To associate, or not to associate: that is the question
a sermon preached by Denis Haack at Trinity Presbyterian Church (Rochester, MN) on the 24th of June, in the year of our Lord, 2012
My text today is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. It is a short paragraph from a letter that St Paul wrote to the Christians who were living in the city of Corinth. Corinth is a very ancient city in Greece, and there is evidence of human habitation on the site dating back to well before the time of Abraham. The city had been destroyed by the Roman army in 146 BC, and then reestablished by Julius Caesar a century later (44 BC) just prior to his assassination. By Paul’s time, a century later still, Corinth was an active and busy urban center, a hub of trade and cultural life.
1 Corinthians 5:9-13—Please listen with care, for this is the word of God:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
This is not, as Scriptures go, very difficult to understand. It can be, however, for many of us very difficult to obey. The Christians in Corinth have misunderstood something Paul wrote in an earlier letter, and so the apostle clarifies what he meant so they understand him correctly. At stake is a vital and essential principle, namely, that the people of God are called to follow Christ in showing grace in our relationships with people.
Let’s look at each point in turn: The misunderstanding, the clarification, and what it looks like to show grace in relationships.
First, the misunderstanding
The subject they misunderstood is a perennial issue, as relevant today as it was in the 1st century when Paul wrote his letter: with whom should we associate and befriend? This is one the central themes, for example, in the movie, The Hunger Games (2012). In the story, friendships are shown to be a matter of life and death, yet each individual is motivated by a corrupt society into portraying themselves in deceptive ways in order to get ahead and win. As we watch the plot unfold, we are drawn into the question of whom Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, should befriend and whom she should avoid.
The misunderstanding between Paul and the Corinthians involves the same question. The apostle notes he wrote about avoiding some people in an earlier letter but that the Corinthians had misunderstood whom he had meant.
We have no idea what previous letter Paul is referring to. What he wrote could have been something like what he says in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. “…you may be sure of this,” he writes in Ephesians 5:5, 7, “that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God… Therefore do not associate with them.” It could have been like that, but this couldn’t be what the Corinthian Christians misunderstood because from details included in each letter we know first Corinthians was most likely written by Paul a full decade before he wrote his letter to the Ephesians. Like all good teachers, we can assume that if Paul said or wrote something once he probably repeated it in different contexts. What we do know is that the Christians in Corinth had understood Paul to say they should stay apart from immoral people so they withdrew from non-Christians who had that reputation.
At this point in the history of the church—around 53-55 AD, or about 20 years after Christ’s resurrection and ascension—the Scriptures the Christians used was the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament. What we know of as the New Testament was being written in this period, and manuscripts of the various books and letters were slowly circulating around the Roman Empire from church to church. For example, some of the oldest copies of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians do not mention Ephesus in his greeting in the opening to the letter. Instead of saying, as our Bibles do, “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1), these manuscripts say, “To the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus.” Some scholars have suggested that some of these copies were ones that were specially produced for circulation, and so the copyist omitted mention of Ephesus. It’s something we can’t know for certain.
As the letters and manuscripts that make up our New Testament were written and began to circulate, they were recognized as Scripture by the church. St Peter, for example, identifies Paul’s letters as Scripture in his own epistle. By the way, Peter also mentions that, “there are some things in them”—that is, in Paul’s letters—“that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16) and that some people have twisted what Paul meant.
In any case, Paul says the Christians in Corinth have misunderstood what he meant. He had written that they shouldn’t associate with people who are living sexually immoral lives, and so they had withdrawn from non-Christians who lived immorally. No, Paul said. That’s not what he meant, and he goes on to write…
It’s not immoral non-Christians he was telling them to avoid, he says, but immoral Christians. Now, Paul is not telling them, and us, that each of us is to look around at our fellow Christians and determine whom we’re going to associate with and whom we’ll withdraw from because they are characterized by these sins. You own a boat, I don’t even want one, people are starving in Africa, so you must be greedy, I won’t eat with you. That’s not what he means. The Bible is clear this judgment is part of the office and duty exclusively of the elders of the church. And being an elder myself, I assure you it is a solemn and fearsome duty.
Part of the reason we know Paul is referring to discipline by the elders of the church is that he quotes from the Scriptures. Purge the evil person from among you, he says, quoting from a statement made several times in the Old Testament by Moses (Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7). This was not a task assigned to each Israelite, but to the nation’s leadership, just as this is not a task assigned to each Christian but to the officers of the church. Jesus himself spoke of church discipline in Matthew 18, a process that builds upon the Old Testament model.
People can be uncomfortable with the idea of church discipline, and we should be. It is meant to be restorative and to show the watching world that we take virtue and right living seriously. That is an interesting aspect to our text, because Paul points out in verse 1 of this chapter that the sin in the Corinthian church needing discipline is one that the pagans in Corinth found reprehensible, and Corinth was well known as a society with relatively lax sexual mores.
The Christians in Corinth, misunderstanding Paul’s instruction to not associate with sexually immoral people had withdrawn from immoral non-Christians while a member of the church had taken his stepmother as mistress.
