The Integrity of the Local Church

The Integrity of the Local Church

The following is a portion of a conference message presented to the Midwest Southern Baptist Founders Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, March 14, 2001.

I have chosen chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians to help us consider the integrity of the New Testament Church. This is a short chapter with only 13 verses out of which I wish to uncover five observations.

Before I read this passage let me tell you a story that took place in 1837. A protracted meeting was held in Eatonton, Georgia. A number of people had been converted, and one day they were all gathering by the river for a baptism. One of the persons being baptized was a teenage girl. Her name was Caroline, or shortened, Carrie. Carrie had come to Christ with a great deal of conviction. She said in her own testimony, “I desire to be even more devoted to my Savior than I have ever been to the world.” This, as we will see, was her intense desire. There at the riverside was one of her friends who was yet unconverted whose name was Julia. Julia, in fact, had been very close to Caroline or Carrie in all kinds of worldly exploits. So this unsaved girl was now watching the baptism of her closest friend. Somebody recorded the event in what I think is rather eloquent terminology, and I want to read it for you:

Of course everybody was there. The banks of that little stream were lined with crowds of interested spectators…Julia, of Monticello, her bosom friend and companion in her worldly course, seemed loathe to leave her even for a moment and clung to her till she reached the water’s edge. A hymn was sung and [minister C. D.] Mallory made a few remarks and offered prayer, when [minister John] Dawson took Caroline by the hand and led her down the shelving bank into the limpid stream. They had attained about half the desired depth, when she requested him to stop a moment, and, turning to those on the bank, waving her hand, she said, “Farewell, young friends! Farewell, Julia!” The effect was electrical. The whole audience convulsed, and tears rained down from eyes unused to weeping….Upon coming up out of the water, Julia rushed forward to meet her friend, embracing her, and crying out in agonizing tones, “Oh, Carrie! You must not leave me! Mr. Dawson, pray for me. Mr. Mallory, pray for me?” (Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion, New York: Oxford, 1997, p. 16)

I was moved the first time I read that account, and I continue to be moved because it properly illustrates to us that great division between the world and the church. Here a young girl saw herself as leaving the companions of the world for the companionship and the fellowship of the local church. She would now have a new set of friends. She would find her great joys among that new set of friends. More than likely, she would spend her life among them in this very community. As a believer she was now choosing to live entirely differently than she had before, God giving her the grace to do that. That’s the proper picture, and that’s what baptism helps us to see—that is, it is a visible way of seeing that tremendous difference, that great line between the world and the church. In our day, on the main, we take this coming into the church in a much lighter vein. We don’t see it so deeply and meaningfully as Caroline saw it when she was baptized so many years ago.

The Corinthian Church, about which we’re going to read, was a church that had begun to blur the distinction between the world and the church. Paul, of course, is addressing several problems that the Corinthian Church had. They were a problem-filled fellowship, not unlike some of the churches we have represented here. One of their problems had to do with this blending of the world and the church by their attitude concerning an evil person among them.

I want to read the whole of the text, 1 Corinthians 5, and as I read this text, I want you to listen carefully for the sin the church was committing and how they were violating the agreement that was between them. Then I also want you to listen to the forceful way the Apostle Paul tells the church to act in relationship to this individual who has sinned. You are going to find five or six very strong phrases such as “take them away” or “put them away” or “do not associate with them,” etc. I want you to look for those as we read through this text, and I think you’ll feel the impact of this passage a bit more.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner¾not even to eat with such a person.

For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (NKJV)

You can sense the Apostle’s intense desire to keep the community pure. Now let’s talk about five observations coming out of this text of Scripture that will help us to uncover the meaning—some of the import—of our relationship with each other in the membership of a local church.

The Church is a Society with Rules

The first observation is found in verses 1 and 2. Let me read that over again. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.” The observation that I wish for us to see from these first two verses is very simply this: When you enter into the church of the living God, you are joining a society with rules.

Obviously the rule that is glaring at us right here is the command: there will be no sexual immorality in the church. That is not the only rule, however. If you go on down in the text, you find that Paul says in verse 11: “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, [one form of which has already been mentioned] or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.”

There will be no extortion; there will be no idolatry; there will be no greed; there will be no drunkenness; there will be no reviling. There will be no deacon who reviles. There will be no Sunday school teacher who is covetous. There will be no member who is a drunkard on the sly. There are rules in the church.

