I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. 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. “Purge the evil person from among you.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ESV
Evidently, Paul had written another letter to the church in Corinth that was sent prior to this one. In it he had made it quite clear that they were “not to associate with sexually immoral people.” That one command makes their toleration of the sin within their midst all the more egregious. They had turned a blind eye to the individual in their fellowship who was having an incestuous affair with his stepmother. Rather than confront this man about his sin, they were willingly tolerating it, even bragging about it. And yet, according to these verses, it seems that the believers in Corinth were isolating themselves from the unbelievers in their city. They were practicing a form of isolationism, refusing to have anything to do with the lost, probably out of a sense of moral superiority.
But Paul wants to make himself perfectly clear. In his previous letter, he was in no way promoting a brand of monasticism or spiritual isolationism. To attempt to eliminate all contact with unbelieving sinners would require that they leave the world. It is impossible to disassociate oneself as a believer from all contact with the lost. In fact, to attempt to do so would go against Jesus’ call that we be salt and light in a world filled with moral decay and spiritual darkness. Jesus Himself was accused of associating with sinners. He went out of His way to spend time with those who, in His day, were deemed the worst of sinners. If we adopt a policy of spiritual isolationism, it will be difficult to “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone” (Mark 6:15 NLT). Had Paul determined to have nothing do with the immoral, greedy, swindlers, and idolaters, no one in Corinth would have ever come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior. In the very next chapter, Paul writes,
Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people — none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT
As Christians, it is so easy to judge the world and to view ourselves as somehow morally superior because of our faith in Christ. But we should never forget that, prior to the gift of grace given to us by God, we were sinners, condemned, unclean. We“lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). But God showed us mercy and graciously revealed to us the message of hope found in the death, burial and resurrection of His Son. We were lost, but God found us. We were spiritually blind, but God gave us sight. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, but God gave us new life through Christ.
We have no right to judge the world. But Paul would say that we have every right and responsibility to judge one another as believers. The Greek word Paul uses is κρίνω (krinō) and it has a range of meanings. It can mean “to pronounce an opinion concerning right and wrong.” It can also mean, “to pronounce judgment, to subject to censure” (“G2919 – krinō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). There is a sense in which we are to judge one another’s actions. But our judgment is not to be arbitrary or subjective. It is not left up to our own opinion. We are to use the Word of God with the help of the Spirit of God to determine whether the behavior of a brother or sister in Christ is in keeping with the will of God. Our first goal should be restoration. Paul told the Galatians, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself” (Galatians 6:1 NLT). James wrote something very similar: “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins” (James 5:19-20 NLT). If we judge or determine that a fellow believer is living in sin, we have an obligation to lovingly confront them. Our goal is to be repentance and restoration. But in those cases where they refuse to repent, we have a responsibility to the body of Christ to practice a form of tough love. We must remove them from our midst. Paul says, “not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people” (1 Corinthians 5:11 NLT). Their lifestyle choice does not match their professed belief in Jesus. By their actions, they are bringing shame and dishonor to the name of God. They are a cancer in the body of Christ, and our refusal to remove them allows their sinful, disobedient mindset to infect others.
It is our willful tolerance of sin in the camp that causes the body of Christ to be weak and anemic. We are more than willing to judge the world, pointing our fingers at their sinfulness and pridefully claiming the moral high ground. But when it comes to the blatant sins of our own, we are more than willing to turn a blind eye and act as if nothing is wrong. That is exactly what the Corinthians had done. There was sin in their midst and they had chosen to ignore it. Like so many of us today, they were probably saying, “Who am I to judge?” Or they were basing their lack of judgment on the words of Jesus, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Matthew 7:1-3 NLT). But what Jesus was saying was that we are not meant to pass judgment on those whom we have no authority to do so. The context to Jesus’ statement is hypocrisy – judging someone else when you have not effectively dealt with your own sin. It is judging and condemning the “speck” of sin in someone else’s life while ignoring your the “log” of sin in your own.
Judgment is appropriate and right when done with the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ in mind. We have a responsibility to protect the integrity of God’s household, removing those who refuse to repent. The fact is, we all sin. But we are to confess our sins and turn from them. When we do, God is faithful to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But if we choose to remain unrepentant, our brothers and sisters in Christ have an obligation to step in and call us out. As Paul so clearly puts it: “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning” (1 Corinthians 5:12 NLT).