New Testament Words and Verses
I Corinthians 5:2, "Taken Out of the Middle"
In my earlier essay on I Corinthians 5:1, 5 I argued that the multiple translation problems especially in verse 1 made for interesting reading but really didn’t yield a convincing meaning. For example, I said that verse 1 might have to do with a man marrying his mother or step-mother, or sleeping with his mother or step-mother or someone doing this with the certain woman of a man, which doesn’t make much sense. I argued further that one way to read the ‘handing over to Satan” passage in verse 5 may be as a sort of “Christian capital punishment” that never really got off the ground. After all, the story in Acts 5, which no doubt made front-page news among the early Christians, had a married couple dropping dead at the words of Peter. Perhaps some kind of primitive “capital punishment liturgy” developed as a result and the Apostle Paul, never one who wanted to take a back seat to Peter, wanted to try his hand at it through I Corinthians 5:5. This, to me, is a much more plausible reading of the text than that there was some severe or semi-severe discipline that just excommunicated the guy for a while. Well, the verse today, and especially the unusual phrase “taken out of the middle” actually reinforces that conclusion. First, the text and translation:
Text, Translation and Issue
2 καὶ ὑμεῖς πεφυσιωμένοι ἐστὲ καὶ οὐχὶ μᾶλλον ἐπενθήσατε, ἵνα ἀρθῇ ἐκ μέσου ὑμῶν ὁ τὸ ἔργον τοῦτο πράξας;
“And you are arrogant/puffed up! Shouldn’t you, rather, be pained, so that the one who has done this deed might be taken out of the middle?”
Other translations play down the emphasis on “middle,” by saying, “Might be taken away from among you” (King Janes) or “removed from your fellowship” (Berean/New International and many), though some give a more literal, “removed from your midst” (New American Standard). That is, the typical interpretation of these words is that the person who committed this heinous sin ought just to be tossed from the church. That is the extent, apparently, of the church’s authority and discipline over him.
Yet that phrase ἐκ μέσου, “out of the middle” isn’t really a common one in the New Testament. Normally when the word “middle” (μέσος) is used, it appears with other prepositions, such as ἀνὰ (“in the midst” of the wheat, for example) or εἰς (going “into” the midst of a crowd) or διὰ (Jesus passing through their midst), but especially with ἐν (“in the midst” of them/a group). The word “middle” can also appear with ἐκ in a few instances, such as Matt 13:49 where the wicked are separated “from among” (ἐκ μέσου) the righteous.
But what is especially noteworthy is that the connection of ἐκ μέσου with the verb αἴρω (“to raise, lift up) is rare, and only occurs in contexts where death is in view. The most interesting parallel example is in Col 2:14, where Paul is speaking about the “death” of the law as it relates to Christians.
That passage is difficult to understand (see my essay on it), but a serviceable translation is that “having erased the instrument of debt against us in the dogmas/decrees (most understand this as the Jewish law), which were against us.” Then the passage goes on to say, and “he has taken it out of the middle by nailing it to the cross.” The same verb, αἴρω, is used as in I Cor. 5:1, as well as the same prepositional phrase. The only difference between the constructions of I Cor. 5:2 and Col 2:14 is that the latter uses αἴρω in the active voice, while it is passive appears in I Cor. 5:2.
So, the image of taking it (the instrument of debt) out of the middle by nailing it to the cross in Col 2:14 means that the Jewish law is dead, defunct, no longer effective against the Christian. And “take it out of the middle” means to be permanently removed from having any influence on the life of a Christian. It is dead.
Another passage which uses the same “out of the middle” phrase and with a verb similar in meaning to αἴρω is also in a death context. II Thess. 2:7 speaks about the mystery of lawlessness which currently is being held back or restrained in the world. But the precise words are that the “one restraining it” has power until (ἕως) “he becomes/is gone” (γένηται) “from the middle” (ἐκ μέσου). Though γίνομαι is not exactly “to be taken,” it functions almost precisely the same as αἴρω.
Some may note in the next verse a further description of how he will be taken “from the middle.” The verb used is derived from αιρέω and means, in this context, to be slain. All students of Greek know that αἴρω and αιρέω occupy slightly different linguistic realms, but they probably were either the identical or very similar verbs at one time in the evolution of the language. Thus, we are on good grounds with placing II Thess. 2:7-8 together with Col. 2:14 and I Cor. 5:2 in seeing “taken from the middle” meaning some kind of death.
The result of this investigation is to confirm that the unusual phrase to “take out of the middle” or “be taken out of the middle” doesn’t simply mean to remove something temporarily from fellowship or from influence in a person’s life. It has a much more severe connotation. When our text then says a few verses later (in I Cor. 5:5) that he is to be delivered over to Satan for complete destruction of the flesh, we are on good grounds for believing that the kind of discipline Paul has in view in I Cor. 5 is some kind of early “Christian capital punishment.” Thankfully, it didn’t seem to go very far or last very long, leaving the story of Ananias and Sapphire the only example of the full punishment.