from his people" (Gen. 17:14; Exod. 30:33, 38; 31:14; Lev. 7:20-21, 25, 27; 17:4,9; 19:8; 23:29; Num. 9:13; 15:30). In the New Testament, Jesus assigned this power to the apostles by authorizing them to bind and to loose (i.e., prohibit and permit; Matt. 18:18) and to declare sins remitted or retained (John 20:23). In Reformed theology the "keys of the kingdom," first given to Peter and defined as power to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19), have usually been understood as the apostles' authority to establish doctrine and impose discipline infallibly. This same power is reflected, however fallibly and imperfectly, in the Church's preaching of the gospel and in its authority in the duly established Church courts.

In Reformed Church's formal discipline ranges from admonition through exclusion from the Lord's Supper to expulsion from the congregation (excommunication), which is described as handing a person over to Satan, the prince of this world (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11; 1 Tim. 1:20; Tit. 3:10-11). Public sins (i.e., those that are open to the whole Church's view) should be publicly corrected in the Church's presence (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Tim. 5:20; cf. Gal. 2:11-14). Jesus taught an initially private procedure for dealing with those who have given personal offense; this procedure is to be used in the hope that it will not be necessary to ask for the Church's public censure of such persons (Matt. 18:15-17).

The ultimate purposes of Church discipline in all its forms are to preserve the purity and peace of the Church and to rescue those wandering from the ways of Christian faith. Even in the case of excommunication, once repentance is apparent to the duly ordained authorities, the Church is to acknowledge the remission of sins and receive the offender back into full fellowship (2 Cor. 2:6-8). See WCF 30; BC 32; HC 83, 84, 85.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).