Why Does Paul Tell the Church to Deliver Someone to Satan? (1 Corinthians 5)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are 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. 6Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?

ESV Expository Commentary

Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.

Sexual Immorality

The report Paul has heard has two parts: (1) “there is sexual immorality among you,” and (2) “you are arrogant” (cf. v. 6a).

The specific kind of sexual immorality is incest—a man is pursuing sexual relations with his father’s wife. In the phrase “has his father’s wife,” has indicates ongoing sexual relations but does not specify if the two people have married or are cohabiting.1 Because Paul writes “his father’s wife” (rather than “his mother”), he probably refers to this man’s stepmother. She may be roughly the same age as (or even younger than) the incestuous man, since men often married women who were much younger.

The sins Paul corrects throughout this letter were common practices in Corinth. The church in Corinth has grown up in this pagan context that views sex much differently than Jews and Christians did. And since the Corinthians have converted only recently (no more than three years before Paul writes this letter) and do not have generations of Christians in their culture, it is not surprising that they continue to share Corinth’s worldly values regarding sex. Jews, of course, forbade a father and son from sleeping with the same woman (Lev. 18:7–8; 20:11; Deut. 22:30; 27:20). But so did the ancient pagan Romans. Thus Paul describes this sexual immorality as “of a kind that is not tolerated even among [the] pagans.”2

So how is it that the Corinthian church tolerates a sin that even their own culture repudiates? The text does not answer this question, so we can only guess. It could be related to their view of the body and the resurrection (cf. comments on 1 Cor. 6:12–20; 15:1–58). But it is unlikely that the Corinthians boast about tolerating incest, since incest was scandalous in both Jewish and Roman cultures. Most likely, the Corinthians ignore the incest and boast that a man with such a high social status is a member of their church. The incestuous man is likely socially powerful, and the church is simultaneously (1) honored that a person with such a prominent status would be part of their congregation and (2) unwilling to confront him about his incest. He might be a generous benefactor to the church and a patron to clients within the church. Thus the church does what their culture occasionally does for socially prominent people: turn a blind eye to that person’s sin rather than risk losing his favor and becoming his enemy.3

A Rebuke

Paul rebukes the Corinthians and commands them to correct their error. Paul first rebukes the Corinthians with a rhetorical question. In contrast to how they are being arrogant, they should mourn over the man’s publicly scandalous and characteristically unrepentant sin, which entails that they should remove the incestuous man from their church.

Throughout this passage Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to excommunicate this man, a church member who claims to be a brother in Christ.4 Consequently, chapter 5 is one of the most significant NT passages for three interrelated theological issues: excommunication, church membership, and congregational church government (I list those three issues from what is more explicit in Scripture to less explicit).5

Excommunication. A local church removes a person from its membership and does not let him celebrate the Lord’s Supper with them. The church does this when the church can no longer affirm that a professing believer is a genuine believer. This is the final step of corrective church discipline.6 Matthew 18:15–17 presents four steps of corrective discipline: (1) a fellow church member confronts a professing believer privately; (2) a small group confronts the professing believer privately; (3) a church member notifies the church about the situation; (4) the church excommunicates the unrepentant professing believer. First Corinthians 5 begins with the final step in Matthew 18 because (1) the church already knows about the incestuous man’s sin; (2) he is unrepentant; and (3) his sin is so scandalous that it undermines his claim to be a brother (i.e., the church cannot publicly affirm that he is a genuine believer).7

Church membership. A local church publicly affirms (as best they can discern) that a person is a genuine believer; that church promises to oversee that person’s discipleship; and that person promises to follow Jesus faithfully as part of that local church (which includes submitting to the church’s elders). Three perspectives show why church membership is important: (1) It helps a church’s elders know for whom they will give account to God. (2) It helps a church’s members mature as Christians and enables them to practice church discipline on fellow members (1 Corinthians 5 presupposes church membership, because a church cannot practice church discipline without it). (3) It helps the world know who professing Christians are. Submitting to a church is not like joining a club; it is more like an embassy in a host nation declaring that a person is a citizen of its home nation. A church declares that a person is a citizen of God’s kingdom.8

A church declares that a person is a citizen of God’s kingdom.

Congregational church government. What distinguishes different views on how to govern the church is the determination of who holds final authority: the bishop (episcopal), the presbytery (presbyterian), the elders (elder-rule), or the congregation (congregational). While godly, mature Christians disagree on which model is most biblical, I think the most biblical polity is elder-led and congregationruled.9This model is very different from a modern democracy, in which leaders represent the people and the people make demands on the leaders with the threat that they will vote them out of office; it is more like a combination of a monarchy (Jesus is the King), a senate (elders lead), and a democracy (members vote on certain important matters).10 I believe 1 Corinthians 5 supports congregational church government because Paul appeals not directly to the church leaders but to the whole church to excommunicate the incestuous man. Some might retort that in chapter 5 the church is merely to carry out what the apostle Paul has already decided for them (v. 3). But Paul supports his argument with a principle: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (v. 12b). The church as a whole—not just the leaders—is responsible to practice church discipline. Paul uses the case of the incestuous man to train the church in how to act responsibly on their own in the future.

