What is all about?
The letter may be divided into seven parts:
1: A Salutation/greeting.
3: Identifying the Divisions in Corinth.
4: The immorality in Corinth.
5: Difficulties in Corinth (in living the Christian life)
6: Doctrine of the Resurrection
7: Closing remarks
To understand this letter of Paul’s you have to understand the city of Corinth.
Corinth is situated on the long peninsular between the Ionian and the Aegean seas. (Now a true island because of the famous Corinth canal separating it from the main land.) The city Paul knew was a new city because the old Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans: buildings razed to the ground, men and boys slaughtered, women taken into slavery. One hundred years later the Romans rebuilt the city at the cross roads between east and west. It rose rapidly in fame and had a population of around seven hundred thousand. The city attracted Romans, Greeks, Jews and people of other nationalities because of the commercial opportunities – you could make a fortune, streets paved with gold! It soon became the market-place of the ‘known world’.
However, not all made their fortunes trading in Corinth. Alongside riches there was terrible poverty. True, with the increase in riches and luxury came a life of ease and licentiousness, depravity, debauchery. immorality, shamelessness. Living only for ‘the world’ and lax morals went hand in hand. For instance, on the Acropolis site was the temple of Venus, where a thousand maidens who devoted themselves to the sensual service of the goddess – for a price paid by men and women to ‘be right’ with Venus. In fact Corinthian immorality became a byword. And in the midst of all this was the congregation Paul had established in Christ’s name.
We may be sure that the Corinthian church consisted primarily of the Gentiles, that is people who were not Jewish. Furthermore, there is much to suggest that the congregation came from the less well off, the poorer classes. The members though reflected, copied, were influenced and seduced by, the society in which they lived.
Amongst the church people there were shallow thinking people. That is people who did not fully understand what Paul was teaching them but pretended they did and were unwilling to spend time in more deep thought to better understand. This was linked to a habit of people taking sides. That is forming and reforming and reforming over and again groups around whoever was in favour at the time. (Or, told them what a person wanted to hear?) There were lax morals and unseemly conduct which disgraced the church’s life but was acceptable by fellow Corinthians. However, before we damn the Corinthian church there was much that was praiseworthy. Social relations had already undergone change for the good because of the influence of the Holy Spirit; the church was rich in the spiritual gifts; and, was willing to share and support those in the community locally and as far as Jerusalem.
Now, Paul could have blown his top, come down heavy-handedly on the members of the church. Paul, though is a realist, a practical Christian. 1 Corinthians then is a firm but gently written letter. The writings are of a man who understands the pressures the Christians in Corinth are facing – to conform or not conform to the rest of the population of the city.
Paul knew that the people he were addressing had been ‘typical Corinthians’, with all their faults. But the Corinthian Christians thought they were good people because they had been admitted into the Christian Church by baptism. However, what Paul saw suggested that their religion was an outward service – attending worship, being in fellowship one with another, being charitable. What it wasn’t was marked by a consistent and a constancy in a spiritual life, a life different from the others in the city, and how that Christian life is lived. And to reinforce his argument Paul lists the evils of, what pulls apart and is ruining the lives of, the typical Corinthian to show the Christian is different. Within the arguments are the waste of time, the adverse impact on health and wellbeing, the drain on finances being the typical Corinthian over being the different Christian.
God changes people. Paul, the realist, reminds the church that although God had changed their lives, evil things still tempted them. For instance, there were those in the Corinthian church, who argued that because they were members of the church and baptised they could do what they wanted, even not obey God’s law.
Paul urged the Christians community to remember how wonderfully God had changed lives and would not allow their lives to be spoiled. What formerly ruled their lives – the evils – now had no power over them. Instead they had become special people. God had done this wonderful thing by the death of Christ. And God in Christ worked in their lives by the power of his Holy Spirit.
WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH US TODAY?
If today we refer to a multi-culture and a multi-faith society then that was Corinth. We can, therefore, understand what the Corinthian Christians were having to cope with. It wasn’t easy for them to be Christian as it isn’t easy for us to day.
Corinth was a wealthy city, yes, with areas of poverty. It is not difficult to appreciate Corinth the city by comparisons with cities we know today. This is not a letter suggesting wealth creation – earning a living, keeping a roof over your head etc – even the limited wealth creation of the poor, is an un-Christian activity. Rather, amongst other issues, it is questioning the methods by which wealth is generated; and for good or ill the morals and use of that wealth. It is very much a letter about change, personal life changing events of an individual by the individual for the individuals with whom the individual connects. In today’s jargon it could be termed ‘Life Coaching’ or, ‘Life Skills, Knowledge & Attitude Training’ or, ‘Life-long Learning’.
Be known by not as you once were, not even what you are now, but as you can be by your admittance into God’s kingdom.
However, Paul the realist knows that it is easy to say we ‘belong’ when our knowledge and how we live out what we known denies we are truly dedicated, committed and admitted. And again Paul the practical individual recognises that it is for the each individual to choose to live in the manner they do: to care only about themselves or care for and within the community of believers. The caring of, and within, the community of believers results in the receiving of the good things that God gives and the benefits from his promises.
The change in lives is because God has changed lives. However, it does mean that the Christian will be faced with ‘temptations’, a return to the ‘old life’. There needs then to be a discipline – self-discipline and discipline exercised by the community of believers on fellow believers. This discipline has more than a touch of being in judgement when we ourselves can be judged, too. However, an interesting point in Paul’s letter is that to be judged by those who believe and live as we do is acceptable (if risking hurt on both sides). What is unacceptable is to be judged by those who do not believe and live as we do; don’t have the same standards as we do; whose lives are a mess.
God has made the believers holy. In other words, he has separated them so that they belonged to him. They are indeed God’s holy, special people. It is God who has declared them righteous, in other words good. He has declared that their lives are pleasing to him. They are expected to become imitators of Jesus and follow the ways in Christ. All due to the fact that Christ is preached as raised from the dead. ‘From the dead?’That is dead to the possibilities of being in a right relationship with God.
There has to be a footnote to the passage being examined which need to be given careful thought. For instance, among many examples, Paul states that it is better for Christians to remain unmarried. Only if they lacked self-control would it be better to marry than “burn-up” with sinful desires. However, the letter states it may include marriage as an apostolic practice, whatever is meant by that. (Apostles can mean disciple, follower, missionary, messenger, advocate, supporter, champion – which seems to cover everyone – can marry but others can’t.) And this is the letter which includes the instruction on the role of women in churches – they must remain silent. However, this is an example of taking ‘one sentence’ and not reading the ‘whole’. For instance, Paul encourages women to pray and prophesy – out loud! Therefore, take care in your Bible reading and avoid selecting texts which meet your prejudices. Remember, ‘we see through a glass darkly’ and need to be constant in our study and advancing out understanding of God’s word to us.