Do not even eat with such a one

One of yesterday morning’s readings was 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:8. In the first part, Paul is telling the Corinthian church that people who are behaving below a certain standard should be shunned. Well — people who claim to be Christians, that is. Folks with no claim to that faith are not to be judged. Until the next chapter, when he tells the church that they will judge the world, and angels, so surely they ought to be able to handle internal conflicts without recourse to secular law.

So many thoughts.

First of all, there’s the “no true Scotsman” problem. What standard of behavior (or doctrine, or anything) is sufficient to determine who’s really a Christian? Is it possible to set some reasonable standard for behavior without, perhaps unintentionally, treating “lesser” sins as insignificant? Are not the sins people get shunned for usually the obvious scandalous types, usually having something to do with sex or money? But are not pride and anger and coldness worse? What help or support is there for the Christian who is fighting his or her ‘demons’? Is it only the unrepentant who are to be disassociated? How are the unrepentant to be loved and invited further in? After all, does shunning ever bring anyone to repentance, when with God it is his kindness that leads us there? If no one even among the repentant has achieved a life utterly consistent with righteousness, how is any standard of behavior not arbitrary?

If the church is to be a community showing the world a transformed life and the way to it, or however you define the mission and witness of the church, what role does internal purity play in that mission? Do actions speak louder than words, or not? If part of the transformed life is a radical embrace of all people, then how does shunning too-sinful insiders demonstrate that radical embrace? Is it possible for church to be messy, to include people whose lives are messy, who don’t perfectly demonstrate the new life to which we are called, and for outsiders to look in and see not a sanctioned hypocrisy, but a righteous loving that is big enough to move forward without purging anyone?

How is it possible to reconcile, or harmonize, or integrate the call to righteousness and truth with the call to grace, mercy, and love without distinctions?

Jesus was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Why was he not concerned about the purity of the new community he was establishing? Or is it that you embrace ‘such people’ when you’re evangelizing, but once they’re in they’re subject to judgment and exclusion?

Finally, the later bit about taking internal conflicts to external courts — let us understand that this admonition has absolutely nothing to do with sexual assault or spiritual abuse or any other harm inflicted or experienced within the church. There is no reason to tout “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” in those cases, without justice, as ways to keep the problem quiet and the victims docile. Paul’s admonition is better applied to such things as disputes about church property and other non-criminal conflicts.

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