Striving for Unity — 1 Corinthians Chapter 5: Addressing Immorality in the Church

By Jenny Fulton

*Important to note before we begin: from the context of this chapter and book, it’s clear that Paul isn’t referring to a one-time “oopsie” moment of sexual immorality. Neither is he referring to someone who is seeking to follow God, is aware of and struggling with their sin and is earnestly seeking freedom and release from it. Instead, Paul is referring to those who openly and unashamedly regularly engage in the practice of sexual sin and to those who support and enable them to continue.

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From the background commentary information, we learned the city of Corinth was known for its sexual immorality. Now, in chapter 5, we learn that these sins have made their way into the church in an even worse way than they were allowed and accepted in the mainstream culture.

“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.[1]

Paul begins by describing a very specific sin: a man is sleeping with his stepmom. This act was clearly forbidden in Leviticus 18:8, Deuteronomy 22:30, and Deuteronomy 27:20.

Instead of mourning over this reprehensible, harmful, and sinful behavior, the Corinthian church was proud of it. They boasted about it, approved of it by their pride, and enabled it to continue.

Paul chastised them taking pride in the immoral practice and delivered his own verdict on the matter.

  • “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.[2]
  • “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.[3]

Question: What does it mean that Paul was absent in body but present in spirit?

Most commentaries don’t address or talk much about Paul’s words in verses 3 and 4 regarding his presence among them in the spirit and maybe that’s ok. Maybe understanding exactly how Paul could be present with them in the spirit while absent in body isn’t as important as understanding the message Paul is trying to communicate in this chapter. What is clear from those verses is that, in the spirit, likely through communication with the Holy Spirit and the power of Jesus Christ, Paul was given a deep understanding of the situation. He knew enough about the nature and heart of it to be able to judge rightly and fairly.  

Question: What does it mean to deliver such a one to Satan?

To the best of my understanding from the context of this verse and various commentaries, to deliver someone over to Satan is to step back from that person’s life and allow them to do exactly what they want in hopes they will be brought to such misery from the natural consequences of their actions (physical/emotional/spiritual/psychological) that they will repent and return to God.

Clean out the Old Leaven: Paul then compares the practice of sexual immorality to leaven that impacts and shapes an entire loaf of bread. “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.[4]

The Point: When Christ died, he set everyone free from the power of sin and death. Since we are free from these influences, we should live in that freedom and not allow ourselves or others in the church to be brought back under their destructive power. The Christian church has been called to purity. It has been called to look different than the world.

Impact of Sexual Immorality: Sex is always harmful to both individuals when it’s engaged in outside of the context for which God intended. It impacts a person’s spirit as well as their body. The spiritual, emotional, psychological pain and damage of sexual immorality and especially sexual abuse is almost always far worse than the physical effects of it.

Impact of Enabling: By enabling and approving of sexual immorality, the church shows there is no difference, no separation, between it and the world. Though it appears as love, enabling and approving of such behavior is very harmful to the individual and all whom he/she is in contact with. In addition, approving and allowing it in the church suggests certain untrue things about God: it says God approves of such behavior, it says you can actively pursue both the sinful pleasures of the flesh and the ways of God. It says you don’t have to choose or renew your mind or be separate; you can have it all. This is the lie of enabling.

The Church Today

How should a church respond when its members, or even its leaders, are openly involved in and are pursuing sexual immorality?

Many churches would do as the Corinthians did. They would boast about their openness, acceptance, and forgiveness of those who regularly practice, engage in, and live a life of sexual immorality. “See how loving and accepting we are? See how forgiving we are?”

While forgiveness is good, godly, and necessary, forgiveness does not equate to a lack of consequences. Forgiveness does not mean the behavior should be accepted and allowed to continue. And as great as all that openness sounds, it isn’t how God, through Paul, instructs us to respond. Instead of broadcasting and boasting about the presence of sexual immorality within the church, we should be extremely saddened by it. We should seek to help those who are consumed by it to overcome and, if they’re not willing to work on doing so, we should allow them to go their own way outside the influence of the church.

Take Away: Enabling and approving of the sinful and harmful practices of those in our lives isn’t loving or helpful to anyone involved. In fact, it only makes things worse.

United or Divided?

In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity, 

Things That Divide Us:

  • Regularly engaging in the practice of sexual sin, greed, and slander
  • Approving of and enabling the practice of sexual sin, as well as the practices of greed and slander

Things that Unite Us:

  • Confronting the sinful practices within the church
  • Working with those involved to eradicate those sins from their lives
  • When there isn’t a willingness to correct the behavior, to remove the person from church fellowship.

What Do You Think?

  • What stands out to you from this passage?
  • How do you think sexual immorality impacts those directly involved and those around them? Have you ever seen this impact first hand?
  • Have you ever seen or heard matters of sexual immorality be addressed in the church? How was it spoken of? How was it handled? Did you agree with how it was handled?

In this Series


The Church in Acts 18

Overview: A Prominent City

Chapter 1: Where Unity Begins

Chapter 2: In Demonstration of the Spirit

Chapter 3: “Let No One Boast in Men”

Chapter 4: Traits of a Godly Servant Leader

Chapter 5: Addressing Immorality in the Church

Chapter 6: Concerning Lawsuits and the Body

Chapter 7: Married or Single?

Chapter 8: Disagreements, Freedom, and Stumbling

Chapter 9: Equally Allowable Differences

Chapter 10: Take Heed How You Live

Chapter 11: Headship, Coverings, and the Lord’s Supper

Chapter 12: Spiritual Gifts

Chapter 13: Love Is…

Chapter 14: Edification and Order in the Church

Chapter 15: All About the Gospel

Chapter 16: Paul’s Closing Thoughts

Women, Join In!

For the last few months, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site,, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 5:1.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 5:3.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 5:5.

[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 5:7–8.

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*Image by 412designs from Pixabay


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