What would you do if, as a Christian, you knew for certain that a brother or sister in the faith was doing something clearly illegal or immoral? Would you pretend not to notice? Would you say something?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul spends nearly four chapters dealing with the problem of divisiveness, and the spiritual arrogance that lay beneath it. Some members of the congregation, unimpressed with Paul, had been undermining him in his absence, forcing him to confront their cockeyed pride and remind them of his apostolic authority as their spiritual father through the gospel.
In chapter 5, then, Paul asserts that authority as he begins to tackle the really difficult stuff:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? (1 Cor 5:1-2, NRSV)
“It is actually reported”–the news has reached Paul, and he can’t believe his ears. One of the believers in Corinth is, shall we say, shacking up with his stepmother. Not only is this forbidden by Old Testament law (Lev 18:7-8), even unbelievers in the surrounding community would have found the behavior detestable. “And you are arrogant!” Paul exclaims: the word, again, means “puffed up” with pride.
Excuse me? They’re proud? It’s possible that Paul means that in their arrogance, they’re simply turning a blind eye to the behavior. But given what he writes elsewhere in his letter, it seems likely that the incestuous situation was actually twisted into a reason for boasting.
We’ve already seen how the Corinthians’ fondness for sophists (think “public intellectuals”) was a cultural value they brought with them into the life of the church, to the detriment of the fellowship. Similarly, the culturally accepted standard of male sexual behavior encouraged men to think of prostitutes as legitimate outlets for their urges, with wives being the ones to produce heirs. Paul’s letters, taken together, suggest that a culture of sexual laxity was creating problems for a spreading Gentile church movement that was still in its infancy.
But then again, as Paul has said, not even the unbelieving public would have accepted this kind of incestuous relationship. How could they be proud?
Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter (e.g., chap 10), we can infer that the Corinthians had developed such a radical view of grace and Christian freedom that it no longer mattered how they behaved. “In Christ, I can do anything I want” seems to have become something of a slogan; a man who actually lived it out in an openly incestuous relationship might have been considered to be a spiritually liberated hero.
In all likelihood, the fact that Paul doesn’t even bother to explain why the behavior is a problem suggests that not everyone in the congregation thought it was acceptable. But imagine the effect on the fellowship if even a small and vocal minority did.
Horrified and incredulous, Paul asks, “Instead of boasting about this, shouldn’t you be mourning this sacrilege and kicking the guy out?” In using the language of mourning, Paul echoes the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4, NRSV).
What is mourning, and how does it apply to us? That will be the subject of the next post.