The apostle Paul speaks most eloquently when his soaring prose contemplates the Lord’s limitless mercy.
Yet he can be short and almost savage when he sees the community’s integrity threatened by behavior that presumes upon that grace. Faced with reports of sexual chaos in the Corinthian church, Paul proposes radical surgery:
I have written 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 you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
Two clarifications are in order.
First, Paul dispatches in almost matter-of-fact style a possible misinterpretation. He is not prescribing godly behavior for those who have not entered the community of Jesus’ followers. They can hardly be expected to walk in a way that conforms to commitments they have not in fact made.
Second, Paul broadens his responses beyond the presenting symptom of badly disordered sexual relationships. When he prescribes the bitter medicine—a horrible taste for all who come near it, one should note—he adds to the list of community destroyers the idolater, the slanderer, the drunkard, and the swindler.
That the community’s fabric can be torn is a tragic potentiality. Those who would safeguard that whole cloth, we are told, must sometimes implement severe options. Yet let one not too blithely shorten the list of those who come under the community’s sad, extricating eye.
Chaos of all kinds—sexual, religious, verbal, relational, chemical, and economic—get their claws into good things and tear. Blindly, wildly, thoughtlessly, they tear.
Out of his love for the new people which Christ is cultivating, Paul adopts his strange and unpleasant paternal discourse. His recommendation, too, tears in order to protect: Remove them, he counsels.