What Have I to do With Judging Outsiders?

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'”- 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 (ESV)


The context of the quoted passage is that of dealing with a brother in Christ in the church at Corinth who was having a sexual/romantic relationship with his father’s wife (most likely his step mother, though it could have been his biological mother). The Corinthians had initially dealt with the situation badly and it was bringing shame to the church (see 1 Corinthians 1:5-8). They were actually boasting that they had such a member in their church! That’s the context of the passage and it’s essential that when we read and quote scripture that we’re always mindful of the context because the only correct meaning of scripture is the author’s meaning. (So, those of you who engage in the wickedness that is reader-centrism, meaning that a text means what the reader decides it means and not what the author meant, knock it off)!

Paul had also written a previous letter to the church at Corinth – a letter that is lost to us as God clearly did not intend it to become part of the canon of scripture (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-10) about this issue and dealing with sexually immoral people. That letter apparently caused some confusion among the Corinthians. So, in the letter we call 1 Corinthians, Paul clarified what he meant. Notice 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 (ESV): “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” If he didn’t mean that the Corinthians shouldn’t associate with any sexually immoral people, what did he mean? He explained in 1 Corinthians 5:11 (ESV): “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one.”

Paul wasn’t saying to stop associating with unbelievers (and, specifically, unbelievers who engaged in sexual immorality or, as is implied, anyone who engages in a whole host of sinful practices like those Paul listed in 1 Corinthians 5:11), since doing so would mean to stop having any contact with the world outside the Church. He was saying to stop associating with Christians who engage in such sinful practices. Such people were to be ostracized, excommunicated, removed from the church. In support of this, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 17:7, “Purge the evil person from among you.” (He was likely quoting from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of what we call the Old Testament).

The command to stop associating with Christians, with members of the church, who engage in sexual immorality or other sinful practices (meaning that they engage in it regularly, as if it were a lifestyle, not one-time sinning that we all, sadly, engage in) was a means of exercising church discipline. Specifically regarding the man who was sexually/romantically involved with his father’s wife, Paul commanded that the church was to deliver this man “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5b ESV).

I agree with the notes in the Geneva Bible (the Bible of the Puritans who settled New England in the 17th century): “The one who is excommunicated is delivered to the power of Satan, in that he is cast out of the house of God” and “What it is to be delivered to Satan the Lord himself declares when he says, ‘Let him be unto thee as a heathen and publican;’ (Matthew 18:17). That is to say, to be disfranchised and put out of the right and privileges of the city of Christ, which is the Church, outside of which Satan is lord and master. The goal of excommunication is not to cast away the excommunicate that he should utterly perish, but that he may be saved, that is, that by this means his flesh may be tamed, that he may learn to live to the Spirit.” Such ostracizing was intended to bring the offending Christian to repentance. (The brother in question did eventually repent and Paul, in 2 Corinthians 2:4-11, instructed the church at Corinth to receive the brother back into the church).

Notice in 1 Corinthians 5:12a where Paul asks the question “For what have I to do with judging outsiders?” One of the criticisms often leveled against the Church is that it is seen as being judgmental, of judging outsiders. However, this is often something that is misunderstood as outsiders (and even many in the Church) seem to think that even identifying some behavior as sinful is judging someone. That isn’t what is meant here. Paul wasn’t saying to never identify a particular behavior as sin (he did it himself; see, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). The Greek word that Paul used is krino (kree’-no) and, according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, it means in this context “to distinguish, that is, decide (mentally or judicially); by implication to try, condemn, punish.” The New American Standard Exhaustive Commentary adds “to act as judge.” Thayer’s Greek Definitions provides a wide range of definitions, including “to pronounce judgment, to subject to censure.” (The Greek word is used in a variety of contexts throughout the New Testament). That condemnation is what Paul is referring to is clear from the context and, in particular, 1 Corinthians 5:13a (ESV), “God judges those outside.”

I agree with the decidedly Calvinistic English Baptist pastor John Gill who wrote in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, “The apostle appeals to their own conduct, that they only reproved, censured, and punished with excommunication, such as were within the pale of the church, were members of it, and belonged unto it; nor did they pretend to exercise a power over others; and it would have been well if they had made use of the power they had over their own members, by admonishing and reproving such as had sinned; by censuring delinquents, and removing from their communion scandalous and impenitent offenders; and therefore they need not wonder that the apostle only meant fornicators, [etc.] among them, and not those that were in the world, by his forbidding to company with such.”

I also agree with British Methodist theologian and Bible scholar Adam Clarke in his Commentary on the Bible: “Does it belong to me to pass sentence on those which are without – which are not members of the Church? By no means. Pass ye sentence on them which are within – which are members of the Church: those which are without – which are not members of the Church, God will pass sentence on, in that way in which he generally deals with the heathen world. But put ye away the evil from among yourselves.”

God has already judged that all have sinned (see, for example, John 3:18, Romans 2:12 and 3:9). As we communicate the gospel and otherwise fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 (which is the work for which God has established the Church as the means by which He gathers unto Himself one people for His glory from among every people/language group, every ethne), we certainly must explain the need for salvation by communicating the judgment that God has already put humanity under (again, see John 3:17; it should also be noted that, according to Romans 5:12-19, the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed, charged to, the entire human race because, in effect, we sinned in Adam). How else will people know what they’re being saved from? Outsiders, unbelievers, must see their sinfulness and agree with God that they are deserving of His wrath and judgment. However, it isn’t our place to condemn outsiders – that must be left to God since, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:13a “God judges those outside” (meaning outside the Church, unbelievers, people who are not Christians). We only have jurisdiction within the Church (see Romans 5:12). Unbelievers (which we once were ourselves) are already under God’s condemnation.

As we fulfill the Great Commission, we share in God’s work of extending (by grace through faith) His offer of forgiveness to those He has chosen from before the foundation of the world to gather unto Himself as His people (those that scripture and we in Reformed circles refer to as “the elect” – we don’t know who these people are, so we communicate the gospel to everyone). It isn’t our place to condemn unbelievers, to pass judgment on them. So, let’s stop playing judge, jury and executioner in our dealings with them and start communicating the message “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV).