Top Ten Lessons from 1 Corinthians 5

4 Mar

1 CorinthiansNot too long ago I participated in a Bible study on 1 Corinthians at my parish. I’d have to say that of the 16 chapters of this epistle, I probably was least familiar with chapter 5. I’m not sure why, but I’ve rarely had the occasion to look that chapter up.

In studying that chapter, I was amazed by the applicability of this short chapter to many controversial issues facing individual Catholics and the Church as a whole today. And so, without scholarly exegesis or extensive commentary, I want to offer a top ten list of practical insights I derived from a careful read of 1 Corinthians 5.

(1) Calling sin a sin

“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife” (verse 1).

St. Paul does not dance around the issues. He goes straight to the point of identifying incest as immoral behavior, no matter who (Christian or pagan) commits it (see Leviticus 18; Catechism, no. 2356). He takes his responsibility for the Church in Corinth very seriously, as we’ll see in the succeeding verses.

(2) The error of misplaced “tolerance”

“And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (verse 2).

In the world and even in the Church today many extreme forms of immoral behavior are tolerated, if not protected. The one universally recognized “sin” is “intolerance,” meaning that the one thing that isn’t permitted is to condemn someone else’s action as morally wrong (unless the other person’s action was an act of intolerance!). I’m certainly not espousing a harsh, judgmental condemnation of persons. However, if I understand St. Paul correctly, I think we tend to be arrogant–and cowardly–in our acceptance of conduct that is unacceptable. We should instead mourn, because those who commit serious sins are on the road to perdition. This should inspire in us to authentic, compassionate outreach, not a weak indifference. We must be evangelizers, not enablers.

We’ll touch upon the second half of this verse shortly.

(3) Recourse to the Church

“For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing” (verses 3-4).

St. Paul seems to be following the protocol for fraternal correction in Matthew 18:15-17. Apparently after private attempts to reconcile the sinner (perhaps by Chloe’s people, see 1 Corinthians 1:11), the matter was referred “to the church” (Mt. 18:17), represented by the Apostle Paul. Further, we see the authority St. Paul, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, is able to wield over the local Church, for the good of all. Compare that to the opposition and resentment we find toward the “Vatican,” whose intervention is often not welcome (because of the aforementioned arrogance).

For a recent case study, recall attempts in recent years to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

(4) Excommunication sometimes is necessary

“When you are assembled, 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 . . .” (verses 4-5).

Earlier, in verse 2, St. Paul bluntly said that this notorious sinner must be removed from the community. This seems to fall in line with what we read in Matthew 18 concerning sinners who won’t accept correction from the Church: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt. 18:17). In other words, practically speaking, that person is no longer a Catholic and cannot avail himself of the sacraments. Because of that, he is subject to the work of Satan without the protection of the Church. This is part of the binding and loosing authority of the Church (Mt. 18:18), and we see it at work when a person is “excommunicated” or denied the sacraments.

This is for the “destruction of the flesh.” While there may be some sort of physical or temporal punishment (as would be the case today when someone is convicted of sex crimes), St. Paul here is talking about “flesh” in a deeper sense. He is referring to our sinful nature, which must be cleansed so as to enter the presence of God. This experience of purgation, of isolation from the Church–like a child being sent from the family table to his or her bedroom–is not meant to be permanent, as we see in the conclusion of this verse . . .

(5) Excommunication is a remedial, not vindictive, measure

“ . . . that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (verse 5).

Excommunication and any other sort of Church penalty is meant to rehabilitate the sinner, not to condemn him. It is tough love, though. Such a penalty not only challenges the sinner to reconcile with God and the Church, it also challenges the Church community to a higher form of charity. Is our charity wimpy and afraid to make waves, or does it courageously seek the eternal good of the other person? In that regard, it’s good to recall that authentic Christian charity is tough as nails–the nails of the Cross.

This charity also shows itself in our joyful willingness to embrace and forgive those who do seek to reconcile, reflecting divine mercy and not giving in to the fallen human tendency to hold on to grudges.

