The context is a problem in the Corinthian congregation. A man is
having an affair with his father's wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). When they
come to church gatherings arm in arm, no one seems to know what to do.
There is Christian forgiveness, but can such behavior be tolerated?
Paul explains that this kind of incest is punishable by the laws of
the city. The man must be reported to the magistrates who will deal
with the case. The expression "handing over to Satan does not imply
that Roman justice is satanic. Paul wrote that "those authorities that
exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1). He also said that
"the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of
God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). But from the
point of view of the offending man in question he moves from the
forgiveness and love of the church community to the ruthless treatment
of criminals by Roman law.
By our standards Corinth was a very immoral city, but it did have laws
against incest with parents, rape, and the sexual abuse of children.
Similarly we have severe penalties for rape and sex with minors. Where
such behavior appears in a church congregation the police must be
called in to deal with the offender.
Paul goes on to list other kinds of criminals in a church congregation
who need to be handed over for the courts to deal with (1 Corinthians
5:11). We are all greedy to some extent but those who embezzle church
funds, and those who defraud widows and other members cannot be
tolerated. Athens was full of idols (Acts 17:16), and Corinth had
temples where food was offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-10) but
there was a particular form of idolatry which was illegal. This might
include setting up a statue of oneself for others to worship. Revilers
(1 Corinthians 5:11) were abusive persons who mocked God and persons
in authority. They would quickly destroy a congregation if their loud
mouth was not curbed by the police. Drunkenness in a public place is
also a crime in our modern world. And robbers include petty thieves
This list reminds us that we do not condone criminal activity in our
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