Now the Apostle Paul is actually shocked at what these people are doing. He’s sort of gasping here as he hears this report and says what he says with his mouth agape. He’s trying to display to them that this is a very foolish and difficult place in which they find themselves in that they have actually condoned sexual immorality and even beyond that, a sexual immorality that is of a sort that the Gentiles even condemn. In other words, even among the world, which is what the word “Gentiles” really conveys, there is a measure of decorum and some conviction that this is wrong. Even in our day of an elasticized conscience most of society, even the unbelieving society, would say that it is wrong for a man to have his father’s wife in a sexual relationship. So, he is absolutely shocked. But the church on the other side, rather than being shocked and having a kinship with the apostle in his amazement, is tolerating it beautifully.

Paul considers their failure to be shocked as arrogance. He says they are puffed up instead of mourning, indicating that they are proud of their tolerance. We think in our day that such toleration is high in the hierarchy of virtues, and therefore a person surely is not Christian unless he or she is tolerating every kind of indiscretion. Some of us speak as if this was a new thought pattern, but it’s an old Corinthian problem.

It is also somewhat difficult for churches to realize that we have rules and we must abide by them because somehow some of us think that such strictness mitigates against a good and correct concept of grace. In other words, here is a person who has come along having lived a sexually immoral life, let’s say, or having lived in the world and done many awful things, but he comes to Jesus Christ, and the Lord does not take his former life into account—He erases everything that has happened before—and He receives him by grace on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done.

So we say, the church must not have any rules because if we come to Christ by grace, and are fully accepted by grace, we must be accepted graciously by the church regardless of what we are doing. But that’s not what this text teaches us. This text teaches us that when we come into the church, we come into a society with rules.

I don’t believe you’re strict enough in your churches. Let me read something for you. Here is one congregation’s rules about membership. I won’t tell you the name of this congregation at first, and I’m not saying I espouse what they are doing, or how they are saying it. But, I want to show you one congregation that at least has some strictness about what it means to be a member. They say this in their by-laws:

Any member who does not have a registered attendance, identified financial support, definite service contribution, and/or expressed interest in loyalty within a six month’s period, shall be notified by the Board of Directors in writing within 30 days prior to any congregational meeting that he or she has been placed on an inactive member list and is not eligible to vote at any meeting of the church.

Again, I’m not saying this group has discovered the best way to deal with membership, the right way or the wrong way. I’m just saying, here’s a group that has some strictness about what it means to be a member.

Would you like to know who these people are? This by-law comes from the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles, the famous gay, lesbian, transvestite and bisexual organization. Now what I’m telling you is this: they are stricter than you are. Chances are very good that if you had a homosexual or bisexual person in your congregation, your church would be puffed up and would tolerate what they find, or, at a minimum, your church would not know what to do, nor would it have the will to do it. On top of that, most churches have no enforceable rules about membership. Which group then is the strictest? But this text teaches us that the local church is to have rules, and we must abide by them.

The Church is a Society that is to Judge Its Members

The second observation is verses 3-5. I want you to read it with me. “For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has done this deed.” By the way, he does not mention a continued action here but a single completed action, (i.e. “this deed”), and he mentions that twice. He continues: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

The second observation is this: The church is a society that judges its members. In fact that the very word judge is used here in the passage ought to forever dispel the concept that Christians never judge. Christians do judge. It’s true that Jesus said, “Judge not lest you be judged,” but what He meant, of course, is that we are not to have that kind of critical judgment which puts down another in order to elevate ourselves. But to judge the members of a covenant community is absolutely necessary for the church to do. In fact, if we had the time, we would go on and read chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians where we find a full explanation about how courts ought to be set up within the church to judge between brothers. There are a number of passages that speak to the judgment that is made by believers. Every church discipline situation is a judgment situation. The church is clearly a society that judges its members.

Now the Apostle Paul is very exercised here. The commentator Hendrickson said that he takes the gavel in his hand, so to speak, and chairs the meeting of the local church even though he is absent. He says, “even though I’m not with you as though I were present with you, my spirit being present with you.” He’s so adamant about what he believes and so sure that this man ought to be judged that he says, “Just think of me as being there, and I’ll tell you ahead of time what my decision is. This man is to be expelled.” Then he adds to that, “not only as if I were there with my apostolic authority, but with the name or the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ as well!” In other words, he is absolutely sure where Jesus stands on this issue also.

“Deliver the man to Satan.” Now the delivering to Satan is simply another way of saying that they were to excommunicate the man from the church. Simply put, here is a man professing to be a Christian and claiming to be under the headship of Christ by his membership in the local church, but in fact he is acting as a non-Christian. He is to be put away from you and put out into the world where Satan is the authority. Satan, being a cruel taskmaster, will make it hard on his body, and hopefully he will be converted before the Day of the Lord. As he remembers what the church was like, what he has heard from the church, and all those who loved him, perhaps he will yet be truly converted. I think that is the essence of what is being said. The second observation, again, is this: The church is a society that judges its members.

