Ecclesiology as Social Ethics: Paul, Corinth and the Practice of Holy Discipline

Ecclesiology as Social Ethics: Paul, Corinth and the Practice of Holy Discipline

by Craig Uffman

co-published with Covenant

[click to read part i and part ii - part iv will be published later]

Photo of Craig Uffman

In Models of Communion: Performing Our Anglican Identity, I raised concerns with claims of those who rationalize abandonment of Canterbury and the fracture of our global Communion. I suggested that the plan for global schism – that is, a reordering of the Communion in such a way that the unity of Africa is fractured and a significant number of the provinces leaves the Communion in order to form what is effectively a denomination - ensnares us in behaviors that contradict our identity in Christ and therefore lead us astray.

The response of the most vocal advocates of fracture has been to point to various NT texts, most notably 1Cor 5, in which Scripture teaches us to avoid table fellowship with heretics and apostates. In his critical response to ‘Models of Communion’, Matt Kennedy provided exegesis demonstrating the commonplace that Paul instructs the church to discipline sinners. The recurring claim seems to be that Paul’s insistence on discipline at table in Corinth provides biblical warrant for a complete cessation of fellowship with TEC and Canterbury and the formation of what appears to be a new denomination. This exegetical account shows that there is no such warrant in the text.

My contention is that the description of our current crisis as a choice between heresy and schism is a false choice that leads us astray. In addition, I suggest, along with other Communion-minded scholars, clergy, and laity, that rightful resistance to false teachings within the Church – rightful discipline in accordance with Scripture and tradition - must always be through our Instruments of Unity if we are to make the claim that we ourselves are acting faithfully.

In this essay, I present the second portion of the exegesis that supports this claim.

In Part II of this series, I suggested that, before we look at 1Cor 5 on discipline, we must wrestle more rigorously with Paul’s teachings on table fellowship. In order to do that, I presented an exegetical account of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, along with a brief review of relevant early Church liturgical practices. Several points arose from Part II that will help us in our quest for a richer understanding of 1Cor 5.

1. For Paul, there are only two categories that have theologically determinative meaning. Either one is ‘in Christ’, or ‘in Adam’. Moreover, to be ‘in Adam’ is for both Paul and the early Church the pre-baptismal state.

2. Paul’s vision of the church is that of the seed of Christ planted in the womb, requiring patient nurture of the Christ formed in the community. For Paul, Christ is formed in the community so that the community can grow to maturity itself and plant the holy seed in which her identity is given. That seed’s purpose is to propagate the household of God.

3. By the second century, bishops sent portions of the sanctified host to their outlying churches. The name of this portion given for other churches was fermentum, which meant ‘leaven’. The outlying churches would drop the ‘leaven’ into the chalice during their Eucharistic liturgy. The holy ‘leaven’ of the mother church nourished the embryonic Eucharistic fellowship of those churches in whom Christ was still being formed. Leaven, for the ancient church, symbolized the inseparable relation between the church’s holiness and her mission.

4. Paul’s understanding of the church is tied inextricably to the vocation of Israel. We cannot understand Paul without close attention to his explicitly Jewish language and imagery.

With these points in mind, we now turn to an exegetical account of the 1 Cor 5. Along the way, I will take note of exegetical support for the positive theology outlined in ‘Models of Communion that will be important as this series progresses.

The Necessity of Community Discipline: 1 Cor 5

In the account that follows, I want to be sure that my exegesis, which reaches different conclusions than those who rely on same passage in justifying their advocacy of schism, is not dismissed by virtue of an appeal to my ‘postliberal’ influences, although these influences support my account. Accordingly, my account closely follows that of Dr. Gordon Fee, Professor Emeritus of Regent College (home of J.I. Packer). Mr. Fee’s evangelical credentials are solid, including teaching stints at Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Readers can follow my account in Fee, Gordon. 1987. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 193-228. In addition to the influences already listed, I have also found Anthony Thiselton (Nottingham) helpful. See Thiselton, Anthony C. 2000. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 381-482.

An important factor in the exegesis of 1Cor 5 is found in Paul’s salutation. To whom is the letter addressed?

