Church Discipline as Liturgical Act

I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me…

“When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
– I Corinthians 5

I Corinthians 5 is wild, disturbing, and radical. It seems like Paul is saying that the church’s judicial actions are to be wholly integrated with the church’s liturgical actions. If this is correct, then the modern tendency to separate the church’s judicial proceedings from its worship life has confused Paul’s categories. It is to compartmentalize something that Paul sees as a unified whole.

Furthermore, the invocation of the Lord’s Supper in verse 7 indicates that the sacrament is at the center of Paul’s liturgical understanding of church discipline. Where we might see the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity to “boast” in radical inclusion, Paul is not afraid to see it as the very site where God’s judgement is enacted. (This is entirely consistent with what Paul says later in I Corinthians 10, where baptism and the Lord’s Supper are explicitly ruled out as free passes for sexual immorality.)

This is something I have witnessed more than once in our denominational gatherings within the Reformed Church in America. We fight and duke it out in historically contingent, modern forms of discourse (two minute speeches in front of a microphone), and then we come together around the Lord’s Supper, the place where the judgement and grace of God is actually being enacted. If we were following Paul and his radical presuppositions, the Lord’s Supper would be the place at which the drama of church discipline would be enacted, not just through some curious cultural artifact governed by Robert’s Rules of Order.

But there’s more. In I Corinthians 5, the man is handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” There is a word here for both conservatives and progressives. For conservatives, it is important to remember that the disciplined man “may” be saved on the last day. And Paul says this without explicitly stating what will happen to the disciplined man after the liturgy of handing him over to Satan. In other words, following what Paul has said earlier in I Corinthians 4:5, the jury is out, and will not reconvene until the eschaton. This should give our church discipline a humble, provisional, and willing-to-be-surprised disposition. The parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) makes this point even stronger. The overarching hope for the man is for healing, restoration, and reconciliation. The reference to “Satan,” so jarring to our modern ears, is actually a helpful and important distinction. Satan is the recipient of the expelled person, not the expelled person himself. Never demonize those subject to church discipline.

But there is a word here for progressives, too: Paul is working with a radically different theological anthropology than the LGBTQ inclusion movement. He has absolutely no problem separating the fate of the man’s “flesh” from the fate of the man’s “spirit.” So many arguments for full inclusion of LGBTQ people who are sexually active assume that the horizon of salvation can be collapsed onto the body. Calls for traditional sexual morality are blasted as violent and oppressive because they hurt the bodily existence of LGBTQ people. There is no consideration of the possibility that our bodies are not the self-contained, self-referential boundary of God’s saving action. In contrast, Paul is perfectly willing to say that the judgement of God may entail the destruction of the flesh for the salvation of the spirit. For us modern physicalists, this is anathema. But to Paul, it makes perfect pastoral sense. We have collapsed our eschatology into something obsessively physical, making it little more than a projection of our modern ideas of economic equality and bodily fulfillment into a hereafter of our own making. (I believe this charge can apply equally to quietist bourgeois eschatologies on the right and redistributive activist eschatologies on the left.) Paul is not afraid to pit present bodily suffering against future spiritual salvation and expect us to sit with him in the eschatological tension between the two. This is not to denigrate, oppress, or abuse the body. It is to adhere to the offensive-to-us claim that the body is not the self-contained, self-referential boundary of God’s salvific action.

It is this same careful distinction between body and spirit that empowers Paul to make the crazy claim that his apostolic authority can be exerted upon the Corinthian church in absentia. (I Corinthians 5:3) All of this suggests that our historically contingent models of polity that we construct on top of the New Testament are not the deepest electrical currents of the Spirit’s activity in church discipline. Legislative and judicial proceedings in the church, including those modeled on liberal democratic governing institutions, can be used by the Spirit in God’s freedom for the furtherance of God’s purposes. But it is in the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments that the “most real” church discipline is enacted. This discipline is not limited by the horizons of space, time, and embodiment. In fact, if, as we say in our communion prayer, the church is united with creation and all the company of heaven, then I believe that Paul’s judgement pronounced in I Corinthians 5 is still working out its apostolic effectiveness today. When we gather around the Lord’s Table today, Paul’s judgement is present in our churches “in Spirit.”

Of course, this is not to claim that church polity is possible in a cultural vacuum. Our churches will assume the cultural norms of our surroundings. (So early Reformed polity reflects developments in early modern political thought, just as the rise of “network Christianity” today reflects disturbing changes in authority structures for the digital age.) But it does require us to maintain a vigorously skeptical posture toward any polity which assumes more than a highly provisional quality. Power structures come and go. The marriage supper of the Lamb will be forever.

There’s a lot I’m wrestling with here, but the core of what I’m saying is that our arbitrary modern bifurcation of judicial and liturgical proceedings might not reflect Paul’s original intention in I Corinthians 5. But that does not make the way forward any easier to discern or less scary.