Lorna, a podcast listener from the UK, writes in to ask, “Pastor John, what should I do about the verses in the Bible that say you should have nothing to do with those who call themselves Christians but are sexually immoral — 1 Corinthians 5:11? My dad has recently and still is committing adultery against my mother and still claims to be a Christian. Does this give me the opportunity to not talk to him?”
Oh my, this is not a new issue for me. One of the pastoral issues over the last thirty years, of the entanglement of church discipline with family relations, is incredibly difficult.
Let me make sure people know the verse she is talking about. First Corinthians 5:11 says, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name 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.” The point Paul is making is, “I am not telling you to stop eating with unbelievers who act this way — I am telling you to stop eating with believers who act this way.” In other words, a kind of holy ostracism.
“If a person lives in unrepentant sin, but still claims to be a Christian, the Church should stand away from them.”
Lorna is right to see a problem here and she is not alone. One of the most vexing pastoral problems arises in the church when we try to take the Bible seriously in regard to church discipline, because there are almost always close family members involved with the person being disciplined — like daughters, or wives, or husbands, or brothers, or sisters.
So Paul says, if a person is living in open, unrepentant sin, but still claiming to be a Christian, the church should stand away from that person, lest the world get the false message this kind of life is okay — as if Christians approve of this, it is no big deal, and life goes on as usual. And the hope, of course, is that the person will be convicted by this kind of standing away and return to the faith. And I have a story that I may tell in just a minute.
So far so good. Churches should take those steps. But what if the Christian man living in sin has a Christian wife and children? Let’s say they are thirteen years old, or fifteen years old. And what if he has a brother he goes bowling with every Saturday night and a sister who comes over for Thanksgiving and other holiday meals? My own sense is that when Paul gave the instruction “not to associate with . . . not even to eat with such a one,” he did not have in mind close family members that are bound to this man on the basis of other relationships (rather than being a Christian) — relationships like marriage and parenting.
“Let the biblical instructions about family faithfulness take precedence over church discipline.”
So my counsel has been, let the biblical instructions about family faithfulness take precedence over church discipline, since it is not likely that Paul meant to contradict those instructions for children to obey their parents and wives to be faithful to their husbands — even unbelieving ones.
But then I would say that children who have an established household of their own outside the home — or they have set up an independent life for themselves, and they are moving on in their careers, and brothers and sisters similarly outside the home — they might well join in the discipline of ostracism in a holy and humble and loving way in the hopes of redemption.
Love’s Cold Shoulder
And I will give this illustration that I referred to earlier. A couple came to me a few years ago concerned about the wife’s sister who was living with a guy — not married — and still going to church. What should they do? And I took them to this text in 1 Corinthians 5:11, and I said, “It seems to me that humbly and firmly you should tell them that you think their behavior is a dishonor to Christ and destructive to themselves and their relationship. And that for love’s sake they would not be hanging out with them like they used to anymore, even though they would love to. They are not going to contribute to this problem, but they can’t go on as usual and treat them as if nothing was drastically wrong.”
They told me later that they did that. They told me later this sister was, at first, very offended and angry, but soon woke up to the seriousness of what she was doing in living with this guy. And she moved out and she told them later that their loving ostracism woke her up.
So, there are some really tough and ambiguous situations. And I would say to Lorna that if she is on her own outside the house — I don’t know how old she is, she could be fifteen for all I know, or she could be thirty-five — she should say to her dad that she can’t carry on with life as usual with him while he is sinning sexually like this. But if she is still living under his roof — if she is thirteen years old or fifteen years old and still under the authority of her father — then she goes on praying for him and obeying him, but never approving of his sin or sharing in it in any way.