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours….(1Cor 1:2, emphasis added)

Paul writes to the entire community and not just its elders or more prominent members. In addressing them he reminds them of their identity and vocation as the household of God. All members of the community are called to be saints (hagioi), which means they are to be holy. They are the people already set apart (hagiazoœ) ‘in Christ’, which, as we saw in Part II of this series, means that Paul addresses specifically the baptized community (and, therefore, the Eucharistic fellowship) at Corinth. Moreover, Paul reminds them that their call is not isolated. They share the call to be a people set apart for God with all those who declare Christ as Lord. They are part of a much larger community, and accountable, therefore, to the entire community set apart ‘in Christ’.

Paul’s reminder of their calling to be holy serves another purpose. For he echoes the words at the very center of Torah, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’ (Lev 19:2). By applying this ancient formula from the heart of Israel’s covenant to the Gentile people of Corinth, Paul makes it clear that, by virtue of their baptism ‘in Christ’, they are part of God’s re-constituted humanity that is continuous with the destiny of Israel revealed in Christ. Therefore, they shall have no other gods before God (Dt 5:7). Idolatry (behaviors that reflect trust in idols) constitutes rejection of the gift of their new identity in Christ. Because they were set apart so that all the world would know God, such behaviors can not be tolerated.

The church at Corinth evidently tolerated in their membership a man who had ongoing sexual relations with a woman to whom his father had been wed. Paul describes this as sexual immorality (porneia) so offensive that it is not tolerated even among pagans (ethnos). It is notable that Paul’s use of ethnos here reinforces Paul’s view that the members of the Corinth church were no longer Gentiles. They were ‘in Christ’ and not ‘in Adam’ and, as a result he expected a behavior consistent with the people ‘in Christ’. Paul calls the woman in question, ‘his Father’s wife’, language which echoes Deut 27:20 and Lev 18:8. The allusion to passages near the center of Torah indicates that this is no minor thing, but an offense that constitutes a denial of the most important covenantal norms of Israel (Milgrom). Indeed, in 5:11, Paul lists taboos that correspond to offenses in Jewish law for which the penalty is death (Deut 22:21-22, 30; 13:1-5; 17:2-7; 19:16-19; 21:18-21; 24:7). This is worth repeating: the types of behavior in view in this passage are offenses so serious that the penalty, in ancient Israel, is death. Why? To engage in the particular kind of porneia in question, or any of the taboos in 5:11, is to deny the very gift of one’s new identity, in Christ, as inheritor of the promises of Abraham, for these actions were understood in ancient times as a rejection of one’s covenantal relationship given by YHWH. Such behaviors constitute a denial of Christ as Lord of life. Because the whole community is accountable and responsible for the conduct of individuals, and because the behavior of one affects all (12:26), Paul, quoting Deut 17:7 (which deals with persons who engage in idolatry), commands the community, ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’ (5:13).

Violations of the Holiness Code of Leviticus relate directly to Israel’s vocation to be a blessing to all the nations. Corinth, as part of the new Israel, is to be a people set apart so that all the nations might be brought into God’s blessings (Gen 22:18). The vocation of the church is to denote the life of the triune God in order to bring others into that blessing. Therefore, because God is Holy, Israel – of which Corinth is now a part - must be holy (19:2). The violations in view (1Cor 5:5, 11) threaten that holiness; they threaten the embryonic Christ being formed in the community. They ensnare the community in behaviors that threaten their identity in Christ. Put in contemporary terms, unholiness degrades the capacity of the church to fulfill its mission to bring others into the blessings God intends for the world. Undue emphasis upon a call for discipline that is inward-focused, described in terms of a priestly ‘cure of souls’ understood as a concern for the salvation of those already in the church ought to be a concern for the Church. Such a focus is not at all the traditional Anglican understanding of ‘cure of souls’, for the priest’s duty historically has been to all citizens of the parish, without regard to their membership in the Church. Our emphasis ought to be at least as much on the outward-thrust of the Church’s vocation, if not more so. A sufficiently paschal theology discovers this outward, missional focus even in 1Cor 5. Given a sufficiently Jewish reading of Paul, it becomes clear that 1Cor 5 teaches that we must discipline because we are ‘sent’; our holiness is what we are ‘sent’ to incarnate; our discipline is not properly grounded in a fear for our own salvation.

