1 Corinthians 5: A Proof Text for Disfellowshipping?

disfellowshipping

(This originally appeared in the Winter 2001 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 13)

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 1

You are “not to associate with any so-called brother …” The words seem harsh in a context of church—a community dedicated to love and unity. Paul is clearly indicating a drastic form of discipline for immorality. Various groups calling themselves “Christian” have used these words to legislate what we would call “disfellowshipping” or “shunning.” One of the most prominent (to many readers of this Journal) is, of course, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS, a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses). In most cases, the “immoral person” (immoral as defined by the WTBTS, that is) is completely cut off from the members of the JW congregation. In public, he is ignored, not spoken to, and treated as a non-person. While the JWs don’t advocate divorce from such “disciplined” spouses, Jehovah’s Witnesses go so far as to encourage children who are of age to withdraw from parents:

… If, the children are of age, then there can be a departing and breaking of family ties in a physical way, because the spiritual ties have already snapped. If children are of age and continue to associate with a disfellowshipped parent because of receiving material support from him or her, then they must consider how far their spiritual interests are being endangered by continuing under this unequal arrangement2

According to the JWs, if the child doesn’t withdraw, their spirituality is questionable because they continue to have familial contact. Mere contact with a disfellowshipped person casts aspersion on the one who associates.

What is also remarkable is the condition of the disfellowshipped JW. Salvation in the WTBTS comes not just from the organization; it is the organization. Notice one WATCHTOWER* description of the reinstatement of a disfellowshipped person:

There is no reason that he [the disfellowshipped] should be overly sad thinking that he could never get into God’s organization again and gain life in the new world.3

While he is disfellowshipped, he has no assurance of gaining eternal life. This is bolstered by the fact that anyone who has been disfellowshipped and wants to return to the congregation must not simply repent—his reinstatement is described as a “conversion.” Can a disfellowshipped person be reinstated, get back into the organization? Yes, he can if he repents. But he has to go farther than that. He must be converted.4

Note also the instruction for elders:

If the wrongdoer is sincerely repentant, has discontinued his former wrong conduct and is “doing works that befit repentance,” he can be reinstated (Acts 26:20).5

The passage that is often used to proof text this is 1 Cor. 5, where Paul admonishes the church “not to associate” or “not even to eatwith an disciplined member.”6 The question is what does Paul mean by “not to associate”” and “not to even eat with such a one?” Do these concepts refer just to the corporate body or do they extend to individual interaction? Does this verse advocate complete isolation for the offending member? Is the person still regarded as a “believer,” or is he now considered an “unbeliever” as the WTBTS has determined? We will be examining Paul’s writings for the concept of exclusion and Paul’s usage of “associate” and “eat with” in an effort to define the limits of corporate exclusion. My goal is to guard against two extremes. The first is the abusive idea of disfellowshipping. The second is the mistaken emphasis on Church discipline being primarily only for the repentance of the immoral person and not the congregation, which often leads to an apathetic attitude toward sin in the congregation.

“… There is immorality among you.”

It is important to examine the situation that prompted Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor. 5. It had been reported to Paul there was immorality in the Church at Corinth. Apparently this was not a secret, for Paul chastises them for being arrogant and not dealing with the sin. Historian William Ramsey notes that in Corinth, a son taking his father’s wife (stepmother) would not be looked upon as that unusual. The Church at Corinth was holding to the low status quo of pagan morality.7 Could it be the church considered it a private matter because Paul takes great pains, as we shall see, to emphasize the corporate responsibility the Church must take in dealing with this very public sin? I think so. It can also be speculated the woman in question was not a believer due to Paul’s silence regarding discipline for her.

So then, we have a situation where an unbeliever most likely divorced her husband and married her stepson. The son was a member of the Corinthian church and was openly engaging in something both biblically immoral and, according to Roman law, illegal.8The corporate body was not ashamed but “puffed up” and did not realize the implications of what this unchecked sin could do to the congregation. Paul wrote to chide them for their apathetic attitude, to warn them of the hazards of “corrupting leaven,” and to instruct them as to the proper way of dealing with unrepentant sin in the congregation.

What were the results of his missive? If we can say with some certainty that the immoral man of 1 Cor. 5 is the same repentant man of 2 Cor. 2, then we know the church heeded Paul’s advice and expelled this immoral brother which ultimately produced repentance and remorse. The man was genuinely sorrowful. So much so, that Paul now admonishes the Corinthians to “forgive and comfort” so that the man would not be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”9 The discipline had brought about repentance and both the man and the church were saved from corruption. But what are the principles of exclusion? What did Paul set up in his instructions that we can apply to deal with sin in the congregation?

“A little leaven leavens the whole …”

Why is it the immoral man must be removed from the church? J. Carl Laney says it is for the restoration of the immoral person. The purpose of the discipline was primarily for the one disciplined.10 In contrast, the WTBTS teaches the primary purpose is to “keep the congregation clean.” Which emphasis is correct?

Brian Rosen argues that Paul’s use of “leaven” and other parallels with the holiness code of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), 11 indicate the primary purpose is to protect the church and keep it uncorrupted by unrepentant sin.12 This is precisely the view of the WTBTS. The congregation must be kept clean. I must acknowledge that I think the WTBTS is correct on this point. Discipline is primarily to protect the Church. However, I think they completely misunderstand Paul’s method for protecting the congregation.

It is precisely because the church is the de facto temple of God that it must remain uncorrupted by sin in its midst. To Paul, the only corruption affecting the body is that of its own members. This settles the problem of whether the immoral man is a believer or not. The presence of an unrepentant believer is the problem, not the presence of a non- believer.13 In chapter 14, Paul indicates the presence of an unbeliever in worship does not affect the congregation. Likewise, an unbelieving spouse does not necessarily corrupt the believing spouse,14 and eating with unbelievers is not prohibited. 15 It is precisely because this immoral person is a believer that he is a danger, not to individuals in daily life, but primarily to the congregation.

This completely contradicts the WTBTS corporate salvation idea. In this instance, we have a person who is a believer and, yet, is excluded from the congregation. His actions are the “leaven” that can corrupt the “whole lump” of the Church. It is also assumed that this expulsion is the result of the immoral man ignoring the steps of discipline commanded by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20.16 Therefore, the immoral man is a believer who threatens the purity of the Corinthian fellowship because of his willful rebellion. But how is the excommunication to be carried out? To what extent is he to be put out of the fellowship? What does Paul mean by συναναγμειγνυμι (associate with) and συνεσθιω (eat with)?

“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves …”

Within the command to excommunicate are two implied injunctions in verse 11. Paul says he wrote to the Corinthians, in a previous letter: “not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person.” Later in the verse, he adds: “not even to eat with such a one.” The word for “associate” here is συναναμιγνυσθαι (associate/mix with)17 When Paul writes about the issues of holiness and immorality, he often employs words rarely used in the New Testament but having a substantial history in the Greek version of the OT—the Septuagint (LXX). 18 The Septuagint frequently uses this word to denote the purity of Israel. For example: “Ephraim mixes himself with the nations/ Ephraim has become a cake unturned” (Hosea 7:8). Here it refers to the 10 tribes mixing (συνανεμειγνυτο) with the nations, which brings judgment. Also most notably, Paul Rosen points out, is its use in Ezekiel 20:18 (LXX): “Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor observe their ordinances and in their ways do not mix (συναναμισψεσθε) and defile yourselves.”19 These two verses are instructive because of their contexts. In Hosea, Ephraim is carried into captivity precisely because they have polluted themselves with wickedness. They are taken from their place of spiritual separateness and thrown into the nations. In Ezekiel, it is the warning not to begin to defile themselves with the “ways” that caused Israel to be sent into exile with foreign nations.

