1 Corinthians 5:1–3
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.
It is no accident that the allegation of incest by a church member (1 Cor. 5:1) comes right on the heels of a suggestion that Paul may come to them with a rod of punishment (1 Cor. 4:21). Before dealing with the specifics, it would help further study to consider the wider organization of 1 Corinthians 5–6.
The relationship of this section to the material that follows in chapters 5–6 is disputed. Some commentators assert that Paul is simply moving through a list of issues that demonstrate Corinthian arrogance and lack of spiritual maturity. Others consider chapters 5–6 to have an A–B–A structure, where the “A” sections (1 Cor. 5:1–11 and 1 Cor. 6:12–20) deal forcefully with various forms of sexual immorality and the “B” section (1 Cor. 5:12–6:11) speaks of the church’s responsibility to judge this, or any other matter, internally. We prefer the latter view because it provides a comprehensible literary structure rather than a jumbled ‘grocery list’ of topics.
Under either view, it appears likely that 1 Cor. 6:12a (“I have the right to do anything” NIV) looms large over the sordid story of 1 Cor. 5:1–3. This was apparently a widely used slogan in the Corinthian church to express the idea that “Christian believers have been granted liberty from the law.” We will cover this topic in detail later, but it is easy to see how such a belief — if not grounded firmly in our union with Christ — could lead to the incest that Paul attacks as well as to many other sins.
The facts related by 1 Cor. 5:1 are few but appalling: A Christian man in Corinth is having an ongoing sexual relationship with his father’s wife (not his own mother). It is probable that the man and his step-mother are married, possibly following the death of his father, and almost certain that she is not a Christian.
In reply, Paul addresses himself to the church as a whole rather than to the man committing the sin. Fee says, “If for us the problem is how the man could have done such a thing, for Paul it is the fact that with this sin in their midst they are ‘proud’ [verse 2] and ‘boasting’ (v. 6).” In a sentence that resonates in today’s cultural climate, Craig Blomberg says, “They were actually smug over their newfound ‘enlightened’ tolerance as Christians.” It must be said that it is also possible that the man’s sin was ignored because of his higher social status and wealth, but we do not know whether this theory is true.
Paul uses a rhetorical question (“Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” 1 Cor. 5:2) to say what should have been done by the church. The force of this rhetorical question is to shame them.
It is difficult to translate 1 Cor. 5:3. The Greek text strongly stresses Paul’s presence, making it likely that Thiselton is right in translating “As for my part, as physically absent, but nevertheless present in the Spirit . . . .” It is through the Holy Spirit that Paul has an actual, spiritual presence with the Corinthian church in passing formal judgment on the man “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Thiselton rightly adds, “It is a mistake to regard the realm of . . . the Spirit and divine verdict as the realm of ‘as if,’ and the historical, empirical realm as ‘reality.’”
Paul has previously said that the man should have already been “put out of your fellowship” (1 Cor. 5:2), and he will have more to add to this dire judgment before long.
Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 461.
 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) 201.
 Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 104–5.
 Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 384.