But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler–not even to eat with such a one. (NASV)
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. (NIV)
But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person. (NKJV)
The Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints asserts that no true believer can fall into serious sin–at least not for more than a very short time. Thus when such interpreters come to a passage which talks about someone who is persisting in serious sin–for example, someone who is an immoral person–they must conclude that he or she is unsaved, regardless of solid evidence in the text to the contrary.
In the passage under study there are three compelling reasons to conclude that surely some, and quite possibly all, of the sinful people in view are genuine believers.
The Meaning of Tis Adelphos Onomazomenos
The expression “so-called” in English conveys the strong suggestion that the person so designated does not really deserve that description (Oxford American Dictionary, p. 658). To identify someone as a so-called expert is to question their expertise. Likewise to label someone as a so-called brother or as a so-called Christian is to cast doubt on their salvation.
The Greek in this passage has no words which mean so-called. The key word is onomazomenos. It is a participle whose root is the word name (Gk. onoma). In English we have the derived word onomatopoeia which means the formation or use of words which sound like the action which they describe (e.g., buzz, plop, sizzle). The full expression tis adelphos onomazomenos means “[anyone] who bears the name of brother” (NIDNTT, p. 655).
Of course, one might wonder why Paul didn’t just say “I have written to you not to keep company with any brother . . .” Why did he say anyone named brother?
While we can’t know for sure, it seems probable that Paul was pointing out that it is quite a privilege and a high calling to bear the name brother or Christian. We are to be light bearers and to live up to our name.
On the other hand, it is also possible that Paul simply meant that believers should not fellowship with anyone known to be unrepentantly sinful who bears the name brother–whether rightly or wrongly. Any person who is identified as a believer and who walks in such a sinful manner is bringing disgrace to the Christian faith and deserves the discipline which Paul commands.
However, even under this understanding Paul is clearly not saying that such a person could not be a Christian. Indeed, he would be saying just the opposite: that true believers can fall into serious sin.
Those Inside, Not Those Outside
In v 12 Paul went on to say that we are to judge those inside, not those outside. The church is surely in view: we are to judge those inside the church, not those outside the church.
While unbelievers may have attended some of the meetings at the church at Corinth, it is unlikely that they would have been considered members of that assembly. For to be members people would have had to have confessed their faith in Christ alone as their Savior.
Of course, it is conceivable that someone could come to a church and profess to be trusting in Christ alone and yet be lying. Or someone could be confused about the Gospel and think he was saved when in reality he wasn’t trusting in Christ alone.
However, whether those in question are understood to be exclusively Christians or not, they surely include Christians. Paul is saying that we are to judge those inside the church and not fellowship with anyone in the church who is found to be walking in open defiance of God.
Carnal Christians in the Corinthian Church
Finally, and this clinches the fact that the expression anyone bearing the name brother at least includes genuine believers, Paul made it clear in 1 Cor 3:1-3, 5:1-5, 6:15-20, and 11:23-34 that there were many believers in Corinth who were indeed practicing immorality, drunkenness, and covetousness–the very sins mentioned in 1 Cor 5:11. Yet he calls them babes in Christ (3:3) and ones whose bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (6:19). (In addition, in 11:30 Paul says that because of their sinful abuses of the Lord’s Supper some of them were now asleep, an expression exclusively reserved in the NT for the death of genuine believers.) This proves that the sinful brothers of 1 Cor 5:11 who were to be avoided at the very least included some genuine believers at Corinth.
It is a shame that some translate the words in question in 1 Cor 5:11 as “any so-called brother” or “anyone who calls himself a brother.” The text is referring to one “who bears the name brother” (NKJV).
Carnality is a sad possibility for believers. That is why we need church discipline. First Corinthians 5:11 is strong teaching on church discipline.
The so-called so-called brothers of 1 Cor 5:11 are quite probably all true believers. At the very least they include some genuine Christians. We need to watch out for such people and withdraw from them. They are hazardous to our spiritual health and to the reputation and purity of the church.