This is one of the most uncomfortable articles I have ever written. I came across this passage in Corinthians chapter five the other day, and while I have read through the New Testament numerous times, it only stood out to me this time as bizarre. Perhaps it’s the more sympathetic personality within me coming to the surface, or the loads of coffee I’ve been drinking, but either way I found it to be extremely alarming. I will give you the passage in the English Standard Version (ESV) first, then we will discuss its context and implications.
First Corinthians 5:1-5:
It 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. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For 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. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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. (ESV; my emphasis)
Paul recognized that there was a sexual immorality problem with the Corinthian church. It was so bad that even the non-Christian pagans wouldn’t allow this level of debauchery.
The issue was that a man had his father’s wife. You hear old-timers say things like, “People just don’t have morals anymore,” or they’ll say, “People just aren’t like they used to be.” But in reality the past generations in Earth history had some serious moral issues. Here, around AD 50, we have a man in the church having sexual relations with his father’s wife. In the Old Testament the Canaanites sacrificed babies to the god Molech. During that time, they burned their babies alive with fire on Molech’s statue. They even played drums during these sacrifices so that the child’s parents wouldn’t hear their screams.
The most disturbing part of this passage, though, is not the situation of the man with his father’s wife. The most disturbing part is verse five, when Paul commands the Corinthian church to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” When I read this I was taken aback. What does this even mean? Is Paul commanding the church to torture this person? Excommunicate him? Should the church practice human torture to lead those who are in sin to repentance? These were the questions running through my head. It just stood out so much to me since it was written in the New Testament.
The New Testament is always paraded as the “love” testament. It’s all about Jesus’ love, the fulfillment of the law, and the end of the intense things that happened in the Old Testament. However, through this verse, we are reminded of the intensity of things we have read in the Old Testament. We are reminded of the seriousness of our sin, the measures that are taken to pursue righteousness, and Paul’s authority as an apostle.
Paul was really dealing with the hypocrisy of those in the early church (just like we do today). This person was in the church, claiming to be a “Christ follower”, yet his life was in complete opposition to that standard. We see this all the time today. There are people who will go to church, claim to be a Christian, but yet they can’t stand the things that Christ challenges us to pursue. They hate purity. They hate soberness. They hate self-sacrifice for God’s eternal glory. They hate the idea that God would use Satan to send us pain that humbles us (like Paul’s thorn in the flesh). They reveal their hate towards these things by their lifestyles. They constantly choose to live in opposition to purity. They choose to indulge in drunkenness. They choose to elevate themselves over Christ. They choose to reject the hardships of thorns in our life that are meant to humble us and lead us to glorify our Lord joyfully despite the pain. And the most obvious is the lack of the fruit of the Spirit in their hearts.
Regardless, this was a problem then, and will continue to be a problem today because of sin. So Paul was attempting to address this hypocrisy by telling the church to deliver a certain man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. I had no idea what to think, so I’ve read a few commentaries on the passage.
First, coming from the not very well known YouTuber “Bruxy’s Bag of Questions,” you’ll get an analysis where he essentially says that, since they clearly are not living in accordance with scripture and have done a heinous offense, that the believers should leave that person outside the church (give them over to Satan by excommunicating them). This exclusion may hopefully lead to their repentance one day; that perhaps they will come back to the church genuinely in the future.
Bruxy compares this situation to the story of the prodigal son. The father allowed the son to leave in the story, but it was in the hope that one day he would return. And when they do return, we should welcome them with open arms. Bruxy, however, makes no attempt to answer the difficult part of this passage. You know, the part that says “the destruction of the flesh.” This is the part of the passage that is actually of concern to me and to most critical thinkers.
The Mathew Henry Commentary seems to place the intense answer to the difficult part of this question to whomever the “other” theologians are:
Others think the apostle is not to be understood of mere excommunication, but of a miraculous power or authority they had of delivering a scandalous sinner into the power of Satan, to have bodily diseases inflicted, and to be tormented by him with bodily pains, which is the meaning of the destruction of the flesh. In this sense the destruction of the flesh has been a happy occasion of the salvation of the spirit. It is probable that this was a mixed case. It was an extraordinary instance: and the church was to proceed against him by just censure; the apostle, when they did so, put forth an act of extraordinary power, and gave him up to Satan, nor for his destruction, but for his deliverance, at least for the destruction of the flesh, that the soul might be saved. 
