Would you please explain 1 Corinthians 5:11?


The passage reads: “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person.”

It is important to see the context of that passage. Paul had explained, beginning in verse 1, that he had received reports that there was sexual immorality among the local church members — such a terrible perversion, “as is not even named among the Gentiles–that a man has his father’s wife.” Whether this intimate sexual relationship was between mother and son, or stepmother and son, is debatable. Paul continued in verse 2: “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.” They were actually “glorying” about this evil conduct (verse 6), feeling that they needed to be so tolerant and liberal with the law of God that this man’s public action was acceptable in God’s Church. But Paul concluded in verse 13: “Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.'”

From the second letter to the Corinthians, we know that the members followed Paul’s instruction, and that the evildoer was disfellowshipped. But now, Paul had to address a different problem–that of an unwillingness of the local members to forgive the evildoer. Paul states in 2 Corinthians 2:6-11:

“This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him… Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.”

As we pointed out before, forgiveness requires repentance. The Nelson Study Bible comments: “Punishment… is a reference to the church discipline Paul had instructed the Corinthians to use on the person… It was tough love, but it worked. The man repented… The purpose of church discipline is repentance and restoration. Forgiveness should always follow the correction.”

How did Paul know that the person had repented? There is no indication that he actually talked to the person — we might assume that perhaps reports reached him about the person’s changed conduct. But how could he know that these reports were accurate? It appears that Paul was willing to give the benefit of the doubt. He was willing to err on the side of mercy, and that “for your sakes” — the sakes of the local Church members. Apparently, they did not want to forgive, so Paul gave them an example to follow his lead.

He stated that the brethren were to “reaffirm” their love to the sinning member. As the Broadman Bible Commentary points out, “it is presumed that the Corinthians had not ceased to love the sinful member, either in his offense or in their infliction of discipline upon him. Yet… it was desirable that the man should know without doubt the continued love of the fellowship for him.”

It is true that Paul was saying that as long as someone calling himself a brother continued in the PRACTICE of sexual immorality, idolatry, or covetousness, among others, [including, by extension, of causing division contrary to the doctrine of God, compare Romans 16:17], they should not fellowship with such a person. In other words, “the Corinthians were not to have fellowship with those who claimed to be Christians but whose lives were dominated by sin” (The Nelson Study Bible).

But Paul was not saying that we must avoid the person until he or she expresses to us his or her repentance, by saying the magic words, “I’m sorry for what I have done. I repent. Please, forgive me.” Although this would be the most desirable and clear course of action, some have just not the personality to express their repentance in such a way. They might rather show their repentance through acts of kindness — perhaps through invitations to a dinner or to a movie, or to some other social activity. Many times, repentance can be seen in the conduct of the person — in deeds, rather than in words. When the father saw the prodigal son returning to his house, he ran toward him and embraced him. At that moment in time, the son had not yet expressed his remorse. But it was sufficient for the father to see that he was coming back.

The Broadman Bible Commentary correctly explains: “… if the man were treated too harshly… he might be lost to the community and to faith. As in converting men from sin, so in restoring the erring church member, God’s people need the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help to take wise and right actions.”

This includes, not holding grudges against anyone, and not hating the person. We might think that we are not guilty of either, but again, our actions might speak louder than our words and even our thoughts. When someone who has offended us writes us a card, or tries to call us, this must be sufficient for us to be willing to work toward reconciliation. In fact, we may and should not even have to wait for the other party to take the first step. But, if we don’t have a forgiving attitude all along, we might not be willing to respond quickly, or at all, to an offender’s first step toward reconciliation (even if it was in the form of a card or a phone call), as we are unwilling to forgive that person “that easily.” But then, how can we say at the same time that we don’t harbor any grudges in our hearts against such a person?

God tells us that we have to become peacemakers. We have to seek peace and pursue it. That means, if it is at all reasonably possible, it behooves us to initiate the first contact by writing a card or a letter, or trying to call the person.

Paul did not say, in 1 Corinthians 5:11, that we are not to eat with a person who engaged in sinful conduct in the past. He is only addressing a person who is CONTINUING IN THE PRACTICE of the same. If a person who committed a sin toward us in the past, contacts us in an attempt to reconcile, we have a duty to respond to such a request. We cannot say that Paul is instructing us not to have anything to do with such a person or to eat with him; therefore, we just have to ignore his advances.

Just the opposite is correct! As true Christians, we have a duty, as much as depends on us, to make and maintain peace with everyone. God’s ministers are even to look after the lost sheep; what greater responsibility would fall on the ministry to respond to an attempt by a disfellowshipped person to gain access to his former fellowship?

What Paul was instructing the members of the Corinthian Church was of course in accordance with what Jesus taught! For instance, Jesus said: “‘…love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you'” (Matthew 5:44). Paul, in quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, stated this about those who stand in opposition to us–that is, our enemies: “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink…'” (Romans 12:20). Paul continues (in the same verse): “‘For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.'”

The emphasis is for the righteous to do what is right–to set the example of showing the sincere love that emanates from God, and it is this love that God continues to maintain as He brings all of us to “…a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Whether or not even a brother makes himself an “enemy” through actions that are clearly in opposition to God, we still must be, as God is, readily entreatable for reconciliation when the true possibility presents itself.

But how can we know that the sinning brother has actually repented, so that we can socialize with him? The answer is, we meet with him to find out. That includes, eating with him. So we see, Paul, in taking all the Scriptures together, is actually saying the exact opposite from what some people think.

When we have a meeting with such a person, we had better show love, mercy and compassion. We are told that love covers a multitude of sins and that mercy triumphs over judgment. We are also told that we ourselves will be judged without mercy, when we judge without mercy– and when we speak evil of our brother (or think evil of him in our hearts), we are actually judging the law of God (James 4:11-12). James asks us who we think we are, that we judge our brother — including, perhaps, wondering about the sincerity of his repentance?

When the prodigal son returned, his older brother was not willing to receive him back. He was angry and had grudges in his heart toward his younger brother, who had lived in sin, while he had lived a right life. Now, he did not want to make it that easy for his younger brother — he wanted him to pay first for his sinful life, to go through some penance. But his father told him: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad” (Luke 15:32).

Let us be very careful that we do not withhold mercy and forgiveness where it is due, because if we are unwilling to forgive others their trespasses, God won’t forgive us our trespasses, either. And when we judge too harshly and severely regarding whether or not the offender has really repented, let us also keep in mind that God might judge us equally harshly, then, regarding whether or not WE have really repented of our sins. If we need to err, let us err on the side of mercy and forgiveness.

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