Handed over to Satan

By Fredric A. Carlson

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 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 5:1-5

"Hand him over to Satan" is one of the more startling statements in the New Testament. To understand it, we must include the rest of what Paul said about the sad situation that stimulated it. A member of the church at Corinth, apparently a professing believer (1 Corinthians 5:11), not only had been living in an openly incestual relationship with his father's wife, but the church had given its tacit approval to this scandalous behavior by not making any effort to bring him to his senses. Instead, they expressed pride in their acceptance of him!

Perhaps they made the excuse that they were loving him "unconditionally." Neither the man nor the church could have misunderstood the criminal vileness of the conduct, for not even the pagans of that notoriously corrupt city stooped so low. This behavior made the church the laughingstock of the wicked city. Paul faulted both the incestuous adulterer and his church. What had the church done wrong? It had failed its responsibility to honor the name of Christ. It had failed to hold high the life-style that Jesus modeled and taught as the Light of the world and the Savior from the power of sin as well as from its penalty (See also Romans 6). It had failed to pray, teach, and protect its fellow member from sin (See also Acts 2:42-47; 4:18-36; 5:1-11; Hebrews 10:23-29). The Holy Spirit led Paul to instruct the Corinth congregation to expel the man from their fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:11, 13). This is part of what he meant by "hand this man over to Satan."

To eject such a person from the privileges of fellowship and membership of the church was to return him to Satan's fellowship. If he was going to pursue Satan's way of life, he could not do so as a member of Christ's family in good standing. He could not hide Satanic behavior inside the Savior's band of disciples. Such betrayal of Jesus had to be exposed as much as that of Judas had been. The clause implies that one of the benefits of being an active and faithful participant in Christ's Church is protection from spiritual dangers. To have godly pastors watching over one's spiritual and moral safety, encouraging him to live godly in Christ Jesus, is an empowering reality in any society. Spiritual watch-care is the fundamental task of the pastor-shepherd (1 Peter 5:2), who also is called "overseer" (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; Hebrews 13:17), and elder (Acts 20:28). His primary responsibility is to "watch over the flock." And to have the prayerful support, encouragement, and spiritual/moral warnings of fellow believers (1 Thessalonians 3:12; James 5:16; 1 John 5:13-20; 2 John 1:5) is as priceless as losing that benefit is an unthinkable loss. The leaders and members of the Corinth church had failed on both counts.

Paul was asking the church at Corinth to accept their responsibility by fulfilling their disciplinary duty. To lose this protective care of pastors and fellow-members is to be returned to Satan's unhindered influence. That influence never is benevolent. Satan hates Christ, His disciples, and His Church (1 Peter 5:8). To disfellowship an unrepentant church member is to say to him, "If you are determined to live like the Devil, we must turn you loose from our protection so you can find out what the watch-care of Satan really is like. He is waiting to devour you." This is the most severe disciplinary act a church can take.

Do not overlook the fact that along with all other of God's disciplinary moves, the apparent severity of disfellowshipping a church member is an act of tough love. It is designed to bring him to his senses and to repentance. It intends to bring him back to God. Paul clearly stated that goal in the words, "that the flesh [the sinful nature] may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5b). The terrible effects and painful consequences of the kind of corrupt living that Satan encourages should bring a believer to realization of his sin, and to lead him to change his mind and conduct. Several passages amplify this idea, among them Galatians 6:17, 2 Peter 1:4, and 2:13.

So, terminating church membership for right disciplinary reasons must never be done in a spirit of merely "getting rid of a bad apple" (sadly necessary as that may be in a few cases), or of eliminating an irritant, but of sorrowfully necessary surgery, as painful as it may be, that brings healing and restoration of health both to the diseased member and to the rest of the body (1 Corinthians 5:6-12). It must be done only in painful sorrow that hopes for the repenting brother's early request to be restored. In that light, do not overlook the happy sequel to this story that apparently was the result of the Corinthian church following this measure. You'll find in 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11 what happened in the man's life, and what happened in the church life.

The Holy Spirit never has rescinded or cancelled His instructions for such church discipline. Its goal is the joy of pure living that exalts the name of our righteous God.

Image Credit: Wil Stewart; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Church-Issues  | Controversial-Issues  | Sin-Evil

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Published 8-11-15