This was someone who needed to be put out by the elders, and with whom they were not to associate, not even to share a meal. In the Old Testament, a person determined to be living in unrepentant immorality was to be expelled from the community of God’s people. A central symbol of that community was the communal meals that the people shared in celebration of their covenant bond together. The person who disqualified himself from remaining in the covenant community would no longer be allowed a place at the table. In the church our covenant meal is the Eucharist, and the man in Corinth, who had proven himself to be unwilling to repent and change, was to be no longer welcome at communion. As the people of God, the church is to display a lifestyle of winsome righteousness that is a living, vital expression of the gospel. And that means that some behaviors and lifestyles must be refused.
We live in a tolerant age, when tolerance is sometimes viewed as the only possible virtue. Yet, no community or institution can continue to exist without borders. Most of you here this morning probably know Mark Nyman. We don’t have assigned pews in this congregation, but the Nyman family usually sits together in the third row. Both Mark and I are elders in this church, we are parents and husbands, we are citizens of America and residents of Rochester, we both take our turn leading the congregational prayer, and sometimes we both wear black. Still, Mark is part of the Mayo Clinic in a way that I am not, and it is a distinction that matters. If you see us walk into the main Clinic building some morning and then eight hours later you see us walk out both holding a piece of paper, the difference is profound. Mark as a physician will be holding a paycheck and I as a patient will be holding a bill.
So, in essence Paul insists the Corinthians didn’t just misunderstand what he had written previously—they had gotten it exactly backwards. When he wrote that they should not associate with immoral people, he did not mean sexually immoral non-Christians. If that were the case, he says, they’d have to leave the world. We are meant to associate not only with sexually immoral non-Christians, he insists, but also ones who are greedy, or who are always finding ways to swindle people, or who worshipping false gods, or constantly bad-mouthing others, or those who are always drinking too much. It is Christians, not non-Christians—who are to be judged. The church does not expect perfection, but we are called to live a life of repentance and growth, demonstrating an eagerness to be more like Jesus as time goes by. And when there is someone who smashes that covenant, brings dishonor on the name of Christ, and refuses to listen to the admonition of God’s word, the church must, with sorrow and solemnity, purge them from the fellowship.
And in both situations, the Bible insists, we are called to…
Show grace in relationships
Paul doesn’t go into it here, but church discipline is designed to bring the offender back into fellowship. It is meant, at every step to be restorative and healing, where the elders bear the grace of God and offer it freely. The lifestyles that Paul lists here—sexual immorality and greed, idolatry, being a reviler, a drunkard, or a swindler—these are sins that distort one’s soul and shrivel our personhood. They may be admired in certain circles, they may be legal, and they get one ahead in a competitive society, but the cost is enormous. For the elders to fulfill their duty with humility and tenderness is an exercise in grace. The purpose is not seen in the purging, but in the welcoming back.
So, that is the misunderstanding and Paul’s clarification. And now let me mention four practical and simply things that describe what it looks like to show grace in relationships.
1. Pray for our leaders.
Being an elder in the church is not like volunteering to lead a scout troop, or like being a manager in a company, or like being elected to some office in government. It’s true that all those positions share something in common in being in a position of leadership, but there is a deeper reality of which we should be aware. Only in the church do the keys to God’s kingdom exist, and only in the church do actions on earth cause heaven to move in special ways.
Church rituals based on ancient texts can seem obscure, antiquated, and unsophisticated, but I ask you this: What if it is all really true? What if there are powers here that reach deep off into eternity and deep down into souls, to set consequences in motion that are not only beyond the reach of the most sensitive scientific inquiry but are beyond the wondering of our wildest imagination? What if in the resurrection of Christ we have been ushered into a community whose life and experience actually extends past the reaches of time and space into mysteries that can be known but can not be fully comprehended? I ask again, what if it is all really true?
That is the claim, you know—that it is really true.
I mentioned before that being an elder is a solemn and fearsome duty. That is actually an understatement. To those of you here this morning who are my fellow elders, may I say that if I have made you a bit nervous about your office, then you have heard me correctly. And to all of us, I say, we need to pray for our leaders.
2. Do not judge non-Christians
In many ways this may be the most radical part of what St Paul teaches in this text. We are to have nothing to do with judging those outside the church. What have I to do with judging outsiders? Paul says, and then adds a phrase that should bring us up short. God judges those outside, he says. When fallen human beings try to take God’s place there is a name for this act of rebellion. It is called blasphemy.
One of the clearest aspects of this text is that we are not to judge non-Christians for their lifestyle, their breaking of God’s law concerning sexual morality, or any number of other things that even in our postmodern world are considered either wrong or at least socially inconsiderate or unkind. Paul’s list is rather impressive: we are to associate without judging, for the sake of following Christ into the world: the sexually promiscuous or immoral, those who steal, worship idols or give their lives in service to false gods or ideals, people with addictions, those who make fun of and tear down other people, those who are never content with what they have but always want more for themselves, and even those who find ways to gain at other people’s expense. This is showing grace in relationships.
We are not to judge non-Christians. It is forbidden.
3. Being discerning, not judgmental
Paul is not asking us to be naive—after all, he assumes we recognize the values and beliefs he mentions in the lifestyles and choices of our non-Christian friends. In other words he is telling us to be discerning not judgmental.
Being judgmental is knowing what they are like and withdrawing; being discerning is knowing what we are like and befriending them. Being judgmental is telling people they are wrong; being discerning is winsomely exploring ideas and values in light of reality. Being judgmental shows us being right; being discerning is openness to being shown where we fail, being willing to learn, and to admit to what we don’t know or can’t defend. Being judgmental involves proclamation, where we solve their problems; being discerning is asking probing, honest questions in an open-hearted conversation between friends that cause us both to reflect on our spiritual pilgrimage, convictions, and values. Being judgmental is a relationship in which the law is always hovering in the background; being discerning is authentic friendship grounded in grace.
In the end, showing grace in relationships means…
4. Following Christ into the world.
In a brief video made under the auspices of Covenant Seminary, Jerram Barrs was asked to reflect on what animates his life and teaching.
In a brief video made under the auspices of Covenant Seminary, Jerram Barrs was asked to reflect on what animates his life and teaching.
My passion is to teach our students and people in our churches to be in the world as Jesus was in the world, because that is what Jesus prayed on the night before he died. That we would be sent into the world as he was and what that means for us is that he calls us to give ourselves to be friends to the people around us, unbelievers no matter what they believe, no matter what they worship, and no matter what they do or how disobedient they are to God’s commandments. Jesus sets us a wonderful example by going to the home of a man like Zacchaeus who was corrupt and greedy, scandalizing his contemporaries when he did so. But that is exactly what Jesus calls us to do, to give ourselves to the same type of close personal relationships with people no matter what they think, no matter what they believe, no matter how they live—to treat them with the same wonderful dignity and respect that the Lord treats us and to love them not simply despite their sin, but because they are sinners, and in great need of the Lord’s mercy. So that’s my passion: that we be in the world as Jesus was.
I will conclude with a story. One time a Pharisee invited Jesus to a meal at his home. It was considered honorable to invite a rabbi or teacher to a banquet, especially one that was from out of town or had taught in the synagogue recently. The banquet was a place where ideas could be discussed, and the Scriptures and the law could be explored. The Pharisees were a religious group in Israel that believed that the Old Testament Scriptures were God’s inspired word, and that Israel was God’s covenant people. They studied the Scriptures regularly, memorized huge portions, set aside considerable time to pray, and sought to obey God’s law even in little things. Like all Israelites, the Pharisees hated Roman rule. Unlike the Sadducees who believed that compromise with Rome was the best way forward, the Pharisees were convinced that if Israel turned to God in faith and repentance, God would restore the freedom of his covenant people. In any case, one of the Pharisees, a man named Simon, had invited Jesus to a banquet at his house. Jesus accepted the invitation, and at the appointed time took his place on one of the couches at Simon’s table.
If the owner of the home were wealthy enough, a servant would check people at the door and allow in only those who had been invited by the master of the house. On the other hand, in many cases the door was left open to the street because it was considered admirable to allow the poor or the unconnected access to the conversation. The guests would recline on couches arrayed around a central table. Uninvited people who slipped in were expected to remain quiet and unobtrusive, well back from couches where they could hear the discussion but not intrude.
In this case, apparently Simon left his door open to the street, and one of the people who slipped in was a woman who was apparently a prostitute. Simon and his guests recognized her, knowing her to be a “sinner,” the Scriptures record, and her uncovered hair signaled to everyone in that society that she did not care that she was seen as unacceptable in respectable company. Though perfume was commonly used in Jesus day, an alabaster container of perfume in the hands of a loose woman was understood to be one of the tools of her trade.
This woman, unnamed in the text, came right up the couches where the guests were reclining, took her place behind Jesus, and began to cry. She must have stood there weeping for a while because the Scriptures record her tears wet his feet. She loosened her hair—something respectable women would never do in public—and used it to wipe his feet dry. She then kissed Jesus’ feet, opened the alabaster flask and poured perfume over them. The odor would have filled the room.
No one said anything, and we have to assume the conversation had simply continued while all this was taking place. But Simon noticed, and thought to himself that if Jesus was truly a prophet he would have known the sort of woman she was and would not have allowed her to touch him like this in public.
Jesus told Simon he had something to tell him, and Simon said, “Say it, Teacher.” Jesus told a story, about two men who were in debt. One owed 500 denarii, the equivalent of around almost two years wages in that day, while the other owed 50, about two months’ wages. Both debts were forgiven. “Now which of them,” Jesus asked Simon, will love the moneylender more? “The one, I suppose,” Simon responded, “for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” Jesus told him he was correct.
“Then turning toward the woman,” Luke records, Jesus “ said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” (Luke 7:44-50)
Jesus not only befriended the woman, he treated her with dignity and respect, extending grace to her in a society where those who most treasured the Scriptures would have nothing to do with her. Jesus criticizes them, not her.
This is the one whom we are called to follow into the world. And this, I would argue, is what it looks like to show grace in relationships. May it be true of us.
Photos: ruins of the Temple of Apollo, Corinth, Greece; the author and professor Jerram Barrs at the graduation ceremony of Covenant Theological Seminary, 2010.