Both contexts bear a striking resemblance to the situation in Corinth. The Corinthian community was in the midst of immense idolatry, debauchery, and moral laxness. The danger was not from casual contact—speaking to or acknowledging the pagans. The danger was participating in their “ways”—to use Ezekiel’s imagery. Paul admonished them not to engage in legal disputes like the Corinthian pagans.20 This was because they were a community separated by a code of conduct based on their newly created status as the body of Christ. Likewise in Hosea, the issue wasn’t casual contact. Xenophobia (fear of contact with foreigners) was not commanded by God,21 but purity in religious practice (especially that of not making treaties with foreign nations) was. The precise reason the immoral person was to be excluded from the community was because he had gone way beyond mere contact with the world. He had actually “mixed himself” by following the ways of the pagans and had an immoral relationship with his father’s wife. It is his behaving like the pagans, not his contact with them that excludes him. The immoral man has become like the pagans, so he is to be excluded from the community of believers. That Paul does not have in mind casual contact is bolstered by the only other passage in which he uses this word—2 Thessalonians 3:14.22 Here Paul uses the same injunction not to “associate”23 with anyone who does not obey his instructions in the letter. He cannot mean “refrain from speaking” or “casual contact,” because he adds: “and yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him, as a brother.” Here not “mixing with” still allows speaking, casual contact, and certainly, kind regard.

What then of the injunction “not to eat with such a one?” Is this a command against an individual eating with a disciplined one, or is it a command to exclude that individual from the Lord’s Supper? First let me note that, if it is an injunction to not share a meal with a disciplined believer, this still does not warrant the extreme shunning, ignoring, or avoiding advocated by the WTBTS. Let me say it again. It is not casual contact with the disciplined one that defiles, but rather it is when the unrepentant person engages in the ongoing activities of the church with other members as though he were repentant.

Second, the context of the passage has repeatedly shown it is concerned with the corporate body. Even the OT passages cited seem to imply a corporate action. Paul has set up the corporate idea by using the plural form “you are” throughout the passage. Ben Witherington III makes the same distinction: “What Paul says is addressed to the congregation as a whole and therefore speaks for the most part of the behavior of the gathered congregation.”24 If this is the case, in what way could the congregation share a meal with a person? Is this referring to the communal meal the community seems to have shared in conjunction with the Communion act?25 Chapter five seems to have the context of Communion. Verses seven through eight may imply a reference to the Lord’s Table. 1 Cor. 11:27 warns of one whom “eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner.” Since the Lord’s Supper and communal meal were aspects of the community fellowship then, at the least, an excommunicated brother would not be allowed to participate. Whether this extends to individual table sharing, even Witherington admits is not clear.26 Also, it is possible that sharing a meal in the context of the first-century Christian community communicated something more explicit than it does today. “Breaking bread” in the first century was not just seen as a way to alleviate hunger or be social, but rather, it was an integral part of the Christian experience.27 Whereas today, sharing meals might not be so closely associated with the Church community. 

Conclusion

While cults and false religious movements like Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct that the primary reason for “discipline” is the protection of the congregation,28 these groups extend far beyond what is mandated in scripture. Paul does not prohibit talking with or admonishing those under discipline. Indeed, it is the pastoral concern for the individual that is bound up in the idea of discipline and restoration. Yet, the WTBTS makes several leaps in their form of “discipline.” All those outside of the organization are considered “unsaved” because salvation is the organization. Therefore, anyone being reinstated is compared to an unbeliever becoming a new convert. 29 This is totally foreign to context of the Corinthian letter in which the believer is excluded for immorality but is never regarded as an unbeliever. What we have in this passage is not a mandate to treat the immoral person as an enemy, but rather as one whom, by his rebellion, has excluded himself in practice from the corporate body. The discipline is an outward expression of what he has done already by his actions, and it is an expression of a stark reality that Paul expresses in a rhetorical question: “Do you not know you are a temple of God?”30Ω

