Lecture 4―Ewald Seidel

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians

1 Corinthians 5:1―6:20

In this fourth lecture we will be dealing with three other problem issues in the Corinthian Church, that have come to Paul’s attention: 1) The problem of fornication, 2) The problem of litigation, and 3) The root of the Corinthian problem generally.

Problem of fornication—5:1–13

The problem with the Corinthians was that they were proud and over-confident in themselves. This affected their Christian lives in a number of ways. It made them divisive, as each group claimed superiority over everyone else. Because of this, they felt free to behave in ways that were not Christian.

Question: One of the problems I see in the life of the Christian Church has to do with the idea of ‘freedom’. What does Paul mean when he says that Christ has set us free?

It is true that Christ had set us free, but it is freedom from the bondage of sin, and freedom to be what God wants us to be—not freedom to do what we want to do, and to be what we want to be. So, when a case of immorality took place among the Corinthians, they boasted that they were free from all laws and prohibitions.

This was a particularly bad case of immorality. A male member was having a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. It does not say with his mother, so that she could have been a step-mother; she could have been a widow; or she could have been divorced from her husband. Whatever the situation, this kind of relationship was condemned by Roman law, and it certainly was condemned in the OT (Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Deut. 22:30; 27:20).

Paul tells them that they should have been filled with grief because of what was happening among them. Morality within the Christian Church is not simply a private matter; it is the concern of the whole Church. Later in this letter, Paul speaks of the Church as the ‘body of Christ’, but already he is showing how the behaviour of one member affects the life of the whole.

This is consistent with the view of a God-ordained society as taught in the OT. When Achan sinned, the whole of Israelite society suffered. This was a lesson the elders of Israel never forgot, as we can see in Joshua 22:20.

When Paul said that they needed to be filled with grief, it is the kind of grief people experience when they have lost a loved one who has gone from them. In other words, they should have excommunicated this person, and mourned his loss.

The excommunication was to have a double effect. It was to remove that which polluted the fellowship of God’s people, and to be a punishment to the offender. In this case the offender was evidently a Christian as we shall see in a moment.

Question: So, what kind of punishment was Paul advocating?

Paul tells the whole Church to meet in a solemn assembly, conscious of the presence and power of God among them, and Paul would also be present in spirit. They were then to hand the man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.

Question: What does this mean?

At least a couple of suggestions have been made by commentators:

  • They had to hand the man back into the world where Satan reigns, with no support from the Church or its members, to learn the awfulness of his behaviour, and to stop living according to his lusts.
  • Once the man was outside the safety and security of the Church, he would reap the consequences of his sinful life, physically, either through sickness or death, i.e. the destruction of the flesh, but his soul would be saved. A number of commentators prefer to understand Paul this way.

V6. Paul rebukes them for their boasting, and reminds them of the effect of yeast in a lump of dough. Just as yeast has a way of permeating the whole batch of dough, so sin in the fellowship of God’s people has a way of corrupting the whole Church. Sin in the life of the Christian Church is always a very serious thing, because it is the place where Christ is present in an active way in all His holiness and righteousness.

V7. Paul goes on to tell them to remove the old yeast completely from their midst. In saying this, he connects this thought with the Passover. When Israel was told to prepare for the Passover prior to leaving Egypt, they were told to roast a lamb, and prepare bread without yeast. Even in Paul’s day, whenever Jews prepared to celebrate the Passover, they would search the whole house and destroy any yeast lying around. It symbolised everything that belonged to the past.

The new life in Christ was to be celebrated without any malice or wickedness. Malice probably referred to their divisiveness, and the wickedness of tolerating immorality in the life of the Church. The new life was to be sincere and truthful.

Question: So, how were Christians to relate to the immoral people of this world?

Vv9–13. Evidently Paul had something to say about this in an ealier letter that we no longer have, but he was misunderstood. He now clarifies what he had said previously. Paul did not tell them to cut themselves off from all who are immoral, greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and swindlers. If they were to do that, they would have to leave this world. ‘No’, says Paul, what I meant is that you should have no dealings with believers in the Church who live like that. Have nothing to do with such a believer! The Christian Church must demonstrate that this kind of behaviour does not belong to the Christian way of life. Groups of Christians who advocate that we should pull ourselves completely out of this world and have as little as possible to do with it, forget that Jesus also prayed for the heavenly Father not to take the disciples out of the world, but that He protect them from the evil one.

