Before you read this lesson, it would be good for you to open your Bible to I Corinthians chapter 5 and read all 13 verses of it. I will refer to this chapter several times in this lesson.


The simplest and most common way to understand the inclusion of the immoral man in the letter of I Corinthians is that the immoral man was given a free pass because there was already a four-way division in the congregation and the leading Elder did not feel he had the support for disciplinary action. This assumes the four-way division came first and this man’s immorality came later. To see it this way does not give us any idea as to whether or not he was the one who also started the counterfeit of tongues. 


We need to find all the pieces that belong to this puzzle and put them together the best we can. However, as is often the case, there are more pieces to be found than we would imagine before going through this process. The benefit of this mental exercise is that it will bring considerable clarity to why Paul wrote what he did in I and II Corinthians.


The church in Corinth was planted by Paul during his second missionary journey which took place between AD 50- AD 52; Corinth was at the end of that journey.

The letter we call I Corinthians was written from Ephesus about AD 55, while Paul was on his third missionary journey.

So there were three years between when he planted the church in Corinth and when he heard about their problems and wrote the letter we call I Corinthians. During those three years he made his second visit to them while he was on his third missionary journey, and it appears that yet another visit to them, called “the painful visit” was made during that time.

Paul appears to have written II Corinthians from Macedonia later in AD 55, less than a year after writing I Corinthians.


I believe the one who stirred up the trouble was present and involved when Paul was in Corinth the first time.      Earlier I said that one possible way in which the issue of private tongues came up was that someone in Corinth heard Paul weeping or groaning in prayer and asked him about it. Another possibility is that, after hearing the story of what happened on Pentecost, someone asked Paul if there was the possibility of private tongues as well as public tongues. Therefore Paul explained that private tongues is possible and how it differs from public tongues. The person asking that question could have been the one who later invented the counterfeit of tongues. There is the possibility that the question was genuine, and this person later realized he could look more spiritual by speaking his own form of tongues. It is also possible that a yearning to look like a spiritual giant was already sprouting in this young man’s heart when he asked the question.

After Paul left Corinth, at least one, maybe two challenging predicaments developed in the congregation. We can be quite confident that one of those problems was sexual immorality present in the congregation. I Corinthians 5:9 says that he had already written to them about the topic of sexual immorality. He was probably referring to a letter to them which has been lost; it would have been his first letter to them.

We cannot know if the division in the congregation started because of the immoral man, it was already present, or if the two problems started about the same time but not directly related to each other.

When writing I Corinthians, Paul appears to have been shocked that a man would have sexual relations with his step-mother. Therefore, it seems that the sexually immoral man’s improprieties up to the point of the lost letter had been with women who were not his stepmother; that came later. It may have been that the accusations of his early improprieties were not provable, or that this young man was the son of someone important, or was very popular in the congregation. We can conclude that the leaders of congregation in Corinth did not know what to do or did not have the backbone to do it. I think it was probably the latter.


Regardless of what caused the initial conflict, it soon became a struggle over who was best qualified to lead the congregation and what style or method of leadership to follow. It is likely that this situation was a rather complicated issue and it caused the designated leader/leaders of the congregation to send a letter to Paul asking for advice or to come to Corinth again soon.


We know that Paul wrote an earlier letter to the Corinthians (see I Cor 5:9), but no copy has survived. What we have are actually letters number 2 and 3 (some say that what we call II Corinthians is actually letter number 4, but that is very unlikely). I think that Paul’s letter to Corinth that has been lost was a short response to their request for him to come and help them with their delicate and complicated issue. We know for sure that Paul used that letter to restate his position on sexually immoral people (5:9). That is all we know for sure. Beyond that, it probably contained his plans to visit them, which could have sounded something like this, “I desire to come to you and will do so as soon as I can.” We know that by the time Paul wrote what we call I Corinthians, Apollos had been there to visit them (see I Cor 1;12 and 3:4,5 & following), but that was probably shortly after Paul was there for Apollos watered what Paul had planted (I Cor 3:6).


In II Corinthians Paul refers to a “painful visit” he made to Corinth (II Cor 2:1), but it is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, so we do not know any more about it. Did he make that visit before he wrote I Corinthians, or after? From what I read in II Corinthians 1:16, 23, and 2:1-4, it seems to me that the painful visit came first, then the strong letter we call I Corinthians. If this is correct, then we can imagine that Paul’s painful visit came in response to the letter from them explaining that things were starting to get bad.

