1 Corinthians Part Two Deep Dive
1 CORINTHIANS – PART 2 | DR ADAM WHITE
I suggested last time that in many ways we are like the Corinthians. I want to pick up that idea in this piece as we look at the letter of 1 Corinthians. But before we do, I need to finish telling the story of how the letter came about.
We saw already that when Paul arrived in Corinth, he was offered support by one of the wealthier members of the church. He refused it. For us today, this seems a bit strange, particularly given that he instead chose to make tents. But the issue for Paul was that it would put him under obligation to one person, rather than Christ. It’s a bit like the person who says to the pastor, “Hey, I’ll be your biggest giver, but I expect special treatment.” Quite clearly, Paul couldn’t be part of such an arrangement. That created a problem, however, because in the ancient world, to refuse such an offer was an affront. So much so, that it had the potential to turn friends into enemies. What compounded the issue was that when Timothy and Silas arrived from Philippi, they brought with them financial aid that enabled Paul to preach full time (Acts 18:5). So now the Corinthians are thinking, “You’ll take their money but not ours?? What’s up with that?!”
Paul ministered in Corinth for eighteen months and then departed for Ephesus with Prisca and Aquilla, friends and co-workers he had met in Corinth. Shortly after arriving in Ephesus, however, a young preacher by the name of Apollos turned up and met Prisca and Aquilla (Acts 18:24–28). Luke says that he was from Alexandria and was a competent speaker and debater. This is no surprise, as Alexandria was famous for its schools of oratory. He was sent to Corinth to do some preaching there, and it seems he blew them away with his style and knowledge. To the extent that some in the church favoured him over Paul.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Paul was back in Ephesus with Prisca and Aquilla after doing some extended missionary work in Galatia. Apollos was also back with them. Soon, however, they received some news from Corinth—things were not going well over there. It seems there were a number of issues:
The preference for Apollos had formed into outright factions. So much so that there were different denominational style groups that formed around their favourite teacher, some following Paul and others following Apollos. Those of the Apollos faction were citing Paul’s poor preaching style and his lack of deeper content as grounds for moving over to a more proficient teacher—somebody of their own maturity (chs. 1–4).
One of the believers, likely one of the wealthier and influential patrons in the church, was in an immoral and illegal sexual relationship with his stepmother (in Roman law such a relationship was illegal). The church has not dealt with it, likely on the grounds that he was a person of influence—perhaps an owner of one of the houses in which they meet (ch. 5).
Two of the wealthier members have come into dispute over an unknown issue. The matter was a trivial one. In fact, they could have resolved it over a private, mediated pastoral meeting. Instead, they decided to make it public and take it to the courts, which were held in the middle of the town forum. The only reason they have done this? To be seen to be the superior person of the two (6:1–8).
Some of the more spiritual members were abstaining from sex, thinking that it made them more holy, but this was only creating more temptation. Another woman decided that she needed to leave her non-Christian husband to pursue a godlier relationship. Others were questioning whether to go ahead with their marriages in light of the imminent appearance of Christ (ch. 7).
Again, some of the more privileged members were seeking to maintain business networks in the city. Unfortunately, this means that they needed to attend feasts in idols’ temples in order to do so. They were claiming their “right” as prestigious members of the Corinthian community and arguing that it is just a meal and of no real spiritual consequence. The problem, however, is that the weaker members were seeing this and thinking it is still okay to worship idols (chs. 8 and 10). Paul responds by telling them they have the right to lay down their rights. Case in point: he had the right to receive patronage from them when he was there, but he laid down this right so that he could be a servant to all and not just his patron (ch. 9).
Some of the women were seeing their new-found freedom in Christ to dress in ways that were contrary to the customs of the day. In particular, they are removing their head-coverings in the public meeting, which was meant to be a sign of their marriage and modesty. By doing so, they were hinting at sexual promiscuity. This was extremely problematic in a patriarchal society. Alternatively, the men were wearing head-coverings as a sign of their superior status over the poorer members (11:1–17).
The communion meal had turned into a typical ancient symposium. Those with lots of food were gorging themselves while those with little were watching on hungry (11:18–34).
Some of the members were trying to demonstrate spiritual superiority with overtly conspicuous tongues. Others were looking on with intimidation at these spiritual elites, embarrassed by their own inferiority (chs. 12–14).
Finally, the church had taken the message of the bodily resurrection and combined it with popular philosophy of the day that said only the spirit is eternal. As a result, they have denied the bodily resurrection (ch. 16).
I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference between the attitudes and behaviours of the Corinthians and what we still see today. Or maybe I’ve just been attending the wrong churches. At any rate, this letter was sent to the church in around 54 AD and would be followed up by a visit from Timothy to make sure it did the job and resolved the issues. It didn’t. In fact, it failed spectacularly. But we will look at this next time.