The Struggle for Holiness
“Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).
By Richard Doctor
Corinth was a challenge. This strategically located hub of commerce was a “rough and tumble” seaport and blue-collar city of ancient origin, noted for its low morals and licentiousness. The name “Corinthian” applied to a woman was an insult. Paul leaves us no doubt as to the state of some of those from Corinth who found refuge in Christ: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
While sophisticated Athens had dismissed Paul as a “seed picker,” or one who picked up and spoke some nice enough words but had little novelty to offer, even before hearing him (Acts 17:18), it was in Corinth where the message of Jesus Christ found fertile ground. The Corinthian church is also fertile ground for our consideration of the struggle for holiness in an unholy world.
Not surprisingly, the young ecclesia of Corinth had to deal with some practical problems linked to holiness. Holiness is not just a private, individual matter, although it starts there. Each ecclesia must also struggle for collective holiness.
Today, as in Corinth, “there are various degrees of advancement among individual members, and, Paul says (1 Thessalonians 5:14), some are feeble-minded, comfort them; some are weak, support them; but, while you should be patient toward all, warn the disorderly (those who are drifting away from the true spirit of Christ). Don’t mistake the disorderly for the weak, and comfort them, nor for the feebleminded, and support them; but patiently lovingly, warn the disorderly … if he ‘obey not … note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. … Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.’ He warns us also against immoral and unjust persons, and those who wrest (twist) the Scriptures, and thus turn the truth of God into a lie. And the following citations clearly show that, in the Apostle’s estimation, doctrinal disorders are among the chief (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14, 1 Corinthians 5:11, Ephesians 5:6-11, Romans 16:17, 2 John 9-11, Galatians 1:8,9, Titus 3:10).” — Reprints 1575
Growing toward holiness can be complex. Corinth had open moral sores that the ecclesia collectively had not addressed. Tolerating these offenses against the divine standard of holiness crippled the ecclesia’s collective efforts towards holiness. Setting forth some sort of misguided notion of grace and mercy, the Corinthian ecclesia was “puffed up” about their acceptance of these open moral sores (1 Corinthians 5:2). They had not mourned, nor wished for the removal and correction of the unrepentant offenders. To develop holiness, the Corinth ecclesia had set aside the apostle’s explicit instructions: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators … or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters” (1 Corinthians 5:9,10). Thus, there was background correspondence that resulted in what we have preserved as First Corinthians. It is but one of several epistles exchanged between Paul and various members of that ecclesia.
A commonsense guide for each of our hearts and for our ecclesias is set forth: “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven” (1 Corinthians 5:6,7). Yes, there is grace and forgiveness in Christ Jesus greater than all our sins. But “What, then? Shall we sin, because we are not under Law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:15 GNB). “Do not ye judge them that are within? … Therefore, put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:12,13).
Selectively Hearing God’s Counsel
One might think that being judgmental is a special grace of the holy Spirit. Our Lord addressed this: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1, 2).
Being judgmental generally comes from the fallen human nature. How then can Paul say, “Are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Is there a conflict here?
To condemn another for their sins is what Jesus counseled against. Yet, to not judge the sort of moral issues that blighted the Corinthian church is also wrong. There is no conflict. One must judge the sins but not the sinner. The judgment of individuals is in Lord’s hands (John 5:22, 27).
We individually and collectively are to develop holiness in judgment. Our judgments must be through the lens of holiness, balancing love, wisdom, and justice — leaving the attribute of power in the able hands of our heavenly Father for the present. Those that are holy, and ecclesias that are holy will have the recovery of the sinner as their object. Success is not judging and condemning the sinner (Ezekiel 33:11). Success is the elimination of the sin and the reconciliation of the sinner to God.
Preparation for a Future Work
The struggle for holiness has a very practical exercise in our development as able ministers of the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6). Paul elaborates on this in Colossians: “having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself…whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:20-23).
Dealing with sin in the ecclesia may not be easy or popular, but holiness at times requires this. Possibly, to make this point, Paul purposely instructed the Corinthians to “set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church” (1 Corinthians 6:4). These “least esteemed” ones were likely not concerned with popularity. Therefore, they would not judge according to what would be the popular decision but would be more fair-minded. On the other hand, some may feel that the Lord’s spirit of love should direct us to cover the sin at all times: “Above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1Peter 4:8).
Again, there is no conflict here. Paul and Peter both desired the recovery of the sinner and turning the sinner to holiness. This point is made explicitly by James: “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
One of Paul’s objects in writing Second Corinthians was to instruct them further respecting the one who was in sin, and had been judged by the church. “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:6,7). This is distinctly different from ignoring the sin. The practical path to holiness does not leave the sinner in sin with the ecclesia turning a blind eye and mislabeling it as “love.”
Wisdom and Love in Perfect Balance
While wisdom and love should be in perfect balance in the struggle for holiness, we must be careful not to mistake knowledge for wisdom. Paul clarifies this difference as he treats the dispute over meat offered to idols. He reasons that since idols, while condemned, are empty and “nothing” from the divine perspective, what difference does it make if meat offered to idols is purchased at a discount price in the market? (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). Yet, while “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
“With regard to food sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NET). Knowledge, not linked to wisdom, gives a sense of certainty that “puffs up.” We see this certainty, both with people possessing accurate knowledge like Paul, and we see this certainty in otherwise rational people who were weak and in error respecting meats.
Love on the other hand, “builds up.” It seeks for a relationship based on trust. Paul was willing to eat no meat at all in the presence of these weaker brethren, “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Still, the weaker brethren in this case had a point respecting idols. Every hint of idolatry was to be avoided.
But is this argument over “knowledge” relevant today? What might be the issue for an obvious absurdity such as believing the earth is flat or some other error of this ilk? Would Paul’s counsel apply here?
Yes, we would wish to maintain a loving relationship. The societal attitude of today would suggest that we say, “You are entitled to your view, and I respect it, although I disagree.” While diplomatic, this would certainly not result in any movement towards clarity on what is a clear and irrefutable truth respecting the “round earth” that “hangs on nothing” (Isaiah 40:22, Job 26:7). Does not confronting the error help in the struggle for holiness?
Those of Corinth who were stumbled by meat offered to idols heard a reading of Paul’s first epistle. They knew Paul did not want to see them stumble. But they also knew exactly what Paul thought. Paul describes them as “feeble” or, “weak” three times (1 Corinthians 8:9-11). He says in essence, “You are not getting my point.” However, they still knew Paul loved them.
So, in our struggles for holiness both within ourselves, and within our ecclesias, let us seek for holiness as we run, and encourage our brethren to do the same, that we all may obtain the prize that fades not (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Let us not forget that the work is the Lord’s, in the sense that his strength supplied to us is promised to accomplish it, and that he who has begun a good work in us is able to complete it; and he will do so, if we let him.