Normally we would not think it to be a good thing to be delivered to Satan. It is hard enough for most of us to cope with the spiritual challenges of our lives without losing the protection that comes from being a part of God’s church. And yet this is what it means to be disfellowshipped, to be cast out of assembling with God’s brethren as an unprofitable member and to face solitude in a world dominated by Satan. Such a fate might not seem so horrible to many people at present, since a great many professed believers express a disdain for organized religion or assembling as part of a congregation and a great many people (perhaps even some readers) fellowship with only a small home church or only among immediate family or even perhaps alone. Such people might already consider themselves having been delivered unto Satan according to their own choice to prefer solitude rather than the strength of numbers and the sharpening of iron against iron in a congregation of other believers. Of course, we usually do not think of it in such a fashion, justifying our decisions by a belief that other members are not mature or godly enough because they disagree with something we said or a belief that we have expressed.
Yet that is not what we find when we look at disfellowshipment in the Bible. To be sure, there are doctrinal differences that would warrant disfellowshipment, but most of the disagreements that exist are about speculative and interpretive matters and not a disagreement on the Bible being the source of doctrinal authority. Let us look at the passages of the Bible that most bluntly deal with disfellowshipment in 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Timothy 1. First, let us look at the discussion of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 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. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”“
There are a lot of elements to this passage that are worth discussing, but most of them are not entirely relevant to the subject at hand. For example, this passage states that believers are mainly to judge the sin within and leave God to judge the sin that exists in society. This is contrary to the frequent behavior of contemporary believers (and unbelievers), who are often prone to judge the sin of outsiders most harshly while judging the sin of insiders far less harsher. Paul speaks out against this self-serving attitude, pointing out that the existence of immorality among the church should have been a subject of mourning rather than an opportunity for brethren to practice the gifts of tolerance that are so common in contemporary practice as well. Here, as in many areas, the Bible anticipates our contemporary culture by pointing out that sin is to be mourned and judged internally and not a way for us to pride ourselves on how understanding and tolerant we are about the strength of improper longings and desires. If we only mourned our own sins and those of our fellows a lot more deeply we would be less prone to be arrogant about either our tolerance or the state of either society or culture.
There are, however, some elements of this passage that are clearly relevant to our discussion of Satan as he appears in scripture. And here the point is one that is quite striking and unusual, namely the way that Paul views Satan as a tool for painful moral development. We have noted on several occasions that Satan acts in ways that are contrary to his own interests but that serve the interests of God and of God’s people, and that is definitely the case here. Even disfellowshipment, by which someone becomes subject to Satan’s wrath and hostility against believers (even, or especially, flawed believers), ultimately serves the best interests of God and of believers by purging sin through physical destruction. To the extent that we suffer as a result of our sins, our judgment is being suffered, and so no longer needs to be suffered in the future. One would think that it would be in Satan’s best interest to ensure that someone did not suffer as a result of disfellowshipment, so that they would not have their flesh destroyed for the sake of the spirit. And yet it would appear as if Paul is confident that a person who is removed from the fellowship of the brethren will either be driven to repent (as happened in this case, see below in our discussion of Satan’s devices in 2 Corinthians 2) or will be destroyed in order to save the spirit. It would be possible for Satan to avoid destroying the flesh so as to avoid having the spirit saved, but Paul is confident that this will not happen for a genuine, if flawed believer. If so, that means that Satan’s reflexive hostility to the people of God ultimately serves the interests of God’s people in ensuring that our judgment is here and now and not later and eternal.
We find the same thing discussed, albeit in a far briefer fashion, in 1 Timothy 1:18-20: “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Here Paul almost casual notes to Timothy that he disfellowshipped two people, Hymaneaues and Alexander, so that they would learn not to blaspheme. Just as in 1 Corinthians 5, he refers to disfellowshipment as delivering unto Satan and appears to also be of the view that this deliverance will be purgative and ultimately for the benefit of the one who is disfellowshipped, and not merely an abuse of authority or an act of Paul flexing his power as an apostle.
This is worth discussing at a bit more length. Many people do not properly understand the purpose of disfellowshipment. The primary purpose of disfellowshipment, as stated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Timothy 1, is to serve the ultimate benefit of the person being disfellowshipped so that they repent of their sins and, failing that, receive their judgment by Satan in this life for the salvation of their spirit in the judgment to come. To the extent that we already pay the price for our sins here and now, we do not have these sins hanging over our heads to be judged in the world to come. This is ultimately to our benefit, even if it is painful. Our general human perspective is to view present judgment as immensely mortifying and unacceptable and to doubt or deny the judgment to come and to count it as nothing with no deterrent value for people here and now. As a result, people live with no fear of the afterlife or of God’s judgment, with rather disastrous consequences for our own present existence. Yet believers are supposed to be different. We live in the knowledge that we will be judged for every word and deed, and if that judgment is paid now rather than later, it is for our benefit. If we repent and are able to avoid being judged or suffering, it is all the better still. Yet some people do need a bit of encouragement in order to prompt them to repent, and that certainly is the case here.