Paul - Lesson 7

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 7 – Life in the World - First Corinthians

By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

Scope:  More than any of his other letters, Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthian church, which was considerably larger than the two extant letters, reveals the real-life problems of a local church and, in Paul’s responses, also shows Paul’s self-understanding as an apostle.  The first letter leads us into the tangled interactions between Paul and the Corinthians, the development of tensions and even rival groups in the church, and Paul’s efforts to sort out what is involved by belonging to “the saints” while also living in “the world.”  The Corinthians cannot agree on much of anything, whether the topic is food or sex or who gets to speak to the assembly.  Paul tries to get them thinking less about their rights than about living in right relationship according to what he terms “the mind of Christ.”   

I.                Paul’s relations with the church he founded in Corinth (Acts 18: 1-11) extended over a substantial period of time at the height of his Aegean ministry and involved frequent  exchanges of several sorts.      

a.     In addition to his first stay of 18 months, Paul visited the community at least two other times, not necessarily successfully.  We don’t have a record of those meetings.

b.     Delegates (such as Timothy and Titus) were sent by Paul to the church (I Corinthians 4:17; 16:10-12; II Corinthians 8:16-18), and the Corinthians themselves also sent delegates (like the servants of Chloe; I Corinthians 1:11).  We can only guess at the nature of these exchanges.

c.     The correspondence between the church and its founder contained more letters than we now possess.

                                      i.     Paul wrote a first letter, warning against associating with sinners in the community (see I Corinthians 5:9).

                                    ii.     The Corinthians (or some of them) wrote asking Paul’s advice on moral matters (see I Corinthians 7:1).

                                   iii.     Paul responds with our current I Corinthians (extant).

                                   iv.     Paul writes a letter of rebuke “in tears” (II Corinthians 2:4).

                                    v.     Paul writes II Corinthians (extant), which some scholars think is actually an edited version of several separate notes (see next lesson).

d.     Because we have only a portion of these complex exchanges, our speculations concerning historical events must be cautious, especially given then, in every instance, we have only Paul’s perceptions.

II.             By paying attention to the dialogical character of I Corinthians, we are able to reconstruct with some plausibility the sequence of events leading to the writing of I Corinthians and, thereby, grasp the outline of a letter that otherwise seems to lack coherence.

a.     The Corinthian Christians enjoy powerful religious experiences but cannot agree among themselves concerning the way these experiences should translate into behavior.

                                      i.     Some of these have to do with the way the “saints” relate to the “world” in matters of diet and association (including sexual).

                                    ii.     Others concern the ways in which community worship has proven divisive because of abuses at the Lord’s Supper and a misplaced privileging of spectacular spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues (glossolalia).

b.     Some in the community want to write to Paul, seeking his advice.

                                      i.     They want Paul to tell them who, among the diversity of strong personalities in their community, holds the right viewpoint.

                                    ii.     This suggestion reveals deeper divisions, having to do with perceptions about leaders (I Corinthians 1:10).

                                   iii.     Some members in the Corinthian community are unhappy with Paul’s leadership and want to select a different leader.

c.     Members of Chloe’s household (probably delivering the letter) report to Paul in Ephesus that further community disintegration has taken place, including members suing each other in pagan courts.

d.     The outline of I Corinthians corresponds to Paul’s rhetorical challenge.

                                      i.     Paul must first establish his credentials as the teacher to whom they should listen while altering their perceptions concerning the nature of the church itself (chs 1-4).

                                    ii.     He begins by reminding the Corinthians that they are not members of his community, or Peter’s community, or Apollos’s community, they are not members of a club, but rather, they are God’s church.

                                   iii.     He also reminds them that most of them are of humble origin; furthermore, they came into their community through a message concerning a crucified messiah – someone who was executed as a criminal.

                                   iv.     He points out the paradox of their situation – God has worked through weakness to give them strength.

                                    v.     He also demonstrates that he and Apollos are not rivals but colleagues - he (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth. 

                                   vi.     He reminds his community that each member has a valid function and that cooperation is the key to the welfare of the community.

                                 vii.     He concludes by reminding them that he is their father.

                                viii.     He then engages in social engineering and rapid-fire corrections of the most egregious abuses reported to him (chs 5-6).

                                   ix.     Next, he considers the questions in their letter, taking up in turn the issues of marriage and virginity (7), eating practices (8-10), and problems in worship (11-14).

                                     x.     He then provides a theological framework for his teaching in an instruction concerning the resurrection (ch.15).  Here, is speaking of the end-time.  He stresses that a moral transformation in the community’s behavior must take place before the members can be part of God’s final victory.

                                   xi.     Finally, he turns to his personal concern, the plans for his collection of money for the Jerusalem church (ch. 16).

III.           How the experience of the Holy Spirit should yield behavioral norms was not clear to the Corinthians.

a.     The struggle that Paul and the Corinthians face on this point reveals two significant things about nascent Christianity. 

                                      i.        It did have powerful experiences that drew people into a fellowship.

                                    ii.        It did not, from the beginning, have a complete set of moral guidelines.

b.     The two basic positions can be called, following Paul’s suggestion, that of the “strong” and that of the “weak.”

                                      i.     We would call the strong “liberals”.  They emphasized interior transformation through knowledge and deprecated the importance of the body and community.  Confident that their true identity was secure, they did not think what they ate was important or with whom they ate or even with whom they mated.  They were laissez-faire.

                                    ii.     The “weak” can legitimately be called “conservatives.”  They think identity is weak and threatened.  They take seriously the implications of body and society.  They want general rules in matters of food and drink and sexuality.

c.     Such deep ideological differences, when combined with personal politics, threatened the stability of the community and even its ability to function as a community of moral discernment.

IV.           Paul’s response is remarkable for its complexity and subtlety; he seeks a way for both sides to gain a plane of higher moral perception.

a.     In some respects, he agrees with the strong.  Paul agrees that their identity is strong, but he disagrees about the basis of that strength: It is not because their identity is mental, but rather because God has gifted them and God is faithful.  In other respects, he agrees with the weak.  He agrees that identity is not simply a personal matter but is also a corporate matter, involving one’s body and the community.  He calls for moral transformation.

b.     He thinks both sides are wrong in seeking to be “right” at the cost of true righteousness.

c.     He calls them to live according to the self-emptying pattern found in the death of Jesus.  They have “the mind of Christ” (2:16).

d.     This pattern is one by which all members of the community seek to build up the whole community rather than themselves as individuals (8:1, 14:4, 26).  For Paul, the community is a living organism in which the health and life of each part of the organism depends on the life and health of the whole organism (12:12-31).

Essential Reading:

First Corinthians

Supplementary Reading:

N.A. Dahl, “Paul and the Church in Corinth According to I Corinthians 1:10-4:21,” in Studies in Paul, pp. 62-69.

A. Wire, “Spiritual Women Speak for God and to God: I Corinthians 12-14,” in The Corinthian Women Prophets, pp. 135-158.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Analyzing Paul’s perceptions of the “strong and weak” in terms of the categories “liberal and conservative” represents a risk-filled modernization: what are the risks and benefits of each translation?
  2. How well does I Corinthians support the picture of an idyllic, perfectly unified, primitive Christianity?

Next Lesson:

Life in Christ - Second Corinthians.

Read Second Corinthians.