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Author:Pastor Dirk Boersma
  Free Reformed Churches of South Africa
Preached At:Emmanuel American Reformed Church
 Denver, Colorado
Title:Keep the church pure in a culture of tolerance
Text:1 Corinthians 5:1-5 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Discipline

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Call to worship Ps 93, 1.3
Song of praise Ps 92,
Reading of the law / Confession of sin
Declaration of mercy Ps 146,5-10
Song of response Ps 145, 1-3
Readings from Scripture 1Cor5
Song before the sermon Ps 93
Sermon text 1Cor5,1-5
Song after the sermon Hymn 32
Song after the offering Ps 145, 4.5
Suggestions for prayer * thank God for making us holy and gathering the church in holiness
* pray for biblical exercise of church discipline by members and consistory; with the right attitude: out of love for each other
* pray for strengthening of mutual encouragement, and for willingness to forgive each other
* ask God to bring more sinners into the church... so that they may be saved!
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ,

The election of a new pope is big news. A lot has changed since 1978 when the previous pope was elected. I guess it was not such a media circus then. In the past 27 years we have seen first the 24 hour news reporting and than the emergence of the internet with its constant news flashes. This is probably the main reason why the election of the pope is such a big deal.

Part of the news coverage is the comments you hear on the views of the pope who was elected. The important issue for many is this: how conservative shall he be?

The Roman Catholic church has never been keen on changing with the times. However, many American Roman Catholics are liberal in their ethics. They expect the church to change on issues like birth control and abortion. The election of another conservative pope makes them nervous. They fear that the church is not going to change in order to adapt to modern society.

The Roman Catholic church has views we cannot accept as Reformed believers.

However the question "should the church adapt to modern times?" is very important for the church.

The archbishop of Denver was commenting on this on the news. He said clearly that it is not the duty of the church to adapt to modern views. There are moral absolutes that cannot be changed.

It probably comes as no surprise to you that this shows up in the news and commentary. A church that bases itself on moral absolutes coming from the Bible must necessarily come into collision with the spirit of the times.

Our culture has developed its own moral absolutes, you can say. One of the untouchable principles is tolerance. We can all agree that a certain measure of tolerance is necessary in a society. People with different faiths and views have to live together. Especially freedom of religion is a good thing. The government should not bind the consciences of people and tell them what to believe. When you know the persecutions Reformed believers have experienced in the 16th century and later, you know the awful consequences of government interfering with religion.

The church does not even need government intervention. Jesus brings his kingdom on earth not by political force but through the preaching of the gospel.

Something has happened to this otherwise good virtue of tolerance, though. It has been elevated to the prime virtue of our culture and has been applied to many areas of life. It may mean that you cannot publicly say that someone's lifestyle is wrong and sinful. And it exerts pressure on the church to be tolerant, as well, and allow sinful lifestyles. It is hard to maintain that practicing homosexuals should be barred from becoming priests or pastors in the church.

What should the church of Christ do in such a culture?

Should we give in, as some churches have done? If you ordain priests with such a lifestyle you cannot condemn church members who practice such a sin either.

Our culture of tolerance puts pressure on the church, on our church as well. Can we still exercise church discipline over people who live in sin and refuse to repent? Or should we be accepting and affirming towards such people?

Both the borders and the essential character of the church are at stake. Where does the church end and the world begin? And what is the church all about? When you have a good understanding of what the Bible says on these issues you will know how to respond to the pressure of our culture.

I preach you the gospel under this theme:

Keep the church pure in a culture of tolerance

1. the need for church discipline
2. the purpose of church discipline

1. the need for church discipline

Paul never beats around the bush. He had received accurate information about the church of Corinth. His response shows that he was appalled, maybe even outraged at what those Christians were doing in the name of Christ.

When he writes "it is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you" we should not think that Paul based himself upon some vague rumor. He had received reliable information from members of that church and he knew exactly what was going on.

What alarmed Paul was the fact that this sexual immorality was not an incident but an ongoing thing. There was a man who had his father's wife. The word "had" tells us that he was living with her on a permanent basis. It was an ongoing relationship. The way Paul described this tells us that this was not his own mother, but probably his stepmother. Some think that it was his mother-in-law.

