To the devil with him!

That’s a slightly more polite version of venting frustration by cursing someone with…ummm…an uncomfortably warm eternal destination.  We know it’s not something that a Christian who understands the grace and mercy of God should wish on anyone, not even in a pique of anger.

But wait: doesn’t Paul say something like that to the Corinthians?  Having criticized their misperception and mishandling of a flagrant case of incest in the church, Paul tells them what they must do:

When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.  (1 Cor 5:4b-5, NRSV)

Hand the culprit over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh?  Yikes.  What could he possibly mean by that?  Small wonder that scholars disagree as to how to interpret Paul’s meaning.

We can start with this: surely Paul is saying something more than just, “Throw the bum out.”  True, Paul’s concern is for the holiness of the church, but it’s also for the redemption of the individual.  Whatever he means by handing the guilty party over to Satan, the long-term goal is that “his spirit may be saved.”

But what about the “destruction” of his “flesh”?  Is Paul hoping the man will actually die?  I like Gordon Fee’s commentary on the matter.  Among other reasons to believe that this was not Paul’s intent, Fee wryly observes that Paul would hardly need to advise them to stay away from sexually immoral believers (5:9-11) if the man were actually dead!

It’s worth noting that the Common English Bible translates this as “destroy his human weakness,” picking up on the fact that Paul often uses the word “flesh” to refer not to our physicality but to a life that is pointed away from God.  The man’s behavior, whatever he or others might think, is rebellion.  The hope is that proper discipline will turn him around.

But what is that discipline?  In context, Paul seems to mean to kick him out of the fellowship, at least for a time.  He uses the image of handing believers over to Satan elsewhere (1 Tim 1:20); given his belief that Christians struggle against devilish forces (e.g., Eph 6:11-12), the image may have become his shorthand way of referring to excommunication and its spiritual consequences.  Indeed, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase eliminates the reference to Satan entirely:

Hold this man’s conduct up to public scrutiny.  Let him defend it if he can!  But if he can’t, then out with him!  It will be totally devastating to him, of course, and embarrassing to you.  But better devastation and embarrassment than damnation.  You want him on his feet and forgiven before the Master on the Day of Judgment.  (1 Cor 5:4b-5, The Message)

How does all this apply to us?  There’s one hugely important difference between then and now.  A Corinthian Christian, booted from the congregation, would have had nowhere else to go for Christian fellowship.  But today, people who flee embarrassment in one church may resurface in a congregation down the street, their secret intact.

That fact alone makes it hard to imagine the perspective that being excluded from the fellowship means spiritually bereft.  But perhaps the point is this: policies and procedures for church discipline, as necessary as they may sometimes be, do not in themselves a community make.  The fellowship needs to continually cultivate a shared hunger for holiness and humble accountability.

Only then will we have the proper concern for the one being disciplined.  And only then might an errant brother or sister grieve properly over what they’ve lost.