1. Corinthians 5. - You have no reason to boast!

Erkki Koskenniemi

Paul uses the first four chapters to settle arguments in the Church of Corinth. We have seen that he does not do this without reason. One key difficulty in Corinth was that Paul's authority was not recognized. Paul is not so blunt that he would have started addressing the problems in the Church immediately, and play the role of a strict master. First you have to say A and B and only then C. That’s why Paul went to great lengths to demonstrate that, in spite of all the conflicts, the Corinthians had to obey him, the founder of the Church in Corinth.

Only when this has become clear, does Paul move onto other problems in the Church, no longer sparing his words, but rather letting them flow freely. The first concern is the sexual aberrations of the Corinthians.

There must be some order! 5:1-5

The Church in Corinth was a very strange combination of wild spiritualism and wild revelry. The Corinthians were living “unchastely”, which in this context means all kind of sexual sins, including pre-marital relations as well as other relationships outside of marriage.

In the Greek-Roman world, a man’s sex life was by no means limited only to marriage. It was commonplace for young boys to live with slave girls and use prostitutes from the time they reached maturity. Homosexual relationships were also very common. Conjugal faithfulness, as we know it today, was not part of the moral principles of the day.

There was one particular case which Paul did not approve of: someone was living with his father’s wife. We are not exactly sure what the situation was. Apparently, the woman was not the man’s own mother; if that had been the case Paul would have said so. It is possible, therefore, that this was not a case of incest, but rather concerned a relationship between a man and his stepmother. Whether the man’s father was still alive or not remains a matter for speculation. In any case, the Law of Moses most definitely prohibited such a relationship (Deut. 27:20), and punishes such things by death (Deut. 17:6-7). The Holy people needed to rid themselves of all that was bad. Even the Gentiles did not accept marriage to one’s stepmother, and this is why Paul can say that the Corinthian Christians were worse than the Gentiles.

Paul is baffled as to why the great spirituality of Corinth did not address such things. We too, do not know why it had not been addressed. It is possible that although the worthy people in the Church of Corinth were eager to take the lead but they were not able to guide the Church in such a situation.

The problems in Corinth were more likely, however, to have had a theological background. Feeling the power of the Spirit drove the people to think that the actions of the body did not matter much in the Church. The body would rot of course, so to their way of thinking the only thing that was of real importance was that the soul would rise to the heights of God. Some people in Corinth apparently believed that the resurrection had already taken place, and that a man could no longer sin.

Paul didn’t want to hear any of this. He stated forcefully that you cannot live in sin in the Church. If Christ lives in a person’s heart, then that person also takes Christ with him into the battle against sin.

The matter is not up for negotiation and Paul leaves no room for further interrogation. He has already made his judgment on the matter, and all that remained was its solemn proclamation. A Church meeting is to be held and Paul instructs them there the Church of the Lord is to reject those who live in sin:

"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."
(1. Corinthians 5, ESV)

Paul’s words are somewhat cryptic. It is clear, however, that the person is to be driven out of the Church and will no longer share in its treasures. Moreover, Paul states the person is no longer a Christian, and no one should consider him as one.

At that time, the Church in Corinth had to right to discipline and declare any punishments and penalties only in line with the secular law in Corinth.. Therefore, punishments in accordance with the Law of Moses (such as stoning to death) and the whipping, preferred by the Jews in Paul’s time, were not permissible.

It is important to underline that Paul wants only the very best for the fallen believers. The level of Christians is not improved by his throwing out the weak people. Rather, all of this happens, he says, so that the human spirit may be saved in the last day.

Researchers are puzzled as to what verse 5, strictly speaking, means. I doubt that Paul is talking about physical weaknesses, for example, diseases. Nor does he present a very profound division between the spirit and body. Sinful flesh, the old Adam, must die in a Christian man and give room to Christ’s Spirit. This is why even the harshest measures were needed, according to Paul, so that the Christian could get their urges under control and turn back to God.

We, as modern and civilized Christians, may consider Paul’s measures to be too drastic. Paul would find many ethical aberrations in our churches today. Cohabitation is commonplace in the church nowadays. Divorce and casual affairs are rapidly becoming the norm too. If, however, a pastor in a traditional Western church began to admonish in the same way as Paul does, the press and public opinion would be astounded. People do need to think for themselves, of course, but, on the other hand, the pastors are also personally responsible for their lives in front of God. We have become very used to thinking that critical words would be out of order. Paul would be completely puzzled to hear that kind of talk. Is it love that people go towards hell without knowing it?

Several years ago in Finland, those responsible for road safety were worried about the number of accidents at level crossings. There was a road safety campaign on TV. It showed what happens to different sorts of cars when hit by a train. The conclusion: the only way to avoid a collision with a train is not to be on the tracks when the train comes! God’s wrath and judgment is also like a train. The only way to avoid it is to live in the safety of Christ’s Cross and listen to God’s warning sounds.

"You have no reason to boast!” 5:6-8

Paul stops focusing on the individual case and begins to talk more generally. “Your boasting is no good.”(NIV version of the Bible). Possibly Paul means that the Corinthians did wrong when boasting, but it may also mean that the subject of their boasting was wrong. The words, then, could be translated a bit more freely: “You do not have much to write home about!”- which suits the context really well. The Corinthians boasted with their gifts and their Church, and denied the authority of the Apostles which lead to apostasy and falling under the wrath of God. According to Paul, the Corinthians needed to learn to boast about Christ, and give the glory to the God.

Paul goes on to talk about a subject familiar to everyone: bread making. When making sourdough bread, you do not need much yeast. Even a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. Paul commands the Corinthians to remove the yeast completely. The background for this comes from the Jewish Passover festivities and the departure from Egypt. At that time, the whole nation was commanded to throw all the yeast away. And, before the new yeast was fully developed, God led his people out of the slavery of Egypt. They lived on bread that was unleavened. This is why Jews today discard all yeast during Passover as was the tradition in those days. Paul tells the Corinthians that the Church of Christ is like dough which is not an extension of the old dough, but entirely new, (meaning sinless). That is why the Church is to eradicate the ‘old yeast’ or the life of sin completely, in order that the Church would become clean. Paul then returns to the most important issue in his letters: the Christians in Corinthians were clean because Christ had made everyone clean.

It is Christ who gives the holiness to his own people. He is the Passover lamb, whose blood protects believers from God’s punishment and death. They remain sinners, but this does not mean that they do not have to seek the will of God. Paradoxically Paul is exhorting those who have sinned to become clean, although they are already clean. The Christian faith is certainly not ironclad logic, but is all about the life of God and his mercy.

Not out of the world 5:9-13

Paul had already written to the Corinthians and told them not to associate with fornicators. Some in the church in Corinth had understood this to mean not even talking with anyone living in sin, even with those who were outside the Church (i.e. not Christians). Paul addresses this fallacy urgently: He does warn the Church not to associate with Christians who are living totally uncontrollably, but reminds them that, of course, the ordinary Corinthian (outside of the Church) was living without God, i.e. in an ungodly manner. It was not necessary to avoid them, but rather to disassociate with the Christian who was living in open sin.

The list of sins, given by Paul, was not limited only to the sins against the Commandment: ‘You shall not commit adultery’: The list also included the sins of greed, theft and idolatry. “Reviler” in this context, does not merely mean mocking God, but also mocking one’s neighbour. Paul admonishes the Church in Corinth to leave the non-believers to be judged by God. After all the Christians cannot simply leave the planet. Instead, they should know that they had full responsibility for every member of the Church at Corinth.