1 CORINTHIANS 5:6b-8

Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The Christian congregation in the Greek city of Corinth was a church-start that Paul struggled to keep together. This was the group that fell into tribal factions, with some claiming the authority of Paul, others Apollos, others Cephas (Peter), and still others Christ.

Each faction defined Christian identity in elitist terms. As Paul was the missionary, the subgroup that identified with him could be called in today’s terms “evangelicals.” Apollos was a respected Bible scholar and teacher, and so his faction were the “intellectuals.” The reputation around Peter had to do with institutional leadership, which made his supporters the “traditionalists.” Finally, the Christ party were most likely those who identified themselves – and by extension the true believer – with various ecstatic expressions of spirituality, making them the “charismatics.”

As church planter and manager of the Corinthian experiment, Paul put a good deal of energy into the effort of maintaining unity in this bunch.

If that wasn’t enough, they also tended to let their sacred meals (Communion) degenerate into drinking parties, which only made the conditions more favorable for the loosening of their already liberal sexual ethics as sophisticated Greeks. One guy, for instance, was in a relationship with his step-mother while everyone else simply looked on.

This matter of sexuality was a bugaboo for Paul, and some scholars speculate that he may have had hang-ups of his own, perhaps as a closet homosexual or a less restrained misogynist. The fact of the matter was that Greek were more liberal than the folks back in the holy land – much more liberal when it came to matters of sexual orientation, gender roles, familial obligations, and marital fidelity.

                                                                                            

Hopefully this is sufficient information to put some context around the above passage. The specific concern of Paul’s has to do with the lackadaisical attitude among the Corinthian Christians over a case of reported “sexual immorality” – that this man was “living with” his father’s wife. He regarded this as a pinch of bad yeast that could spoil the entire recipe.

Without getting involved in a discussion of the divergences between Hellenic (Greek) and Hebraic (Jewish) morality, the point can be made that every society requires a set of moral guidelines to define the roles and rules of acceptable behavior. We can’t ignore the fact that Christianity began as a moral revolution in Judaism, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus (a Jew).

Despite his radical message of unconditional forgiveness and loving one’s enemy, most of the moral regulations in family management and daily life remained unchallenged and unchanged. Jewish family relations were much more conservative and patriarchal, carefully defining the lines of submission and respect between husbands and wives, parents and children, and across the birth order among male and female siblings.

Whether or not a man living with his father’s wife was considered wrong in the larger (Greek) society of Corinth, the fact that the Christian movement was still Jewish in its basic moral values put this man’s behavior under judgment.

Was it wrong in some universal sense? Maybe not, but that wasn’t really the point. The ethical vision of Judaism, centered on the providence of God, his covenant with the Jewish people, and his redemptive purpose through them for the rest of the world – in which Paul understood his calling as “apostle to the Gentiles” – rested (or fell apart) on the day-to-day integrity of the family.

We may not agree with Paul’s tactic for dealing with this problem, which was to have the “wicked person” (verse 13) thrown out of the community. Nevertheless his deep concern over the issue is understandable given the context, along with the fact that Christianity was still a messianic sect within Judaism and not a separate “religion” at the time of his writing.

Paul was worried that compromises in the basic unit of family relations would cause everything else around and higher up to lose its moral tether. Condoning this individual case was de facto weakening the moral foundations of the community and larger culture.

If we’re going to change things, then let’s proceed in a way that honors life, protects human dignity, safeguards the family, and supports the greater welfare of all.

This might have been some of what was going on in Paul’s mind.

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