Does 1 Corinthians 5:11 apply only if there is common knowledge of the person’s sin? (Part 1)
Some people argue that the rapid-excommunication instruction in 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 applies only for publicly known, notorious sins. Their argument is unprovable. And it puts abuse victims at risk of further harm.
Yes, the sin of the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Cor 5 was publicly known to the church, or at least, known well enough for Chloe and her people to write to Paul about it as a fact, not a vague suspicion or an allegation that might be untrue. But when Paul gave his directive in verse 11, he did not qualify his directive by saying that it was only to be applied to cases where the sin was common knowledge and the whole church knew about it.
To claim Paul made that qualification is to engage in eisegesis which results in enormous injustice to victims of domestic abuse. It is akin to saying that all the features which were present in the particular case (the case of the man sleeping with his father’s wife) must apply to the law which Paul gives at the end. What they are doing is similar to what some Pharisaic types do when interpreting Mosaic case law. In the Mosaic case law, Moses typically gives a narrative — a hypothetical case example — before issuing a law. For instance:
“…if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die.” (Deuteronomy 19:11-12)
It would be ludicrous to argue that this law applied to the person who struck his victim but it did not apply to the person who drowned his victim. Good interpreters recognize that when we are interpreting Mosaic case law it is wrong to say that a law only applies if the case is exactly the same as the case Moses described in his pre-law narrative, his hypothetical example.** But in my experience, this is the way many church leaders say we should interpret 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.
Here is the instruction (law) Paul gave in 1 Corinthians 5:11 —
“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 [extortioner, one who takes by force]—not even to eat with such a one.”
Paul does NOT say: Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if it is public knowledge that he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler.
Nor does Paul specify that if the person’s sin is not public knowledge but is known to one or a few members of the church, you have to follow the Lord’s teaching of the step-by-step formula of Matthew 18 rather than putting the individual out pronto.
The people who claim we must interpret the passage that way are being almost as wooden as those who insist on applying Mosaic case law in the wooden way I described above. And of course, they only use wooden interpretation when it suits them. The apply it selectively — and usually to the detriment of women, children and other vulnerable groups.
So how do we interpret the directive in verse 11?
If a so-called believer is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler, then that person’s character is a danger to the church (leaven: the Corinthian church was arrogant and Paul told them so!). That person needs to be put out of the church for the safety of the congregation. That is the thrust of Paul’s teaching.
Paul’s instructions about excommunication being applied pronto must (by common sense and the whole counsel of God) apply when the sin(s) of the individual are entrenched and recurrent. The instruction wouldn’t apply to a one-off or small veering from the path into one of those sins. But our definition of Domestic Abuse covers that. Our sidebar gives this definition:
Domestic abuse is a pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or inactions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his* target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.
Key word: PATTERN. Pattern of conduct. Pattern of behaviour. Pattern of an attitude of entitlement. Pattern of an attitude of ‘owning’ his wife as if she is an object or a servant.
Key words: POWER and CONTROL. Not the occasional rudeness or discourtesy or insensitivity which even the best of us show sometimes to other people. The domestic abuser uses power and control intentionally and malignantly: by choice, not by accident. He anticipates that his victim will resist and he makes plans to squash her resistance.
Of course, if the person’s sins are utterly hidden and secret from everyone, then the church will not know and will do nothing.
But if the person’s sins are known — well known! — to one member of the church (the victim of those sins) and she discloses them to the leadership, since the sins are known to them now and since they come under the teaching of 1 Corinthians 5:11, the leaders need to respond differently from how they would if it were just a Matthew 18 matter, a less serious sin. They will grievousy err and put her in further danger if they say to her: “Your husband’s sin is not common knowledge in the church and it’s only your allegation, we don’t know if it’s true, so we have to follow Matthew 18. It’s your job to go and speak to him privately first (as if the victim hasn’t already!) and you can then ask two or three of us to hear you speak to him (dangerous for victim! retaliation from abuser after the leaders leave!) and then if we think your allegations are sound and we think your husband is not repenting (easy for the abuser to fake repentance at this point) then we can take further steps — always having his repentance and restoration in mind. But we can’t possibly put your abuser out yet.”
Many church leaders take this cold and suspicious attitude to victims. Some leaders are abusers and bullies themselves. But even good leaders can take this attitude, because like the general public and most church goers, they are so ignorant about the mindset and methods of domestic abusers and they believe the myths about abusers and victims. If people studied about the domestic abuser’s mindset and methods and if they read a range of victims’ stories, they would be far more able to tell if a person’s report of domestic abuse is genuine. (see links at the end of part two).
Coming up: Part 2, the final in this series, will address —
- Am I dismissing all investigative-inquiry processes?
- Are we rejecting the gospel?
- Domestic abusers are guilty of many if not all of the six sins listed in 1 Cor 5:11
- Conseqences of the false doctrine that says “it must be public knowledge”
- Further reading for pastors who want to learn
* sometimes the genders are reversed
** An example of a wooden cruel Pharisaic interpretation of Mosaic case law is the claim that a rape victim is guilty because ‘she didn’t cry out’. See here for a rebuttal of that foolishness.