The sin this Corinthian man was engaged in was something that God had clearly forbidden in Lev18. It says: "It is forbidden for a man to have sexual relations with his mother or his father's wife." This was a shocking and shameful sin.

Christians should know better than to commit and allow this kind of behavior. Even pagans would not have condoned this. They tolerated many things, even temple prostitution, but here they, too, draw the line: a father and a son should not share the same wife.

When you read this you may wonder how a situation in the church of Corinth 19 centuries ago can be meaningful to us. We can imagine many sins we may commit, but not this one.

We could try to expand this and say that any sexual sin would be wrong and people who live in those sins without repentance should be disciplined.

However, this is not the point of this chapter, but of the next one. Paul addresses sexual immorality in a broader sense in chapter 6 and shows why this is wrong for Christians.

We should pay attention whom Paul was addressing. He did not address the man who lived in this sin but the congregation. The big issue in this chapter is that the congregation tolerated this sin. How can a Christian church ever do a thing like this? That this man lived in sin was wrong. Then the Corinthians shared in his sin because they did not rebuke him and exercise church discipline but instead tolerated his sin in their midst. The holiness of the congregation was at stake.

It would have made sense if Paul had rebuked them like this: "this man lives in sin and you don't exercise church discipline!"

However, he wrote something else in v. 2: "this man lives in sin and you are proud! You should have been filled with grief and put him out of your fellowship."  These last words refer to church discipline: someone who lives in sin should be rebuked and if he does not repent he should be excommunicated, removed from the fellowship of the church.  But first Paul reproached them of being proud instead of grieving over such a heinous sin.

This response of the Corinthians is not what we would expect. If they tolerated sin, this could have happened because they did not care. But that was not the reason. It was pride.

Pride goes a little deeper. There was something else that made them feel like this.

The earlier chapters of Paul's epistle give us insight into the state of mind of the Corinthians. They were split into groups rallying behind great preachers, and they thought that Paul was not good enough for them. There was a group of arrogant people who would have nothing of Paul's leadership because they found him not spiritual enough. Paul needed to reaffirm his apostolic authority among them and he did so by writing this letter.

This toleration of sin is a consequence of their proud attitude. Their pride was that they thought too highly of themselves: they were these great spiritual persons who were far beyond Paul's level of maturity and wisdom. However, their spirituality was influenced by the Greek division between the spiritual and the earthly things, between the spirit and the flesh.

This is how they argued: whatever you do with your body does not affect your spirit. This explains why these people who had become Christians could commit and tolerate sin on such a scale. Paul's letter shows that there were many things wrong with this church.

If you disconnect what you do with your body from what you believe in your heart, you can live like a beast and still believe you are a Christian. When these church members had converted, they had not made the connection that this should also lead to a different lifestyle. They justified their behavior with this separation between body and spirit. This made it possible for their Corinthian lifestyle to continue. The church's lifestyle was in no way different than the world's lifestyle. In fact, reportedly there was an expression in those days: "live like a Corinthian". That meant that you did whatever you liked and revel in all kinds of sexual immorality.

The Corinthian believers said "everything is lawful" and thought "whatever we do with our bodies does not affect our spirit.  And the spirit is what counts in the Christian faith."
Their Christianity was truncated: it had only a head, not a body. Faith to them was a matter of the mind, not of behavior.

This was also the reason why they tolerated this sin in their midst. They had no problem with it! They had fallen in love with their own spiritual accomplishments and thought they were immune for these things.

So it was time for a wake-up call. They needed to understand that God not only saves the spirit and the soul but also the body. And they needed a deeper spiritual insight into the work of God's Spirit: that life in the Spirit had consequences for their ethics, for their behavior. What you do in everyday life and what you do with your body reflects what you believe. God has created us as spiritual beings with a body and the two form a unity. Sin had invaded and damaged, almost destroyed both areas. The salvation Jesus brings is a complete overhaul of our lives. God is re-creating us from the inside out and he does not stop with the spirit or the soul. He wants to set our entire lives free from the devastating effects of sin and death.