This clearly seems to point to the actual infliction of physical pains. Which I think this interpretation comes from an honest analysis of the passage. But what does this mean for us today?
The apostles possessed powers and authorities that we no longer have today. One of their main authorities was that they were over the churches. Therefore, if Paul actually meant that this person should be given under the literal power of Satan to have diseases inflicted that would torment him and destroy his earthly body, then he is completely justified in doing so because he was an apostle with special authority. I believe Paul actually meant for the literal destruction of his flesh by Satan—otherwise, why would he have said “for the destruction of the flesh”? Paul was bold, authoritative, and dead serious about sanctification and the operations of the early church. With that said, I find it hard to believe that he was only speaking concerning excommunication.
Now, should we deliver those in the church today to the literal destruction of their flesh by Satan himself? No, because we are not apostles and we do not possess the authority to do so. We may not like the intensity of the passage, but that doesn’t mean it should skew our interpretation.
It’s important to note that Apostles are not in the church today, and they have not passed on their powers or authorities to others. For the very same reason, we should not try to create a new structure for the church (such as changing the qualifications for pastors, deacons, or teachers). These were instituted by the apostles who had special authority that no one possesses today, and these guidelines should be followed today. In contrast, this situation was Paul exercising his specific authority over the early church in a rare case scenario.
Of course, believers need to be wise about holding each other within the church accountable for their actions. At some point, if someone is claiming to be a Christian, yet they continue to live in sin and in complete opposition to Christ, we should judge within the church accordingly. In contrast, we should never judge someone outside the church. With people who do not claim to know Christ, we should never hold them to the same standard. There should be no expectation for the sanctification of those who do not know Christ because Christ sanctifies those who are His. Paul clears this up for us in verses 9 through 13:
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. 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.” (ESV)
The Bible doesn’t tell us not to judge at all. The Bible tells how to judge and in what manner. There is a clear distinction between those in the church and those outside the church. We shouldn’t even be associated with those inside the church who live immorally because they are not walking in the Spirit which they claim to know. With those outside the church, we cannot hold them to the same standard with which we hold fellow believers.
When it comes to how we handle immorality within the church, we cannot deliver to Satan for the destruction of the flesh like Paul did. This is not under our authority because we are not apostles. However, we can judge for ourselves the lives of those claiming to be Christians around us, and we need to take it upon ourselves to hold them accountable. Those who claim to be Christians yet are greedy, idolizing, reviling, drunken, and swindling, are not genuinely walking in the faith.
Some will say that what I have said above is a misunderstanding of scripture because of what Mathew 7 tells us about judging. So, let us return to this passage to see if there is any contradiction in this analysis. Mathew 7:1-5 tells us,
> Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and _then_ you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (NIV)It’s not that we shouldn’t hold accountable our brothers in the church, or that we shouldn’t judge and evaluate their lives, but it is that we must first analyze our own lives. We should first ask others to evaluate and judge us, rather than constantly seeking out to judge others. We should first ask Christ to free us of our burdens and sins in the same areas before we can see clearly to pinpoint what is actually causing a brother to stumble away from intimacy with Christ. Hence those last words, “then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
In this sense, holding a brother accountable to live like Christ comes from a heart of humility, not from a spirit of condemnation. It comes from a heart that knows we also will be held accountable to Christ for how we have lived our own lives. When you approach another believer to address something in their life with this spirit, after you have asked Christ to free you of the same pitfalls, then your heart will be humbly prepared by Christ so that you can address them with love.
You should address their sin in a way that says, “I am the biggest sinner of all. I have been in this pitfall before. Christ has set me free. He can set you free too. My aim is that we can work together to both become more sanctified in the Spirit. I love you, my brother in Christ!”
Cite: Faucett, D. (2018). You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh: First Corinthians 5:1-5. Faucett Journal. Retrieved from http://www.faucettjournal.com/articles/first-corinthians-51-5
References: Mathew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Retrieved from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/1-corinthians/5.html Apostles Authority. (1984). Retrieved from https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0386/2413/files/apostles_authority.pdfActs 29. (2015). Biblical Qualifications of a Pastor. Retrieved from http://www.acts29.com/biblical-qualifications-of-a-pastor/