The effectiveness of a Christian community’s mission is
directly affected by the quality of its relationships with those outside her.
Paul addresses three objections or excuses that the Corinthian Christians might raise toward his instructions to them.
The first excuse Paul anticipates is that the problems are a “small matter.” As far as Paul is concerned, there no problem is “small.” Just as leaven will eventually permeate an entire dough, a “small” problem will infect the entire community. The community must come together and do what it needs to do in order to remove itself of any “leaven.” The major issue is not any specific examples of problems, but rather, the result of allowing problems to spread: divisions and strife. A divided church community is powerless to perform its mission. A bickering church hold no appeal to those outside her. Paul must direct the church to come together and take action as a united community.
The second excuse Paul anticipates is that some among the community have wrong ideas about community and what freedom in Christ means. These seem to have an over-realized eschatology where they are already experiencing the full effects of salvation; i.e., the community of the saved is fully realized so they have no need to associate with those outside, and even more, there is danger with such associations; and, because salvation is fully realized, they can do whatever pleases them. The specific issue of immorality triggers Paul’s argument, but his main issue is with their misunderstandings around their responsibility to those within and without the community of faith. Their over-realized eschatology is compromising the church’s mission, and he must correct it.
The third excuse Paul anticipates is their lack of responsibility. There appears to have been a small, but powerful, faction within the Corinthian church. The other, larger group were unable or unwilling to directly confront the arrogant, powerful, and wealthy faction. Instead this larger group’s recourse (or at least some of them) was to take the problem to outside judges. The issue here isn’t about airing the community’s dirty laundry in public (most likely the public already knew quite well what was going on). The issue rather is that by doing so, the church community is admitting she is incapable of functioning as a responsible member of society. (Groups were expected to resolve problems amongst themselves.) The church would be shamed; she would lose honor. Not only that, but if the powerful group asserted that because freedom in Christ meant no responsibility to conform to societal norms and expectations, it would present the church as a direct threat to Roman rule. A church community that fails to perform as a good member of society has no power to perform her mission. Paul must remind her of her societal responsibilities.
The issue of a man’s sexual immorality in 5:1 triggers Paul’s three concerns in 5:6b-6:8. But immorality is not Paul’s primary concern. Paul’s primary interest is the church and her mission. Paul’s primary concern is that arrogance has given birth to a number of symptoms that are weakening and defeating the church and compromising her mission. Paul writes to bring attention to these issues and provide corrective guidance.
When this passage is read improperly (e.g., out of context, ignoring cultural norms, ignoring surrounding context), it gives rise to a number of misguided and harmful applications. First, churches can overly focus on sexual behaviors that are deemed “sin” when that was not Paul’s primary concern. Secondly, churches often miss the portion where Paul writes they are not arbiters of morality of those outside the church. Thirdly, the instruction to not bring matters to courts is misconstrued by churches and religious organizations and used as justification to cover-up misdeeds and criminal activity by members, volunteers, and employees, in the name of “protecting the organization’s reputation.” Doing any of these things goes directly against what Paul was trying to instruct in this very passage.
A community’s integrity in relationships within and without matter. They are the currency with which she gains a hearing among those not a part of her. Paul’s interest was to maintain the believing community’s honor so that her effectiveness for mission would not be compromised.