1 Corinthians 5:1-13 – Immorality as a Threat to the Body
SummaryThe report of a man living with his stepmother leads Paul to insist that the Corinthians exclude from their fellowship any who persist in such practices as sexual immorality and greed.
AnalysisGreco-Roman moral philosophy of Paul's time, as well as Jewish law in Leviticus, prohibited sexual relationships between family members, such as mothers-in-law and sons-in-law. A report reaches Paul that such a relationship is ongoing in Corinth and that the Corinthian church is complacent about it, perhaps even "arrogant" (1 Corinthians 5:2). The Corinthians have confused the freedom that they have in Christ with an ethic that has no boundaries.
In response to this situation, Paul directs the church to gather and, aware of Paul's apostolic authority and in the presence of "the power of our Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:4), they are to "hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5). The sentence is notoriously difficult to understand. What does it mean to hand someone over to Satan? What will happen to the man? Are there no instructions concerning the woman because she was not Christian?
"Flesh" does not mean "body" or "sexuality" in Paul's letters. In Romans 7 and 8, being in the flesh is contrasted with being in "the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:2). "Flesh" refers to the "before" half of a before-and-after picture of one's connection to new life in Christ. To hand someone over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, then, is akin to the directive in Colossians to "Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)" (Colossians 3:5).
For Paul, the danger is that behavior that characterizes the old life of sin (sexual relations with one's mother-in-law) has been confused with the freedom from sin that Christ offers. Recalling the Exodus, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt and when the urgency of their flight from Egypt required unleavened bread (see Exodus 12:39), Paul says, "Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened" (1 Corinthians 5:7).