Carry Out the Judgment

Why should the Corinthians remove the incestuous man from among them (v. 2c)? Because Paul has already judged him. Paul has done so as if he were physically present in Corinth even though he is not. Consequently, the Corinthians must carry out this judgment when they assemble.

Verses 3–5 are a single sentence in Greek. Based on form it could be translated as follows, starting with the end of verse 3 (with the words in bold being the main clauses):

I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing [that]
when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus
and my spirit is present,
[along] with the power of our Lord Jesus,
you [must] deliver this man to Satan
for the destruction of the flesh,
[in order] that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

It is possible that the two phrases after “deliver this man to Satan” indicate two purposes, but it is more likely that the first indicates a result and the second a purpose. That is, they must deliver this man to Satan with the result that [Gk. eis] his flesh will be destroyed for the purpose that [Gk. hina] his spirit may be saved.11

A local church delivers a person to Satan when it excommunicates an unrepentant professing believer from that church. As God’s dwelling place by the Spirit (3:16–17; Eph. 2:22), the church protects its members from Satan’s sphere, but when a church can no longer affirm that a professing believer is a genuine believer, it must return that person to Satan’s sphere, which includes every other unbeliever. Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Luke 4:5–6; John 12:31; 1 Tim. 1:20; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:19).12

The contrast between “flesh” and “spirit” in 1 Corinthians 5:5 is apparently between a person’s sinful disposition and a person apart from that sinful disposition (cf. 3:1). Ideally, excommunicating an unrepentant professing believer is ultimately remedial: it has a specific result (destroying that person’s sinful nature—similar to Gal. 5:24—such that the incestuous man will repent of his sexual immorality) and a specific purpose (so that God will save him). 5:6

Paul again rebukes the Corinthians (cf. v. 2b). Then he gives a reason their boasting is not good: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.”14

Leaven is not identical to yeast, which was “foreign to ancient baking” (BDAG, s.v. ζύμη). But it worked like yeast does today: adding a little leaven (i.e., a small bit of fermented dough from the previous batch) to a new batch of dough made the whole lump of dough ferment and rise.

Leaven here symbolizes evil in the church, specifically the incestuous man (v. 1). God’s church must be unleavened or pure. Tolerating unrepentant sexual immorality ruins the whole church’s purity. Unchecked sin can quickly spread, like cholera or Ebola.


  1. BDAG, s.v. ἔχω 2a.
  2. For parallels in Jewish and Roman literature see Paul Hartog, “‘Not Even Among the Pagans’ (1 Cor 5:1): Paul and Seneca on Incest,” in The New Testament and Early Christian Literature in Greco-Roman Context: Studies in Honor of David E. Aune, ed. John Fotopoulos, NovTSup 122 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 51–64.
  3. See Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth, 73–88.
  4. Cf. “among you” (5:1, 2, 13), “old leaven” (5:7, 8), “anyone who bears the name of brother” (5:11), and “those inside the church” (5:12; lit., “the ones inside”; the ESV adds “the church” for clarity). The woman is probably part of “the ones outside” (cf. 5:12–13)—that is, not a church member—because Paul does not rebuke her.
  5. Cf. “among you” (5:1, 2, 13), “old leaven” (5:7, 8), “anyone who bears the name of brother” (5:11), and “those inside the church” (5:12; lit., “the ones inside”; the ESV adds “the church” for clarity). The woman is probably part of “the ones outside” (cf. 5:12–13)—that is, not a church member—because Paul does not rebuke her.
  6. See Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle, eds., Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012); Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds., Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015); Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline, 40 Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2017).
  7. Corrective church discipline confronts sinning church members. Formative church discipline teaches and exhorts them. Corrective is negative; formative is positive. Both are part of making disciples.
  8. Cf. Leeman, Church Discipline, 63: “When a sin is so deliberate, repugnant, and indicative of a deep doublemindedness that a congregation is left unable to give credence to a profession of repentance, at least until time has passed and trust has been re-earned, it should proceed with excommunication, determining to test for repentance after the fact.”
  9. For the embassy analogy see Leeman, Church Discipline, 40–41; Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 168–169.
  10. I offer this qualification: a church can be robustly healthy under any of these models of church government, and a church can be pitifully sick under any of them. What is decisive is not a church’s polity but whether godly, humble, qualified men are leading the church.
  11. Cf. Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 10–12.
  12. Cf. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 230.
  13. Cf. Derek R. Brown, The God of This Age: Satan in the Churches and Letters of the Apostle Paul, WUNT 2.409 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 140–151.
  14. A proverb Paul also uses in Galatians 5:9.

This article is by Andy Naselli and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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