Well, this may admittedly be a random passage to write a devotional about, but I was recently reading a very poorly written article critiquing biblical interpretation using this passage as an example. Of course, the premise was that the Bible is archaic and useless in modern society. Not only did the author, in his interpretation of this passage, leave out any kind of context for what Paul was saying, but he also interpreted this passage to be the church making some type of offering to the Devil in some ceremonial way. Now it is true, that when any passage mentions the Devil, people go crazy about it. I think this is often because people don’t believe that he should have place in any serious conversation save some vague illusions. Maybe it’s the pastoral sense in me, but my response was immediately to explain what is going on in this passage and what it means to the church today. By the way, spoiler alert, it’s absolutely relevant for today.
The background of the text is that Paul writes to the church in Corinth having heard report of their goings on from a secondary source. In this report, Paul is informed of sexual sin which is, not surprisingly, taken very seriously by Paul. In fact, Paul says that he doesn’t even need to be there to judge whether this person was in the right or not and his judgment is given in verse 4-5…
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. - 1 Corinthians 5:4–5
The questions that come up reading this passage are serious ones. What does it mean to deliver someone to the devil? Is it as bad as it sounds? What does the destruction of the flesh mean? How does this relate to the church today? These questions are important and deserve answers.
The first thing that we must understand is that the New Testament takes sexual sin very seriously. They don’t take it to be an unforgivable sin, this is important to understand also, but it is something serious to the point that it is often singled out and categorically condemned in the church where there should not even be a “hint” of it in the church (Eph 5:3). The fact that this should not be present in the church to any extent brings us to a difficult impasse. There must be a point when, confronted with their sin, a person in the church and also in sexual immorality must make a choice. They must choose to give up their sexual sin, or, as Jesus himself says of Christian discipline in Matthew 18:17-19;
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
In other words, when confronted with sexual sin, there is a choice between giving up sin and remaining in the church or holding on to sin and being treated as an unbeliever. This is the same thing that Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians. In all of Paul’s writing, the world is separated into two categories. There is the category of the realm of Christ (the church), and the realm of Satan (the world). There is no middle ground or limbo. If you are not under the authority of Christ, you are living under the Devil’s kingdom as the “god of this world” as Paul later writes (2 Cor 4:4). To give someone over to the Devil in that way is simply to confirm the decision that they have already made. In other words, let them go out from the church. To lose fellowship with the community of Christ is to be in the realm of the world. The consequences may be severe for a person’s body as Paul writes in the next chapter (6:18), but the greater consequence is to be cast out of the body of Christ.
Despite this difficult task in maintaining the moral standard of the church, these situations are not hopeless. Paul himself affirms in writing these things that… “…his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Even as destructive as sexual sin can be, none of these things disqualifies our relationship with God. In other words, even someone who has gone as far as to have gone through this process of discipline and has decided they love their sin more than they love the fellowship of the church; this does not negate their salvation. For this we have eternal assurance. For this we have the work of Christ as our intercessor to thank.
This dealing with sexual sin does not change with the cultures increasing apathy and sexual promiscuity. The church is still called to live without a hint of sexual immorality. According to God’s word, the sanctity of the church does not go out of style. This could be contrasted with Satan’s world, in which sexual promiscuity is the new, or maybe same old, normal. If there is a situation requiring this decision to be made, it is not to be made lightly or carelessly, but with faithfulness to God’s word and deep reverence. We must take sexuality serious in the church today no less than the early church did. As someone who has experienced the pain that this discipline can cause in the church first hand, I can tell you that it is difficult, however, as difficult as it may be it is worth it every time because it means that the church has been faithful to carry out the word of God as it waits for the return of the Lord.