There are two kinds of judgements involved in what Paul tells them. Their responsibility is not to judge the world. That is under God’s judgement (krinō). But the disciplinary judgement (krinō) within the life of the Church is the Church’s responsibility. This is corrective judgement, and has nothing to do with ultimate condemnation. Ultimate ‘krinō’ is God’s prerogative.

The whole Church, not just a select group of leaders, is to be involved in taking disciplinary measures against those who persist in living in disobedience to Christ, and dishonouring the name of Christ.

Now Paul comes to the problem of litigation among the believers, i.e. the love of suing people in court for all sorts of things.


Problems and disagreements will always occur between people, even between Christians from time to time. Paul is not saying that these things should not occur, but it is how they go about resolving them that is important for them as a Christian community.

Firstly, he tells them that disputes among members of the Church should be resolved internally. They should not go to pagan courts to get justice.

Question: Is Paul concerned about ‘hanging out their dirty linen in public’ because it is a bad witness?

Although this could be true, Paul’s argument in this case is probably different. The criteria by which Christians should seek to resolve their problems are different to the criteria used in secular courts. While the Christian Church is also concerned for justice, it is a justice that involves mercy and grace. If God had dealt with us according to His justice alone, none of us would have survived. It is His mercy and grace in Christ that should be reflected in any judgements that are made in the life of the believing community.

Secondly, a Christian should be prepared to be wronged and cheated, rather than appeal to secular courts (v7). People within the Church had to be prepared to apply the principle Jesus set down for Christian behaviour, when he said that they needed to turn their other cheek, and, when sued at law for their tunic, to give up their cloak as well. (Mt. 5:39–40).

This procedure obviously would not apply to serious disputes that involved Christians and non-Christians, because the non-Christian who was involved in a dispute with a Christian would not accept a Christian arbitrator.

This time Paul is prepared to shame them, because,

  1. The church can’t seem to find even one member of the Church who is capable of helping disputing Christians to resolve their problems. Paul says, Don’t you know that the saints will judge (krinusin) the world? Are you not worthy to judge in the least important court?—‘this one, here and now!’ One day they will judge even angels, so, should they not judge (krinumen) the ordinary things of life!
  2. When Paul says, If you have courts for everyday affairs, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the Church? the Greek expression can be taken as a command or as a question. It makes much more sense to interpret it as a question. If this interpretation is correct, then ‘those who have no standing in the Church’ are the secular judges, to whom they should not be going. If we interpret it as a command of Paul to appoint those who have no standing, or, are despised in the Church, to try the cases, it would be inconsistent with Paul’s view of people generally. He believed that no one who is in Christ should be regarded as ‘despised’.

    While there is an aspect of the church not ‘hanging their dirty linen in public’ because it is a bad witness, at the end of v6, it is a minor point. The main point is that the widsom of God should be exercised in the life of the Church, not the wisdom of the world.
  3. Secondly, Paul reprimands the Corinthians for living like pagans by cheating and doing wrong to fellow-believers. Paul contrasts God and the wicked. Wicked people, he says, cannot enter the kingdom of God. He lists the kinds of people that will never enter God’s kingdom—the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (probably something that was practised in pagan worship of the day), homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, or swindlers. He is speaking about people who persist in these practices.

Paul reminds them that for some of the believers in the Corinthian Church, that is what they were like before their conversion to Christ. We need to remember that Corinth was a very cosmopolitan city, full of corruption and immorality. Many of the Christians had come from a terrible background, but now that kind of life was behind them, and they were never to return to it.

Three times Paul uses the word ‘but’ to emphasise the contrast between what they used to be, and what they had become in Christ. They had been washed clean, something only Christ could have done for them. Nothing else could have removed the terrible stain of their past life. They had been sanctified, or set apart for God and His glory. They were brought into the incredible privilege of being called the children of God. They had been justified. Their sins had been removed once for all by the blood of Christ. In Christ they were declared righteous before God. They had to be reminded of this again and again, so that they would live as people who were cleansed, sanctified and justified.

Question: Often when there are problems, they are merely symptoms of a deeper problem. Was there some deeper problem in the Corinthians Church that needed to be dealt with?

Paul now comes to the root of the problem in the Corinthian Church, or the real reason behind the problems that existed among them.

The Root of the Corinthian Problem—6:12–20.