Paul seems to be particularly concerned with the entire community’s arrogance in proclaiming its autonomy; they boast about their freedom in tolerating sexual immorality rather than mourning its presence (v.2, 6). Here again Paul addresses the entire community ‘in Christ’ as the new Israel. Profound grief and sorrow are the appropriate responses in light of the iniquity of Israel and the consequent destruction of the Temple and exile of God’s people (Is 61:3); significantly, Paul later reminds the community that they are to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit, purchased by God (6:19). Porneia is therefore not just an exercise of liberty in the sexual arena; it is a profanation of the Temple of the Spirit the community is called to be. Rather than boast of their autonomy, they should have begun a period of formal mourning (v.2), just as those who witnessed the destruction of the Temple mourned. Because a member of ‘God’s building’ had rejected the builder

(3:9) and defiled the building, the entire community should have mourned.

This pride in their autonomy, which led them to tolerate one who denies his identity in Christ in their midst, threatens the Christ being formed in the community. The entire community’s identity as a holy people is at risk – and thus the community’s purpose is also. So, as in Gal 5:9, Paul uses the metaphor of leaven (1Cor 5:6) to remind them of their vocation to be a blessing to all the nations. Leaven is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread. The NIV mistranslates this as ‘yeast’, which misses the point of Paul’s allusion. Leaven spoils over time. It is the portion of last week’s dough, fermented and added to the current week’s dough, which is also allowed to ferment, which gives bread the quality of lightness. Perhaps for rather obvious health reasons, Israel was commanded to rid her homes of all leaven (Ex. 12:14-20), and during the Festival begin a new batch of unleavened bread. Corinth is to rid herself of the sin in its midst so that her own health as the body of Christ is not threatened. The members are to rid themselves of leaven so that their community may be a new batch without leaven (v.7a) – the seed of Christ in the community must mature and give birth to new communities because of its role in the Spirit’s divinization of Creation (Matt 18:15-18).

As noted above, the early church understood ‘leaven’ in this missional sense. By the second century, bishops sent portions of the sanctified host to their outlying churches. The holy ‘leaven’ of the mother church nourished the embryonic Eucharistic fellowship of those churches in whom Christ was still being formed. Leaven, for the ancient church, symbolized the inseparable relation between the church’s holiness and her mission.

In ‘Models of Communion’, I said ‘prodigal sons and daughters do not threaten our Christian identity, except to the extent that they may tempt us to respond to them by surrendering ourselves to idolatry’. Notice that leaven is an important metaphor in light of this assertion. Here Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine provides helpful insights into the connection between sexual immorality and idolatry. For Augustine, ‘to enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake’; and, only the triune God is worthy of enjoyment, because only the triune God can ‘make us blessed’. To cling to something other than God is to seek blessedness in that which was intended to be ‘used’ rather than ‘enjoyed’, and, following biblical tradition, is idolatry. ‘Lust’, for Augustine, is therefore not merely sexual desire, but connotes the human desire to cling to anything other than God. Porneia is idolatry. Bad leaven contaminates the rest of the batch. Porneia, Paul suggests, is bad leaven and may spread by tempting others in the community to surrender to idolatry.

The church at Corinth must rid itself of leaven in order to be what it already is (v.7a). Note that Paul’s instruction in v.7a corresponds to my assertion that the best tactic of the church in response to prodigal power plays is for the Church to be the Church. That is, because the Paschal lamb has been sacrificed, it is time for them to purge their community of leaven in the same way Jews have done for generations. This paschal imagery, which corresponds to my theological account, is crucial to understanding Paul’s solution to the Corinthian crisis. The blood of the paschal lamb on the doorposts of the Hebrews marked them as a people set apart for God’s purpose, and therefore under God’s protection. Those protected by the mark of the blood were protected from the destroyer (Ex 12:23). So, too, the blood of Christ marks the Corinthians as a people set apart and under God’s protection from the destructive work of the world. Put another way, if one does not participate in the blood of Christ, then one is not protected from destruction in the world.

