Sunday, May 24, 2009

PORNEIA

We should count out no one when it comes to salvation, nor should we be concerned that it’s too late when we die, even for a guy who’s proud of sleeping with his step mom.

“Chloe’s people” (1 Corinthians 1:11) from Corinth went to Paul in prison with a list of problems in their church. Believe it or not, one of those problems was . . . well, you can read for yourself:

1 Corinthians 5:1-7 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal (Passover) lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. (italics mine)

Recall again that the word “saved” is used in three ways in the New Testament. One, it refers to the salvation of the world 2000 years ago on the cross. Two, it refers to our coming to knowledge of and trust in that salvation. And three, it refers to the completion of salvation on the last day.

In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul makes reference to “saved” in the third sense, the salvation coming in the general resurrection, the day of the Son of Man. Amazingly, Paul still holds out last-day hope for a man who is “fornicating” by “having” his father’s wife. The Greek word translated usually as “fornicating” is telling. It’s porneia {pronounced por-ni'-ah}, from which we get the English word pornography.

Porneia means illicit sexual intercourse; it’s a general word that refers to any extramarital, unlawful, or unnatural acts, including adultery and prostitution. In 1 Corinthians 5:1 Paul calls the behavior of this man with his stepmother porneia. English versions of the Bible translate it as “fornication,” “sin of the flesh,” “sexual immorality,” “whoredom,” and “lewdness.” Notice that Paul uses the word twice for emphasis. 

ASV 1 Corinthians 5:1 It is actually reported that there is fornication (porneia) among you, and such fornication (porneia) as is not even among the Gentiles (pagans). . .

So this fellow, this church member in Corinth, is living with and sleeping with his stepmother. We have no details of this relationship. We don’t know their names. We only have the word “fornication” (2x) and the phrase “has his father’s wife.” He “has her” means having sex with her or living with her, probably both. 

Paul’s use of the term for fornication confirms that he is sleeping with her. I suppose the man in question could have actually married her if his father had died or divorced her, but if he had, Paul would have said so. And if he did marry her, likely Paul would have called it porneia anyway. I think Paul would have labeled this arrangement incestuous, and therefore illicit sexual intercourse, meaning porneia. Did his dad divorce her? Had his father died? Were his father and the step mom separated, or more disturbingly, were they still together? Paul doesn’t say. I think it likely that the man’s father is living and still married to the woman. Paul is obviously alarmed, however, not only by the behavior of this man and woman, but also by the church’s boasting about this matter! Apparently they were proud of it, perhaps because they thought that it demonstrated (or flaunted?) the breadth of their liberality. But Paul doesn’t celebrate it. He mourns it. And he gives the church advice on handling this distasteful state of affairs.

Paul advises the church that when they next assemble they should “turn him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” (No advice on what to do with the step mom.) What in the world does that mean? The New English Translation Notes call this verse one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to interpret. But the most straightforward way to interpret this is that Paul is very concerned that the church has not mourned this immorality and removed the person or persons involved. His ruling advises that very thing. To turn him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh is a poetic way of saying kick him out and let him keep on hanging himself if he so chooses. What these persons are doing is not the fruit of the Spirit or the kingdom. They are producing the fruit of Satan and his kingdom.

A friend told me of an incident in her parents’ church when the pastor had an affair with a married woman. The woman and her husband were both members of the congregation. The church officials met, and you’ll never guess their ruling concerning this adulterous affair. Are you ready for this? They kicked the woman’s husband out of the church! Sometimes church rulings are just ludicrous. 

I think Paul’s ruling, however, and his advice is straightforward and wise. But notice that he condemns the behavior without condemning the people involved. Far from condemning them, Paul holds out hope at two levels. The first hope is similar to Jesus’ hope that his parables will so infuriate a person who doesn’t understand them that they (the parables) might break through his hardheadedness and hardheartedness. I believe Paul hopes that by holding this man accountable for a sinful choice by kicking him out (notice that Paul never blames the woman), the man might reverse course and ask for readmittance to the congregation. If that were to happen, I feel certain that Paul would have ruled in favor of it. The second hope is that in the case of this illicit behavior continuing even after the man is confronted by and removed from the congregation, that he, as late as the last day itself, the day of the coming of the Son of Man, the day of resurrection and judgment, might yet be saved spiritually! Apparently Paul believes that the last day is not too late. Paul clearly believes concerning this man “that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)

Not only was I taught that the last day is too late, but I was also taught that the moment of your physical death is too late. Paul certainly seems to believe otherwise, even for a man who does not hide his incestuous, illicit affair. If Paul didn’t write off this fellow, I think it’s safe to say that he never wrote anyone off. Yes, Paul wrote “I have already pronounced judgment.” (5:3) But by judgment he does not mean final condemnation. He means he has already decided or ruled on this “case,” just like a judge might do in his courtroom. Paul’s opinion was to be considered authoritative and final. He expected the church members at Corinth to abide by that ruling: Kick him out, but do so in hope for him. Never say never for anyone.

After she read the last paragraph, my friend Carrie Smith asked, “And why would we want to write people off?” She pointed back to parable characters like the older brother who resented grace given to his little brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son(s), and the all-day workers who resented getting the same pay as the one-hour workers. “Why all the scorekeeping and resentment?” she asked. “I just don’t understand why we don’t want to share our ice cream with the rest of the world!”


For more on the Apostle Paul see my blogs Paul Never Converted to ChristianityPaul Didn't Go to Heaven, and The Soul Doesn't Leave the Body at Death.