To the Church of God at Corinth

CONTEMPORARY READERS of certain New Testament passages may be lulled into thinking that the first century was a “Golden Age” for the Church. We read, for example, that the first Christian converts in Jerusalem “… continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.  Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.  Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common…” (Acts 2:43-44).

The Epistles to the Corinthians show us another picture. The Church at Corinth, founded by St Paul himself, appears fractured by divisions, filled with arrogance, and seemingly tolerant of immorality. There were doctrinal controversies about the resurrection of the body and liturgical abuses as well. Its members were tempted to go along with questionable practices on one hand or to combat them with unchristian methods on the other. Although called to a unity of love, the community was already being divided between rich and poor. No wonder St Paul encouraged his spiritual children to “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).

The Problems Paul Faced: Disunity

The Corinthian Church was composed of spiritually immature people, whom St Paul likened to infants: “I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” (1 Corinthians 3:2). Little wonder then that they were unprepared to deal with difficult issues in ways based on the Gospel. Some had degenerated into factions based on who had discipled them – Paul or Apollos, a previous elder, or Cephas (Peter) or Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11-15). Others had gone to court against one another (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11). If you can’t settle problems among yourselves, Paul concluded, better to be cheated than to parade your problems before unbelievers.

St Paul’s response was to insist on the unity of believers with God and with one another in Christ. He used images of a common field or a building and, most importantly, the human body to illustrate what he knew to be the organic oneness of the Church with the Lord Jesus. It is the Eucharist, he reminded them, which brought about and deepened this unity as symbolized by the sharing of a single loaf: “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).

The Problems Paul Faced: Moral Laxity

Paul mentions two major instances of sexual immorality condoned by the Corinthian Christians. The first – “that a man has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1) – he says is unmentionable even among unbelievers. While a stepmother is not a blood relative she is a member of the extended family, an inviolable relationship in the Torah (cf. Leviticus 18:6-18) and in any traditional society.

The second instance mentioned is frequenting prostitutes, a common enough practice in the Roman Empire. St Paul again explain why such a practice is inappropriate for a Christian. “Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body… Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? … Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you…” (1 Corinthians 6:13-19).

The Problems Paul Faced: Divorce

Divorce was commonly practiced in the Roman Empire, and could be initiated by either the husband or the wife. The Lord Jesus had clearly enunciated His principle for marriage: ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). This is why St Paul says that his teaching on marriage is not his but Christ’s: “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

St Paul then sets out a principle of his own for cases where a husband or wife becomes a Christian while the partner does not and leaves the spouse as a result. “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Corinthians 7:15).

The Problems Paul Faced: Selectivity

The most fundamental problem St Paul faced was doctrinal. Some believers were choosing to reject belief in the resurrection. This was the Gospel St Paul had preached to them (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), but not everyone accepted it. “Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is also in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15).

St Paul replies with an eloquent, even lyrical, teaching on Christ’s resurrection and His defeat of Death. He proclaims that we too will share in His victory. “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust [i.e. Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:49).

St Paul’s Response

St Paul’s response was twofold, as we noted above. In terms of the doctrine or moral issues he urged the Corinthians to “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.” Christians had to watch: to be aware of what was happening in their Church and how they were responding to the values of those around them. Where they simply going along with the prevailing social norms which, in a pagan society, certainly did not arise from the Gospel? When they saw that false teachings or ungodly behavior was evident they were to stand fast in the faith.

The focus of the faith St Paul had preached to them was the death and resurrection of Christ and the unbreakable unity of the Church with Christ, the Body with its Head. To uphold the teachings of Christ, especially the moral teachings, require that believers be brave, be strong in withstanding the pressures of the culture around them to go against or ignore the teachings of the Gospel.

The second prong of St Paul’s two-fold approach to the Corinthian situation was that the faithful believers respond in love to their fellow Christians, even to those who are misguided or unwavering in their delusions. Let all that you do be done with love, even if that means excluding from their company those who claim to be believers but deny their relationship to Christ by their lifestyle. There is no place for pharisaic self-righteousness here – correcting another must be an act of love, not to get even or “teach someone a lesson.”

In our culture Churches today are faced with similar problems: doctrinal or moral relativism (it’s good or true “if it works for you”) and factionalism among church members. We must apply St Paul’s response to the Corinthians here: be firm in observing the Tradition but be loving in dealing with those in our community who follow the ways of the world rather than the ways of Christ.