It is within this context that we should interpret Paul’s instructions for dealing with the sinner. Perhaps the most important thing to notice in this passage is the method of faithful expulsion of a member. Paul is quite clear about this. Discipline is the responsibility of the entire community, and expulsion of the perpetrator is an action of the entire community. When the entire community is assembled, and when Paul’s ‘spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, [they] are to hand the man over to Satan’ (5:4-5). This is a formal liturgical action in which all of those baptized in Christ at Corinth gather in the name of Christ and expel a single member of the baptized from their fellowship. It is not an action by an individual or a minority of the community, but a duly authorized corporate act of the entire community.

At this formal gathering of the baptized, they are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (sarx), so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. What does it mean to hand one over to Satan? As we have seen, his sin of porneia, as idolatry, was a rejection of his identity in Christ. As we saw in our study of Galatians, such a rejection of the meaning of one’s baptism is as though one who had been re-born had made the decision to exchange life for death. The community, in turning him over to Satan, is formally acknowledging a decision he has already made for himself, while proclaiming it a falsification of the identity God had given him (for the expectation is that he will be saved). Expulsion, however, means he is denied access to the Eucharist – the blood and body of Christ. This means that the blood no longer marks him. He no longer is blessed by the protection of participation in the blood of Christ that assures him of God’s protection from the destroyer. Like all others outside of the community of faith, he is to be counted as one of ‘those who are to be destroyed’ (1Cor 1:19).

The perpetrator is handed by the community over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. What does this mean? A review of the Pauline corpus makes it clear that Paul means this metaphorically and not literally. That is, ‘deliver to Satan’ describes the effect of the community’s expulsion on the man, and not the process. ‘Flesh’ is, for Paul, humankind’s rebellious nature that opposes God and rejects the identity given by God. Exposure to the world without the protection of Christ’s blood will subject the man to the destructive forces of the world and hopefully destroy his rebellion against God (1 Cor 3:3, Rom 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3-8; Gal 5:13, 19). For ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ (Gal 5:24).

Paul is emphatic throughout this first letter to Corinth that the purpose of expulsion of the notorious sinner from their midst is so that he might be saved (this theme permeates the letter; see 1Cor 1:18, 1:21, 3:15, 5:5, 7:16, 9:22, 10:33, and 15:2). The hope is for repentance. ‘The eschatological fate of this man, after undergoing discipline and repentance, will be salvation’ (Hays). Judgment is salvation. Judgment is part of our pilgrimage to maturity in Christ. Throughout the NT, discipline is followed by moral discernment, forgiveness, and, yes, reconciliation. The gospel of Paul is rendered incoherent when we speak of his call for discipline without emphasizing his teaching that reconciliation is discipline’s end. Dealing with what may be a different case, Paul connects community discipline with the expectation of reintegration into the community: ‘The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him’ (2Cor 2:6-8). In a manner consistent with my discussion of ‘the Law of Christ’ Matt 18:15-18 in ‘Models of Communion’, Paul calls the Corinthians to seek always the gospel in their discipline.

In 1Cor 5:9-13, Paul instructs the community to distinguish between those ‘in Christ’ and those in the world. He acknowledges that the world is filled with the immoral, the greedy, the swindler, and the idolater. He makes clear that the community is not to retreat from the world. But they are ‘not to mix indiscriminately with’ (‘associate’ is not a good translation; synanamignysthai is literally to ‘mix up together’) members of the community of faith (adelphos) who ‘persist in the very activities from which they have been freed through the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb’. Indeed, with such nominal Christians, they are ‘not to eat’ (5:11).

Here we reach the principle exegetical point on which Matt and I diverge. What does Paul mean in his instruction for the community ‘not to eat’ with those who persist in behaviors that deny their identity ‘in Christ?’

