1 Timothy 1:18-20
18 This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, 19 keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. 20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.
Wow, chapter one ends on a pretty harsh note! I actually had to take a day to let this soak in. To be honest, when reading this passage I first thought of the Salem Witch Trials. It is hard to resist the temptation to explain this away or just skip over it. It certainly isn’t a passage we usually read to its entirety. Reading through verses 18 and 19, I shook my head in agreement since I have not only heard them before but have used them myself and then verse 20 made me come to a screeching halt.
An interesting question, however is, “why did I think of the Salem Witch Trials?” Why is it that when we read verse 20 we cringe and wish it really wasn’t there? America has a scarred relationship with the term blasphemy. The Greek word used here is blasphemeo, lending a direct relation to the word we use today. It’s connotation is to speak evil of something or someone and thanks to the evolution to religious culture it now signifies specifically the evil speaking of and towards God. If we recall, Jesus was charged with blasphemy. Let’s go back for a moment to Paul “handing these guys over to Satan.”
At first I was appalled at this statement. I was generally offended by Paul’s statement here 1) because I didn’t expect to read something like this and 2) because of our assertion that this is a “pastoral epistle” to give us principles in how to run a church (as I put it when I started the study of the letters to Timothy). As I was rereading this today, I recalled the story of Job in the Old Testament. God handed Job over to Satan as well for a period of time. Certainly, the context was a bit different and the lesson here was actually for the people around Job as well as Satan himself. In fact, Satan’s desire was to get Job to blaspheme God through it all. We also find Paul repeating this principle in his letter to Corinth in Chapter 5, “5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Again, I think of people being burned with hot oil and held under water to purge people of their sinful nature.
For a great amount of time in biblical history, separation from community was used for admonishment and correction. I discussed this principle in Loving Discipline, where we learned that this was the way to correct and discipline others at that time. It accomplishes a few things.
1) it removes a “troublemaker” so that their actions are not learned and repeated.
2) it is a public declaration that this behavior is not acceptable
3) it gives the person a choice
You see, our historical view of “purging from the church” leaves out the third principle. It’s like sending one of your children away from the table who is misbehaving and telling them to return when they are ready to “act properly.” The kid may very well just never return to the table. American society has evolved and this type of admonishment does not necessarily achieve its purpose, as it was in the time of Paul and Timothy at Ephesus. Simply excommunicating someone from a church these days in fact has the opposite effect of helping someone make that decision. Today, our desire for community wars with our individuality; it’s a delicate balance that we let be dictated by the actions of others. As a community, Christians need to be aware of this and we cannot use the seemingly “barbaric” ways of the past.
So how then do we handle such things? In the first century at Ephesus, this is how it was handled. In the 21st century in America it must be handled differently. What is the principle here for governing a body of believers? When people seem to “fall away from the faith,” we are to take action to help them in their time of trouble. However, we must keep in mind that the choice is still theirs. The motivation is still love. Granted, it looks different today because the people of today are different. If we are to communicate a message to someone, it must be relevant and applicable in their time and in their way.