9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
- I Corinthians 5:9-11
One of the greatest dilemmas faced by every Christian and one that probably causes the most stress in a Christian's life is the problem of living a holy and a pure life in a world that is unholy and impure. The problem, as Dave Knutson, a Bible professor at Great Lakes Bible College says, is the following:
Surrounded by the world, living in the world and participating fully in the human experience, how can we avoid becoming worldly?
The answer to this problem is provided by Paul the Apostle in his epistle to the Corinthians (5:9-13).
Confrontation of Wickedness
Paul was writing to a church located in a very immoral and worldly city. The city of Corinth, located in Greece, was filled with idolatry and sexual immorality. For example, to 'Corinthianize' something meant to pollute it or to debase it. So Paul deals with the very real problem of Christians trying to live holy lives surrounded by an unholy and wicked environment. His answer to this dilemma is that those who desire to live a holy life have to actually confront the wickedness and the worldliness around them. In other words, Paul would be saying in today's jargon, the best defense is offense.
In biblical terms there are three ways to confront and thus separate ourselves from the world and its immorality and evil, its disbelief and wickedness, or whatever you want to call it.
1. Confront the World in Judgment
12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13a But those who are outside, God judges.
- I Corinthians 512-13a
We sometimes think that this is some kind of passive stance that Paul is proposing here. We think that he is advocating that we should ignore the world's evil and injustice and create some kind of "Fortress Church of Christ." We think that the world can do what it does and so long as we're safely locked into our comfortable religious routines, we're safe or we've done all we need to do. After all, we're not of the world, God will judge them later - all we need to do is carry on with our brotherhood concerns and God will work it out in the end.
This kind of attitude is why we have so little impact on the world at large; this is why we (in the Churches of Christ) have not produced a single voice since Alexander Campbell, who has had credibility on a national stage (let alone a world stage) of opinion. This is why every other religious group around us continues to expand and grow, while we dwindle, because we do not recognize the fact that part of not being of the world includes a denunciation of that world in no uncertain terms.
When Paul says, "God will judge" or "what do I have to do with judging outsiders." He's not abandoning his duty to call on men to receive Christ or be lost. He's not forsaking his call to preach against the "rulers and the powers and the world forces of this darkness" which have their root in the spiritual realm, but they're very concrete expression in the physical world. He's not backing away from calling on kings to repent and pagans to abandon their idols.
He's acknowledging the fact that his task is not to judge the world, his task is to warn the world that it will be judged by God. In the last 50 years or so we've retreated so far into ourselves for fear of offending or seeming intolerant or judgmental, that we've tolerated just about anything without comment or complaint.
In Canada and the United States it's easy to avoid exposing the injustice and the immorality and the ungodliness of the world, because we ourselves as Christians are rich. Great wealth seduces the church into ignoring the corruption around it because we secretly crave our place at the table.
The danger is that if we don't speak up to reveal the judgment of God when this is an unpopular message during a time of prosperity, we will have no credibility to preach the same message at another time, when because of national calamity and trouble, people will be more disposed to hearing it.
The first step in not being of the world that we live in, is to act as its conscience. Just as our conscience is in our bodies, but not of our bodies at times. As Paul says in Romans 2:15, "the conscience bearing witness accusing or defending." Bearing witness to the world that God will judge it through Christ is the act that continually separates us from the world, while we live in the world.
Confronting the world by exposing it's sure judgment:
- Through our public preaching and teaching
- Through our holy conduct
- Through our faithful service
- Through our loving attitude
- Through our warning of the consequences of sin and disbelief
This will not only identify who we are in the world, it will also inoculate us against the world.
A second way to confront the world is to confront the world.
2. Confront the World in the Church
Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
- I Corinthians 5:13b
We talk a lot about sin in the world, but not about sin in the church and we do even less about it. Note that in this passage Paul was clearly encouraging these brethren in Corinth to take action against worldliness inside the church. There are many such admonitions in the New Testament. For example,
- Matthew 18:15-ff is the most familiar one in dealing with a one on one issue of sinfulness and personal offenses.
- In Romans 16:17 Paul instructs the church to expose and turn away from those who cause division and roadblocks to faith.
- I Corinthians 5:1-8 are Paul's instructions on dealing with sexually immoral conduct in the church at Corinth.
- Galatians 6:1 provides instructions on the process of restoring a fallen brother to spiritual health and well being.
- II Thessalonians 3:6 there is the command to withdraw from those who are disobedient to the teachings of Christ and to admonish such people.
- I Timothy 5:1-20 provides Timothy with instructions on how to deal with unruly members of all ages, including elders.
- In Titus 3:10, Paul advises Titus to deal sharply with false teachers.
- Even the Apostle John provides a warning to members of the church in protecting themselves and their households from heretics in II John 10.
Why have I gone to the trouble to make reference to all of these scriptures? In order to drive home two important points:
A. The New Testament recognizes that there are all kinds of situations that require discipline in the church. This includes personal conflicts, immoral behavior, false teaching, divisiveness, personal faithlessness, and the list goes on and on. Not every solution and every response is the same. For example, the way to deal with a false teacher is different than the way to deal with a brother who has personally offended you. But there are times when discipline is needed and the Bible provides instruction for each different situations. The key is to identify the true and correct problem and use the proper New Testament teaching to apply discipline.