The Church Has Good Reason to Expect Its Members to Conform to the Rules

I will give you the third observation before I read: The church not only has rules and must judge its members, but the church has good reason to expect members to conform to the rules. Let me read that for you in verses 6 through 8. 

Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore, purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The good reason is, of course, that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. He is saying to these people, “You are the unleavened of God.” In the Old Testament picture in the Passover, the Jews would take a period of days to clean up every speck of leaven from their house before Passover. Leaven represented evil, and all of the leaven, therefore, was to be removed. Then they were able to sacrifice the Passover Lamb. He says, in paraphrase, “Christ has been sacrificed, and you are therefore the unleavened as the church of God. That’s who you are, but somehow you have added to yourselves this man who has done this evil, and it has caused some leaven or evil to enter into the fellowship. You had better be careful to remove it. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. Purge this leaven out from you.”

Now, to those of you who cook, what would it be like if you left that chicken you were planning to cook on the counter for about two weeks before using it? I don’t know where maggots come from, but I am sure that they would show up in that chicken. They would be there crawling in and out of the carcass right on your counter. The place would stink, and you would know you have a contaminated piece of meat. Now what if you took that contaminated piece of meat and you put it in a container with a fresh chicken? What would happen? Well, obviously, the fresh chicken would overwhelm the contamination of the rotten chicken, correct? No, it doesn’t ever work that way, does it? Rather, the rotten chicken would actually contaminate the fresh chicken, and it will ruin it.

You see, somehow we’ve gotten the idea that we should tolerate sin in our churches and be so magnanimous that any kind of person may be allowed among our church people. We think, somehow, we’ll surely improve them. But the opposite is actually happening. I choose to believe that what the Apostle Paul said here is true. Do you believe it? It is true that there are people who struggle with sin and want desperately to rid themselves of it. We should be glad to have people who are weak, yet seeking help. But this is another case.

We cannot just say it is true that evil people contaminate the rest, however, without corresponding action. If these evil persons among you are not lovingly disciplined, your supposed gracious spirit will be the ruin of some. A little leaven does leaven the whole lump of dough. So if you’ve got that Sunday school teacher who is getting drunk in private or that greedy businessman who steals from his employer, or that person who is slandering others, you are arrogant to permit this to continue. Haggai 2:10-14 and Hebrews 12: 14-16 tells us that very clearly, but I will leave that for you to read. Even if no other Scripture mentioned it, this passage would be enough. In fact, common sense itself ought to tell us that there is good reason to judge those who are consistently disobedient among us.

When a Church Judges Its Members,
It Removes Its Most Precious Gift—Fellowship

The fourth observation is found in verses 9-11. 

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother [a so-called brother], who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.

The fourth observation is this: Ultimately, when a church judges its members, it withdraws its most precious gift— its fellowship. But, because our churches are so worldly and mixed, we haven’t really known the joys and the beauty of a spiritual community as it’s supposed to be. We therefore think it has very little potency to actually remove somebody from the church. But if you’ve ever known the beauty of relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ and have tasted the sweetness of that kind of relationship, it would almost destroy you to think of being removed from it.

When I think of my own propensity to sin and the foolish things that I could do, and then think that I could stupidly go into some kind of gross sin, and lose fellowship with the people that I love the most in all of this world, it’s just too much for me. Such a thought stops me in my tracks, and it makes me say I don’t want to be that kind of man. I want to be careful about the way that I live.

He declares that the church is not even to eat with such a one. In fact several very strong statements are made, aren’t they? Look at verse 2. “That he might be taken away from among you.” And he says in verse 5: “Deliver such a one to Satan.” Next he urges in verse 7: “Purge out the old leaven.” Then he reminds them in verse 11: “I have written to you not to keep company with anyone . . . .” And the end of verse 11 says: “Not even to eat with such a one.” Then finally when we get to the end of the chapter, verse 13, he charges: “Put away (or expel) from yourselves the evil person.”

When you discipline a person who is not repenting, you will come to that extreme place where the person is to be put way from you. What do those words mean? Do they mean that the person should not be permitted to the Lord’s Table? Yes, he is, at least, affirming that. The Lord’s Supper is the greatest expression of our union with Christ and with each other. In fact, it’s probably what is meant by the metaphor he uses in verse 8: “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven.” He is saying, do not let us come to the table of the Lord with the old leaven or the leaven of evil, maliciousness, etc. Yes, it means that certainly.

