Race and The Integrity of the Christian Church

In the ancient Christian church located in the ancient city of Corinth, a moral scandal erupted that required the immediate attention of the founder of that church, the apostle Paul. The purpose of this post is to focus on just one of those problems and then to relate that problem to some of the behaviors we see in modern evangelicalism. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. The passive ἀκούεται signals the continuation of the oral report brought by Chloe’s people (1:11, ἐδηλώθη), and underlines that the Corinthians did not even inquire about this problem.[1] A report has been brought back to Paul from Chloe’s people concerning the sexual misconduct of a couple in Corinth that was entirely unconscionable. And what was just as scandalous about this conduct is that the church was not the slightest bit concerned about it.

Paul says to them, And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. So, we have a man who is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his step-mother and the Corinthian Church has done nothing to address it. They should have done something. Paul calls their attitude regarding this situation arrogant. Paul has already used this word back in 4:6 when he cautioned the Corinthians not to go beyond what was written which is also a reflection of an arrogant mindset. Arrogance is a problem in Corinth. Not only is this church not doing what ought to be done, they are going beyond Scripture and engaging in behaviors they ought not to engage in. Rather than taking such an indifferent attitude toward the incestuous man, the church should be mourning over his conduct. This man’s conduct should grieve the hearts of the Corinthians. But because of their arrogance, it does not. Not only should they be grieved, they should be taking action. What sort of action should they take? The man should be removed from among them. He has no place in the body due to his sexual immorality.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Paul compares the immoral conduct of this professing brother with leaven. It is like cancer. Once in the body, the body is now contaminated. There is no such thing as a partially non-leaven or leavened piece of dough. If there is leaven in the dough, the whole lump of dough is leavened. As a holy community, the Corinthians were being told that this man has no place in the body. He is leaven that must immediately be purged. Our celebration of the feast must not be done in a state of impurity. Depravity, vice, and things like sexual immorality must be removed from the celebration. The situation is so serious that Paul has decided to turn the offender over to the destruction of the flesh in the hope that he might find repentance in the end. Thiselton writes,

Perhaps the community’s “pride” was nourished by the patronage of one of distinguished status (the offender) whose wealth may even have been enhanced by the illicit marriage. If consigning to Satan means excluding him from the community, this spells the end of self-congratulation about their association with such a distinguished patron; while for the offender himself sudden removal from a platform of adulation to total isolation from the community would have a sobering if not devastating effect.[2]

Paul had previously written to the Corinthians about associating with immoral people. What Paul meant was that it is entirely inconsistent, and in fact, contradictory to the Christian ethic, to tolerate the existence and presence of immoral people within the Christian community. Paul says, 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 (v 11). John put it this way, By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother (1 John 3:10). It seems that when many evangelicals tossed out the old fundamentalist errors, they tossed out holiness with them. The Corinthian church has clearly gone too far. They have exceeded their authority and displayed an attitude of extreme arrogance. When they should have been grieved, mourning, and metaphorically in sackcloth and ashes, they were celebrating the Lord’s table week in and week out without a care or concern about this leaven in their midst. Their behavior was unthinkable, and it earned a sharp and strong rebuke from the apostle.

Paul quotes a mandate given in several locations in Deuteronomy, beginning at 13:5, ordering the Corinthians to “Remove the wicked man from among them.” This requires a love for the body and a willingness to critically examine the life of those who claim to be part of the sacred community. As has already been pointed out, it is extremely arrogant to adopt the opposite mindset. The man must go. The integrity of the church, and hence, the integrity of the gospel is at stake. Jesus himself has already said to his disciples that they are the light of the world, a city that is set on a hill shining into a world that exists in the darkness of sin. The world should see the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. This difference is light and darkness. Contrary to modern social gospel adherents, the salt and light Jesus talked about is not social causes. It has nothing to do with changing political structures. We know this because Jesus was the light of the world when he was in the world and he never attempted to change the socio-political structures in his own culture. And as his torch is handed to the holy apostles to carry on his work and message, they never attempt to change those structures. As the apostles pen the New Testament, they never order any of the local churches or pastors to whom those letters are addressed, to work toward changing social structures. No, the light and the salt have to do with our conduct as a holy community now, marked by the fruit of the Spirit and a lifestyle lacking in the works of the flesh. The love of neighbor is one that takes place on a more intimate level. In our respective community, where our light should be shining brightly, we care for one another, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. We treat one another justly. We extend help where there is a need.

Recently, a group of men gathered in Memphis, TN for the sole purpose of celebrating the legacy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One would fully expect the world to celebrate the legacy of a man who accomplished so much and who had such lasting influence as Dr. King did. But the question here is, should the church celebrate such a man? What has Dr. King accomplished where the kingdom of God is concerned? More important than that, does Dr. King’s life merit a celebration in the sacred community that is the Christian church?

It has been documented that Dr. King was dishonest on his dissertation. Additionally, he denied the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. Nowhere in his life is there any real evidence to suggest that he actually repented of these views. Moreover, Dr. King lived a life of sexual debauchery. He was an unrepentance adulterer, and a drunk according to the reports. It is even reported that he fathered a child outside of his marriage. Yet, for some reason, men like Russell Moore, H.B. Charles, and Matt Chandler thought it proper and right for the Christian community to come together in celebration of Dr. King’s legacy, not from a secular standpoint, but from a sacred one. Perhaps now would be a good time for you to pause, open your Bible to 1 Corinthians 5 and read that chapter again, ever so slowly.

It seems to me that the ERLC and the Gospel Coalition are engaging in the exact same behavior that the ancient church at Corinth engaged it. Not only that, there are myriad black pastors and black Christian leaders who place Martin Luther King Jr. on the “untouchable” list. No doubt this is because of his civil rights work. Paul called this very behavior, this very mindset, this very attitude, arrogant. He sharply rebuked the church at Corinth and ordered them to cease and desist from this sort of behavior. That is the message I want someone with courage, someone who has their attention, to say to Russ Moore, to Matt Chandler, to H.B. Charles. You cannot elevate Martin Luther King Jr. without, at the same time, belittling sin and emptying the gospel of its meaning and value. When you elevate King, you say, the resurrection wasn’t that important, adulterous relationships are not that big of a deal, orgies are just imperfections, small missteps, the deity of Christ is not an essential of Christian faith. Essentially, the elevation of King is the unavoidable reduction of the gospel.

I leave you with the words of the apostle Paul to his young protégé, Timothy: Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.

 

 

[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 385.

[2] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 396.

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