Dealing with an Unrepentant Sinner

Purge the evil person among you. That statement seems harsh, doesn’t it? Those words go against the inclusive culture our world is desperately trying to establish. Purge the evil person among you. Who said that? Those words came from the hand of the Apostle Paul. Yeah, the Christian. Can you believe that? A Christian said to purge (to exclude or drive away) the evil person. Wait a minute. I thought Christians were to love one another. Right? Why would Paul write these words? 

Paul says, “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 (1 Cor. 5:11).” Whoa. You might be tempted to read this and think to yourself, “Man, I need to refrain from hanging out with a lot of people. I should probably go hide in a cave somewhere!” If that’s your initial thought, you missed what Paul said, and you make his previous point in verse 10. Paul is precise in verse 11. It’s not that Christians disassociate themselves from all sexually immoral, idolaters, swindlers, etc. No, they are to disassociate with those who “bear the name brother.”

Paul is essentially saying, “Hey, watch out for those people that claim to be Christians but aren’t living like it. Watch out for those professing to be Christians but who live in open, unrepentant sin. Not only should you watch out for them, but don’t even associate with those people.” Paul isn’t speaking of non-Christians, but those who profess to be Christians. If Paul were speaking of non-Christians, he says, “you would need to go out of the world (v.10).” But again, why does Paul write these words? Paul is passionate about the separation from unrepentant sinners because he is passionate about the glory of God.

Before we answer the “why,” we need to answer the “what” question. What does it mean to disassociate? Does Paul mean that one should never look upon, be around, or talk with those who live hypocritically? I don’t believe so. I don’t think Paul is saying that you should never be around them because, in his letter to the Thessalonians, he says, “do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15). To warn, you would need to be around the person. In the book of James, we see people bringing back those who are wandering (James 5:19-20). Again, this implies some sort of association. So, I don’t believe that Paul is saying there should be absolutely no interaction with an unrepentant, hypocritical “Christian.” 

However, Paul is calling for some sort of disassociation. In context, Paul is speaking of church discipline. In 1 Cor. 5, the apostle calls for the church to remove a person who refuses to heed godly instruction & correction and continues in unrepentant, unconfessed sin. Well, what does Paul mean when he says to not associate with someone like this? He answers in v.11. He says, “not even to eat with such a one (v.11).” Many commentators believe that Paul is speaking strictly of the Lord’s Supper in this verse; that the person excommunicated from fellowship is to be restricted (unless restored) from partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and that’s undoubtedly true. But perhaps Paul had more in mind. Maybe he had in mind any social settings with a shared meal. 

According to Tom Schreiner, at this time in history, “sharing a meal with someone signaled fellowship and acceptance, which is evident from Peter’s eating with Gentile Christians in Antioch and then withdrawing out of fear when the people came from James (Gal. 2:11-14).” 

Before we go any further, we need to clarify that we’re not removing ourselves from the association of any sinner. If so, we’d need to remove ourselves from the world. Undoubtedly, Paul calls for the person to be removed and disassociated from after the church has attempted to bring the wandering person back. When that person refuses to acknowledge their sin and repent of it, Paul says to remove them and disassociate from them. For example, if we observe someone in a significant sin, we’re not to immediately bring them before the church body and demand ex-communication. No, we lovingly confront them, call them to repentance, and if they do, all is well. However, if they refuse to acknowledge their sin and repent of it, we bring another, and if the person refuses to listen to the two, it is brought before the church body (see Matthew 18). But what we have in 1 Corinthians 5 is the person being removed after the first two steps have been conducted. This person is unrepentant. They refuse to acknowledge their sin. They need to be removed, and the Christians are to refrain from associating with them. 

Why? That’s the next question, right? Why would Christians abstain from association with believers sinning unrepentantly? Why would they remove these individuals who refuse to repent?

First, we do so out of love. I know that may seem contradictory, but it’s true. Church discipline has surely been abused. However, discipline and disassociation should primarily be conducted out of love for the individual. Paul says, “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 Cor. 5:5).” This “handing over to Satan” means to remove from the church body. Why? So that his spirit may be saved. The purpose of discipline/disassociation is redemptive. We hope that the individual will come to understand the seriousness of their lifestyle through the disassociation from the body of Christ.

Second, we practice this for the sake of the body. We desire to maintain the purity of the body of Christ. Paul says, “do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump (v.6)?” Essentially, Paul is saying, “people may be easily led astray through your failure to discipline these individuals. Weaker brothers/sisters may notice their sin and think it’s okay because the church body isn’t doing anything or because others are happily fellowshipping with unrepentant sinners. When we lovingly discipline and disassociate from unrepentant sinners, we are seeking to protect the body of Christ. As Jonathan Leeman said, “just as cancer spreads from one cell to another, so sin quickly spreads from one person to another.” 

Third, our failure to handle these matters biblically hinders our witness. A failure to keep one another accountable harms the witness of the church. Imagine going to someone out on the street and speaking with them about Jesus Christ. Imagine you were to call them to repent and believe. Imagine that you were telling them that God desires to make them new. Imagine telling them all this only to hear them respond, “why are you talking to me about all of this when you have people in your congregation right now living like me? Why are you calling me to repent and change, but they’re allowed to do what they’re doing?” You see, a failure to hold one another accountable hurts our witness. This behavior, this failure, shows the world (whether we intend it or not) that we don’t believe what we say we believe. Paul began 1 Corinthians 5 by saying, “It is reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans (v.1).” Even the pagan culture thinks something is “off” within that congregation. 

Imagine a parent who allowed their child to run into oncoming traffic without a word of warning, rebuke, or attempt to bring them back. You would likely consider that parent unloving. In the same way, how can we who believe what we claim to believe about the holiness of God, the authority of His word, heaven, hell, and salvation sit idly by and watch those who claim to be Christians live in complete contradiction to His Word? May our hearts be gripped by the holiness of God, the greatness of His salvation, and the reality of hell that we can’t help but graciously and lovingly call our “brothers and sisters” to repent. 

Soli Deo Gloria,

Josh Chambers

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