What Is Our Reaction to Sexual Sin? (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)


 

For Christians, the norm of sexual behavior is simple: fidelity within marriage, chastity without it. Because of the current debate over same-sex marriage, that norm has been clarified by making explicit the traditional understanding of marriage as a lifelong heterosexual union. This norm is rooted in the creation narrative (Genesis 1:27, 2:24) and reaffirmed by Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:4-5, Mark 10:6-8) and the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:15-16, Ephesians 5:31).

New Testament authors use the word porneia specifically in reference to prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15-18) and broadly in reference to any violation of the norm, whether premarital sex (1 Corinthians 7:2), adultery (Matthew 5:32), or incest (1 Corinthians 5:1). Because of the prevalence of sexual immorality in Greek culture, the church taught Gentile converts to repent of porneia (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). Paul listed it first among “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19), most likely because of its prevalence. He further stated that the practice of porneia – meaning prostitution specifically – alongside other sins such as adultery and homosexuality, disinherited a person from receiving the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9).

With this background in mind, let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 5:1-2:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?

In this passage, porneia refers specifically to incest. A man in the Corinthian church was engaging in sexual intercourse with “his father’s wife,” that is, his stepmother. Rather than being horrified by this flouting of the norm, a norm which in the case of incest even the otherwise sexually lax Greeks happened to share, the Corinthian Christians were “proud.” It’s not clear whether they were proud of this man’s exercise of sexual freedom or proud of how tolerant they were. Either way, Paul described the proper emotional response as “grief” and the appropriate action as excommunication.

What is our reaction to sexual sin?

In my experience, modern Christians tend toward the extremes of intolerance and tolerance. On the one hand, some Christians elevate sexual sins above other sins. On the other hand, other Christians turn a blind eye toward porneia, except when it involves child sexual abuse, incest, and adultery. This tolerance arises from the notion that premarital sex or homosexual activity, or the use of pornography, are trivial.

Neither extreme is right. God cares about how we use our bodies, including how we use our bodies sexually. The biblical norm of marriage leads toward human flourishing both in this life and the life to come. The worldly value of porneia leads to human languishing both in this life and the life to come. When people flourish, we should rejoice; when they languish, we should grieve.

The church’s task in the present age is to help people understand the connection between the norm and human flourishing.

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For Others, Under God (1 Corinthians 4:18-21)


 

In 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, Paul describes the Corinthians as “my dear children” and himself as “your father through the gospel.” The tenderness underlying these images is obvious. What is unexpected is the toughness.

Consider what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:18-21:

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?

Many moderns have a sentimental view of parenting, in which the parent-child relationship is all love and no discipline. In Paul’s day, people were less sentimental about such things. They realized that disciplining a child was necessary both for the child’s good and the good of the entire community.

My son is 18-months old. He is a sociable and smart little kid. But he doesn’t know things I know, namely, that hot stoves burn, that cars drive fast on the streets of our neighborhood, and that not every new person he meets is kind. Sometimes, he wants to touch the stove, run in the street, or cozy up to perfect strangers. At those times, it is my job to tell him, “No.” If he heeds my words, fine. But if not, it’s my job to physically stop him.

When I read Paul’s words in verses 18-21, I keep my duties as a father in mind. If false belief and feckless behavior alienate us from God and from one another, then we repent of them. Unfortunately, like children, we sometimes refuse to repent because we honestly don’t know or don’t care that we’re doing something wrong or believing something false. And so, spiritual fathers and mothers come alongside us to reason with us “in love, and with a gentle spirit,” or, failing that with “a whip,” which is a metaphor for the congregation discipline outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.

Like children being punished – or like sentimental moderns – we shrink from Paul’s words about discipline. Not only that, we shrink from the stark distinction Paul draws between the “arrogance” of certain Corinthians and his own “power” as an apostle. How does he know that he’s right and they’re wrong?

The answer is that he knows in the same way a father or mother knows not to let their child touch hot stoves or run in the street or talk to strangers. When we object to Paul’s stark language, we reveal that we’re the ignorant, petulant kid, not the loving parent. “The kingdom of God…is a matter of power,” Paul writes. Leadership, understood Christianly, is power exercised for the wellbeing of others, but always under God’s authority and direction.

That may not be a sentimental view of leadership, but it’s a wise one.

