The following is a transcript of the sermon delivered at Yakima Covenant Church by Rev. Duncan MacLeod on September 6, 2015. The text here closely follows the sermon as it was delivered, but in written form is incomplete. The audio recording of the sermon will reflect differences, sometimes minor, at times more significant. The document is not meant for publication, and as such is not properly formatted for citations of works used. It should be useful for study purposes, but remains the property of Rev. MacLeod and permission is required to reprint or distribute. Text: 1 Corinthians 5:1-8
Oops, we read too far! We found this letter, addressed to someone else, but the return address had Paul’s name on it, and he always writes such interesting stuff. So we opened the letter, even though it wasn’t addressed to us …. And we read it,…felt kind of bad about it, but so curious. And it was going along in a kind of interesting way, seems like Paul was writing to some people dealing with some issues…and then, bam! Suddenly it turns into something quite a bit racier, we are now reading about sexual indiscretions, to put it mildly….maybe we should put this letter down?
That’s something of the situation we are in, diving into this letter to the church at Corinth. We are reading someone else’s mail and it’s getting a little uncomfortable. And we have some interpretive work to do – we have to try and take this awkward and terrible situation that happened in Corinth, along with the response of Paul in his letter here, and we have to try and take all of that and come away with something for us. It is not so simple as just taking their situation of a moral failing within the church and applying it to all situations –to do that would embroil us in a terrible sin of our own, we would be committing a fallacy of illicit transference.
Hush, you say, I would never commit such a fallacy in all my days! It sounds bad doesn’t it, something you might see read out in a charge list at the courthouse for some terrible offender. The fallacy of illicit transference is actually a logical fallacy, a wrong-move, an illegitimate connection in an argument – it means to take something specific and make an argument for the general. Let’s put it in terms of apples, so we can get a handle on the problem of illicit transference: Let’s say we have one bad apple – we got one the other day, this is a dangerous time for apple buying, the stores are hit or miss, either you get this years fresh amazing crop, or you get the back of the warehouse, bottom of the cold storage bin cleanout of last years harvest, which, as soon as it hits the oxygen rich, tepid air of the grocery store turns to mush. So let’s say you get one bad apple – the fallacy of illicit transference would be committed if you took that one bad apple and generalized from it that all apples are therefore bad. Do you see the failing there – what is true for a part, or an individual, may not be true for the whole, or the group.
We hear this fallacy all the time in public discourse, because individual examples are so much more poignant and vivid, so for instance when we read a story of an undocumented immigrant committing a terrible crime and a politician make the argument that undocumented immigrants are violent criminals. That’s the fallacy of illicit transference. Not a legit argument. One bad apple doesn’t mean apples are bad. So we can’t take Paul’s specific response here and simply generalize it as sort of policy for this church or the church as a whole.
But, the situation in Corinth and Paul’s reply to it can yield some good fruit for us. The whole apple thing is really playing out here, it’s harvest time after all! We have some old wisdom about bad apples that just might apply here – one bad apple can ruin a bunch. It just might. And so we have some opportunity to reflect upon the nature of this community we call the church – what it is worth, and what may be necessary at times to protect and promote it. That seems to be Paul’s argument with the church in Corinth. There is someone behaving in such an outrageous manner that the integrity of the whole community is in danger of being compromised.
Paul has been hearing about scandal in the church at Corinth, word has gotten back to him about a situation so unlikely that he finds it hard to imagine – a man is involved sexually with his father’s wife. Not just a church kind of scandal, but a scandal of a general nature, in that ancient city this would have raised eyebrows with everyone, which is saying a lot for a time when sexual expression had few of the constraints that are at least nominally recognized in our contemporary society. The situation Paul is addressing at Corinth was the stuff of Jerry Springer.
Paul recommends…no…demands…commands….that this person be expelled from the church, put out of the community for the sake of the health and integrity of the church as a whole. The language is pretty tough – this man is to be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” – people, commentators, aren’t even sure what that means, but we can all pretty much tell that it sounds pretty bad.
This is tough stuff, Paul is doing two things that run against our contemporary culture in important ways:
First, the most obvious – Paul is insisting that the concept of discipline and consequences has real application in the life of the worshipping community. This is tough for us to wrap our minds around, for several reasons. For starters, we live in a consumer age, where the church and church goers have both conspired to make the church an expression of peoples wants, wishes, and desires. Don’t like the music, move down the street to someone who caters to your musical tastes! Find the right age group, the right worship style, the right preaching, the right this, the right that, and in such a culture church shopping allows and invites us to simply find the most comfortable fit. (imagine such a concept in Corinth? There was only in or out of the church). It is hard to imagine a community where a concept of church discipline is very meaningful when people can choose another church family, and so readily do.
Also the concept of discipline is strange to us because we tend towards an intensely private and individualistic culture and this idea of community involvement in the nitty-gritty of our lives is just kind of out there. We much prefer to keep our hands clean of our brother and sister’s business and declare Matthew 7:1, Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” Right? But in truth we actually mean it as a kind of contract, hoping that it means “I won’t judge you if you won’t judge me.” Which is a little different, more of a conspiracy of silence than a declaration of God’s ultimate rule and role in judgment.
But Paul believes that discipline in a community has merit and redemptive potential. In his next letter to the community, which has a more upbeat tone, Paul reflects upon some of the calling out of the Corinthians he had to do in this letter, and he says, in II Cor. 7:8 – For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly. Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed by us in any way. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret.”
Paul hopes in the community, that discipline exercised within the community will have a restorative effect – he is not hoping for the paring down of the community, or the purification of it by continued downsizing – he is hopeful that grace wins out, that the body is restored, that healing is real and possible. We would do well to take in a measure of this optimism and expansive vision of the church.
So Paul is first insisting that discipline within the church community can have a positive and restorative role in the life of the church and the individuals subject to discipline. But the second thing that Paul is counting on is equally strange to our ears, equally counter-cultural:
Claim mutual identity as a people – not as a collective of saved individuals – but a team, a community, a whole that takes active responsibility for one another’s lives and spiritual wholeness. The kind of death that Paul imagines outside the community only makes sense as a contrast if inside the community is an expression of real and vital life! If we are life to one another.
Suspicious of “Chruch discipline”
We have seen it’s failings – the lack of accountability for the terrible abuses against children, for instance, remind us that people that ought to have been put out of the community weren’t. But we are equally reminded of the times that people were put out of the community that shouldn’t have been.
I got a call from a pastor who in no uncertain terms advised me to make sure that a man who attended our church be removed from worship because he was involved in divorce proceedings. There was enough pain to go around. Church is full of brokenness, of the mess of life, complaining about broken people being in church is like complaining about out of shape people being at the gym. This is sort of where you are supposed to be.
So we are suspicious that our judgment in such things is flawed….self-serving….
Does one bad apple ruin the bunch? The smell of rot at the time of harvest. The intermingling of death and life, hope and despair, healing and brokenness.