Reading: I Corinthians 5
I read this passage, and I think that today is Father’s day — and, the only thing I can think of to say about Father’s day and I Corinthians 5 is that there are things that a father and son ought not share. Hopefully, we know better, and behave differently.
Of course, I am not going to think of this as a father’s day message. There are many passages in scripture that talk about father’s and sons which offer relevant advice to us. Just because the exact circumstance does not apply to us does not mean that we cannot learn from this; let us think about what is going on.
I’ve mentioned before, I really wish that I had a copy of Chloe’s letter so I could have some context. In this case, I would also like a copy of Paul’s prior letter to the Corinthians, because he mentions what he said before in a letter. Apparently, this is not the first time that the mater of discipline over sexual misconduct came up. I can imagine that Paul is quite annoyed to bring this up again.
It is easy to find it shocking that there were such problems in the Early Church — but, unfortunately, these days are no less scandalous. How many of you remember the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic church, when it leaked that there were priests who molested children. What made the scandal so much worse was that in several dioceses, instead of addressing the issue, the Bishops would try to hide what happened, and would move the priest around; more concerned that this shameful thing not get out than actually dealing with it.
Even more unfortunately, this is not a problem that is unique to Catholics. A commonly quoted statistic is that 40% of pastors have affairs after they start their ministry. Personally, I feel it likely that this number is over-exaggerated; but what I do know is that there is a problem. Whatever the problem is, it is serious enough that Seminaries everywhere require their students to take a sexual ethics seminar. One of my fellow Seminarians gave a somewhat sarcastic description that it was a seminar where we are told not to sleep with members of the congregation.
These things happen, and they must be dealt with. Not only do they shame the church, but they harm the community. This is a problem that makes communities unsafe. It is, one of the reasons why denominational bodies exist — to keep leaders accountable, and protect the people who they are supposed to nurture. When both the person fails, and the system of accountability fails, the community becomes unsafe, and when the world finds out, the church is shamed.
This in itself explains just about everything. I know that as a teenager, some of my friends noticed that Paul had a double standard; the church was to hold itself to a standard, but that standard does not apply to those on the outside. If you think about it, it makes no sense to police the world, it is far too much work; and even if it were not too much work, the world never agreed to these standards.
Now, one last thing. Remember the topic that brought up this thing in the first place — a man with his father’s wife. Paul notices that this scandal is something that is a cultural taboo even among the pagan Greeks. There is a Greek play by Sophocles that touches on this taboo — I will give a brief summary of the plot.
In Thebes, there is a king named Laius and his wife Jocasta. When their son is born, an oracle offers a prophecy about the son — this the son will kill the father. Laius decides that something must be done, so he tells his wife that they must kill the boy. They give the infant to one of their servants to take him out to the wilderness and let the boy die.
The child is found by a shepherd of Corinth and taken to Corinth where he is adopted by king Polybus of Corinth. The child grows up, unaware that he is adopted. As a young adult, he visits Delphi, and the oracle tells him that he will kill his father, and take his mother as his wife. This young man, Oedipus, decides that he will not return home to Corinth, as if he stays away from home, he cannot kill his father. Oedipus then goes to Thebes. Even when his he hears that his father died, he refuses to return home, even for the funeral; because the idea that he would take his own mother as a wife is offensive… but, he is relieved that he waited out the prophecy, and could no longer kill his father.
When Oedipus is on the road, he meets Laius. He and Laius get into a argument over who must yield to the other, and the fight escalates to the point that Oedipus kills Laius. There are a number of adventures that follow, including Oedipus correctly answering the riddle of the Sphinx… but, what is most important is he ends up taking the throne at Thebes, and marrying Laius’ widow his mother.
A curse comes upon Thebes, and an oracle prophecies that the curse can only be broken by punishing the man who killed Laius, the former king. King Oedipus promises that this man will be exiled. When the events are discovered, according to the play, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus puts his own eyes out, and exiles himself; he dies in exile just outside of Athens.
I find it remarkable that Paul speaks to something happening within the Christian community that cannot be found among the Greeks, except in a well known story that had been told by storytellers and turned into a play. I further find it remarkable that this the man who broke this taboo, by accident, was also a man of Corinth. Can you imagine the shame as new stories are told?
Discipline is a very hard issue in the church; the New Testament advises, even within the Christian community, both discipline to the point of expulsion and also ‘letting the weeds grow with the wheat, out of fear that wheat might be pulled by mistake.’ It is challenging to know which advice is best to follow in a situation. Personally, I think it is a dynamic tension between protecting the community and the fact that we believe in grace and forgiveness. The hardest choices one must make are the choices where two principles, both deeply held, seem to demand different courses of action.