Last week in our adult fellowship class at church, I started a study on First Corinthians; posts related to those lessons will pop up here on a regular basis. If I rush through it, we might finish by the end of 2014. . .
“First” Corinthians is a misleading name; it’s the first of Paul’s letters to Corinth that we have, but not the first that he wrote (see 1 Cor 5:9). Acts 18 tells us that Paul was in Corinth for a year and a half, but for the most part, what we know of his relationship to the church has to be inferred from his epistles.
New Testament scholar Gordon Fee describes Corinth as the “New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world.” Once a Greek city-state, it had been sacked by the Rome and lay in ruins for a century, until it was resettled by imperial decree. The colony prospered from its trade-friendly location, boasting not one but two seaports. It became a haven for artisans and entrepreneurs, including many freed slaves who were trying to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder.
When I think of Paul’s letters, I remember on the one hand the warmth and affection with which he writes to the Philippians, and on the other, the exasperation with which he scolds the Galatians. First Corinthians seems more toward the combative end; Paul is dealing with a church that is internally divided, including disagreements over his own qualifications as a leader.
But it’s probably best to avoid thinking in terms of “good” churches and “bad” churches. I’ve heard people wax eloquent at times about the so-called “Acts 2 church,” when believers shared life together in true community. “Why can’t we be like that?” they ask. A partial answer: for many of the same reasons that churches throughout the rest of the book of Acts were not.
The saints in Corinth were not pretend Christians, but people who had believed the gospel and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. But they needed help to make sense of these experiences against the background of pagan culture, worship, and ideals. They lived in a society with sharp divides along the lines of ethnicity and class. Social climbing and self-promotion were the norm. And all of these things were part of life inside and not merely outside the church.
As they say, some things never change. Some challenges are unique to our time, but many are not.
May God in his grace grant us wisdom.