There is much debate about the meaning of Paul’s phrase, meœde synesthiein (‘not even to eat with them’). Does it mean not to share the Lord’s supper? Does it mean not to share in table fellowship in everyday social relationships? Scholars are uncertain about the use of ‘not even’ because in the Greek its meaning is ambiguous. Tony Thiselton concludes, ‘Paul’s [”not even“] seems to exclude withdrawal from the normal courtesies of life, but does indeed specify association, support, and compromise of community-identity (Thiselton, 414). Gordon Fee interprets the phrase even more liberally: ‘Paul’s concern throughout does not seem to be that the church as individual members disassociate from the incestuous man, but that he be excluded from the community as it gathers for worship and instruction. The point cannot be finally resolved, although the similar text about disassociation in 2 Thess 3:15 implies that private fellowship may not have been included in the ban (Fee, 226).

I suggest that the essentially Jewish nature of Paul’s gospel gives us strong evidence that the boundaries of Paul’s instruction are the communal life of the body of Christ. Paul makes clear references to ‘leaven’ and ‘paschal lamb’ to indicate that the community is to be set apart from the world by the blood of Christ. Membership in the community of the baptized means also participation in the blood – that is, participation in communal worship in which the bread and wine are shared (I presuppose here that some proto-Eucharistic practice was in place during Paul’s time). In addition, the liturgical nature of Paul’s instructions for how the expulsion of the offender is to be done in a gathering of the community of the baptized suggests that the content of discipline was the withdrawal of the right to participate in the ritual that forms that community – the sharing of the communal table. The discussion of Paul’s gospel from Galatians supports this by reminding us of Paul’s ‘binary view’ that humans are either ‘in Christ’ or ‘in Adam’. The persistent sinner, similarly to those who follow the Teachers and thereby reject their identity ‘in Christ’ and effectively return to their status ‘in Adam’, is publicly acknowledged as one whose choices place him outside the community demarcated by the blood of Christ. The instruction ‘not to mix indiscriminately or even eat’ with heinous sinners, I suggest, therefore, with Fee and Thiselton, is bounded in some way by participation in the communal life and identity of the baptized.

Notice that the community’s duties to one expelled are similar to its duties to any other non-believer. They must incarnate the Christ for that unbeliever in order to bring that lost person into the blessings God intends. So that the Church’s identity as a holy people is not diminished, they must do this without confusing the boundaries of the community demarcated by the sharing of bread and wine in the name of Christ. In the case of non-believers, this corresponds with my description of how this should work and does work in the encounter with Muslims under Archbishop Fearon in ‘Models of Mission’. Similarly, those who claim to be ‘in Christ’ but whose persistent behaviors suggest a denial of their Christian identity (a falsification of their baptism) are not expelled from the church, but rather experience the alienation from the community caused by their behaviors through the community’s formal withdrawal of fellowship within the communal life of worship and Eucharist. They remain inside the boundaries of the community, but until they repent, they are expelled from Eucharistic fellowship and worship and thus are not marked by the blood of Christ. This corresponds with my description of how Archbishop Fearon applies Matt 18:15-18 in the discipline of bigamists, and it is echoed in the Anglican disciplinary rubric on p. 409 of the BCP.

This conclusion about Paul’s meaning finds support in the early Church’s liturgical praxis. From the homilies of Cyril, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, we know that the ancient Church practiced a rigorous catechesis that typically lasted a minimum of three years before persons were accepted for baptism. Persons were first accepted and enrolled as catechumens or auditors. After extended indoctrination, catechumens could petition for baptism. If accepted, they were designated as ‘chosen’ (electi). The Mass was divided into two parts, the Mass of the Catechumens, and the Eucharist. Catechumens and chosen were not permitted to attend the Eucharist. After the Mass of the Catechumens, they processed out and the doors of the worship area were often locked. Thus, within the organization of the ancient Church, there were those baptized ‘in Christ’ and those still ‘in Adam’ who both were nurtured in the life of the community. The latter group was not allowed access to the blood of Christ. Before they were initiated into the fellowship of the baptized and granted their first communion, they were exorcised to be liberated from the evil spirits that pervade life ‘in Adam’. Then they were scrutinized, instructed, confessed, absolved, bathed, and anointed. In the baptismal rite (which began before dawn), the sponsor delivered them to the bishop, who instructed the candidate to face west (the source of darkness) to address Satan. The candidate then renounced Satan ‘to his face’, sometimes symbolically ‘blowing in Satan’s face’. They then turned to the east (the source of light) and, after professing their faith, were stripped naked and baptized. Thus, there is a clear sense in the early Church that the rite of initiation into the fellowship of the Eucharist marked delivery from Satan. To be expelled from that fellowship constituted being handed over to Satan.

