When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, he believed he was writing to an genuine body of Christians. He called them “the church of God in Corinth” and addressed them as “those sanctified (set apart to God) in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2).
But he saw them as a body of believers some of whose consciences were still scarcely awake when it came to discerning right from wrong in the realm of marriage. He lamented to the Corinthian church that “it is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you” (5:1).
His reference at that point is to a shocking case of incest such as even the pagans deplored. Yet some Corinthian Christians seemed to feel that in approving this wrong, or at least overlooking it, they had reason to rejoice over their generosity of spirit.
The Apostle is not content to leave the situation (and others like it) alone. He cautions: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy, nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9ff).
He goes on to acknowledge that some in the Corinthian church had been saved out of that class of wrongdoers. They were trophies of God’s grace, liberated from the bondage of sin and set on a new course. How then could others in the body affirm without twinges of conscience the kind of shocking wrongdoing from which some in their midst had been saved?
Now we consider present times. Three or four decades ago, when the living-together-unmarried phenomenon became widespread there were some Christians who offered rationalizations, attempting to show a sort of generosity with the practice. More mature Christians saw that such rationalizations came out of sleepy consciences, and courageous ministers taught their people the truth as drawn from the Scriptures.
Now as the same-sex-marriage phenomenon takes center stage there are sure to be Christians even among evangelicals who will find some way of softening its seriousness in the name of grace. Antinomianism (approval of lawlessness) has always been a peril to those who teach grace.
But there are also sure to be pastors and teachers here and there who will follow the injunction of the pastoral epistles and “correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2b,3).
It requires a delicate balance to acknowledge that a body of immature Christians can be a true manifestation (or outpost) of the church of Jesus Christ while at the same time they need a courageous challenge to awaken their sleepy consciences. The loving challenge of godly leaders may be unsettling to them. It may even cause division.
But under the careful and energized guidance of the Holy Spirit this kind of exercise of scriptural authority to heighten conscience can bring maturity and health to the body of Christ wherever it is formed. And, in the long run, this is most likely to bring stability to the church, and grace along with offers of deliverance to the offenders.