Therefore, at some point during the three years between the planting of the church in Corinth and the writing of I Corinthians, Paul paid them a visit to help with the problem they were facing. It is obvious that Paul’s emergency visit did not settle the issue or solve the problem and it was later characterized by Paul as “a painful visit” (II Cor 2:1). I believe Paul wanted to support the designated leader (elder) of the congregation, but that elder was having trouble enforcing church discipline on the one accused of sexual misconduct.


After that painful visit, things got even worse; their troublesome fire became a life-threatening conflagration.

As I picture things developing, until that time, the division had been a two-way division – some thought the Elder should show mercy and grace, and some thought he should discipline the accused one. But after Paul’s painful visit there developed a greater degree of fracturing with some following Paul, some Cephas (Peter), some Apollos, and some that in theory only followed Christ (I Corinthians chapters 1 & 3). Some of that fracturing could have come naturally, but it is also possible that it was fomented by someone in the congregation who had something to gain from it – such as the young man who was accused of misconduct. The mention of these four groups of people makes me think that there were four different ideas of how to handle this situation. It sounds to me like Paul’s recommendation was harsh, while Apollos may have offered a compromise that was not quite as harsh as what Paul recommended. He did this in order to keep the congregation together. Others wanted a compromise that was even more lenient than that of Apollos, and for support they appealed to the story of Peter, whom Jesus forgave for denying him three times. It is possible that they suggested a “three strikes and then you’re out” policy. It is doubtful that Peter ever visited Corinth, so all they could go on was his reputation or the stories about him. The fourth group was people who piously claimed to only follow Christ, no human leader. If my assessment of the situation is correct, these people suggested no punishment whatsoever, based on a false perception of Jesus which says He never used any harsh words or actions, only love, mercy, and kindness.


Because of the tensions, divisions, and confusion, the immoral man suffered no consequence at that time for his impropriety. But leaving the immoral man alone resulted in him becoming more arrogant, self-centered, and disrespectful than ever before. Now the immoral man started actively seeking a following. He wanted to be a leader without being a grandfather (an elder). He may have been making the case that he was more spiritual than the current, geriatric leader who was not perfect and was not very much of a leader. It may have been his own father, so he knew lots of juicy details about his father’s life.


At some point this young man decided to give the congregation visible proof that he was the most spiritual one and therefore the most qualified to lead. He started babbling in one of their meetings and later claimed that it was a special form of speaking in tongues that God had given him. He said it was his own form of private tongues, which he called his prayer language. Receiving this special “gift” made him look exceedingly spiritual. Immediately, some of the leaders of the congregation questioned what was going on, but a number of the congregants accepted what he said about this being a legitimate form of tongues, and, wanting to look more spiritual as well, they started copying the new form of tongues. This caused even more division in an already fractured congregation. A number of women were among those that accepted the counterfeit and copied it, despite objections from their husbands (see I Cor 14:34-38).

At this point the congregation dissolved into deeper levels of chaos with people showing great disrespect for the Lord’s supper (see I Corinthians chapter 11). 


Then came the ultimate act of disrespect which caused the worst kind of shame. At some point, it became common knowledge that the man accused of misconduct was involved in a sexual affair with his stepmother! This was such an egregious act that it had to have been done with the knowledge that it would cause intense shame to his father (see Lev 20:11). I am convinced it was done on purpose to shame his father and bring his father’s leadership into question, making him look weak and incapable of leading. Yet, at the same time, this individual incredulously claimed that he was still more spiritual than his father because he had received a special gift – he could speak in tongues!

When the other elders of the congregation learned of the sexual immorality, they openly condemned his sexual improprieties and refused to accept the way he spoke in tongues as a sign of spirituality. The leading Elder, who I think was his father, felt he could not take action against his son because now it looked like he did not have control of his own household (both his son and his wife had mocked his authority in the home and had shamed him).


During a meeting of the church, the other leaders told everyone present to refuse to follow this man’s leadership because he had no moral authority with which to lead. But those who had already followed him and were regularly speaking in tongues the way he did, stood up for him during that meeting. They claimed that he did have moral authority because he, and they, had a special spiritual gift. They were proud of their accepting attitude (according to I Cor 5:2), and they viewed their own spirituality as being higher than that of others because they spoke in tongues while others did not. It appears from I Corinthians 14:33-38 that a number of women (and possibly some of the younger men) spoke vehemently during that meeting in defense of the immoral man and against the leaders of the congregation. This was a blatant act of disrespect toward those who held authority in the congregation. This event fanned the flames of division already present in the congregation and, for fear of having a bunch of people leave the church, the leaders did nothing.

