Question: "What does it mean to be handed over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5)?"
Answer: In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to address incredible immaturities among the people, and at one point he tells the church to exercise church discipline against a particular member: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5; cf. 1 Timothy 1:20). This was a case of a man living with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). Instead of mourning such a great sin, the Corinthians had become arrogant and did not remove the person from their church as they should have done (1 Corinthians 5:2).
Paul knew this kind of immoral behavior should not go unanswered. Even though Paul was not physically in Corinth, he could make a judgment on this situation (1 Corinthians 5:3). That he could make that judgment from a distance underscored the failure of the Corinthians to judge those within their midst. The judgment Paul announces is an authoritative one. He appeals to the name and power of Jesus and the unity he has with the Corinthians in spirit (1 Corinthians 5:4). Paul pronounces that this man be handed over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5a).
At first glance, this judgment of being handed over to Satan would seem to be so severe as to cause the offender to lose his salvation. However, Paul makes it clear that this is not the case. Paul’s purpose in handing this one to Satan is so that the offender’s flesh will be destroyed, but still his spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:5b). Earlier in the letter, Paul expressed his confidence that the Corinthians would be confirmed as blameless in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:8). The day of the Lord includes the final judgments and would seem to include the bema seat judgment that Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15. That judgment does not undo or change one’s position in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul hands the offender over to Satan; while this person will have severe consequences in his flesh, the man’s spiritual position in Christ is not threatened.
Paul’s judgment in handing this man over to Satan is one of several examples in which we see that God can mete out physical consequences and judgments even if He will never undo the salvation He has provided. Ananias and Sapphira were upstanding members of the church at Jerusalem, but they lied to God and lost their lives (Acts 5:1–11). John talks about sin that can lead to death (1 John 6:16–17). Paul mentions that some believers at Corinth were sick and some had even died because they were handling the Lord’s Supper improperly (1 Corinthians 11:27–30).
The lesson the Corinthians needed to learn was that they were responsible for judging each other within the church and holding each other accountable for their deeds (1 Corinthians 5:12). They weren’t to try to assess who was saved and who wasn’t. If someone called himself a brother (in Christ), then they should treat that person as a brother (1 Corinthians 5:11—note the reference to a “so-called brother,” literally, a “named brother”). Brothers and sisters should hold each other accountable.
We ought to encourage one another to love and good deeds, as the writer of Hebrews challenges us (Hebrews 10:24). Sometimes that includes judging sin rightly and challenging each other to do better. In Paul’s case, in his apostolic authority (something we don’t have), he commanded an offender to be handed over to Satan. While we don’t have that authority, we can certainly still hold each other accountable, knowing the seriousness of immorality and sin.