Robert Gagnon shares "a real-life story from the mid-first century A.D. about a shocking case of sexual immorality in a Christian community."
Paul, God’s chief Apostle to the Gentiles, warned the church at Corinth (Greece) about tolerating an actual case of incest between a self-professed believer and his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5). In that context he added:
Stop deceiving yourselves: Neither the sexually immoral [note: the incestuous man is called ‘a sexually immoral person’ in 5:11], nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor ‘soft men’ (malakoi; i.e. men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners), nor men who lie with a male (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor greedy defrauders [or: extortionists], not drunkards, not those who viciously slander others, not robbers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10; emphasis added; translations of NT texts throughout this article are my own from the Greek)
What did Paul mean by “Stop deceiving yourselves”? He meant: Thinking that self-professed believers in Christ could live unrepentant, egregiously immoral lives and get away with it. It is not surprising that Paul in this offender list puts first sexual offenses along with idolatry. The issue at hand is one of sexual immorality; moreover, idolatry and sexual immorality were always one-two (in either order) in Paul’s vice or offender lists. In a letter that nearly everywhere else was about unity and that was constantly addressing the Corinthians’ sins, only here in a case of gross sexual immorality did Paul go so far as to recommend removal from the life of the community as a temporary remedial measure to call the offender to his senses (1 Cor 5:2-13). Paul hoped that the offender’s spirit might yet “be saved on the Day of the Lord” when Christ came to judge the world (5:5).
Had Paul forgotten about his message of grace and love when he wrote the warning? No, the warning was part of that very message. Paul loved the incestuous man enough to send him a wake-up call before it was too late and the offender would lose everything. Paul knew that God’s grace existed not to promote immorality and other forms of unrighteous conduct. It existed, rather, to lift a people out of sin’s lordship by conforming them into the image of his Son through the power of Christ’s Spirit. Thus he could say about himself later in the same letter (incidentally, the place in 1 Corinthians with the greatest concentration of the Gk. word charis, grace):
I am the least of the apostles, I who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace that (was poured) into me did not become empty; but I worked hard, more abundantly than them all—not I but the grace of God with me. (1 Cor 15:9-10; emphasis added)
Paul knew that God’s grace poured into his heart was unmerited. He was unworthy, especially so because of his persecution of the church before becoming a believer. But Paul’s experience of that grace led him to “work hard,” harder than any of the other apostles. Hard work did not mean “works righteousness.” Paul knew that this hard work was energized by God’s gracious gift of the Spirit.
The problem with the incestuous man was that the grace of God, which not only brought forgiveness of sins but also empowered a transformed life, had become “empty” (Gk. kenē) in him: “in vain, ineffective, for nothing, wasted.” Why? His life was given over to an egregious form of sexual immorality: incest. This was all the evidence that Paul needed to deduce an absence of a sufficiently transformed life and a severely truncated (or possibly non-existent) faith. There was now a real danger that the grace poured into the incestuous man’s life was becoming “empty, for nothing, in vain.”
As with the analogy of a believer having sex with a prostitute, the incestuous man was doing something very sacrilegious, though he didn’t see it that way. Despite being joined to Christ and “one spirit” with him, he was now becoming “one body” with another, his stepmother, in an immoral sexual union (1 Cor 6:15-17). Some of the Corinthians may have believed that sexual behavior had no impact on their relationship with Christ. After all, they reasoned, we have already received the symbols and benefits of salvation (6:12; 10:1-5). Paul thought differently. He reminded them that sexual immorality was a particularly potent sin against the very body that served as a temple for Christ’s Spirit (6:18-19). Being a believer didn’t make the sexual immorality a lesser offense. It made it worse since in a perverse way it involved Jesus in the offense. It was tantamount to having immoral sexual intercourse on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. Believers who were “bought with a price,” the price of Christ’s amends-making death, belong to God for the purpose of “glorifying God in [their] body” (6:20), not engaging in sexual immorality. So they must “flee sexual immorality,” an injunction that not coincidentally parallels the later command, “flee idolatry” (10:14).
The warning and the remedial measure of church discipline had as their purpose reclaiming the immoral man for God’s kingdom. That is true grace and love. Love “does not rejoice in unrighteous conduct, it rejoices together with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). Paul didn’t have to write such strong words about the incestuous man and the sin of sexual immorality. He could have made life easier on himself and avoided any tension with the Corinthian house churches by writing to them something like the following: “I want to make known to you that, while God does not want this man to be having sex with his stepmother (much less mother), he can be assured that his relationship with Christ will not be interrupted by such behavior. He’ll come out of it if we focus on grace.” He didn’t write this because he knew that the man had already abused the concept of grace. Now the man’s very life was at stake, which he is why Paul could chastise the Corinthians for not “mourning” over the condition of the incestuous man (5:2; one mourns at a funeral).
Even for his own life Paul recognized the need for vigilance. Imagine that: Paul, the great apostle whose life appeared to be one unending experience of self-sacrifice, suffering, and deprivation in the cause of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 2:14-16; 6:4-10; 11:23-33; 12:7-10). If anyone should have been able to “rest on his laurels” and slack off, that person would be Paul. Yet Paul applied an athletic image to himself, one which the Corinthians would well understand since the Isthmian Games at Corinth were superseded in importance only by the Olympic Games in Athens:
Do you not know that those who are running in a stadium are all running but (only) one receives the prize? Be running like this in order that you may convincingly receive it. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in every way. So those people (do it) in order that they may receive a perishable wreath but we an imperishable one. Hence I am running like this: … I whip my body into shape and bring it into subjection (as though my slave), lest somehow, after proclaiming to others, I myself should come to be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27; emphasis added)
Here again Paul could have said something much different: “My brothers and sisters at Corinth, don’t put your focus on sin management. And certainly don’t think about being disqualified from receiving eternal life because eternal life is already guaranteed. Do what I do: Focus on the fact that your victory wreath of eternal life is already won, knowing that no bad behavior on your part can ever change that fact. Don’t get involved in a works-righteousness mode of thinking, as if you have anything to do with whipping your body into shape.” But Paul said something quite different. He communicated to them that the race wasn’t over and that even he, a hard-working apostle, couldn’t now slack off. He was still in rigorous training, like an Olympic (here Isthmian) athlete.
It wasn’t just for his own benefit that Paul made these remarks. Paul used this athletic metaphor as a lead-in for another warning to the Corinthian believers (10:1-13). Paul recounted to them the Old Testament story of the destruction of the wilderness generation as God’s judgment for their involvement in idolatry and sexual immorality. “These things,” Paul said, “were written for our admonition…. So let the one who thinks that he stands watch out lest he falls” (10:11-12). What is at stake for the Corinthian believers? Paul has already told them in 6:9-10: The sexually immoral and idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Similarly, in his next extant letter to the Corinthians, Paul expresses his fear that when he comes again he “may have to mourn over many who have continued in their former sinning and did not repent of the sexual impurity (akatharsia), sexual immorality (porneia), and sexual licentiousness (aselgeia) that they practiced” (12:21). Why mourn over those who do not repent of engaging in sexual immorality? Again, as with 1 Cor 5:2, one mourns at a funeral. The very lives and eternal destinies of the offenders are at stake.