In addition to what we have here in 1 Corinthians, there are other texts that deal with church discipline. One of the key texts is Matthew 18:15-17. There we find what Jesus Christ said about how to deal with a fellow believer who is living in sin. He said that the first thing to do is go to him with admonishing words. If he won’t hear you – that is, if he won’t acknowledge the offense, turn from it, repent of it, and seek reconciliation – then take two or three witnesses back to confront him with the events. That follows the Old Testament legal principle. Then, Jesus said, if even that kind of confrontation fails to bring a repentant response, the matter is to be taken to the church. If there still is no repentance at that point, the offending one is to be treated as an outsider.
There are examples of discipline alluded to elsewhere in the New Testament, although they are not described fully. In 3 John, for example, the Apostle John mentions what seems to have been a case of discipline when he writes about a man whose name is Diotrephes, who’s misbehaving in a particularly offensive way. John says he is going to deal with this case when he comes, but he doesn’t address it directly in the letter.
In I Timothy 1:20, Paul writes about Hymenaeus and Alexander, two believers whom he says he handed over to Satan in order that they might learn not to blaspheme. We don’t learn anything more about it than that. But Paul uses the same language in that letter, “hand over to Satan,” that he uses here in 1 Corinthians 5. So, there is clearly a parallel.
The Bible also mentions an occasion of what might be direct, divine discipline in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, found in the book of Acts (chapter 5). This was not so much a case that went through careful procedures within the church, though Peter certainly confronted Ananias and Sapphira for their hypocrisy. But, nevertheless, it’s one in which God intervened immediately, and, in the case of these two, the discipline resulted in their instantaneous deaths.
Among these other passages in the New Testament that deal with discipline, this passage in 1 Corinthians 5 stands out as a most important chapter, because it is the only significant and clear example of a case of spiritual discipline in the New Testament churches. That is not to say that there were not matters requiring discipline. Of course, there were. The particular situation Paul addresses here is not the only problem, even in the church of Corinth. As we read the other New Testament epistles, we find that the other churches had a variety of problems as well. Yet, we don’t find examples of Paul proceeding with heavy discipline in those situations. That at least tells us that church discipline is something to be exercised with great care, as it certainly was in the case presented here.
Paul describes the offense, and it is important to look carefully at his words. First, we notice that it was a major, significant transgression. What it actually involved was a sexual sin in which, as Paul says, “a man has his father’s wife.” He doesn’t use “mother” there. He says “his father’s wife,” and that is generally interpreted, I think rightly, to mean that the man was living with his stepmother. Paul does not mention whether the father was living or divorced, or what the particular circumstances were. Nevertheless, it is an offense that goes against the Law of God and, as Paul says in the passage, even against the proper understanding of morality among the pagans.
If you turn to the Law of God, the Ten Commandments, you see that Paul is addressing a violation against the commandment about adultery, which is rightly understood to include a variety of sexual offenses. Also, it is explicitly a transgression of the laws that you find in Leviticus 18 concerning marriage between people who are related to one another.
So, according to the view of both Jews and Christians, based on Old Testament Law, it was an offense. Not only that, it was also an offense to the pagans of the day. Paul says, as he analyzes the situation, that the offense was so bad that not even the pagans would tolerate it.