One wonders what good it does the individual souls of Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and other notorious Catholics who, despite their public opposition to the Church, are permitted to receive the sacraments without their having a change of heart (i.e., conversion). What good has that done for the Church in the United States? I think sometimes we’re too worried about political ramifications or about offending someone (I’m guilty as charged), and not enough about our holy faith and the salvation of souls.

(6) The communitarian effect of sin

“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (verses 6-7).

Just as through the Church, and especially through the Communion of Saints, we benefit from the prayers and good works of others done in the name of Christ, so too there is no such thing as a “private” sin. All sin is a cancer that can poison the entire body. This reality is only amplified as the sin becomes greater, more public, and more widely accepted. Isn’t that exactly how a cancer grows? Each one of us is called to be a positive “leaven” in the world, though which the Kingdom of God grows, and not a corruptive leaven of sin and division. The same holds true for the community of believers, as the Church herself is composed of sinners like us, and is always in need of purification as she strives to extend the Kingdom of God on earth.

(7) Worthy reception of Communion

“For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (verses 7-8).

St. Paul’s discussion here has strong Passover overtones (see Ex. 12:14-20). Now the Passover sacrifices have been superseded by the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ, the new and eternal Passover, or “paschal” lamb, whom we receive in Holy Communion. As St. Paul will further develop later in chapters 10 and 11 of the letter, our participation in the Eucharist requires faith and the proper dispositions. Just as the man St. Paul describes as living in an incestuous relationship should not receive Communion until reconciled with the Church, so too we must be reconciled with God and the Church prior to coming forward for Communion (regardless of whether someone is “denying” the sacrament to us).

Here′s what the Catechism says:

“We must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: ”Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (no. 1385).

(8) In the world, not of it

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber–not even to eat with such a one” (verses 9-11).

St. Paul is holding believers to a different standard. Why? Jesus identified with sinful human nature so that we can identify with Him, and so be saved. So He goes out looking for all of us, wherever we might be. We read in the Gospel about how He would associate with tax collectors and sinners. St. Paul certainly is not at odds with this evangelistic, missionary spirit, which he embodied in a singular way in his own ministry, as he became all things to all men in the hope of saving at least some of them (1 Cor. 9:22).

What St. Paul is talking about in this instance is associating with “Christians” or “Catholics” whose public witness runs counter to the faith we profess. When we are too lax to draw appropriate lines, the witness of the Church to the world is compromised by the bad “leaven.” And as we continually compromise to accommodate sinful behavior within the Church, there is also a subtle but unmistakable corrosive effect on the entire community.

So the call is to be in the world, but not of it. The world wants us to be of the world but not in it (“keep your private beliefs to yourself, please”). Let’s be leaven, and not the rest of the dough. Let’s be thermostats for Christ, and not mere thermometers of our culture.

(9) Church must be vigilant concerning her members

“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (verses 12-13).

We are called to judge actions. As a father, I have to judge actions all the time. Some of my children’s conduct is unacceptable, and it needs to be addressed. When I correct my children, I’m not being “judgmental” or condemning my kids as persons. Rather, I’m fulfilling my role as a father.

We live in a relativistic age, when we’re supposed to live and let live, at all costs. I can’t “impose my beliefs” on others and, by the way, all moral norms (except for the modern imperative “thou shall tolerate everything”) are treated merely as personal beliefs and not as objective norms of conduct.

We find some solace in our unwillingness to call out sin in the important quote of Our Lord to “judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1). Unfortunately, this call not to “judge” others is largely misinterpreted today so as to exclude any sort of fraternal correction. That is not the mind of Christ, and it is not the mind of St. Paul and the Church. We love (and don’t judge) the sinner, but sometimes we must judge actions.

(10) No compromising with sin

“Drive out the wicked person from among you” (verse 13).

This chapter has now come full circle. Of course the Church must be “pastoral” in her approach. But there’s no missing St. Paul’s message. He loves Christ. He loves the Church. He loves the sinner. He doesn’t give any quarter to human respect or diplomatic “niceness.” I think that’s a perennially valid lesson for the Church at every level, from the Vatican and USCCB to individual dioceses, parishes, and families.

For a good commentary, check out the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.

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