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Exegetical Insight (Chapter 8)

“Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5, NIV). So reads Paul’s command to the Christians about the man who was having an affair with his stepmother. The NIV margin notes that “sinful nature” (literally, “flesh”) could also be translated “body.” Commentators are divided as to whether Paul envisions simple excommunication or actual death here, though the former seems more probable. But either way, this command seems harsh by modern standards, particularly in the majority of our congregations that exercise little or no formal church discipline of any kind.

An understanding of the preposition eijV can shed some light on this verse. The NIV reads as if there were two equally balanced purposes behind Paul’s command: one punitive and one remedial. But the Greek prefaces the first with an eijV and the second with the conjunction i{na. eijV can denote either result or purpose; i{na far more commonly denotes purpose. Paul’s change of language is likely deliberate to point out that his purpose in discipline is entirely rehabilitative, even if one of the results of his action is temporary exclusion and ostracism of the persistently rebellious sinner. Or in Gordon Fee’s words, “What the grammar suggests, then, is that the ‘destruction of the flesh’ is the anticipated result of the man’s being put back out into Satan’s domain, while the express purpose of the action is his redemption.”

Not every scholar agrees with this interpretation. But being able to read only a translation like the NIV would never alert us to this as an option. Growing exposure to the Greek of the New Testament brings us into frequent contact with numerous prepositions and other connective words that are often left untranslated in English versions, for the sake of literary style and fluency. But in reading only the English, we may miss altogether the originally intended relationship between sentences and clauses, and we may import motives to writers they never held. Whatever the final solution to 1 Cor 5:5 turns out to be, it is certainly true that in every other New Testament instance of church discipline, the purpose was exclusively remedial or rehabilitative and never punitive or vengeful. “The Lord disciplines those he loves” (Heb 12:6), and so should we.

Craig L. Blomberg