Tuesday Re-mix -
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife… So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:1, 4-5
Triage: the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors merriam-webster
“Triage” is the term for having to make quick, hard decisions (usually medical) about which wound or patient to treat first in order to do the most good. In the spiritual warfare we call “church”, there are casualties…and none more so than when blatant and public immorality are at issue. That is what Paul confronted in the Corinthian church, and his counsel is both passionate and harsh. It is about spiritual triage.
If you are being honest, you will admit that you do not like this instruction from Paul one bit. Furthermore, if you are like me, you have twisted and contorted and struggled to find some way of interpreting and teaching this passage that somehow takes the “harsh dogma” out of it and makes it more understandable…more palatable to the mainstream Christian…more “in line” with our notions of grace and mercy. We do this in light of Jesus’ treatment of church discipline in Matthew 18 (“treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”…remember how Jesus treated the tax collectors?) and in light of Jesus’ treatment of the adulterous woman (“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared… “Go now and leave your life of sin…” John 8:11). We want to reconcile the mercy and grace of Christ with the harshness and dogma of Paul, and we struggle…to say the least.
But the reason we struggle so much is that we use our own church culture as the backdrop for our interpretation. We do this even though, in most of our cases, our own church culture knows very little of the kind of intimacy and interdependence of Christian brothers and sisters in the New Testament church. We do not live in such loving community with one another that immorality on one part has immediate spiritual ramifications throughout. In the church today, we usually are much more a social club than a family. In that context, trying to understand matters of church discipline is a bit like your elementary school student trying to understand falling in love…there simply is very little cultural experience through which to relate. In our relatively disconnected, privacy-oriented church culture, the spiritual cancer caused by blatant immorality does not spread nearly as quickly and efficiently…so the spiritual damage to the body does not become our primary concern. Because in our culture, frankly, we just do not care all that much for one another. Rather, we tend to focus first and foremost on the physical consequences of the immoral act, or perhaps on the emotional damage. The spiritual ramifications (for both the sinner and the larger body of believers) are a more distant concern for us.
But that is not God’s perspective. Scripture makes it clear that, in God’s eyes, the spiritual ramifications are the first and foremost concern. The physical consequences, and even the emotional consequences, play a backseat to the spiritual concerns. In God’s “triage”, the spiritual brokenness is a much higher priority than any other brokenness at issue. Therefore, the spiritual protection of both the church and the sinner are the highest priorities. Once we accept that, it is not difficult to reconcile Jesus’ counsel with Paul’s counsel at all…in fact, they are both addressing the exact same priority: the spiritual well-being of all the players involved.
In our “social club” culture for church, it will always be difficult for us to understand God’s spiritual triage. After all, our highest values usually have more to do with the preservation of the institution (our club) than with the well-being of a spiritual family. So, until we start getting Christian community right, we will just have to trust God’s Word to help us with these decisions…even when it makes no sense to us. We will just have to trust Him when He says to make the spiritual brokenness the priority. And by the way, when can we start getting Christian community right? Another post…another day…