There’s a Christian on Facebook who keeps using 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 to defend his claim that Christians cannot and should not judge people who are not Christians. This means that if a homosexual asks for a cake or flowers for a same-sex wedding, the Christian baker and the Christian florist must comply based on the following:
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within [the church]? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES [1 Cor. 5-12-13; Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21].”
In addition, so the argument goes, Christians should not involve themselves in voting against same-sex marriage since it would mean judging those who are not in the church. Christians can only judge Christians. If a Christian sins and refuses to repent, that person should be removed from the church.
The implication of this twisted biblical logic leads to the view that any moral precept found in the Bible cannot be applied outside the church. This would have meant that the anti-slavery movement promoted by people like William Wilberforce was illegitimate because it took the biblical law against man-stealing (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7; 1 Chr. 5:21; Ezek. 27:13; 1 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 18:13 [“bodies” and “souls of men”]) and applied it to the world generally. While a Christian slave trader could be disciplined by a church court, individual Christians could not use the biblical mandate prohibiting man-stealing and apply it to the civil sphere because this would mean judging non-Christians with Scripture.
On what law do those “outside” the church use for their moral standard? While there is no formal agreement, most often we hear it’s some version of natural law. And that’s the problem. Whose version of natural law do we follow? And in the day when everything is said to be evolving—even law—can there ever be a fixed version of natural law?
Aristotle believed in the reasonableness and “natural order” for the institution of slavery because there are some people who are “slaves by nature,” a phrase found in his Politics. Aristotle’s views, as a champion of reason, made their way to the early years of discovery:
“Of all the ideas churned up during the early tumultuous years of American history, none had a more dramatic application than the attempts made to apply to the natives there the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery: that one part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of masters born for a life of virtue free of manual labour.”
There are some who might argue that it’s the “work of the law written in” the heart of the non-believer that the world should follow (Rom. 2:15). If that’s the case, then why did God bother to give Israel any specially revealed law if a naturally occurring law was enough to guide God’s creation created in His image? Whose version of whose heart should be followed, and how does someone know?
A couple of principles need to be kept in mind when interpreting any piece of literature, and the Bible is literature. First, consider the immediate context, and second, take the full body of biblical literature into consideration.
No Bible verse stands in isolation from the rest of the Bible. This means that 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 must be interpreted in light of the original story arc and other places in the Bible where similar issues are raised.
The following verses give us the immediate context:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst (1 Cor. 5:1-2; cf. 7:1-3).
Some sexual impropriety had taken place in the Corinthian church. Paul references the Old Testament law (Lev. 18:8; Deut. 22:30; 27:20). The Bible required that the unrepentant person had to be removed from the church and treated as an unbeliever (see Matt. 18:15-20). This would have been done by the elders after all remedies for reconciliation had failed. Paul writes, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). The old leaven was to be cleaned out so the new leaven would not be affected (1 Cor. 5:6-7).
Paul goes on to write that Christians should not associate with any so-called brother in Christ who continues in his immorality. He then states that this would not apply to those who are not part of the church: “I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10-11). Jesus associated with sinners and was condemned for it (e.g. Mark 2:13-17), but He never condoned, ignored, or remained silent about their sins (John 4:7-45; 8:1-11).
Paul was admonishing the Corinthian church to exercise ecclesiastical discipline for the purpose of reuniting the sinner to the body of believers, something that eventually happened (2 Cor. 2:5-8.) It should be noted that the woman is not mentioned as part of the discipline at Corinth. It may be because she was not a member of the Church. This is important. When it comes to judging where discipline is the issue, the church has limited jurisdiction. It can only discipline those who are actual members of a church body. In addition, one church can’t discipline someone from another church.
There’s nothing unusual about jurisdictional sovereignty limitations. One family cannot exercise discipline over another child from another family. A state government can’t impose its judicial will on another state. There are jurisdictional boundaries.
Does this mean that Paul did not pass moral judgment on people outside the church? Not at all. Romans 1:18-32 is a perfect example of Paul making an overall moral judgment on the subject of same-sex sexuality and other sins:
being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
We need, therefore, to make a distinction between moral and ecclesiastical judgment. Ecclesiastical judgment carries with it certain sanctions that can only be implemented by a body of church presbyters (elders).
Paul further states:
But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim 1:8-11).
These comments aren’t just for Christians. The “law is good” for everyone.
But what about Paul’s comment “but those who are outside, God judges”? Is this a “let go and let God” judicial theology? Is Paul saying that Christians have no interest in what those outside of Christ do, that given the opportunity to get involved politically, that Christians should leave the law that Paul says is “good” behind?
I don’t believe the Bible teaches such a thing. In Romans 12:9 we read, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath [of God], for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.” Once again, Paul makes his case by referencing Old Testament law (Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1; also see 1 Thess. 4:6; Heb. 10:30).
In the next chapter Paul informs us that “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1). We learn that the civil magistrate “is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (13:4). The word translated “minister” is διάκονός (diakonos), the same word that’s used for a deacon in a church setting (1 Tim. 3:8, 12; also Phil. 1:1).
If a person commits murder, there is no ecclesiastical judgment if that person is “outside” the jurisdiction of the church. If a church member commits murder, he or she is responsible to two jurisdictions—ecclesiastical (church) and civil. Only the civil sphere has the power of the sword.
What’s true of murder is also true of slavery, abortion, and homosexuality.
Does this mean church officials can’t influence the culture with what the Bible says about moral issues? Not at all. The church has a prophetic—forthtelling—role.
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths
Takes a closer look at God’s Word and applies it to erroneous misinterpretations of the Bible that have resulted in a virtual shut-down of the church’s full-orbed mission in the world (Acts 20:27). Due to these mistaken interpretations and applications of popular Bible texts to contemporary issues, the Christian faith is being thrown out and trampled under foot by men (Matt. 5:13).
By This Standard
God’s Law is Christianity’s tool of dominion. This is where any discussion of God’s law ultimately arrives: the issue of dominion. Ask yourself: Who is to rule on earth, Christ or Satan? Whose followers have the ethically acceptable tool of dominion, Christ’s or Satan’s? What is this tool of dominion, the Biblically revealed law of God, or the law of self-proclaimed autonomous man? Whose word is sovereign, God’s or man’s?
Lewis Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians (London: Hollis & Carter, 1959), 12–13.