B. Once you've identified the need for discipline, you must do it! A child will be spoiled without proper discipline and so will a church. As a parent, a large portion of my parenting duty involved the meeting out of discipline that was fair and loving. It gets tiring at times. You wish they would just grow up. You might be tempted to slack off on the youngest child, but good parents are active in discipline, because they love their children, all of them. Why hasn't this concept been transferred over into the church?
The responsibility for this lack of discipline may lie with two groups in the church at large. The preachers who may fail to preach and carefully teach on this subject; and the other times it may be elders, who are afraid of disturbing the status quo in the local congregation.
If we cannot define our "other-worldliness" by our conduct in the church, what witness do we have for those who are in the darkness without Christ? If we cannot even denounce and correct those who have confessed Jesus, but they live outside of Christ, what possible use are we to God in announcing His judgement about the world? Our only defense against the world gaining a foothold within the church is to vigorously confront it at every turn. It's a painful and difficult process, but it is also the manner in which the spirit continually purifies the bride of Christ.
And then a final way to confront the world...
3. Confront it in Yourself
Paul does not talk about this in this particular passage, but the idea runs throughout the book. The title for this lesson is quite in line with the true experience of each Christian. Yes, we live in this world and we have to deal with all of the issues of normal living that others face, others without Christ. We have to earn a living, we have babies, we amass goods, we enjoy pleasure, we also feel the pain of burying our loved ones. These things are the substance of our outer experience in this world, but the experience of our "inner man," this is very different, very much not of the world.
Paul talks about this unique Christian experience, which is not of this world, in Romans 7, where he actually explains what he only alludes to in I Corinthians. In Romans 7, Paul gives us a glimpse into the daily battle that rages within himself, as he pursues the perfection of Christ while still trapped in the imperfect body of his flesh. He gives us a kind of microcosmic view of the constant struggle to maintain the spiritual, while still firmly held in the material world.
Some have entitled chapter seven of Romans, "Saved Yet Struggling." Yes, we are saved. Yes, we are no longer judged by the system of law, but we are still subject to the effects of the sin that lingers in our flesh. Yes, Christ is Lord. And yes, the Holy Spirit leads us in our walk, but the problem is that this regenerated spirit still lives within a sinful nature. Sin no longer dominates, but it continually challenges the supremacy of the Spirit of Christ within us. Yes, we are not of the world, but the world still affects us, because we are in it still for a time.
The answer to this dilemma is threefold.
A. Recognize that the struggle is normal and ongoing for every Christian. Do not be discouraged that there is sin around you and at times it affects you and it tempts you. Satan's most useful weapon is discouragement and seeing the enormity of the world and the smallness of our personal strength can lead some people to be discouraged and to quit.
B. Confront personal sin without hesitation. Paul says that it is a struggle because there's an effort involved. The constant challenge of Satan to dominate and to overwhelm us must be met with the equally constant faith and reliance on Jesus Christ who saves us every single day, while we struggle in this world. Salvation was paid for long ago on the cross of Calvary, but it is renewed every single day through our constant faith in Jesus Christ.
C. Accept the fact that we really are in this world. The struggle to confront the world in ourselves is sometimes painful, but it's easier to deal with once we understand and accept it for what it really is. The place for personal and community sinlessness is heaven, but we're not there yet, we are still in this world and this is not always easy for a spiritual person to deal with.
There's a saying that goes something like this: "when you have found your place in the world, it may simply mean that the world has found its place in you." Confronting the world in judgment, confronting it when it crops up in the church, confronting it when it aspires to dominate your spirit personally, this is the aggressive posture needed to remain separate from the world while we live and breathe in it.
So as I close I want to remind us as we struggle with this duality of experience, this in the world, not of the world challenge, that we're not only talking about, but we actually live out each day. Some practical things that may help.
1. Remember that this is every Christian's struggle.
Don't think Paul was unique when he cried out, "Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death," in Romans 7:14. What he describes and agonizes over is the struggle of every Christian as we strive to serve Christ in the midst of a sinful world and with the burden of a weakened flesh. This is not an excuse for lukewarmness, but it does help us to understand why even knowing and wanting to do our very best for Christ does not always guarantee the results that we desire.
2. Remember that the struggle is really a sign of spiritual life.
Don't be discouraged if what you see in Christ is not always what you accomplish in the world. The fact that you see that there is a difference, that you desire to be separate from the world, the fact that for you there is a tension between the two, this is proof that Christ is in you and leads you and not the world. The unregenerate person, whether he is an unbeliever or he claims some affiliation with Christ, the unregenerate person is always easy to spot because he has no struggle, he has found a way to be comfortable in this world.
3. Always remember that God will provide.
Paul knew that God did and would provide for his daily struggle through Jesus Christ. He says so in Romans 7:25 when he answers his own question about who will save him from his dilemma. And what does he say? "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Paul had hope because through Christ he had help and encouragement to deal with the struggle in his life, so he could aspire to the next life. Jesus Christ judges the world, purifies the church and guarantees that one day our struggle will be over.
So be happy therefore brethren, rejoice in the constant battle against the world, because it is your witness to this world and to the world to come that you do belong to Christ, you do belong to His kingdom forever more, amen.