Over the last couple of days I’ve had some interesting discussions about how the Church should deal with false teachers. This evening this has left me wondering about the purity of the Church, and how this really matters to God.
OT – Death Penalty
The starting point is the Church in the Old Testament. Here, there were a fair few offences that carried the death penalty – adultery, murder, homosexuality, bestiality are the moral types of sin that demanded this. But blasphemy, offering children to Molech (arguably child sacrifice) and necromancy – all worship or doctrinal types of sin – carried the same penalty.
We have to ask the question, why did God insist on this? The answer seems to me to be the purity of his people. Given that his people were primarily ethnically identified at this point, and the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles had not yet been torn down in Christ, you can actually see why the death penalty was warranted. Exile was probably the only other realistic option, but that would often mean creating a greater tear in the fabric of the people, as family heads so exiled would take many others out of the covenant community with them.
The point of this harsh and uncompromising penalty seems to have been designed to preserve the purity and identity of God’s people. Killing offenders cut the rot out immediately. In this way, God’s grace was given to the people, who were protected from further enticement to sin.
NT – Separation
Flash forward into the New Testament, and the purity of the Church no longer demands the death penalty. The New Testament Church is not identified along ethnic lines, but rather along much more open profession of faith. Those who confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour are welcomed into the fellowship of the body of the Church.
But necromancy, child sacrifice, blasphemy, adultery, murder, homosexuality and bestiality all still happen. The apostolic pattern for dealing with such people was firstly to seek to correct. God’s grace to the individual seems to have become greater in the New Covenant period, as you’d expect. But suppose the offender refuses to repent, or worse, entices others? What then?
This is the point where there is great danger for the Church, because now some sort of separation has to occur. The risk is not to just the offender, but to others who might be enticed to join in the immorality or follow erroneous teaching. God’s grace operates not only to the individual (who has been lovingly been given the opportunity to repent), but it also extends to protecting the wider covenant community from sin.
Who goes “away”?
This is the point reached in Corinth where Paul clearly instructs the leadership of the church there to “Purge the evil person from among you.” The point of this is to preserve the purity of the church, through separating immoral or false teachers from among the people. But how do you do this? Do you drive them away with sticks? No! Even ordinary Christians are urged to not associate with such a person. It was community of believers who are told to cut the ties – not the person ejected warned off, but Christians told to keep their distance. We are the ones who go the separate way. Again, grace is displayed, because even in separating from false teachers, it would seem to be the Church who bears the cost. (Curiously, in the OT, the death penalty had a communal slant – stoning meant the community had to bear the cost of purging the sin away… separating from false teachers is meant to be costly, maybe so that we’ll not be so easily swayed to tolerate them in future?)
These methods – the OT death penalty, and the NT separation – are entirely analogous to my mind. God’s purpose in both is to provide a means to graciously protect his people from error. In both, the separation is meant to be complete. But under the New Covenant, there is extended room for grace – the separation need not be final. How so?
Delivered to Satan
Those separated from the Church are, according to Paul, not simply ejected from the Church, but are “delivered to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). This is a really difficult phrase to exegete, but the only explanation that really fits is the account of Job being given over into Satan’s hand for God’s ultimate purposes to be fulfilled. This kind of separation is terrifying – because God may well allow Satan to do his worst in the life of someone, in order to accomplish his purposes. Hopefully they will repent.
Separation from false teachers is fully warranted Biblically. But it must be covered in gracious ways of acting, giving plenty opportunity for repentance. And it must be done in the fear of the Lord, because when the Church separates from someone, God’s means of restoring them might allow Satan tremendous reign in their lives.