How to Read Hard Bible Passages
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was composed—or more accurately, compiled—by Thomas Jefferson in 1820. What eventually became known colloquially as the Jefferson Bible was constructed by cutting and pasting only the sections of the New Testament that Jefferson liked and agreed with. Some days that solution sounds a whole lot simpler than having to read and understand the whole thing.
I have to admit, some parts of the Bible are tricky to understand and much easier to simply skip past–or cut out. First Corinthians chapter 5 is certainly one of those (as is most of 1 Corinthians, for that matter). But if we align with Paul’s instructions that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then we must resist the urge to grab our kitchen shears and instead focus on what Paul is trying to communicate in 1 Corinthians 5.
Let’s take a closer look specifically at verses 9-11 as an instructional example on how to approach those “hard” passages of Scripture.
Before we begin, ask yourself: What do your friends say about you? I don’t mean what they are saying about you, but rather what message does the friend group you keep say about you? Or to rephrase it, what picture do I get of you by looking at your friends? Specifically, your Christian friends.
That is the question Paul challenges the Corinthian believers with in the uncomfortable passage of 1 Corinthians 5:9-11.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
On the surface it seems pretty comprehensive and convicting. If we really followed it, we would likely have a lot less Christian friends, right? Especially since Paul makes sure to point out that this is focused on Christian friends–“anyone who claims to be a brother or a sister”–and not “the people of this world.” Let’s first focus on the six restrictive criteria Paul lists in verse 11.
6 Christian Friends to Avoid
- Sexually immoral: It’s pretty clear what this means, as long as we get to restrict it to the “bad sins” like adultery and prostitution, and not define it like Jesus did in Matthew 5:27-30. Moving on…
- Greedy: Uh oh. This one is harder to get around. Maybe we can limit it to Wall Street hedge fund managers, ok? Let’s not open up anyone’s closets, calendars, garages, or bank accounts just yet.
- Idolator: Ok good, so we’re probably ok again. Not too many of your friends have pagan shrines in their houses, right? That is, unless Martin Luther was right in his A Treatise on Good Works parts X, XI, which Tim Keller summarized by saying “the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. In other words, we never break the other commandments without first breaking the commandment against idolatry”. In that case pretty much anything we give our primary love and attention to would qualify.
- Slanderer: Shoot, does that include Twitter? Facebook? Online comments to news articles? Then we’re definitely in trouble again.
- Drunkard: We’re talking about that no-name drunk who lives on the streets, right? Ok good, he’s easy to exclude. If we’re instead talking about people who live to excess in what they drink, eat, inject, spend, and do with their free time, well then that reaches a bit farther into our friend circle.
- Swindler: This sounds like a shady 19th century traveling salesman charlatan, which certainly isn’t in my friend group. If Paul is actually referring to the OT commandment “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15), then it might have to extend to people who “forget” to report their side hustle at tax time, skip the return trip into the store when the cashier forgets to ring up the case of Mountain Dew at the bottom of the cart, or aggressively sign you up for their marginally legal pyramid scheme.
Do you have any Christian friends left at this point? (And yes, in case you were playing at home, we covered just half of the Ten Commandments with this list. Perhaps Paul simply got tired of listing every specific transgression and decided the Corinthians would have gotten the gist of his message?)
Maybe even more convicting, can your Christian friends still associate with you?
What is Paul really saying to the Corinthian church? And what would he then be saying to us today, if anything? Is this even relevant to us today, or can we comfortably reach for my scissors? Because it seems to be pretty harsh, unforgiving, and not a very effective way of building a Christian community. How are we to interpret this?
Step 1: Embrace the Original Context
First we must understand what Paul was intending for his original audience. The Bible must first mean something for its initial recipients before it can be applied centuries later to a different culture. Other recent articles give great instruction on how this approach works. Also, since no one likes being taken out of context, biblical writers included, we must open the aperture enough to understand Paul’s overall message to the church in Corinth.
In chapter 5, Paul is chastising the Corinthian church for tolerating a member living in a flagrantly shameful sexual relationship with his father’s wife. Instead of calling him to account, they are arrogantly and awkwardly ignoring his sinful rebellion. Paul directs them to take action by expelling him from their fellowship for three specific reasons:
- The ostracism will bring the sinful man to repentance (5:5).
- Tolerating his sustained rebellion against God will spread that cancerous mindset to other church members like yeast through dough (5:6-8).
- The church will not stand out from culture and be a light to the world if this ungodliness is viewed as acceptable (5:9-11).
In our tricky passage of 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, Paul uses the example of the sinful Christian brother to show that many willfully sinful postures, not just sexual sinfulness, should not get a blind eye – for the sake of that person, the other church members, or for the church as a whole to be different from the culture around it.
The Bible must first mean something for its initial recipients before it can be applied centuries later to a different culture.
Step 2: Establish Consistent Biblical Direction
Since we have a sense of what Paul is saying to the Corinthians, step two is to open up to the context of the Bible as a whole. If Scripture is inspired by God, and given that a consistent God will not contradict himself, what other input do we find on this subject? For this step, a good study Bible is an invaluable resource.
While there are numerous parallel instructions for the nation of Israel throughout the Old Testament, including the passage from Deuteronomy explicitly quoted in 1 Corinthians 5:13, for simplicity we will limit our search for commonality to the New Testament. We quickly see that Jesus applies a similar principle in his guidance on confronting a fellow believer’s sin in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul also reiterates his same direction in multiple letters, sometimes even more forcefully, such as in Ephesians 5:3-7 or 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 3:14-15. Consequently, this seems to be a consistent theme.
Before we move on, however, let’s make sure we correct for any confirmation bias. Are there any opposing viewpoints or constraints to this thinking that we should include in the assessment?
Romans 3:23 reminds us that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” so we can’t apply this guidance to every sin or we would obviously exclude every single person in the church. In Galatians 6:1 Paul encourages the believers to gently restore someone caught in sin, so combining that with Jesus’ directives in Matthew 18 it appears that expelling the sinner is restricted to someone who remains unrepentant even after correction. Now we’re starting to get a clearer picture of what the Bible has to say about this topic.
Step 3: Employ It In Our Lives
Now that we have a clearer picture of what Paul is saying to the Corinthian believers and are seeing a consistent theme in the Bible, we can comfortably begin applying it to our own lives. We can identify three key applications for our lives:
- Stand out from culture. As a Christian, we should expect to look and act differently from how the world around us behaves. We must regularly ask ourselves: “Are my own moral standards consistently held high?”
- Guard our witness and our faith. Our friends create a strong impression of us to others, and they influence who we become. As entrepreneur Jim Rohn famously opined, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Let’s aggressively manage who we allow to influence us.
- Let hypocrisy offend us. Surrendering to Christ means we are new creations. We cannot accept living in a state of sustained sinfulness (Rom. 6:1-2). Do you have a friend who claims to be a Christ follower yet is openly rebelling against Christ’s ways? If so, you may need to sever the relationship with them—for their sake, for your sake, and for the sake of the church’s witness.
Not all Scripture is quickly or easily understood, but with an intentional approach it can prove useful to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us in right living.
As tempting as it often is to trim the Bible into a relaxing issue of Reader’s Digest, we have seen there is a better way. This example showed that not all Scripture is quickly or easily understood, but with an intentional approach it can prove useful to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us in right living. Approach it with humility and confidence, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and you will see just how “living and active” the word of God is. Even the hard parts.