Furthermore, as Rowan Williams notes in Resurrection (49), this is how the early Church actually practiced the discipline of excommunication. He notes that ‘excommunication (so far from excluding the sinner wholly from the Church) accorded the recognized status of a penitent within the Church. It was a recognition that the bonds of communal life…were ruptured by sin, and its orientation was toward reconciliation’. Early Church practice thus supports the exegetical conclusions I offer above. The discipline of excommunication was bounded by the sacramental life of the community.


From this exegetical account of 1 Cor 5, we encounter some important facets of Paul’s teaching on discipline. However, we find no biblical warrant for schism.

1. Discipline is a corporate and liturgical act of the entire community taken to protect the seed being formed in the community so that it can fulfill its mission. Paul does not have in view the action of individuals or a minority, but emphasizes that the discipline envisioned is the responsibility and action of the entire Church assembled in the name of Christ.

2. The discipline envisioned is prescribed for individuals only. 1 Cor 5 does not support in any sense the notion of a minority of persons declaring a community ‘no longer a church’ or ‘a heretic church’. Indeed, in spite of all of its faults, Paul does not condemn the church at Corinth, but rather calls the community to be at peace with one another.

3. The discipline envisioned is required as a result of heinous sin that denies the covenant with God for which the penalty, in Torah, was death. As such, the community’s corporate action in removing one of its members from the protection of Christ is the Church’s equivalent to the death penalty.

4. Paul’s instruction to withhold table fellowship from those notorious sinners who claim to be ‘in Christ’ seems to be technical language that was familiar to the church at Corinth, but is considered ambiguous today by Pauline scholars such as Gordon Fee and Tony Thiselton. However, given the Jewish and Pentecostal nature of Paul’s gospel, and the paschal meaning of the symbols Paul uses in his letter, the most likely interpretation is that the boundaries envisioned are the Eucharistic fellowship of the church. The later praxis of the early Church, both in its rites of initiation and its practice of excommunication, support this reading.

In Part IV, we will consider how the Church has historically interpreted Paul’s call for the discipline of notorious sinners, as well as heretics. We shall see that our received tradition follows closely my reading above. The most important finding will follow what we already see here: that rightful discipline in accordance with Scripture and tradition - must be an act of the community acting corporately if we are to make the claim that we ourselves are acting faithfully.

Given these conclusions, it seems quite odd that those who advocate a unilateral break with Canterbury and global schism would rely on 1Cor 5 for support. However, given their reliance on this passage, we do well to remember what, as we shall see in Part IV, our received tradition remembers well. It is a point that I highlighted at the beginning of this essay: the types of behavior in view in this passage were offensive enough to merit death. In light of this fact, if ‘we’, as the Church, are to take seriously the claim that 1Cor 5 provides some justification for schism, then surely we must keep in mind that this instruction is, for Paul, the Church’s equivalent of stoning. Such discipline can only be an action of the community acting in unity and in the Spirit. Faithful discipline can never be the unilateral action of an angry mob.

When we respond to the sound of the sirens summoning us to the ‘stoning’ of sinners, then certainly our first step should be to kneel - to seek God’s prudential guidance so that we are sure that those we ‘stone’ merit ‘stoning’. For if Paul teaches us anything, it is that when people start passing out rocks, we are to wonder at their zeal.

[click to read part i and part ii - part iv will be published later]

Craig Uffman is co-founder of Covenant and on the leadership team of Fulcrum

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