One of the Bible’s many ironies is that the leading elder of the congregation in Corinth is never mentioned by name because he did not lead as he should have, yet a lady who had no authority, Chloe, is mentioned by name because she stood up for what is right. God is not against women, but He is for proper respect of authority.


But this man’s sexual affair with his stepmother was too much. A letter was prepared by various church leaders and three members of a prominent family in the congregation, the family of a lady named Chloe (I Cor 1:11), carried the letter to Paul, who we think was in Ephesus at the time. These messengers were the three men mentioned in 16:17, who were somehow related to Chloe.


But Paul decided not to go visit them in person; rather he sent them a strong letter. He did it that way in order to spare them another painful visit (see II Cor 1:23-2:1). He did not want to grieve them so deeply that they would reject him altogether (II Cor 2:2). From I Cor 16:12 we learn that Paul wanted to send Apollos with the messengers who were carrying his letter back to the Corinthians (that letter was what we call I Corinthians). Paul wanted to see if his letter and the presence of Apollos could be effective in resolving this issue, but Apollos felt it was not a good time for him to go either. So Paul had to trust the Holy Spirit to use the letter alone to persuade the congregational leaders to do what was right.


This imaginative scenario explains why Paul was so hard on those involved in the counterfeit of tongues – he even called them “clueless idiots”!

It also explains why he chastised the women for acting disorderly during worship, failing to understand that larger realms allowed fewer people to speak (14:33-35), assuming they had just as much authority in the congregation as the leaders (14:36), and why he  told them to learn at home from their husbands (14:35-36). The questions “Or from you has the word of THEOS gone out? Or to you only has it come down?” (14:36) clearly indicate a serious violation of authority in that congregation committed by women against the congregational leaders. Apart from a connection to the sexually immoral man, the violation of the women may not seem to warrant such harsh questions and statements from Paul, but if these women were defending someone who committed sexual sins (see What Made Sexual Sins Wrong?) Paul’s questions seem to fit the situation. These women were not just out of control; they were approving of sexual immorality and trying to prevent the church leaders from disciplining the one committing the immoral acts. Instead of seeking to quell God’s wrath, they were inviting it!


I believe Paul saw counterfeit tongues as a huge problem because it allowed a self-centered, immoral person to look hyper-spiritual in the eyes of immature believers. For Paul it was not just another problem in Corinth along with many others; it was the rotating momentum that kept the craziness spinning. Without counterfeit tongues, it is likely that the immoral man would have been disciplined by the church leaders without needing to get Paul involved at all.


Paul did not intend for this letter to be passed around and read by other congregations. It is corrective, harsh, and targets a specific context. He didn’t have to mention the connection between the immoral man and tongues because everyone there knew what had happened. In fact, this letter is probably more powerful because Paul did not mention it specifically. Because of how Paul hinted at tongues in the first few verses of the first chapter, the immoral man’s sins would have been kept in their minds the entire time they heard this letter being read. They knew many of the details. If Paul had chosen to get specific, he would only have been able to mention a few things, but by leaving it unspoken, they had all the details in mind because so much of what that man did was being addressed in this letter we call I Corinthians.  


To some people it seems overly harsh to expel someone from the congregation just because of a sexual affair. However, I trust you have seen, as we walked through this speculative reconstruction, that this was much more than a one-time occasion where someone trips and falls. The one we call the immoral man was guilty of a long string of offenses, did not show any remorse but became more blatant and egregious in his sinning, and was negatively influencing a number of people in the congregation. Thus, we see that Paul’s harsh recommendation was not only warranted, it was necessary.

We also see from II Corinthians 2:5-11 that the sinner who was expelled did repent and Paul encouraged them to receive him back with open arms. Thus, expelling him worked, where coddling him had only encouraged his wickedness.


Ask yourself these questions:

Do I respect the authority figures in my life the way I should?

Do I shy away from doing the right thing because its hard or unpopular?

Am I the firm and kind, strong yet gentle leader God wants me to be?

What are some small things in my life that I need to keep under control, so they don’t fly out of control and bring chaos to other parts of my life?