It also means that we put him out from the membership of the church by taking him off the rolls so that he does not contribute to the decision-making of the church or have the privilege of representing the church. It also means that he would not be given the appellation, “Christian,” or “brother.” (see Mt. 15:18-20) Could it possibly mean as well that the person is not even allowed to sit with you in the meeting for worship? I believe so. He may be allowed to attend some evangelistic meeting, where the gospel is being explained, but not in the worship of the church. You see, the early church of Corinth and other early churches, it appears, took communion every Lord’s Day. There would be communion and very often a meal together. We find this in chapter eleven. So this restriction of being removed from communion would certainly be applicable to their regular gathering.

What is the most common occasion for that fellowship if it’s not our gathering together under the preaching of the Word and prayer together, the sharing the “one anothers” and communion on the Lord’s day—what is fellowship if it is not at least that? When you are meeting for the express purpose of worshipping God and having fellowship with believers, you must not allow the man under discipline to enjoy that privilege. I know that the Bible in chapter fourteen speaks of a nonbeliever wandering in to the church and being convicted by the preached word. But this is not the man who is expressly being forbidden this privilege. This language is awfully strong where it says, “taken away from among you” or “expel” or “put away from yourselves the evil person.” “Do not even associate with them.” “Do not even eat with them.”

We have a meal in our church every Sunday when we gather together, but we’re not even to eat with that person. Our fellowship is the most precious gift we have to give our professing brothers and sisters, but God says ultimately we must withdraw that to keep the church pure and to do the best for the sinning person. You see, church discipline is not just for the individual. It hopes that the person under the cruel mastery of the devil might come to his senses and be saved for the day of the Lord. But, I believe it is mainly for the purity of the church. God intends for His church to be pure.

Failure to Purge Out Those Who are Wicked
Among You is Flagrant Disobedience

Here is my final observation, from verses 12 and 13. First hear the passage: “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore put away from yourselves the evil person.” The observation is simply this: Failure of the church to purge wicked people from among its membership is flagrant disobedience on the church’s part.

You see, to fail in this is a double disobedience and a double shame. On the one hand, it is the hosting of evil in your midst, which is wrong and dangerous. But the other shame is this: that the church is not obeying the clear command of God. And that is the emphasis in this text. When he says, “Expel from yourselves that evil person,” he quotes Old Testament passages from the book of Deuteronomy. The phrase shows up a number of times in the book of Deuteronomy. There it is mentioned in the singular. The subject “you,” the implied “you” of the imperative, (you put away, you expel) is in the singular in Deuteronomy. But the Apostle Paul changes that to the plural, and speaks to the whole church. He says “you together” purge away or expel this person from your midst. It is an obvious and plain command from the Lord Himself. We cannot deny that God has commanded this, and failure on the part of the church to do this is clearly sin on the church’s part.

Our forebears disciplined a sizeable number of people. This was true in most denominations. In the earliest days of the Baptist work in America to the 1800’s there was a considerable amount of discipline. Wills states that in Georgia 3-4% of the Baptist people were brought to a church trial, and 1-2% actually had to be excommunicated on a yearly basis. These statistics we take to be somewhat representative of other parts of the country. They included discipline for non-attenders.

Churches who come to their senses about their failure to be a church and to protect the preciousness of the relationship that they have together, who are therefore casually and even arrogantly tolerating sin, should be on their faces in repentance when they see what God requires. The people should say, “Oh God, we as a church have disobeyed You. We have taken lightly Your command to protect the fellowship of the church. This is sin and dangerous neglect on our part.” This is something for the church to repent of, and there is a lot of historical data about churches as a whole repenting of sin in the Scriptures.

You who are leaders have been entrusted with a body of professing saints. You are not permitted to gather them and then fail to watch over them. You have a command from God to maintain the soundness of the church’s spiritual union. What will you do with that? We cannot blame others who have presented us with the problems for that which we are also passing on to the next generation. If we are to have a more biblical church, we must restore accountability. We are not just “living with each other” in the local body of Christ. No, we are “married to each other” in a spiritual familial union. And in this sacred union on a high and spiritual level, we will experience our greatest joys—if that union remains pure. We have neglected our responsibilities for a long time in this arena, but our backlog of undone work is no excuse for delay.

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Our website, www.CCWtoday.org, includes an article entitled Accessing New Members into the Local Church, under the Ministry Tools section. This is an important compliment to the above exposition and was originally given with it. In this article, an example of a church covenant and a discipline statement are provided. We strongly encourage you to read this article.