Desperate Measures (1 Corinthians 5)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’ve all heard this saying, haven’t we? But do you know where it comes from? It is actually thought to be derived from an ancient Latin proverb, “extremis malis extrema remedia.” Just in case you’re not up on your Latin, here’s the translation: “Extreme remedies for extreme ills.” Later the saying turned into “Desperate diseases must have desperate remedies.” So what exactly does this mean? While the circumstances of the exact origin of this proverb are unknown, it is believed to have referred to the treatment of physical diseases. This is certainly easy to understand. Even in our technologically advanced culture, we still encounter diseases that are so extreme and so dangerous that they need to be attacked with a vengeance. Dangerous, deadly diseases require desperate measures. Without the “desperate remedy,” the disease will attack, kill, and destroy the body.

This is true, not only for physical disease, but also for spiritual disease—the disease of sin. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul discusses this disease and addresses one specific malady that is wreaking havoc in the church at Corinth. A very influential person in the church is engaged in a personal sin that has become a public affair. He is sleeping with his father’s wife. Beyond that, we don’t know many details and to be honest, may be better off not knowing the details. But we do know that what he was doing was even appalling to the godless culture surrounding the Corinthians. Paul gives instructions for this man to leave the community of believers. The language here is a little harsh: Paul tells them to “hand this man over to Satan.” This most likely is just a reference to sending the man out into the world, the realm of Satan, and outside the body of believers, the realm of God. This man who is persisting in this sinful lifestyle is to be sent out of the church and banned from fellowship within it.

Seems a little extreme, doesn’t it? Kicking someone out of a church? Doesn’t seem very “Christian” of Paul, does it? Certainly, in our day and age, when the religion of “Tolerance” is the fashion of the day, this is a hard pill to swallow. Shouldn’t we be accepting of others in their sin? Loving towards them? Why does Paul seem to respond so drastically to this man’s sin?

There are some things about this situation that we need to understand. First of all, it seems that this person was not a believer, but just pretending to be one. While pretending to be a believer, he was persisting in a sinful lifestyle. These are the people Paul is warning the Corinthians about when he tells them not to “associate” with such people (v. 11). This does not seem to be a man who is immature in his faith and trying to get his life together. It doesn’t even seem as if he is trying to fight against this sin. To the contrary, it appears he may be delighting in it.

Second, this man’s sin was permeating the entire community. Paul is deeply concerned for the church in relation to this sin. This is why he uses the analogy of yeast permeating through dough. He wants the believers to grasp how insidiously sin can spread through an entire community. When someone is living a certain lifestyle of sin, they are condoning that lifestyle through their actions. It is a form of teaching it to others. Furthermore, this man very well may have been verbally promoting his sexually immoral lifestyle in the community. One does not need to think long on this to realize how damaging this can be to a church body—to the believers, the new converts, the children of the believers, everyone. It can all be very, very devastating. While some may look at what Paul did as unloving, it was actually his deep love for the believers in Corinth that prompted his command. Moreover, we cannot lose sight of what the church was to be: the temple of God—the place where the God of pure holiness resides. Even with our best efforts, I don’t think we can truly understand the depths of the holiness and perfection of God and how important this really is. If the church is God’s house, then it should be characterized by purity and holiness, not by sin. Sin adulterates God’s dwelling place. When it is unleashed, it soils God’s temple. And not only is this a slap in the face to the God we worship, but what does it show the world? Does it point the world to a good and perfect God when they see His temple, ablaze with sin?

A third thing to realize about this situation is that what Paul did to this man was actually the most loving thing that could be done for him. To exclude him from the fellowship of believers so that he might be compelled to repentance was the the best thing for him. Paul is clearly concerned for his salvation. He speaks of his spirit (or soul) being “saved on the day of the Lord” (v. 5). For this man to suffer now in order to be rescued from eternal suffering was a small price to pay. Paul’s hopes were that by being removed from the community, this man might give his life over to God in a true and genuine way. It was a gesture of love, not only for the community, but also for the man himself.

So if this is God’s Word for all people of all time, then what is the application for us? Are we to practice this seemingly drastic approach to sin? Certainly, this is a tough issue with no clear cut lines. But when there is a situation in the church that parallels this one, it is very serious and action is to be taken. Desperate illnesses call for desperate remedies. Sin is a desperate, dangerous disease and as such, requires radical action. If not attacked head on, it will end up spreading throughout the entire body, causing death and destruction in every part.

So the ancient Latin proverb holds: extreme remedies are needed for extreme sicknesses. Desperate illnesses often do call for desperate remedies. Moreover the new form of this saying holds as well: desperate times call for desperate measures. We certainly do live in a desperate time, a time when sin is taken lightly and immorality is celebrated. It is a culture unlike any that our parents ever had to deal with. Perhaps it is even more important that we heed Paul’s words now. Perhaps it is even more important that we apply desperate measures to prevent the plague of sin from spreading through our communities. Not everything is to be tolerated. In fact, sometime intolerance can be a beautiful thing. Sometimes, intolerance can heal a person and a body from a disease that is bent on destruction. Sometimes, an extreme remedy is exactly what is needed…to destroy the disease so the body will be a pure and clean vessel, filled and overflowing with life.