Applying Deuteronomy in Corinth


by Doug Ward

In a letter written near the end of his life, the Apostle Paul encouraged his protégé Timothy to continue on the right path as outlined in God's Word. "All Scripture," Paul affirmed, "is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16).


The Scriptures to which Paul referred here were, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Bible of Jesus and the first Christians. Paul had often applied these Scriptures in the ways listed in 2 Tim 3:16 as he addressed issues that arose in early Christian congregations.


A Case Study

One instructive example is recorded in 1 Cor 5, where Paul responded to a sensitive situation in Corinth. A man in the Corinthian Christian community had been openly carrying on a sexual relationship with his stepmother (v. 1). Paul commanded that the man be excommunicated (vv. 2-5).


At first glance, Paul does not seem to have based his ruling on Scripture. In describing the man's sin (v. 1), he appealed to universally held moral principles rather than to Torah commands like Lev 18:8. However, Paul did quote from the Torah at the close of his discussion when he stated, "Purge the evil person from among you" (v. 13). This declaration, which appears repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy (13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21; 24:7), gives insight into the motivations behind Paul's decision.


These passages in Deuteronomy list situations where a person was to be removed from the congregation of Israel. Pauline scholar Brian S. Rosner has identified three major underlying reasons for removal. 1 The first is that violation of the covenant has occurred, and further violation should be deterred. For instance, Deut 17 discusses the case of someone who, "transgressing his covenant," worshiped a false god (vv. 2-3); and the case of someone who did not abide by a legal ruling handed down by a priest (vv. 8-12). In such cases removal is specified so that "all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again" (v. 13). Deterrence is also mentioned as a reason for punishing a false witness (Deut 19:16-20).


The second reason for purging evil from the congregation of Israel is the principle of corporate responsibility, the idea that the entire community is accountable for the sin of an individual. This principle was operative in a case of first-degree murder, with bloodshed polluting the land until the nation dealt with the crime appropriately (Deut 19:11-13; 21:1-9).


The third motivation for removal of someone from the congregation is the maintenance of holiness. For a holy God to dwell in the midst of the nation, the nation was to be holy as well (Lev 19:1-2; Deut 14:2). So when an Israelite person or town turned to idolatry, anything connected with the idolatry was to be destroyed (Deut 13).


Applying Deuteronomy

The same three considerations are evident in Paul's decision in 1 Cor 5. In verse 11 he listed sins that warrant exclusion from the community, closely corresponding to the covenant violations discussed in Deuteronomy. These include sexual immorality (covered in Deut 22:21-22); greed (which characterizes the human trafficker in Deut 24:7); idolatry (Deut 13, 17); reviling (practiced by the malicious false witness of Deut 19); and drunkenness (Deut 21:20-21). Disciplining those who habitually committed such sin would deter others from emulating them.


Corporate responsibility is a major part of Paul's reasoning. He addressed the Christians in Corinth as a group throughout the chapter, and he instructed them to carry out the punishment when they were assembled together (v. 4). He admonished the church that one person's sin defiled the entire group ("a little leaven leavens the whole lump", v. 6). He told them that they should "mourn" for what the man was doing (v. 2). In other words, they should come before God in collective repentance because of his behavior.2


Holiness of the church was also of great concern for Paul. He taught that the congregation was God's temple, a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17). The analogies he used in I Cor 5:6-8 suggest that he wrote during the Paschal season, and that Corinthian believers were removing leavening from their homes as part of their festival observance. He urged them to also remove sins from their lives so that they would be spiritually unleavened. He challenged them to replace "the leaven of malice and wickedness" with "the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (v. 8).


The laws in Deuteronomy are designed to help Israel be a group united by common moral values, walking before God in holiness, with members responsible for each other-a sanctified covenant community. Moses urged the Israelites to remember that they were a redeemed people and to live accordingly (Deut 4:15-20). Paul had the same expectations of the Christians in Corinth. He exhorted the Corinthians to live up to what they already were in Christ ("as you really are unleavened", v. 7).


In ancient Israel removal from the community could involve the death penalty for a serious covenant violation like idolatry (Deut 13:6-11). By the first century removal from a Jewish community meant expulsion from the synagogue, so Paul's ruling in Corinth was consistent with the Jewish practice of his day. The punishment was designed to promote repentance, in hopes that the one who was disciplined ultimately would receive eternal salvation (1 Cor 5:5).


The laws in Deuteronomy were written specifically for an Israelite theocracy in the ancient Near East. Although the situation for followers of God in Paul's congregations was much different, he could apply the principles of Deuteronomy in his own setting. Those eternal principles, grounded in the unchanging character of God, remain valid today. With the help of God through the Holy Spirit, we can be guided by them in the twenty-first century to promote the health of our congregations as sanctified covenant communities.


1See Chapter 3 of Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1999.


2Here Rosner believes that Paul had in mind the example of Ezra, who mourned for Israel (Ezra 10:6) and interceded on the nation's behalf (Ezra 9) when he learned that some Israelites had intermarried with pagans.

Issue 31


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 28 Aug 2016, 21:38.