Capital Punishment: Lev. 20:11 and 1 Cor. 5:1-2

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Puritan Board Junior
I need some input on how we understand the relation of these verses. In Leviticus you read:
Moses in Leviticus 20:11 said:
If a man lies with his father's wife, he has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
Then, as you might remember, Paul addresses this exact issue for the church of Corinth:
Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 said:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
And then Paul has this warning/illusion to the same issue in 2 Cor:
Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:21 said:
I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.
So how are we to understand this law relating to capital punishment in light of Paul’s pastoral care for these people? Is Paul over turning the command? It seems, as far as I understand things, that the man of 1 Cor. 5 deserves death, but Paul does not prescribe that for him. His only (if I can say it so minimally) command is to remove him from the congregation and treat him as an unbeliever unto his repentance. What does this say about Paul’s understanding of, and relation to, the imposotition, and remanding hold of the Mosaic Law upon believers today?

Part of my thinking on this is that Paul here has in aim the pastoral care of the church. His focus is not upon the state, or how the state operates, and thus, this is not prescribing a judicial law or standard. Hence, the command in view is not an overturning of this prescription for capital punishment, or an indication of the overturning of capital punishment for Christian legal thinking today, but rather an instruction to Christians (both pastor and laity) about how the church should respond to the situation, setting aside how the state should reply. Considering Rom. 13, it seems that if Paul intended this to be a dictation about Christian law theory, then he would have said something about the state’s responsibility to uphold this command in 1 Cor. 5:2 in relation to Lev. 20:11. On the contrary, Paul seems to be operating under the categories of a state that does not recognize the sin in this situation, and thus is not responding as they should (if the Law were enforced as it ought to be), and thus, his resolution of this issue is in light of how the Church should operate aside from how the State should engage such issues.

Thoughts? I’d appreciate any correction here. Thanks.

For the glory of Christ,


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Hi Jacob,
Neither Paul nor the others engaged in the apostolic witness of the NT give scant attention to "Christian social theory," at least as it refers to collective civil society. This is about as close as it comes:
1Th 4:10-12 But we urge you, brothers, ... to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Isn't that great? Be ambitious... to mind your own business. And if folks would do that, the world would be a better place. There's your essential social ethic in the NT.

I think raising the issue of how Israel in their kingdom was supposed to punish what was clearly and obviously a law-violation is not really germane to what Paul has to say, and that's the reason he makes no reference to it.

The question of "what should the state do" isn't Paul's concern at all; its irrelevant. The church is his concern. The church is going to roll on, and has to deal with its membership--but it is not a civil institution, not a civil government, it has no sword other than the sword of the Spirit.
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