The Greek philosophy was in fact a lack of appreciation for creation: the lower earthly level was considered bad and sinful. However, God had made everything good and perfect. The body is not in itself sinful and our natural desires would have been good if it were not for sin that twisted them.

This is why food can cause obesity if we give in to gluttony; this is why marriage is no longer honored but sex is selfishly enjoyed anywhere and completely removed from the boundaries God has set for it.  Good desires have turned into desires of the flesh that lead us away from God in an egotistic and immoral lifestyle.

When you think the body it in itself bad, you cannot see God's goodness in creation and you overlook the consequences of salvation for your body and all earthly things. The way we use our bodies, our enjoyments, the way we use our time, the way we use the things of creation and our possessions, all these things are being renewed by God's Spirit.

If you exclude those things from your walk with God and think that salvation is only a matter of the spirit and the mind, you do not let the Holy Spirit work in you to the fullest. You will continue to live like a pagan while you claim to be a Christian.

It is important that we realize, too, that the way we think determines what we do. Our theology determines our ethics. If you exclude a certain area of your life from God's grace and power and think his law does not apply there, you are in grave danger.

If you keep up with what is written and said in today's world, you would notice the same thing. You can see public morality change in a few decades through a constant barrage of liberal thinking and through the influence of movies, books, and what else that promotes immorality. This is what is happening and what has happened with many people already: before they realize it they think that this different lifestyle is normal. At first they felt guilty but that feeling slowly erodes the more they see others do and promote it. After a while they are relieved that they can get rid of the guilt. This is why nowadays all kind of immoral behavior is not only tolerated but even celebrated. We have reached the next stage: people with immoral lifestyles like homosexuality are protected as minorities and are demanding that their rights be protected. The whole gay movement and the push for same-sex marriages has been prepared for decades. Because of the earlier steps in the process we now live in a time that they get what they want.

This issue in society is just one example. We need to realize that sin does not come along just like that but is preceded by a process in which our values are undermined and reshaped, and words are redefined. If you think you are safe because you reject same-sex marriages you forget that you are living in a culture that redefines all values and undermines your Christian values.

What we need to do is guard our heart: the place where not only decisions are made but where our feelings come from. Realize the battle within your heart: you have to protect your heart and prevent your desires from being reshaped by the world.

You can protect your heart by immersing yourself in God's revelation, by knowing his will by heart, and by submitting your heart and mind to Jesus Christ. Remember that he is Lord, and that he is Lord of your entire life. Pray for discernment to find out God's will in any given situation and pray for the faith and strength to obey it.

Don't let anyone tell you that you can determine your own life, that you need a break from your strict upbringing, or that you don't need to feel guilty about your modern lifestyle. Instead, judge everything with the will of God as your standard.

2. the purpose of church discipline

As we have seen in the church of Corinth, their changed attitude also led to tolerating sin in their midst which God had clearly forbidden. Tolerance is the big buzz word of our times. Society demands that we conform to that idea. You are frowned upon if you call something sin. People feel offended when you do that and they feel their freedom is violated.

This can influence the way in which we deal with sin in the church. The path of church discipline that Jesus has commanded may begin to feel too judgmental. It is controversial in our society. It would be easier if we could find other ways to respond and avoid a confrontation.

In some churches the leaders stay away from church discipline altogether, afraid that it would divide the congregation. They may worry more about their position and future than about God's command. Other factors begin to creep in: the peace in the congregation, the reputation of the person in question, their contribution to the church, maybe extenuating circumstances. But the clear truth that the church must be holy is lost when this happens.

Paul affirms the need for church discipline. He says nothing new. Jesus had shown his church the way in Mt18: if a brother sins against you, go and rebuke him so that he may repent. If he does not listen, bring one or two witnesses, and if he still does not listen, tell it to the congregation. If he doesn't listen even to the church, he should be treated as a pagan, that means excommunicated.

Church discipline is rooted in the Old Testament. God called his people as his own and sanctified them, made them holy, so that they would be completely dedicated to him. Because he is holy, his people must be holy. No sin can be tolerated in the midst of his people. It should be removed by repentance and forgiveness, or, if the person does not repent, by excommunication.

