Exposition of 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Drawing a line in the sand

1 Corinthians 5:9-13

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

Part of the problem with the arrogance and boasting by certain Corinthians was apparently related to their (deliberate?) misinterpretation of a previous letter Paul had written to them. In that previous letter he had told them not to associate with sexually immoral people (1 Cor. 5:9), yet they are tolerating a man in the church cohabiting with his stepmother. Paul now reiterates and clarifies his previous remarks.

Paul’s previous instruction was “not to mix indiscriminately with” (Anthony Thiselton, 409) sexually immoral people. But it should have been apparent that he was not referring to having casual contact with unbelieving people in society who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters (1 Cor. 5:10a). David Garland tells us, “Sexual immorality was ubiquitous in the Greco-Roman world. So too were greed and idolatry.”[1] To avoid all such people, “you would have to leave this world” (1 Cor. 5:10b) a phrase which can mean to die!

Instead, Paul’s letter actually meant and he now makes explicit not to associate with those who claim to be Christians yet are sexually immoral (1 Cor. 5:11). So far, so good, but for us today “greedy” is a harder standard. Gordon Fee explains, “The ancient world, both pagan and Judeo-Christian, had a special loathing for avarice that hundreds of years of legitimized greed in our culture have mitigated.”[2] Anthony Thiselton says concerning greedy people in Corinth, “This corresponds precisely with the social analysis of Corinthian society . . . that many at Corinth were obsessed the ambition to achieve, i.e., to gain more social status, power or wealth.”[3]

The meaning of “idolater” is plain enough. “Slanderer” is a bit harder; Thiselton says that in this context the Greek word “refers to people who cannot open their mouths without putting others down in a way which causes hurt and implies a scornful, superior attitude on the part of the speaker.”[4] I hope no one’s face springs to mind!

Since the word “drunkard” (1 Cor. 5:11) is used in a wine culture, we must take pains to see what it meant at that time and place. Fee says that in this context the word refers to “that kind of person who is regularly given to drunkenness and the various forms of carousing with which it is associated.”[5] Thiselton points out that drunkenness precludes the expression of love for others, which is a hallmark of Christian identity.

The term “swindler” (1 Cor. 5:10 and 5:11) is more subtle and interesting; it refers to those who exploit others in a way to gain disproportionate wealth. Imagine someone in a coastal city who knows a hurricane is coming and marks up the price of their plywood panels by 500%. Thiselton says, “This, once again, may reflect the entrepreneurial culture at Corinth, whereby to get rich quick and to knock others off the ladder was the name of the game. . . . Paul means someone who kicks others down the ladder in order to advance upward at any price.”[6]

Eating with others meant more than just friendship in ancient Corinth. The act created a social bond in the eyes of the community. For a Christian to be seen eating with someone actively involved with blatant immorality would undercut the witness of the church, so Paul rules that out (1 Cor. 5:11).

The discerning reader will realize that all these descriptions require making judgments about who falls into these categories. Someone might think this violates what Jesus says about judging others in Matthew 7:1-2, but that is not the case. Jesus was advocating that judgments be made with fairness and mercy, and, when that is done, some still turn out to be dogs (Matt. 7:6) and pigs (Matt. 7:6) or even false prophets and wolves (Matt. 7:15).

Though 1 Cor. 5:12 has two rhetorical questions, those actually amount to statements. These statements revolve around two similar Greek words: exo(outside) and eso(inside). God will judge those outside the church (1 Cor. 5:13), but each church is responsible to judge those inside the church. Thiselton pointedly says, “Against the laissez-faire [anything goes], consumerist culture of today, Paul asserts that to become part of the Christian community is explicitly to place oneself under the discipline of a Christian lifestyle.”[7] That being so, the wicked man cohabiting with his stepmother must be banished!

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 185.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 224.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 411.

[4] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 414.

[5] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 226.

[6] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 411, 414.

[7] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 417.

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