This is where Paul starts to lose me. It’s passages like these from his Epistles that have long defined the Apostle for me. When his letters start reading like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, I just want to check out. When he starts saying things like, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister, who is sexual immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.”
As a progressive Christian, I get accused quite a bit of “picking and choosing” which Bible verses I follow. To which I respond, “Amen, absolutely I do. And so does every other Christian ever in existence.” All too often, the verses Christians pick out to live by are verses like the ones contained in 1 Corinthians 5, those talking sexual immorality and listing various sins.
Because these verses are just so darn easy! You don’t have to think, you just have to obey!
Remember what we learned about faith and obedience?
I have a tendency to reject these parts of Paul, because I just have such a hard time integrating it with what I believe Jesus taught us. But let me try to provide some integration here. First, a couple of working assumptions for this exercise.
First, Paul isn’t infallible. Paul was a human being, with very obvious strengths and weaknesses that shine forth in his writing. Thus, he probably got things wrong.
Two, the entire Bible, and more specifically the New Testament, is not absolutely consistent and coherent in the instructions, teachings and theology therein. Paul contradicts Jesus, James contradicts Paul, John contradicts Matthew-you get the idea. So reading a book like 1 Corinthians as a natural, coherent outflow of the Gospels is the wrong way to read. Remember this very important fact: when Paul wrote these letters, the Gospels weren’t even written yet! All they had was a free-flowing, word-of-mouth, always evolving and changing story of the life and teachings of Jesus.
So, back to Paul’s ruminations on sexual immorality. Paul tells his congregants in Corinth, don’t even have communion with those among you who are sinners! Shun them, leave them behind, don’t make them a part of your community.
But then, one verse after the one I quoted above, Paul says something I think is very, very telling:
“For what I have to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?”
Are you with me here? This totally changes everything Paul says in these two chapters! Let’s unpack this a bit. Paul is writing to his church in Corinth, and he says to them, “Some of your members, those you call brothers and sisters in Christ, are living lives inconsistent with the example of Christ. and while you guys are busy on one hand dividing yourselves in this camp and that camp, and the other hand judging the pagans and Gentiles who live around you, your very own are running wild.“
Now this is good stuff.
Paul is telling the Corinthians, you are trying to be followers of Christ, but you are doing it all wrong! In chapter 6, he turns on Sarcastic Paul again, and mocks their quotes of his teachings. He taught them, “all things are lawful for me,” but he amends that by saying “but not all things are beneficial.”
The Corinthians have basically been saying, “Paul, you told us it’s not our deeds but our faith that brings is into God’s kingdom. All we are doing is trying to relate to the people of Corinth by living like them so they might trust us!”
And Paul says, nope. That’s not how this works. The Corinthians thought they had found a loophole in Paul’s teachings, in which they could join in all the pagan reveling with the excuse that they are just “relating” to the people, and then come back to their church and judge others for their sins while excusing their own under Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Look at us, we know what sin is, and we know how to love our neighbors! We’re awesome!
But Paul tells them, you are accountable first and foremost to yourselves. Judgment of the world is not the Christian’s job; you bring no one to Christ by condemning their lives. You bring them in by being a living example of Christ in the world. That’s why he tells them to shun their brothers and sisters; the only ones you are able to pass judgement on are those with who you are on the journey, those who are accountable to you and who you are accountable to.
A lot of Christians today could learn a lesson here. We are quick to jump on Facebook and lay down the holy hellfire on those we think are “sinners,” especially when those folks are celebrities, politicians or other public figures. But I think Paul would chastise us pretty severely for doing this. We don’t know those people, we aren’t close friends or family or confidants of those people. Judging them from afar does more harm than good; it pushes away rather than draws in.
Instead, start with yourself. And then, hold those closest to you accountable for their actions, not by condemning, but by helping to guide in a spirit of love. Be the example of Christ in the world by living the example, and helping those you love live it as well. Then all will be drawn in, and we will be one step closer to that Christian unity we strive for.
You don’t need to show the world that you have this all figured out by pointing fingers at the easy targets, by making it clear loudly that you know who the sinners are. You only repel people that way. Instead, live a life of immense, overflowing love for all people. Get yourself on track, show the world the great life you have to offer by following Christ, and others will begin to want that too.
It’s like Mother Teresa said: “Love begins at home.”
Amen to that.
Next: 1 Corinthians 7-8