A few days ago I wrote about how Paul admonishes Christians not to judge someone (here). So it might be troubling to see that this passage in 1 Corinthians tells the Christians to judge:
I wrote to you in my earlier letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. But I wasn’t talking about the sexually immoral people in the outside world by any means—or the greedy, or the swindlers, or people who worship false gods—otherwise, you would have to leave the world entirely! But now I’m writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls themselves “brother” or “sister” who is sexually immoral, greedy, someone who worships false gods, an abusive person, a drunk, or a swindler. Don’t even eat with anyone like this. What do I care about judging outsiders? Isn’t it your job to judge insiders? God will judge outsiders. Expel the evil one from among you!
Here Paul makes a distinction: do not judge those outside of the Church, outside of the covenant people of God. This is because, being apart from God and not having the fullness of the Holy Spirit and grace in their lives, they really are at a disadvantage when it comes to sin and temptation. They do not have the strength and power to overcome temptation as Christians do. And even if they did, because non-Christians have not received the same teaching on sin that Christians have received, it is not fair to hold them to the same standard as Christians for their lives.
BUT, Paul is adamant that the Christians in Corinth ought to judge one another. He expands on this theme for the rest of the letter, but the summary position is that Christians are called to live a holy life. This is because we are, individually and collectively, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are not our own. They have been purchased at a great price by God, and when we become Christians we voluntarily offer all of our selves to God.
In light of this call to holy living, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to watch over one another and spur one another on towards the holy life. If they have people within their fellowship that live in flagrant opposition to that holy life, and even promote this kind of anti-holy living as an example of “freedom in Christ,” then those people ought to be reprimanded–sternly. In the case that Paul explicitly writes about here, the one in violation of the holy life ought to be expelled from the Church.
Not many people would take this as strongly as Paul did and expel someone from a congregation, but the concept is still something with which we need to wrestle. In order to do as Paul writes, we first need to agree what the holy life entails and how it looks lived out in someone’s life. Until we can say definitively as a communion what the holy life is, we cannot even think of admonishing one another.
Within denominations, ideally the vision of the holy life is already well defined and members agree on the details of that life. Then it is incumbent upon members within a particular congregation who know one another and are involved in each others’ lives (as was the case in Corinth) to hold one another accountable for their respective Christian lives.
This is not a call for Christians to exercise judgment upon Christians of other congregations or denominations. This is extremely local in scope. The Corinthians are not given permission to judge the Romans, and the Philippians were not given permission to judge the Corinthians. We deal with who we know. This will mean that we will (hopefully) deal with each other in love.
And that is the key, because the holy life is a life in God, and God is love. Any pretense to self-righteousness and judgmentalism ought to be tempered by the fact that we are dealing with our own local family of believers, and we deal with them in love because we know them and they know us.