By Nabil Habibi
I am not one to focus on isolated Bible verses. I would rather reflect on entire passages and connective ideas throughout the text. But one particular verse has been on my mind ever since I preached from 1 Corinthians in my local church earlier this year.
No, it is not “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” or some other deep theological verse. The verse that brought me much joy and conviction is 1 Corinthians 5:12: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” These two rhetorical questions shape a biblical understanding of how Christians should engage people of drastically different beliefs, values, and lifestyles. We need to let these questions sink in if we want to be people of the Scriptures.
This tiny little gem sits in one of Paul’s most scathing letters. He writes to the church in Corinth mainly to remind them that seeking selfish gain and living in sin have no place in the new community: “Do you not know that you (plural) are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:16-17).
Paul writes to a church that apparently has more in common with the pagan temples surrounding them than the Kingdom of God in Christ. They rely on the “wisdom” of this age to operate rather than on the wisdom of God (ch. 2). Those rich with spiritual gifts look down on those who lack them (ch. 4). The church is filled with sexual immorality (ch. 5). Believers take each other to court (ch. 6). I could go on to speak about how Paul warns them against idolatry, getting drunk during the Lord’s supper, and turning church meetings into a chaotic babble of untranslated tongues. But you get the picture (If you still don’t, turn to Paul’s threat in 4:21).
And in that mess, 5:9-13 is a refreshing reminder for us that Paul writes about all these issues to the church. His concern is the holy behavior (interestingly, he calls them “saints” in the opening of his letter) of the new community rather than the wider community outside.
Let us look closely at the passage in question and see how it speaks to our realities today. After admonishing the church for accepting sexual immorality in the church, Paul reminds them of a previous letter (which we don’t have) where he asked them to disassociate from sexually immoral people (v. 9). He quickly qualifies, “not at all meaning the sexually immoral of the world…since then you would need to go out of the world.” And leaving the world would be an unthinkable option for a theology that seeks to win people over to Christ. He then continues, asking them to disassociate from someone who holds the name “brother,” that is someone who belongs to the community of the Way (v. 11). Next comes the verse I quoted in the beginning of the post. Verse 13 ends the argument decisively: “God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.”
Evangelical traditions have long been waging culture wars. My first encounter with this crusade came as a real shock. I remember the look of horror on my aunt’s face who, on a visit to Lebanon from the US, discovered that 12-year-old me loves Harry Potter. I also distinctly remember thinking that never in my vast experience of listening to Bible stories every day of my childhood did I ever get the feeling that Jesus would disapprove of me reading Harry Potter.
Fast forward to today, and our Evangelical traditions are embroiled in bitter culture wars with many communities outside the church. Many of my clan are at war with the LGBT community. Others are at war with feminists, Hollywood, progressive political parties, ethnic liberation movements, and a host of other movements and ideologies.
This is not a post asking the church to disengage from culture. I don’t think we should. If anything, our corpus of holy writings are essentially culture wars. The Bible is one big collection of cancel culture texts. The books of the Bible, written primarily for the people of God, are theological proclamations written against the dominant culture of the day for the edification of the community of believers.
The Mosaic law attempts to cancel and replace the pagan religions surrounding the Hebrews. The book of Daniel proclaims that contrary to the claims of Babylon, the God of Israel is the creator and ruler of this world. The gospels were written to teach a young church how to cancel out the teachings of the Pharisees and to live out a new Jewish identity in Christ. And of course, 1 Corinthians was written to cancel the influence of the Roman religions and values on the Corinthian Christian community.
But there is a caveat – a small 5:9-13 passage hidden in these great works of theology. These books were written to the church. They are books produced by the community of faith for the community of faith to challenge them to live as a community of faith in the larger non-faithful society. Paul looks at the mess that is the church of 1 Corinthians, and he writes a letter admonishing the church, not wider society.
Paul does not go on a rant about the evil of the Corinthian temples and the sexual immorality of the Corinthian society. He goes on a rant against the church, and he does this for the edification of the church.
I do not have clear answers on how to deal with a society hostile to Christian values. However, Jesus and Paul were clear on one thing: we do not engage with the wider culture by judging it. We engage wider society with acts of humble service, acts of miraculous healing, and acts of gracious sharing of the story of Christ crucified and resurrected. We engage with the church with a grace-filled call for the formation of a holy and righteous community pleasing unto our holy and righteous God.
I still enjoy a good reading of the Harry Potter series every now and then. I am deeply engaged in political struggles for a better society with a host of political activists including atheist and homosexual comrades. They know I am a follower of Jesus. I know they are not. I do not judge them. I leave them to God.
When Nabil is not lecturing in New Testament Studies at ABTS he is busy engaging in political advocacy, serving the youth at his church, and hanging out with his super cute toddler and baby and charming wife