Applying 1 Corinthians 5 to the Family

by | Apr 4, 2013

Do 1 Cor. 5:3-11’s prohibitions not associate or eat with a so-called brother who is under church discipline apply to inter-family relations, such as husband-wife, parent-child, or sibling relations?



Dear DB,

Three reasons lead me to think the answer is “No.” First, the existence, nature, and obligations of a human family are different from those of the family of God.

Human family relationships are natural (birth), and unconditional (we have no choice). These relationships exist whether we know about them or not. Family relationships continue to exist even when its members are not all saved or lost. Scripture teaches this in 1 Cor. 7 where a saved and unsaved spouse constitute a human family, though both are not spiritual family members (cf. 1 Peter 3:1-6).

On the other hand, God’s family relationships are spiritual and conditional (we have a choice). For example, in Rom. 11:17-24 Paul teaches that one’s standing in the “olive tree” depends upon persisting in faith (cf. Matt. 18:17; John 15:2, 5; Tit. 3:10)

Human family relationships create necessary obligations such as children must honor parents (Exod. 20; Eph. 6:2-3), conjugal relations between spouses (1 Cor. 7:3-5), submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5:22-24, 33; 1 Pet. 3:1-5), and care for wife by husband (Eph. 5:25-32). God does not condition his command to honor parents upon the parents’ character or spiritual condition.

God requires husbands and wives to maintain conjugal relationships and to stay married, even if one partner is unsaved (1 Cor. 7:3-5). The exception is if the unsaved partner is unwilling to remain married to a Christian, in which case the Christian is freed from the marriage covenant (1 Cor. 7:12-15).

On the other hand, church family relationships create contingent obligations which depend upon the presence of a right relationship with God. For example, the command to honor church leaders is contingent upon the leader’s character and performance (1 Tim. 5:17-20). Church family member obligations are prioritized below human family member obligations in the biblical structure of providing for others’ needs (1 Tim. 5:4, 8).

Second, a family does not constitute a church and, therefore, does not have the authority to initiate the discipline delegated by Christ to the church. Matt. 18:17 and 1 Cor. 5:3-5 are the two primary NT texts in which an unrepentant brother is excommunicated. In both texts, it is the church together with its leaders which excommunicates, not a member or group of members in the church. The role of the leader(s) is explicit in 1 Cor. 5:3-5, whereas it is implicit in Matt. 18:17 (Acts 20:28-30, Heb. 13:17, and 1 Pet. 5:1-5 support this inference).

The command, “do not associate with a so-called brother … or eat with him” is given to the church. I conclude from this that the associating and eating Paul forbids involve affirming the participants’ status as saved. Examples would include participation in the Lord’s Supper, love feasts, fellowship dinners specifically for believers, and so on.

Third, applying church-disciplinary shunning and/or excommunication to family relationships appears to create a necessary contradiction with other Scriptural commands. Specifically, if a husband, who claims to be saved but isn’t, is under excommunicatory discipline by the church, then the wife cannot “associate” or “eat” with him.

This would contradict Paul’s injunction to maintain conjugal relationships with a spouse (1 Cor. 7:3-4) and not to separate from him, even if unsaved (1 Cor. 7:11). Since 1 Cor. 5:11 requires believers not to associate or eat with idolaters, the spouse of a JW or Mormon could not associate or eat with him/her because they claim to be Christian when, in fact, they are not. But, again, I see this as a contradiction of 1 Cor. 7:3-4, 11.

As far as I know, my position represents the position of the church throughout its history. I have checked several early church fathers’ expositions of 1 Cor. 5, and none apply it to family relations. All the other resources I have consulted share the same consensus.

Dr. Phil