In ch. 5 we see Paul talking about some ethical confusion in the church. This confusion might stem from the base that the church did not understand her proper place in the broader world and culture.
Important historic-cultural issues can be seen in matters of sexuality (or rather sexual immorality; porneia) and the honor-shame based standards in Roman Corinth. In regards to sexual immorality we need to see that most of the Greco-Roman standards were quite different from the Judeo-Christian. Witherington writes that “[i]n the Greco-Roman world, extra-marital sex, indeed a wide variety forms of nonmarital sex…was not considered shameful” (Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995] 153; emphasis mine). Yet we do see that the form of porneia was “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (v.1).
The other aspect of historic-cultural significance has been discussed in earlier artilces. Let it suffice to say that the Greco-Roman world was one where honor was virtue number one. Together with honor, power and authority can be named as being the most excellent qualities to be achieved especially by the male population (though women were gaining more and more prevalence in this time; cf. Witherington, 154).
Chapters 5 and 6 build a unity in the sense that both are dealing with ethical issues in the church; or stated differently with issues concerning the purity and holiness of the church. But we will in here only look at the given passage (5:1-13). One question arises in regards to the train of Paul’s thought: What connects chapter 5 with the foregoing chapters? It almost seems as if Paul is making a dramatic shift, yet we see the following issues which tie Paul’s writing to conformity: (1) the tolerance of sin in the church and their secular values; (2) the church as God’s temple and thus the necessity of purity and holiness; and (3) Paul mentions arrogance both in 4:18 and then 5:2.
In vv. 1-5 Paul explicitly deals with a certain man (tina: Paul does not mention his name but since letters were read out loud anybody in the congregation would know) who committed porneia – any kind of sexual immorality, including any sexual activity outside of marriage (prostitutes; homosexuals; sex with slave-girls, boys etc.). The man’s perversion was that he had a sexual relationship with his (step)mother (the term gunaika tou patros can refer to his mother or stepmother). Paul is here not talking about a one time happening but the verb echein implies that this is not an issue of a one-night stand but of living arrangements (such sexual relations were prohibited in Lev 18:8; Deut 27:20 and to be punished by death).
But why is the church proud of such behavior? In v. 2 Paul states that the church is proud and refuses to intervene. Suggested reason for such arrogance are: (1) over-realized eschatology in which ethics become irrelevant; (2) the church is proud about the freedom in Christ shown in an extreme relation of one member in the church; and (3) the member who committed that sin/lifestyle was part of the social-elite. The latter option is adopted. The church was proud to have such a high-standing member and nobody dared to talk to him about it (note the conflict in an honor-shame society). This is adaptation of secular values: nobody could go against a member of the elite.
Instead of being arrogant the church should mourn – implying judgment about such behavior. Such a person should be removed from the church (putting someone outside the camp of Israel is most likely the OT background which Paul has in mind). The church needs to maintain holiness as the people of God. The motif behind Paul’s harsh judgment is not the punishment of the sinner, but the holiness of the church; being a Messianic community has ethical responsibilities.
Thus he exhorts in vv. 4-5 the church to hand the sinner over to Satan so that he might be saved on the Day of Judgment. But what does it mean that the man should be delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (in contrast of the salvation of the spirit). Here we need to be reminded that Paul is concerned with the holiness of the church. The term sarx is often used by Paul as a place of vices/evil desires in the human nature. The person needs to stop following his desires and maybe the sinner himself comes to senses and destroys the actions of the flesh. The realm of Satan then is anything which is outside of the realm of God’s people – the church.
Paul then goes on in mentioning the analogy of Passover (vv. 6-8). He criticizes the Corinthians’ boasting. The congregation must safeguard her purity as Christ is her paschal lamb. Thus he exhorts to celebrate the liberation from sin that Jesus Christ has affected in a state of purity.
In vv. 9-13 Paul corrects some misunderstanding concerning association with immoral people. Paul does not say that Christians should not be associated with evil person outside the church which would call for a radical termination of all relationships with unbelievers (vv. 9-10), but that the church must not associate with Christians who persist in such sins (v. 11). There needs to be judgment of such church members (v. 12) and God will judge the unbelievers (v. 13a). In v. 13b Paul gives a final exhortation that the Corinthians should expel the incestuous man from the church by referring to the OT (Paul is using OT law in ethics).
The church as the temple of God needs to take care of her purity and holiness. Church discipline is of necessity in dealing with sin in the church. We should not be ashamed of confronting our brothers and sisters and their sin or misbehavior. For sure this has to be done in love and gentleness (cf. Gal 6:1).
A second ramification of the passage at hand is that it does matter what we do with (and to) our bodies. Sexual immorality is as prevalent today as it was in Roman society. We need however to look at God’s guidance in matters of purity and not be conformed to the standards of the culture we live in.