Five Characteristics of a Christian Leader (1 Corinthians 4:17)


 

Search through Amazon.com’s offering on books using the word leadership, and you’ll find 60,530 results. Perform the same search using the word followership, and you’ll find 149 results. Even the more common word follower only nets you 2,099 results. Though most of us follow, or precisely because most of us follow, we crave better leaders and seek guidance to find them or become them ourselves.

There is a crisis of leadership in our country. Church leaders overlook child sexual abuse among their peers. Political leaders write laws they fail to follow themselves. Business leaders make a buck even as they drive their companies into the ground. In each case, a leader uses his authority in pursuit of his own interests.

In 1 Corinthians 4:17, Paul pens a sentence that, without necessarily intending to do so, outlines five characteristics of a Christian leader:

For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

First, a leader influences. Paul desired to move the Corinthians toward cross-centered belief and Christ-like behavior. That was the “reason” he was sending Timothy to the Corinthians, as well as the reason he would soon join them himself (verses 18-19). Paul’s influence was directed toward the benefit of others, even at self-expense (verses 10-13), unlike contemporary leaders whose use their influence for self-aggrandizement.

Second, a leader loves. Paul describes Timothy as “my son whom I love.” It’s hard to imagine a politician or a business leader saying that about his followers. These days, it’s even rare to hear a pastor say that about his parishioners. But Paul said it about Timothy and the Corinthians (verse 14). A leader who doesn’t love his followers, who isn’t concerned about their wellbeing, isn’t a Christ-like leader.

Third, a leader is faithful to Christ. This is how Paul describes Timothy, but it is a true description of himself too. Only a cause greater than himself could inspire Paul to do what he did under such difficult circumstances. Leaders need to be led by a cause greater than themselves.

Fourth, a leader is imitable. Paul speaks of “my way of life in Christ Jesus” as something that is worth imitating (verse 16). Leaders should always live imitable lives.

And fifth, a leader has integrity. How Paul lived agreed with what Paul taught. He adds the phrase, “everywhere and in every church,” to emphasize the point. Paul did not teach or live one way with his peers and another way with his followers. He was the same person no matter whom the audience or what the venue. Leadership is who you are when no one’s looking. It’s also who you are when everyone’s looking.

Imagine our nation if our pastors, politicians, and business leaders took Paul’s leadership characteristics to heart and put them into practice!

Imagine if you and I did too!

Do As I Do (1 Corinthians 4:14-16)


 

Parents, when caught by their children in some hypocrisy, often say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I haven’t said that to my 18-month-old son yet – mostly because he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak gibberish. But I will say it someday. Imperfect a father as I am, I know that I will need to uphold the authority of life’s rules even as I occasionally (and inadvertently) break them.

Of course, it would be better by far for me to say to my son, “Do as I say precisely because I say as I do.” Or, more briefly, “Do as I do.” This is the essence of Paul’s message to his spiritual children in 1 Corinthians 4:14-16:

I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.

Remember the context of these words. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21, Paul is writing the Corinthians to correct their patterns of thinking, which are misshaping their patterns of living. Though Christians, their thought patterns are determined by classical philosophy and rhetoric rather than Christ’s cross, thus making them proud, judgmental, and divisive. Paul’s own thinking is cruciform, however, so his behavior is humble, gracious, and reconciling – like Christ’s.

Like Christ.

Have we become so cynical about the power of God’s grace that we doubt a human being can make progress in holiness? That, under the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit, a human being can really and truly become more and more Christlike? If we have, then we haven’t paid much attention to Paul.

Paul believed he was Christlike enough to urge the Corinthians to imitate, not just Jesus, but himself. Or, as put it in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The goal of spiritual formation is to become like Christ so that, as a secondary goal, you can lead others by example, not just words.

To lead others requires that we have a stake in their lives. Leadership is not about command and control, let alone about guilt and shame. It is, instead, about taking a fatherly (or motherly) interest in another person. When I look at my son Reese, I think about him differently than I think about other 18-month-old children. He’s my son. Together with his mother, I made him. He reflects me. His wellbeing is my concern.

Because leaders have a stake in the lives of their followers, they pay more attention to the example they set, knowing that they will be followed. The other day, Reese picked up my phone and said, repeatedly, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He learned that from me. Do I want him to talk so abruptly on the phone? No, and I don’t want him to live badly either. I must set an example.

You too.

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