What is at stake is not our reputation in the world. If they expect us to conform to their values we don't have to obey them. We need to realize that the church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ and that he makes her holy through his Holy Spirit.

So we need to uphold church discipline and be clear about the borders of God's church. Whoever loves their sin more than Christ place themselves outside of his church and need to be excommunicated. Only then can the church remain holy.

There is another important thing we need to realize. We can learn from this passage that church discipline is not something we can delegate to the leaders. Notice whom Paul addresses in this chapter: the entire church, not just the elders.
Church discipline needs to be exercised by the members as a mutual action. This places us under the obligation to practice what we preach. If we believe that the proper exercising of church discipline is one of the characteristics of the true church, we need to practice this.

This turns out to be more difficult than we thought! If church discipline is not assigned to the consistory only but to everyone in the congregation, you need to think about how you can fulfill your task in this area.

If you find it convenient to keep your distance and relate to others as little as possible, you need to realize that this is not conducive to your involvement in church discipline. If you do not love the other person and never talk with him or her, how can you suddenly address them when they do something wrong? You might not do it with the right attitude, and your words may fall on deaf ears to begin with, when they think "this person never showed any interest in me, and now he's here to attack me."

Exercising church discipline among each other implies that we belong together and love each other with the love of Christ. The New Testament also has very clear commands that we should encourage each other, love each other, and strengthen the weak.

This connects with something else that Paul teaches us in this chapter. The purpose of church discipline is not to get rid of the sinner. On the contrary!

In the first place, even Mt 18 which describes the full process up to excommunication shows you that the outcome does not have to be excommunication. If the sinner repents you should not call witnesses and you should not report it to the congregation. We should not talk to the sinner and already pushing them out of the church and alienating them from the church by being negative and setting ultimatums: "if you don't ... then ...!"

The goal is not to get rid of the person but to gently and decidedly convict them of sin and call them to repentance. Church discipline is not only intended for maintaining the holiness of the congregation but has also as its goal the salvation of the sinner. This becomes clear even in excommunication. The verdict Paul pronounces in v. 5 may not seem very kind, but does in fact show us this intention. The unrepentant sinner is handed over to Satan. This means that he is placed outside the church. The church is the territory of Jesus Christ, the world is (for the time being) the territory of Satan .

The literal wording of v. 5 suggests that the purpose of this excommunication is the destruction of the man's flesh. This may lead us to think that he will die, but this is difficult to understand. How could a person learn from this and be saved if he dies of the punishment?

The words in the NIV "that the sinful nature may be destroyed" are an interpretation, but they hit the nail on the head. What is probably meant is that what was sinful, "the flesh", in this person should be destroyed by the punishment of excommunication.

Excommunication means ending the fellowship with such a person. This would serve as a clear signal to the unrepentant sinner that he is in fact outside of the fellowship with God's people and with God himself.

Here you can see how tolerance of sin actually would wreak more havoc than church discipline. If a person is not rebuked for their sin they will continue to practice it and eventually be judged by God. There is no reason for them to repent, since the community of the church condones their behavior! Not only the world finds it OK, but even God's church thinks there is no problem. We don't help people at all when we stop calling sin sin and fail to deal with it according to God's will. We would serve the destruction of their soul.

This case study from the church in Corinth should not be taken as a blueprint for every church discipline case, but it teaches us the basics: the congregation is guilty and becomes contaminated with this sin when it tolerates it in her midst.

We should not shy away from church discipline for fear of being judgmental. We began with looking at the world and its influence on us. According to them we should not deal with people's sins because then we are being judgmental. How can we prevent this attitude from creeping in and discouraging us from exercising mutual discipline? By realizing that this chapter teaches us that discipline is remedial: it intends to keep the congregation holy and to save the sinner.

If we would succumb to the pressure of our culture and become like the world we would fail to obey our Lord and serve him.

He calls us to be a holy congregation where sinners are led back to Him. He gives us the awesome responsibility to be his instrument to save sinners from everlasting destruction.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Dirk Boersma

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