St. Paul and Building Bridges

Eamonn Clark, STL

Yesterday I happened to read two chapters of Scripture, each with its own value for reading the signs of the times.

The first was 2 Maccabees 4, where Jason usurps the office of High Priest through a bribe. He begins Hellenizing the Jews – destroying their customs which belong to the Law. Plots and murders follow, with another simonaical acquisition of the High Priesthood taking place with Menelaus. And this comes immediately after the wonderful protection God gave to his people in the episode of the miraculous defense of the Temple and subsequent conversion of its would-be violator, Heliodorus. (2 Maccabees 3)

Maybe there are lessons there for what is occurring today in the Church, but one of them is certainly that things have been worse and more dramatic than they are now, and yet God is still present and caring.

The second, which I want to focus on more, is 1 Corinthians 5. Now, it is true, I read the text in English, but something tells me that St. Paul would not be too enthused about some interpretations of this passage today.

In the RSV 2nd Catholic Edition, the first subtitle of this chapter is, “Sexual Immorality Defiles the Church.” The second, “Immorality and Judgment.” Chapters 6 and 7 continue these themes (lawsuits among believers, glorifying God in the body, questions on marriage, etc.).

St. Paul was not interested in dialogue, bridge-building, or tolerance. He was interested in maintaining discipline and real unity in the Church, clarity of doctrine in morals, and authentic love for the sinner. Here is the text of 1 Corinthians 5:

1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; 10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Let’s emphasize a few points.

First, the precise instance of immorality which occasions this passage is of a man sleeping with a woman, his “father’s wife,” probably his step-mother (or else St. Paul would have probably written “mother” instead of “father’s wife”). This is bad, very bad indeed, but when set in comparison to Paul’s invective against unnatural sexual immorality in Romans 1, we get the sense that it is not as bad as that… At least it is natural vice.

Second, the Corinthians are arrogant, as manifested by their boasting. They think they are just great, the perfect Christian community despite this manifest evil taking place among them without much concern on their part for addressing it. Later in the same letter, Paul will chastise the Corinthians for partaking of the Eucharist without adequate self-examination, and also for misusing (or perhaps even faking) the gift of tongues, urging them to strive for the higher gifts, especially prophecy, which teaches and edifies on its own without an interpreter.

Third, Paul enjoins the Corinthians to judge the wicked among them and separate them from the community to such an extent that they ought not even be associated with in one’s private life. While perhaps there is some legitimate prudential leniency to this principle today, especially given the size and complexity of the Church (as opposed to the few hundred Corinthian believers), one cannot avoid the fact that Paul in fact thought that this was at this time and place a good idea. He did not want a dialogue, a listening session, or a synod. He wanted them delivered over to the power of the Devil, thrown out of the public association of the faithful and deprived of social relations with Christians, in order that they might repent and come back to full communion. As an individual, he must be made to suffer so that he realizes his error. As leaven – as part of the public community of the Church – he must be removed, lest he corrupt everyone else. For Paul, certain people do not admit of a “chaff among wheat” sort of treatment… There are cases which are sufficiently clear and sufficiently dangerous that ecclesiastical authority has a duty to act for everyone’s sake. The way to “build a bridge” in these cases is to make it clear that the sinner is indeed “over there” and needs to do something to get “over here,” like a public act of reparation, along with a good confession.

Dear readers, pick up your Bibles more. There is much consolation, instruction, and challenge to be found. Memorize some passages, know where to find specific points. It can make a huge difference, in your own life and in the lives of those you might influence. The more you study theology, the more you pray, the longer you are “involved,” and the more you read Scripture, the more will leap out at you. Develop eyes to see and ears to hear, and you may be able to help others do so as well.

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