*The WATCHTOWER is one of the bi-weekly publications of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society

 

  1. I Cor. 5:9-11. NASB. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from the New American Standard Bible
  2. WATCHTOWER, November 1952, 703-4 “Questions from Readers” Note: This is providing the offender is not a spouse
  3. WATCHTOWER, March 1, 1952 p137-145 “Propriety of Disfellowshipping.”
  4. WATCHTOWER, March 1, 1952 p137-145 “Propriety of Disfellowshipping.”
  5. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to The Flock—Acts 20:28, (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1977) 63
  6. Cf. also 2 Thes. 3:14-15
  7. William Ramsey, Historical Commentary on 1 Corinthians, ed. Mark Wilson, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996) 38
  8. William Ramsey, Historical Commentary on 1 Corinthians, ed. Mark Wilson, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996) 37-38
  9. 2 Cor. 2:7
  10. Laney, J. Carl. A Guide to Church Discipline. Minneapolis: Bethany House Pub., 1985, 80
  11. In particular Deuteronomy and its expression in Ezra
  12. Brian S. Rosen, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) Rosen’s argument is involved, but is stated here in brief:

    1) Covenant Motif: The catalog of sins in 5:11 is etymologically and structurally linked to Deuteronomy 19-22

    2) Corporate Responsibility Motif: Paul evokes a corporate responsibility for the sin of an individual by using penqew (mourn/be sad) which in the LXX is indicative of mourning for the sins of others—sometimes as if the sins were the petitioners own.

    3) Holiness Motif: The temple exclusion laws of Deuteronomy 23 parallel Paul’s principles of exclusion. Paul even tacitly introduces this in 3:16-17, when he warns the corporate body: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple … If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” 91. cf. footnote 132 for his refutation of Laney

  13. Cf. Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 152-153
  14. 1 Cor. 7:12
  15. 1 Cor. 10:27 “If one of the unbelievers invites you … eat anything that is set before you …”
  16. Rosen remarks that we are privy only to the final stage of this on going drama—after the steps outlined by Jesus have failed to bring about repentance. (Rosen, Brian S. Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Cor. 5-7. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994, 89)
  17. Present Middle Infinitive from sunanameignumi (to mix with/associate with)
  18. Note the words Paul uses to list the traits of the false teachers in Titus (1:10-12) or the wicked in Romans 1:29-30. Many are hapax legomena (used only once) in the NT but in the Septuagint are used frequently to describe lawlessness
  19. Rosen, Brian S. Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Cor. 5-7. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994, 90
  20. 1 Cor. 6:1-2
  21. In fact, one could argue that if Israel were to be a kingdom of priests who represent YHWH and bless the nations (Genesis 15-19), then it would need casual contact—speaking and interacting with the nations. Xenophobia would prevent this. The injunction is always to doctrinal purity in the practices (no idolatry) and against foreign alliances to save Israel from the surrounding nations (cf. Isaiah 39 where Hezikiah attempts to make an alliance with Babylon and Jerusalem incurs the judgment of Exile.)
  22. And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame.”
  23. Gr. sunanamignusqe (you pl. {do not} mix with) present middle indicative 2nd pl
  24. Witherington, Ben III. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995., 161
  25. 1 Cor. 11:18-34 “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment.” (v. 34)
  26. Witherington, Ben III. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995., 160
  27. Cf. Acts 2:46 “… continually devoting themselves to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer” could be referring to sharing meals rather than the Eucharist
  28. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to The Flock—Acts 20:28, (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1977) 61
  29. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to The Flock—Acts 20:28, (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1977), 63. Note the use of Acts 26:20 (doing works that befit repentance) is contextually referring to Gentiles converting to the Gospel
  30. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to The Flock—Acts 20:28, (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1977), 63. Note the use of Acts 26:20 (doing works that befit repentance) is contextually referring to Gentiles converting to the Gospel

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