At the root of the Corinthian problem was a failure to understand the nature of freedom in Christ. The issue of freedom in Christ is still often misunderstood within the Christian Church today.

Some commentators say that the catch-cry, Everything is permissible for me, was probably something that originated with Paul earlier when he had argued against Jewish legalism, or other religions that laid down rules (especially food laws) that had to be kept.

Other commentators suggest that this was a catch-cry that the Corinthians had picked up from gnosticism. Gnosticism moved in two different directions: one strand moved towards asceticism (i.e. going without many things in life), while the other strand moved in the opposite direction of libertinism (i.e. where nothing was prohibited). Whether the Corinthians had blended the libertinism of gnosticism with their misunderstanding of what Paul had said, we can’t be sure. But in his response to this problem, Paul lays down a general principle that should govern sexual practices, and in doing so, this principle affects much more than just sexual behaviour.

Quoting the Corinthians, Paul says, ‘You say, everything is permissible for you, but I say, not everything is beneficial. You say, everything is permissible for you, but I say, be careful that you don’t end up being mastered by habits and practices that are wrong for believers.’ Often people who claim to be free, find themselves in bondage to the things they do, and to their habits.

Question: What is the nature of Christian freedom?

It is freedom ‘in Christ’.

Question: What does that mean?

It means that Christian freedom has boundaries that are set because of the Christian’s relationship with Christ. Just as God is not free to act in a way that is inconsistent with His nature, so a Christian has no right to act in a way that is inconsistent with his new nature in Christ.

The Corinthians understood freedom as having no boundaries. Christian freedom is different—it has boundaries. That is the negative side to this freedom, but the positive side is that the believer is free to be and do what God wants him or her to be or do. In our old life we were in bondage to sin, and incapable of pleasing God. In Christ we have been set free from that bondage, and have been enabled by the Spirit to live for God in a true sense. In this kind of life, the Christian discovers true freedom.

Paul then goes on to address a related problem among the Corinthians. They were saying, Food for the stomach, and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both. They meant that the body is only a temporary thing, and what we do with it is not important. We have certain appetites that need to satisfied, but ultimately the body will be destroyed. The body has no lasting value and what you do with your body does not affect your real life — so they thought!

Paul’s response is, ‘You may be right that food is for the body and the body for food, but the body is not for immorality. It is far more important than that. Don’t you know, he asks, that your bodies are members of Christ? Satisfying your physical needs with food cannot be compared to satisfying your physical needs with lust, and with sexual immorality.

Believers are united with Christ in the closest possible way; they are ‘in Christ’—they are members of his body. It is this that makes sexual sins so terrible and should never happen!

Union with a prostitute is union of the closest kind. It involves giving yourself completely to the other, something Christians cannot possibly consider outside marriage because they belong completely to Christ. The fact that God raised Christ from the dead bodily, shows that the body has real significance before God. The word ‘body’ here is ‘sōma’ which represents a human being in his or her total relationship to God.

Anyone who unites with a prostitute becomes one with her. There is nothing casual or insignificant with casual sex. The experience affects one’s whole being, and damages the exclusive relationship of the believer with the Lord.

Paul tells them to ‘flee’ fornication. Make it your habit to flee, is what he says. To sin in the body is to take that which belongs to the Lord and to degrade it. He asks them again, Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you received from God?

Question: Paul seems to use the expression ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ differently here to the way he used it earlier. Is that right?

Earlier, Paul told them that as a Church they were the temple of the Holy Spirit, with God living in their midst. Now he tells them that the body of each believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘naos’ means a shrine, or sanctuary, where God dwells. This gives every Christian a dignity that no lesson on self-esteem can ever compare with.

This understanding sets the boundaries for the way every Christian should live in Christ. A Christian has to understand that he is not his own property, for he has been bought at a price—the death of Jesus Christ. The cry today among many people is, ‘This is my body, and I can do whatever I want with it.’ The Christian difference is, ‘This is not my body. It belongs to Christ, and I am not free to do whatever I want with it. I am free only to honour God, and to please Him with my life in this body.

Question: Someone might say, ‘But how does that apply to a non-believer, who is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Is he or she free to do whatever they want to do?’

Whether people believe in God or not; the fact is that everyone has been created by God in ‘his image’, and for better things. If we go against the universal moral law of God, we pay the price for our sins.