Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth reveals that he was appalled by the lack of spiritual discipline in that body of believers (see 1 Corinthians 5:1). A man was living an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife (see verse 1). He had been so deluded by Satan and so controlled by immorality that he apparently flaunted his illicit relationship before the whole church (see verse 2).
Paul’s judgment on the matter was severe: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (verse 5). Paul thought it best in this situation to allow Satan to have his way with the man in hopes that he would finally say “I’ve had enough” and repent. God is not above using Satan to discipline us if that is what it takes to bring about repentance. Satan is tethered by the permissive will of God and can only do that which is permitted by Him.
Expelling the man from the church was Paul’s way of handing him over to Satan. In the world, he would be severed from the church and the power of Christ. The world was Satan’s territory, and the man would have to suffer the consequences of his sins without the spiritual protection of the local church. The church was not meant to be a gathering place for sexually immoral believers. In fact, believers in the Early Church were to expel the wicked from their fellowship (see 1 Corinthians 5:13). Otherwise, these spiritually bound people would contaminate the church with the wrong spirit, and some would undoubtedly become sexual predators and defile others.
God is more concerned about the Church’s purity than He is about the Church’s growth, because church growth is dependent on church purity. The Holy Spirit is working in our midst to present the Bride of Christ “as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). If the wrong spirit controls professing believers and they in turn are controlling the Church, then the wrong spirit is controlling the Church. For the local church, this means that just one unruly child can disrupt a family, a Christian camp or a Sunday School, and just one immoral, bitter or deceived adult can disrupt a board or church meeting. That is why church discipline is so necessary.
When do we stop trying to nurture a bad apple back to health and get rid of the apple before the whole barrel is defiled? That is one of the most difficult decisions that spiritual leaders have to make when seeking to ensure that the local church is under the lordship of Christ. The first priority is to carry out the ministry of reconciliation. If that should fail, the next priority is to expel from our fellowships those with a wrong spirit. We need to do this so that many others will not be defiled.
A growing church survives in an atmosphere of grace and in the context of trusting relationships. That makes the church vulnerable to those who would prey on the good natures of committed believers. Discipline is a proof of our love, which must be tough enough to ensure church purity but tender enough to set captives free and restore them to Christian fellowship.
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