2014 Lent 12

I Corinthians 5:1-8

Yesterday I defended Paul’s use of a metaphorical stick, or the sting of discipline.  But today I feel the need to call Paul’s subsequent logic into question.

There was partisanship in the Corinthian church.  Now a second source of division is addressed: sexual immorality.  A member of the church is living with his father’s wife, Paul writes, something that isn’t tolerated even by pagans; and apparently there was even some boasting in this.  How should such immorality in the church be dealt with?

“With a metaphorical stick,” I want to say.

But Paul wants expel this person from the congregation.  “Forget the stick!” he says.  “Let’s think about this guy in terms of yeast.  He’s bad yeast, full of bad bacteria that will spread to all the yeast [i. e., congregation] unless you kick him out.”

And I think, really?  You mean to say, Paul, that one guy’s immoral behavior is going to cause everyone in the congregation to do the same, that everyone will start sleeping with their stepparents?  (And under my breath I’m thinking, “What if someone doesn’t have a stepparent?  Ludicrous!”)

Then there’s this term Paul uses, pagans.  It’s problematic.  Today I’ve often heard the term thrown around–usually by over-zealous fundamentalist types–to refer to anyone who is not a Christian.  Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists–they’re all pagans according to this mistaken modern-day take.  But that’s not what Paul means by the term at all.

In Paul’s day, pagans were those who worshiped the pagan deities.  You’ve heard of them, right: Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Pluto, Apollo; or, in their Greek names, Zeus, Hera, Aries, Hades, Apollo?  Epicureans, for instance, weren’t pagans–but they weren’t Christians either.  The same could be said for Cynics and many others.  So, all Paul was saying was that the churchgoers in Corinth weren’t pagans.

But even the morality of the pagans was superior to the subset of non-pagans that was the Corinthian church!  I’m sure this bugged Paul.

Yet this brings up another issue.  Augustus Caesar, a pagan in practice if not belief, instituted a great deal of moral reform throughout the empire during his reign.  He was no longer at the empire’s helm when Paul penned this letter, sure (because he was a generation dead); but the effects of his higher moral standard were omnipresent.  Indeed, Gaius, a pagan, published in his Institutes in 161, a full century after Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Neither can I marry her who has been my mother in-law or stepmother in the past.”

What I think Paul is getting at, in effect, is that Christ is a god so much higher than the so-called pagan deities; thus Christians ought to have a so-much-higher morality than the pagans.  Okay.  Fine and well.  I get it.

But he doesn’t just say this and be done with it.  And he doesn’t just stop there.  He goes on to suggest–no, too light a word–to command the Corinthian Christians to expel a brother.  Just like Augustus expelled the poet Ovid for his immoral writings–not just from the emperor’s court but into exile, to an island in the middle of the Black Sea, where he died heartbroken some ten years later!  In other words, Paul tells the church, which is not pagan, to use a pagan disciplinary device: exile.

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as more than a sting from a metaphorical stick.


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